America strikes oil

Our March issue has just hit the newsstands and our subscribers in all platforms. The cover story this month is an important one: The U.S. is experiencing a big boom in oil and natural gas due to new technologies to extract hard-to-reach oil. The new “gold rush” is affecting with special intensity northwest North Dakota, bringing new fortunes, transforming the prairie landscape and also causing environmental concerns while boosting the U.S. fuel supply.

Senior Graphics Editor and cartographer Virginia Mason produced a spectacular tour de force in researching, conceptualizing and designing the map, graphic and video in the story, shown here (click on the graphics for the hi-res version). In a few weeks I’ll make a longer post about the step by step process of this project, which involved research on the field, advanced GIS and 3D work and acquiring new animation skills.

The map shows wells in the heart of the new oil boom region of North Dakota. Over 3,000 wells (all existing wells, including inactive ones are plotted) dot the map, each of them extending underground in gigantic 1 or 2-mile long pipes (the gray lines) along an oil-rich layer of oil called the Bakken formation. The pipes are used for the highly specialized process or hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, perhaps one the most essential new words you are starting to hear about in the news.

The stark, simple presentation of the map with the rural landscape along the Missouri River overwhelmed by the massive pattern of black dots amplifies the shocking nature of this transformation. Overall, there are about 8,000 wells in North Dakota, a number that is projected to grow to about 50,000.

High Plains map

The graphic (below) shows how fracking works. It was produced by Virginia along with Joe Lertola from Bryan Christie Design studio. Fracking is a process by which previously inaccessible oil embedded in rock can be extracted by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into a layer of shale. The fluid fractures the rock, releasing the oil, which flows back up the well to the surface along with it. The waste fluid from the process is then pumped back into the ground in disposal wells that are kept far from the groundwater layer, in theory preventing the contamination that has happened in other parts of the country.

The graphic shows a real well (Iverson 21-14 H) in the field, and every fracture (shown by the blue lines) along the 2-mile horizontal pipe was accurately plotted in three-dimensional space using seismic data.

High Plains graphic1

Finally, here is the video we produced for the iPad and iPhone edition, possibly the most ambitious undertaking in animation so far by our art department. We’ll do much more of it as we continue expanding our graphics and maps offering for the web and mobile platforms. I hope you think it was worth it after you watch and I’d be interesting in hearing your opinion. I’ll show you the step by step soon.

The quest to find all Birds of Paradise

TheOur December 2012 issue features the story of the truly amazing quest of Cornell ornithologist Edwing Scholes and biologist/photographer Tim Laman to find and photograph all 39 species of birds of paradise, perhaps the most spectacularly adorned family of birds in the world. Birds of paradise inhabit Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia. They are known for the flamboyant, sometimes bizarre and colorful plumage and other ornaments males use, along with some nice dance moves, to woo, entice and impress females in elaborate mating rituals. Many of the birds had never been photographed in the wild before.

Laman and Scholes made 18 expeditions over 8 years, visiting over 50 different sites to document the birds. And they succeeded.
It was clear we would need a graphic to explain how these creatures, which show wildly diverse morphological traits, were related to each other (often a bird is more closely related to one that looks entirely different from a similar-looking one). It was also important to document the range of each of the species, as they occupy very well defined niches at different elevation levels.
Senior Graphics Editor Fernando Baptista, Graphics Specialist Maggie Smith and freelance researcher Fanna Gebreyesus teamed up on this one to create this beautiful 3-page gatefold (click on any image in this post for a larger version):

Birds of Paradise_Final

The graphic show 15 birds illustrated by Fernando in the best tradition of natural history illustration. Each of them represents one of the 15 genera that groups birds of paradise. We show the family relationships, relative scale and a little chart gives additional information about the altitude range of each species in any given genus.


At the bottom, we mapped the elevation range of the different species  as well as all the expedition sites since the research started in 2004.


Here is the opener spread for the story, nicely designed by our Design Director David Whitmore. With abundant food and no predators, birds of paradise’s male appearance has evolved to really fantastic levels.


And here are all 39 species in the wild:


Fernando’s initial sketches were created for a book that the Nat Geo Society was preparing, but we knew we would eventually produce a graphic with a similar format in the magazine too. Here we see a first attempt at organizing the birds in a rather random but aesthetically pleasing design.


Fernando’s next sketch tries to bring more order by organizing the birds by size in a curved shape.


But conversations with the scientists made clear it was important to document how the different species related to each other at the taxonomy level, as much of it it was new science. That information shouldn’t be limited to the tiny inset chart. In this version the connecting branches of the family tree are not real…


Here they are real. Grouping the birds by size defeated the purpose of showing taxonomic relationships. The lines in this failed sketch show how the merely aesthetic decision would trump clear understanding.

4 sketch

Here we finally see a rough that approximates the final approach, including the map. Birds are grouped with their most closely related species. See the amazing size differences.

_RH Gate Template

Later on, we tried to use a chart to connect the map and the family tree by plotting the altitude range of each species. But it felt disconnected from both the map and the main graphic, creating a third layer of complexity rather than connecting the two existing components of the page.

In this version you can also see how Fernando played with the poses of the birds to avoid the stiff, field-guide feel of the previous sketch, where all of them were looking to the left in the same pose. This version is more fluid and natural. Fernando tweaked many of the poses, rotated heads and kept making changes through the entire process.

6 sketch

So Fernando decided to include the elevation chart below each one of the bird illustrations, indicating the elevation range of each of the birds. The mountain pictogram containing each chart added a bit of immediacy to the concept of elevation.

7 sketch

Here is some of the reference collected by Fernando to draw one of the birds. In most cases he had numerous photos by Tim Laman and additional reference. For those never photographed before, Tim’s photos were all the existing reference. We worked closely with Tim and Edwin, a reputed ornithologist, sending sketches back and forth.

reference art

Fernando’s process involves a relatively tight but light line pencil drawing (top left), a layer of watercolor with the main tones (top right), and finally a considerable amount of enhancements and shading done in Photoshop (bottom left). In this particular bird, Fernando changed the orientation of the head at the last-minute to create more dynamism.

process art2

Maggie started the map with a base map developed by the Maps Division of the Society (a group separate from the magazine’s cartographers) for the book. In most cases and since we need to deal with custom thematic layers of content directly from the sources, we develop our own custom maps in the magazine using software like ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer and others. The Maps Division will generally use the cartographic database of the Society to develop products like the National Geographic Atlas.


Below are several iterations of the main map. The initial version was rotated in the page for a more horizontal shape, larger size and a better fit, but we would ultimately prefer to keep the true north orientation and we thought the more diagonal shape made it more active. We tried multiple ways of linking the altitude range levels in the map to the species illustrated on top, but attempts like the chart shown here with the blue bars was ultimately considered too complex. It would slow down the comprehension of the graphic rather than helping it.
The second version shows a combination of shaded relief and contour lines, but the different values of each color from the highlights/shadows in the shaded relief made it hard to relate colors in the key to colors on the map. The detail was also a bit noisy.
The final version had simplified relief included nice and gentle pencil-made touches by Fernando to give islands texture around the edges.


The locator map went through several rounds of improvements as well.


iPAD The graphic was completely rethought for the iPad version of the magazine. Since we wanted the art and maps to shine at a good size in the screen, we would break the content of the graphics into different pieces. Graphics Specialist Daniela Santamariña did most of the hard production work on the project.

Once scaled for optimum legibility, text takes a  very large amount of real estate on the iPad. One of the things we tend to do with the larger text paragraph that serves as introduction for most maps and graphics is to use it on a cover page for the interactive, along with an illustration.


We broke down the birds by taxonomic relationships as we did in print, but in smaller groups to enjoy the nice art. A miniature version of the entire tree serves as a key. As we did in the print version, the birds are always compared to the ghosted image of an American crow, a bird of well-known size that shares relatively recent common ancestors with birds of paradise.



The maps were rethought to add significant value by showing the extent and elevation range of each of the 39 species. The user can choose any of the birds in the photo grid below to enter a page with information about it.


Each page also included a reference to the conservation status of each bird, and in most cases audio with its call.


The photos in the story are really stunning. The iPad edition featured a video showing Tim’s preparation for the photo shoot.


Watch it here:

On the IPhone edition, we decided only a simplified range map would have enough legibility on the tiny screen. We often create interactive versions of graphics for the iPhone with the Adobe Publishing Suite or After Effects but, as I explained in my previous post about our iPhone maps and graphics, sometimes we need to make hard editing choices for maximum simplicity.


Scholes and Laman spent over 2,000 hours sitting in blinds, waiting and watching, to produce over 39,000 pictures and video. It was a pleasure for us to document their work. They hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where birds of paradise have been so far protected by the remoteness of the place.

They have also been working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of the major supporters of the Project) on a educational website about the Birds-of-Paradise Project.  The website is also incorporated into the National Geographic Education portal.  You can see both here:

Data visualization at Nat Geo, circa 1900

On January 13, 1888, a group of 33 gentlemen founded the National Geographic Society in the Cosmos Club, a select private club in Washington, DC. The group included members of the city’s scientific and intellectual circles and a few prominent explorers. The gathering was vividly portrayed, years later, in a painting by Stanley Meltzoff (below). The round mahogany table can still be found in our headquarters. The central characters in the scene are Major John Wesley Powell, hero of the battle of Shiloh and explorer of the Grand Canyon, and Gardiner G. Hubbard, a prominent Boston lawyer with an aristocratic white beard. Hubbard would become the Society’s first President and his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell (better known as the inventor of the telephone) would succeed him in 1897 after his death.

Click on any image in the post for an enlarged view.

The first issue presented no photographs and had a featureless terracotta cover (below). The iconic yellow frame would not arrive until 1910. The magazine was published at irregular intervals and was edited by four volunteer Vice Presidents, each responsible for Air, Land, Sea and Art. By the end of the year 207 gentlemen and two ladies were receiving, as Society members, a magazine that would become famous around the world.

Graphics and maps at National Geographic go back to that very first issue. With the concept of “data visualization” becoming a trendy one in recent years, sometimes it’s good to remember that not only the concept is centuries old (going all the way back to Scottish engineer and economist William Playfair, who invented the pie, bar and fever line charts in the late 1700’s). For one thing, “data visualization” in the early days had something that is so often lacking today: clear, simple, intelligible storytelling.

Five color maps illustrated an article entitled “The Great Storm of March 11-14, 1888”. Following them, a remarkably elegant chart shows the changes in atmospheric pressure registered by different vessels and land stations over the duration of the three-day storm, and compares them with the normal value. Technical but still a good chart even by today’s standards:


The maps show pressure, temperature and wind at different moments during the storm:


In addition to numerous maps (which will be featured in future posts) black and white charts continued to appear in National Geographic at the turn of the century. A March 1893 article entitled “The movements of our population”, by then editor Henry Gannet, marks the first extensive use of charts in the magazine. It was not uncommon for an article to take the entire issue of the magazine, as shown in this restrained cover:

04.March1893 Cover

The story featured multiple charts and choropleth maps, starting with this comparison of urban and rural population at each census since the first American census, which took place in 1790 (the country’s population was then enumerated to be 3,929,214).

04. March1893Page23

This very original graph shows the evolution of the U.S. population and its ethnic breakdown from the first census to the latest at the time (1890). While “native” and “colored” population increases steadily, immigrant numbers grow exponentially, with a clear majority of German and Irish newcomers. It’s a beautiful, clean design.


Another graph shows a breakdown of the population of large cities, this time less successfully. The heavy, dense grid and the patterns chosen make the chart appear to move from right to left. The perversely literal gradient moves from “white – native-born of native parents” (in white) to “white – native-born of foreign parents”, then “white – foreign-born” and finally “colored” (in black).


The next chart (below) looks at the rate of increase of white and colored populations, a smart analysis and the best way to compare the growth or decrease of variables with very different absolute numbers. Quite remarkable for something done in 1893. I would have done the same thing today.

The sharp decrease of both groups in the 1860-1870 is no doubt consequence of the terrible losses during the Civil War.

The choropleth map at the bottom show the proportion of African-Americans to the total population, by state.


Another chart in the same story (below) offers an interesting comparison, paired with a graph showing immigration in each decade. Despite the up and downs, even the lowest data point signals a 10 percent increase over the previous decade, as the United States continued to attract immigrants.

Overall, the entire story is a great demographic analysis by Henry Gannet (1846-1914), an American geographer and founding member of the National Geographic Society and the United States Geological Survey. Gannet has been described as the “Father of the Quadrangle”, which is the basis for topographical maps in the United States.


The chart below appears in the May, 1898 issue. Population increase is plotted against different measures of progress. Using both wealth and wealth per capita, and area versus population are indicative of the editors’ efforts to provide good context to the story of population growth. However, the methodology or type of units in the y-axis are not explained. The series appears to have been indexed to show the percentage change since the first data point (the only way such different variables could be compared) but it’s unclear how it all is supposed to work since the different lines don’t always start at the same baseline.


Another interesting chart appears in a May 1900 article about the most recent Cuban census data. The first chart is a nice percent bar. Some of the other follow an odd spacial distribution (which doesn’t make them wrong).


The wavy chart below is my favorite from the early days of National Geographic. A January, 1905 article on immigration included this beautiful work showing the immigrants coming to the United Stated every year from 1820 to 1904, by country of origin. Over a thousand data points are represented visually, and all numbers are included as well. The work is credited to F. P. Sargent, the Commissioner General of Immigration, but unfortunately the draftsman producing the chart is not mentioned.


A detail:


Looking at old Nat Geo issues is always a source of inspiration. We had the immigration graph in mind when we used the same visual approach for this 2007 chart showing sales of different music recording formats over time.


I think our immigration chart was very likely inspired by the work of Francis Amasa Walker (1840-1897) who was the Chief of the Bureau of Statistic in the 1870’s and created the Statistical Atlas of the United States (1874), a remarkable visual work based on that census. The statistician used beautiful, elegant charts. The one in the middle in the example below will surely remind you of ours.


Another story in the same issue, entitled “The character of our immigration” by Z. F. McSweeny, shows the characteristic heavy grid of most charts at the turn of the century. It’s a pity because they are otherwise beautiful, elegant and clear.


The story ends with this little oddity about inmates of different ethnic origins. I love the hand-lettering and the curious grouping of racial divisions.


The samples above are just a quick, random sampling from the early 1900’s and even earlier. Today, our access to new technology and formidable amounts of information has spurred the many forms of the too prolific “data viz” field. It’s good that such experimentation continues. But do a quick Google Images search for “data visualization” and you’ll quickly see the state of affairs. Clarity in the transmission of information, which is the essential mandate in journalism, is not a priority for so many of today’s data visualization designers. A simple bar chart is just not cool enough. But if you think of it, since William Playfair first plotted values on two axis with ink and paper there is really not a lot that has been invented in terms of accurately displaying numerical information with precision, clarity and familiarity (which breeds understanding) for readers.

A map that helped reshape the world

“Germany and its approaches”, National Geographic supplement map, July 1944

Along with photography, fascinating maps are possibly the first thing that comes to mind when generations of readers think of National Geographic. Although I’m not a cartographer by training, I have the pleasure of working with some of the best. New and old maps will be a common feature in National Infographic.

In 1915 Albert Bumstead became the National Geographic Society’s first Chief Cartographer, with a mandate to establish a map-making division. Bumstead had recently assisted Hiram Bingham in mapping Machu Picchu during Bingham’s famous expedition. He had also designed innovative instruments, such as the Bumstead tripod and created cartographic techniques that would be used for decades in National Geographic.

In the spring of 1932, when Editor Gilbert Grosvenor requested a new map of the United States by the end of the year, Bumstead realized that there was not enough time for his staff of four to hand-letter the thousands of places. Bumstead invented a machine — appropriately called the Bumstead Lettering Machine — able to mass-produce hand lettering photographically. From a series of hand-drawn typefaces, individual letters were photographed, and the resulting film positives can then be set like conventional type. At the same Charles Riddiford, an Englishman who had joined the staff in 1923, designed a series of typefaces remarkable for their grace and legibility. Many of them are still in use today. The resulting map supplement, the “United States,” appeared in May, 1933, and displayed 8,686 completely legible place-names. Bumstead’s invention inaugurated a Cartographic golden age for the magazine.

National Geographic would make an influential cartographic contribution to the war effort. The Library records at the Society explain:

“Only weeks after the June 6, 1944 Allied landings in Normandy, a map supplement, ‘Germany and its Approaches,’ would provide a means for tracing the final campaign against Nazi Germany and also helped to chart the postwar world. This work shows the international boundaries as of Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, and boundaries as of Jan. 1, 1938, before Germany seized Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Drafted on a larger scale than any previous Society map of Europe, ‘Germany and its Approaches’ quickly becomes the most useful general small-scale map of the approaching battlefields widely available. All the principal roads, railroads, and canals are clearly shown, and there are more place-names per square inch than the Society has ever managed to put on one of its supplements before. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers borrowed the original drawings of this map and made enlarged copies. Nearly 20,000 of them were posted at crucial road junctions for the use of truck and ambulance drivers. Soon the British War Office, in turn, reproduces 50,000 copies for distribution to its own front-line officers.

But ‘Germany and its Approaches’ is not only used in the field: it is being constantly scrutinized by Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who carries it with him in the map case the Society presented him in 1944. Reportedly, it also serves as Churchill’s personal briefing map, and hangs in the Cabinet War Rooms in London. President Franklin Roosevelt uses it in the White House Map Room to follow developments in the Battle of the Bulge. And during the Churchill-Roosevelt conference in September of 1944, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (a future Society trustee) places this map on the table before the two heads of state, who proceed to mark it up so much that another copy needs to be obtained.

One of the results of this conference is tentative agreement on the division of postwar Germany. Lt. Arthur Robinson, chief map officer for both the O.S.S. and the U.S. Chiefs of Staff (and later to become an influential American geographer), plots these divisions onto a copy of ‘Germany and its Approaches.’

The Society’s ability to supply timely and accurate small-scale maps of strategic areas allowed the U.S and British military to concentrate all their resources into making large-scale, detailed ones of battle areas .”

Between 1939 and 1945, more than 37 million copies of different National Geographic maps were distributed to Society members and Allied forces.