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.

Posted in Political | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

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

MBTA map redesigns

Remember the MBTA map redesign “competition” from the summer? Well, looks like a good number of people were glad to surrender the rights to their work for free, and we the public now get to vote on six finalists. (But don’t miss all the other submissions too.) To brush up on the problems with the current MBTA map, take a look at the review by the eminent transit map designer and critic Cameron Booth.

This is a Boston map blog, so what good would we be if we didn’t chime in with a few words on each map? They’ve all got some interesting ideas.

Map 1, by Michael Kvrivishvili

Cameron Booth also reviewed this one a while back, so maybe there’s not much to add. It’s a fairly conservative approach to improving on the current map—the overall style is similar but with a number of things that make it more usable. One thing that bugs me about this map is the sharp 90-degree turn of the blue line at State Street. Some older T maps had this too, and I liked that the more recent maps smoothed that out into something more gentle.

Map 2, by Kat Lawrence

This one is quite a departure from the current map. Corey Zev Holland makes a case for it.

What’s good
Separating the branches of the Green Line and the Red Line is very useful, mostly for the Green Line, and the different shading for those lines is nice for legibility. The topology of this map is great in a lot of places. It’s not just the connections between lines; out-of-system geographical relationships are implied nicely. For instance, notice how the E line stations line up fairly well with their Orange Line neighbors.

I think this map could use some basic geography underneath it to help users (tourists especially) find themselves. For example, it’s useful to know which side of the river you’re on, in my opinion. Showing water, at least, would also clarify where implied proximity is actually true. Reservoir and Cleveland Circle are quite correctly close to each other on this map, but it’s a similar distance from Aquarium to Maverick, when in fact there is a literal ocean between them.

Map 3, by Joshua Simoneau

Here’s one that is also pretty conservative in its changes, which is a nice, realistic approach to improving the MBTA’s maps. The shape of the existing map is largely retained, but there are plenty of changes.

What’s good
Again there are separate lines for different branches, which is great. I really like that the bus and commuter rail lines are pushed way down in the visual hierarchy, as these are responsible for a lot of the clutter in the existing map. Various little flaws in the current map are fixed here too.

The separate Green Line branches really need labels at their downtown ends to be useful. And as long as these maps have to show the commuter lines, it would be nice to see some improvements to make them more useful, since the way they branch out from one another is kind of complicated.

Map 4, by Kenneth Miraski

Well, interesting! This is very different from most transit maps.

What’s good
The style here is really fun and inviting. It’s a compromise between simplicity and geography, and it ends up working reasonably well. Representing subway versus surface lines is nice too, even though this only really matters for the light rail branches. Commuter and bus lines have a more ordinary style than the rest of the map, but still are decent.

Cameron Booth pointed out that the drop shadows on the ribbon-like surface segments have no consistent light source, which will now drive you crazy every time you see the map. Ditch the Boston city line, which is irrelevant to the MBTA system. The displaced labels on the Orange line through the SW Corridor (owing to the adjacent commuter rail) might be confusing. All told this map is probably too whimsical-looking to work as an official map, but it could do well in other settings.

Map 5, by Jon Feldman

This map gets away from the current one by blending a couple of different styles and making some additions.

What’s good
The downtown geographic map is a very interesting experiment. I like the attempt to show the actual relationships between stations in an area where they are nearby and distances are walkable. There are only maybe three parts of the MBTA system where this is true (downtown, the parallel Green/Orange lines from Copley through part of the E line, and the Cleveland Circle area), so it’s worth trying to show it in some way. The indication of bus frequency is a nice addition here, although I can’t quite tell what the third color means. Different line styles for street-running vehicles and dedicated paths can be useful, too.

Well, the geographic inset has its trade-offs. It’s good for the surface relationships, but this is also the area where underground topology matters most, and maybe simpler is better for that. And, as mentioned above, there are a couple other spots where it might be useful to show the surface geography, as long as the map is going down that road. Station labels on this map, with their bold text followed by lighter text, exhibit a good thought but probably wouldn’t work in reality. Yes, “Kendall” is the operative word, for example, but the signs and announcements read “Kendall/MIT” so the map should probably reflect that better.

Map 6, by Zemien Lee

This is another one that goes clearly in a different direction from the current map.

What’s good
I like that it’s, well, different. It’s very clear as far as topology and connections go, including the bus routes and all. Basic Boston geography (water) is shown, which is helpful, and it’s simplified down to what it needs to be and nothing more. Overall this is a very clean and clear map.

Clarity comes at a price: labels are far too small to work in the real world. Bus lines could be toned down a lot and still be useful while allowing the rapid transit lines to stand out as they should. The ubiquitous black transfer symbol is too much, too; it should be reserved for the Red/Blue/Orange/Green interchanges, with a subtler symbol for bus and commuter rail connections (which in many cases are essentially an out-of-system transfer).

In sum

All in all, each map has some pretty good ideas and styles that could be used in a new MBTA map. So good job by the T in soliciting some free work, I guess. It will be interesting to see how people vote, and what ends up going into a redesigned map.

One suggestion I’d like to make for any map: somehow indicate where you have to pay on board (as opposed to turnstile entry), i.e., the non-D surface light rail lines. And put up signs at these stations, too! Everyday users know the drill, but I’ve seen confusion by out-of-towners at places like the MFA stop.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged | 7 Comments