Map your neighborhood! (Again!)

When you think of your neighborhood, you probably think of many things—people, institutions, cultures… and geography. In your mind it probably has a spatial extent, or a center, or some fuzzy definition of what is “here” and what is “there.” Share that geography by drawing your Boston-area neighborhood on this map. Why do it? Quite simply, because if enough people contribute to the map, it will be a fascinating data set that shows we collectively see our city. It’s mostly for fun, but possibly meaningful to policymakers and such.

We’ve done crowdsourced neighborhood mapping before and were pleased with the response. Longtime payers of attention to this space will remember the project we started a couple of years ago:

Boston neighborhoods consensus

See some maps and discussion of that project here, here, and here. It was a fun project, and we were able to see some cool results. But that project was limited in several ways.

So we’d like to do it again… but better! If that’s all you need to hear, head straight on over to the new version of this survey and draw your neighborhood. Or read on to see why we’re doing this again, what we’re doing differently, and how the results can be much more meaningful.

The original idea was a reaction to regularly written news articles and internet comments about disputed boundaries between neighborhoods in Boston, and the fact that no single official set of boundaries exists. Fine, we thought, if you all say everyone else is wrong, show us what you think is right. And although the result of this, expectedly, seemed to represent fuzzy notions of place, the whole concept really revolved around questions of division and dispute.

Now we’d like to approach this as a general question of geography and the image of the city. The entire premise is much more open and, we think, much more in tune with what neighborhoods actually are—personal spaces, subjectively defined. We don’t want to ask “where is the line between these two places?” but rather “what is this place?”. Although in the end the map will still be built upon lines and discrete shapes, the data should now be more versatile and meaningful. Thanks to our carto-friend Nick Martinelli, there’s an easy implementation of a survey to address some of the new questions. With all that in mind, below is a summary of some of the improvements in this version of the project, which we think will provide a lot of new and interesting possibilities.

A wider scope

It was clear early on that our original project was very narrowly defined, and thus only narrowly meaningful. It was restricted to the city of Boston and a specific set of neighborhoods. While this did address some particular questions, with those limitations it’s impossible to get a real picture of the subjective internal boundaries of the broader “city” of Boston and its surroundings. Not everyone in Boston identifies with the a neighborhood in our list, and not everyone here lives in the city of Boston. So the new version leaves everything much more open. There is no predefined list of neighborhoods (you provide the names), and it’s meant for any and all cities/towns in Greater Boston.

A wider audience

We were always very hesitant to draw any real conclusions from the first project, and a big reason for that is that it is a self-selection bias. Quite simply, our data did not represent residents of Boston—it represented people who look at this site or other sites that linked to it. We don’t know exactly who those people are, but we’re pretty confident that they’re not a representative sample of people who live in the city.

The new version certainly doesn’t solve that by itself, but we’ve taken a couple steps to make it easier to reach more people. For one, it’s mobile-friendly, so anyone on a smartphone can contribute. Second, the drawing method is, we hope, a little simpler. Instead of clicking a multitude of vertices, you just trace a shape. We imagine that this would work well if someone were to, say, carry around an iPad to survey people. Just put the tablet in front of someone and ask them to draw on the map with their finger.

Not just borders

Not everyone thinks of their neighborhood in terms of where it starts and ends. For many, it’s a collection of points—perhaps a square, or a store, or a church—nodes and landmarks in the Kevin Lynch sense. In an attempt to capture neighborhoods as collections of landmarks, the map lets you drop a point marker as something that defines a neighborhood. It might be what you consider the central point of the neighborhood, or it might just be some place that you strongly associate with the neighborhood. What it means is up to you!

Authoritative data

Another shortcoming of the first version is that we had no way of knowing how trustworthy a submission was. It could have come from someone who has lived in the neighborhood for fifty years, or it could have come from someone who’s never even been there. Unless it was obviously a random scribble, we had no choice but to treat everything equally. The new survey, however, includes a couple of optional questions asking respondents how long they have lived in the neighborhood and city, if at all. This may be helpful in analyzing and mapping data, for example allowing us to give more weight to longtime residents, or to map how boundaries may have shifted over time.


Neighborhoods aren’t just shapes or points on a map. They are collections of experiences. A fun new feature here lets people share stories or comments about the neighborhoods they’ve drawn. You might use it to explain why you drew the shape the way you did, to share an anecdote about the place, or any number of things. There’s only so much a line on a map can say, so we want to make sure there’s a way to tell the rest of the story.

See results

Another new thing here is that you can see what everyone else has drawn so far. You might use this to guide your own drawing (although steering clear of the influence of others is preferred) or simply to browse and compare your map to the crowd’s. You can also vote, as it were, for neighborhoods that people have drawn, helping lend more weight to those. You’ll also be able to see any stories that people have attached to their neighborhoods. The raw data itself is also much more accessible to everyone.


Finally, and not insignificantly, this new version is a big upgrade in technology. Whereas the first one used Google Maps and a disaster of a database, the new one uses open-source maps on the front end (built on Leaflet and map tiles from Stamen) and the super powerful and easy-to-use CartoDB to store and display data. The drawing itself uses an unholy hacked-up combination of Leaflet.FreeDraw and Leaflet.Editable. If you’re not one for map technology, the upshot is that all this will make it much, much easier to submit, extract, and analyze data in different ways.

One of the best consequences of the original project was that it inspired Nick Martinelli to develop a similar project for several cities in the Pacific Northwest. Nick built everything in a much better and more reusable way, and posted his code to GitHub. That, in turn, is what we’ve used for our new version, along with a few modifications. So, thanks Nick! If anyone else out there is looking to do something like this, take a look at his project. You can get it up and running in almost no time.

Help draw THE map of Boston!

Enough talk! We want to know what Greater Boston looks like in the eyes of its residents. Please take a couple of minutes to draw your neighborhood at:

We will make some composite maps once there’s some data to work with, of course, but you too can look at the data and makes some maps! You can always get up-to-date polygon data and point data. (Warning: you may encounter some rude shapes in that data. This, we have found, is an inevitable consequence of asking people to draw things on the internet.)

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Boston is 46 Percent Water

This is not a a paradigm-obliterating viral map. Boston is 46% water and this shows where it all is. Most of the water is offshore. Some of it is inland.

But what if you don’t care where it all is? That little chart in the corner shows the same proportions. It’s a geography teaching tool, without employing—er… geography.

Comparative Geography: Land v. Water

A few years ago, I stumbled on a genre of dusty old geography books: the elementary text book. One of my favorites, Methods and Aids in Geography (1888), features numerous comparative geography illustrations.

At the time, for example, the population of all of New England and New Jersey was equal to that of London and its suburbs. The book also sports maps (which we’ve seen recently, ad nauseam, like number 7 here) comparing state areas to country areas, countries to countries, continents to continents, planets to… ugh, you understand.

Of all the great gems in this book, there is one chart that especially caught my eye, a sort of proto-treemap, comparing the world’s land and water areas.

I like the simplicity of this chart and since Massachusetts is so watery, I decided to reproduce it for our fair state.

I crammed all of these guys…



Inland Water

Offshore Water

Into this chart:

You can be the judge, but I think if you’re looking for area comparisons, this works better than a map. Like, say, this map:

Bonus Map!!!!11!!11!

Land v. water by town (using the stats from census county subdivisions).


Posted in Geography, Historical | 2 Comments

Fixed on Boston, Researchers Enhance Pale Blue Dot

Twenty-five years ago last month, the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth was born when astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA scientists to turn the Voyager 1 camera around and snap a pixel-sized portrait of our home planet from 3.7 billion miles away.

Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technography have developed a recursive spatial unmixing algorithm that allows them to infinitely zoom in on, and enhance, any image.

We asked them to try out their algorithm on the Pale Blue Dot–with their with their sights set specifically on Boston–and incredibly, they obliged! Below is the result of a multi-billion dollar effort in image processing: a snapshot of Boston history, when it was time to make the donuts.

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It’s the end of Winter 2015 and, well, we don’t need to tell you that it has snowed a bit. Last Sunday we celebrated breaking the all-time seasonal snowfall record with 108.6 inches.

Below is an animated map of SNODAS-modeled snow depth during the heart of this winter, when we saw approximately 300 feet of snow fall in the span of three weeks. What’s kind of interesting here is that after a while the big snowstorms become barely noticeable. It mirrors the ground experience of snow depth kind of maxing out at “a metric s***load” — when Mom called after each storm asking how much snow we got, the answer was always “I can’t even tell anymore.”

There’s more to the story, of course, than sheer wonder at big numbers. Those of you who don’t work from home (like Andy) or live somewhere else (like Tim) faced daily misery and probably turned on your neighbors in the Great Parking Wars. But back at a broader level, a fascinating story still unfolding from this winter is the political ramifications of boatloads of snow. It’s been a test for the new governor. It’s shaping public opinion on the 2024 Olympics. And, most notably, it’s caused dustups and debate about public transportation.

This is a map blog, so we won’t dive into the political issues, but suffice it to say that the havoc wrought upon the MBTA is one of the biggest stories of the winter. You all remember the following maps from Sara Morrison—can we even call them facetious when they were in fact totally accurate?

We here at Bostonography are of a more analytical bent (but don’t get us wrong, we love poop emoji), and although we weren’t on the ball enough to look into transit data as the winter progressed, we’d be very interested to see the MBTA delays and outages quantified, especially in a spatial context. If anyone out there is looking into that, please show it off!

Rail transit woes made the biggest headlines, but at some point we did remember that we’ve been automatically mapping bus speeds every day for a couple of years now. Generally it’s very difficult to notice a difference in these maps no matter the circumstances, but here, we thought, we might finally see a trend due to snow-clogged roads. Below is five weeks’ worth of maps, with major snow events marked. Apart from the days where service was suspended entirely, sure enough there is some noticeable reddening in February as the city reached its breaking point. But even then, the effect is much smaller than you might expect. (Takeaway: MBTA buses are always slow, no matter what.)

But just how much show did Boston get this year really? Can old-timers still claim crazier days full of barefoot walking to unheated schools through neck-deep snow? Well, they can claim whatever they want, but this year was incredible. Two of the top ten biggest snow storms in Boston history passed through this winter (a claim that only 1978 can also make). Sure, none of this year’s storms topped the list, but once you get to two feet, what the heck is the difference anyway?

For a quick comparison, let’s take a look at the aftermath of the second and sixth-largest storms in Boston history, a Feb. 6-7, 1978 storm (27.1 in.) and a Jan. 26-28 storm from this year (24.6 in.). We were able to grab clean Landsat images from a few days after each. Here, we compare Martha’s Vineyard.

Boring, right? Different sensors (and band combinations—the 1978 is a false color image) aside, the images just look vaguely snowy. Ok, maybe the 2015 image looks a bit snowier. But that could be because it had a bit less time to melt (or because there wasn’t already ten million inches of snow on the ground in 1978!). Still, looking at these images gives you a sense of what our landscape looks like when it gets blanketed by a large snowfall.

Boston is just out of the 1978 Landsat 2 image, but we get a nice view of it in 2015. The Charles: covered. The Common: covered. Rooftops: covered! Boston was officially snowed in. And it would be for another few weeks.

Looking over the rest of the state in this Landsat image from February 1, you notice dozens of jagged lines. The snow has acted as a sort of terrestrial fingerprint powder, highlighting lines running through our landscape that you wouldn’t otherwise see: utility right-of-ways. That’s right, those gross, overgrown, humming-power-line highways are kinda pretty from space.

But these single snapshots don’t give a very good sense of the process of accumulation or what things might have looked like at different times during the winter. To try to get a sense of these things, we turned to MODIS. Thankfully, though the MODIS instruments are a coarser resolution (250m) than Landat (15m), they take pictures of every spot on earth almost twice every day! At that rate, you can do things like look at so-called winter storm “Nemo” as it passed over Massachusetts two years ago.

With an image or two being taken every day, it is also possible create composite images showing conditions over chunks of time. Here, we have used Charlie Loyd’s Wheather scripts to reduce cloud cover and reveal areas with consistent snow cover over the last three winters. The brightest whites are areas with the most consistent snow cover for that month. Just look at how snowy it has been this year compared to the last two years! Even Cape Cod and the islands remained covered throughout all of February.

It may be snowing in New York at the moment (not that we would know anything about that), but as of 6:45pm tonight, it’s spring. So, happy spring, folks. May the blinding memory of the winter of 2015 become ever rosier in time. Go Sawx.

Posted in General, Seasonal | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Every vote for governor in Boston

As you know by now, Charlie Baker was narrowly elected to be the next governor of Massachusetts on Tuesday. Although he lost the city of Boston by a wide margin to Martha Coakley, Baker did perform better than in 2010 against incumbent Deval Patrick, and managed to win a majority of votes in 29 Boston precincts, according to unofficial results. Here’s a simple binary map of precincts won by Coakley (blue) and Baker (red).

A more fun (if not especially useful) way to visualize election results at the city level is to plot a point for every single vote cast, as we did in 2012 for the presidential election, in the style of people like our friends Kirk Goldsberry and John Nelson. It provides a sense of where votes come from, as well as a truer sense of partisan patterns than the more common starkly delineated choropleth maps.

The map isn’t especially surprising, especially when compared with a race/ethnicity map again. Baker’s best support is seen in predominately white parts of Boston. He carried most of South Boston, for example. Meanwhile Coakley had a good showing in large swaths of the city, perhaps a bit more independent of demographic patterns. (I wanted to include Cambridge in this map like we did in 2012, but the detailed data weren’t available yet, and anyway it’s Cambridge—it would all be blue.)

As always, don’t take dot locations to mean precise voter locations. They are randomly placed, and while unpopulated areas have been removed from precincts, the clipping isn’t perfect, so you’ll probably see a few dots where obviously nobody lives. Even so, it’s nice to make a map that represents everyone, especially when we’re talking about a democratic process. It reminds us that everyone’s individual votes add up to something… plus it looks kind of cool.

If anyone is interested in this data, the city publishes it in a less-than-useful PDF format. To make these maps I had loads of fun for a couple hours copying numbers into a more useful format. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the resulting CSV file of unofficial Boston precinct totals in the gubernatorial election. Precinct shapes can be found here.

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Where not to park in Cambridge

tl;dr — don’t park anywhere

Map and data enthusiasts on the north bank of the Charles, there are two things you should know:

1. City of Cambridge GIS data, for a long time only available on a shiny disk for a fee, has in the past year or so made its way into the free and open world. Get into it at the Cambridge GIS GitHub page. There are some delightful layers, such as the house favorite: every pavement marking that’s painted on the streets.

Cambridge pavement markings

2. Cambridge, much like Boston, now has a fantastic open data site with all kinds of fun things, from census data to rodent infestations.

One data set to dive into is three months’ worth of parking tickets issued by the city, from January 1 to March 31, 2014. Here, just look at this animated sequence of the 72,000 tickets thanks to CartoDB. (Give it a moment if you see conspicuously missing large chunks of the city. And ignore the number at the bottom; it only represents frames of the animation.)

That’s 800 tickets every day, on average. And they happen almost everywhere, especially at parking meters. So be careful if you park in Cambridge, especially across the street from the Harvard Square post office—where you’ll find the two most-ticketed individual parking spaces.

Go forth and map… and feed the meter!

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Maptime Boston logo

Hi, Boston cartografriends!

This is just a quick note to let you know about Maptime Boston, a monthly mapping event that kicks off tonight. It’s about building an open, collaborative learning environment for open-source mapping technology.

Maptime is now a national idea, having originated at Stamen Design in San Francisco. Jake Wasserman (of Mapkin), Mike Foster (of MIT DUSP) and I are organizing the Boston chapter. We shared the goals and frustrations that inspired the original Maptime leaders: we want to be better mapmakers, and the technology is accessible and rapidly growing, but there are still significant entry barriers for newcomers wanting to learn.

For more about Maptime, see the Maptime website and “Why Maptime” by Lyzi Diamond.

Keep an eye on the Maptime Boston Meetup page for upcoming events. We hope to see you there!

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Spring map rundown

We’re still alive, maybe! It’s been tough to find time lately for major Bostonographizing, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been seeing some good maps and spitting out a few small ones ourselves. Here, briefly, are some assorted maps and map-related things from the past few months.

Original Aht


Look! ☞ Amazing map of the US drawn as if all states were renamed ‘Massachusetts’ & capitals ‘Boston’

Massachusetts population density in the style of a 1970s ‘computer drawn map’.


Think the yuppie invasion of South Boston is a problem? Just be glad the streets are no longer infested with stone-throwing boys!

Public improvements for the metropolitan district, a 1907 report, has some fun road diagrams. Bonus: at last visit, a few prints of some of these maps were for sale at Ward Maps.

New York to Boston in 40 minutes… would have been TERRIFYING on this thing!


Landsat 8 images from March and April show that winter has slowly receded from the area.

Other mappy things

The Boston Maps Project over at Northeastern should be interesting.

The Leventhal Map Center at BPL has a new exhibit, City of Neighborhoods—including a print of our neighborhoods map!

If you’re interested in map design, come next week to see our friend Mike Foster speak on Seven Habits of Effective Map Design. (And, in general, join the AvidGeo group!)

Posted in General | 2 Comments

The turkey menace

Happy Thanksgiving, Boston.

Today is the day. Today we make a stand against the horde that threatens our fair city—the vicious, evil turkeys! They have invaded our streets, they have stood in our way, and they have gone after our pets, our children, and our property. No more, Boston! Raise your forks and knives and turn the tide!

Thanks to Adam’s heroically vigilant reporting on turkey sightings, we are able to assemble this map as a rough guide to help you stay safe this Thanksgiving.

Oh, for the peaceful days of yore, when an innocent Boston child didn’t even know what a turkey was!

Life April 17, 1890

Send ’em running scared!

The Daily Express December 21, 1902

However you mark the day, be on your guard. They’re coming FOR YOU.

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Halftones: Walsh & Connolly

Following last week’s mayoral election in Boston, Andy made a series of 1 dot = 1 vote maps for Boston Magazine. Color me disappointed that these aren’t yet on a list of “20 stunning maps that will bend your mind with amazement, forever changing how you think about the world” on Fuzzbeed or the Puffington Host. They should be. Because, well, as Andy once said to me about an entirely unrelated matter, “just look at them.”

Anyway, Andy was kind enough to share his data with me so that I could play around with some election map ideas I’ve been kicking around. The result, for now, is above. It’s a halftone-style map showing areas won by each of the two candidates, Martin Walsh and John Connolly. In two nested grids, dots are sized proportionately to the number of votes received in that grid cell.

Conveniently for this style, the election was close. In a blowout, it would simply serve as a voter density map. Boring.

Posted in General, Political | Tagged , | 3 Comments