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Wind Map: Visualizing Environmental Mobility

by Ethan Tussey

by Sara J. Grossman for IN MEDIA RES

Wind Map, designed by co-leaders of Google’s “Big Picture” data visualization group Fernanda Vieges and Martin Wattenberg, reminds us that experiences of weather are often perched between the visible and the invisible. Wind Map’s employment of moving lines to represent wind (a graphics of linear flow) suggests that wind resists the exactness of origins and ends: individual lines fade in and out of other lines, or disappear into the shadow-space of the map. But while the map makes legible one of wind’s essential properties––its ability to traverse space––it also raises questions about the contours of what we can’t see. If seeing wind means confronting the visible and flowing line, then it also means confronting the invisible geographies of man-made and natural environments and the effects of wind upon them.

Wind’s legibility here points toward a weather ontology that is rooted in histories of weather visualization (including the earliest American weather maps). These histories allow us to examine the prevalence and signification of the line as a primary way of imagining environmental mobility, but they also encourage us to inquire into a politics of visibility that has to do with what is left unseen on weather maps. More precisely, what is the quality of the air and water that Vieges’s and Wattenberg’s wind carries across metropolitan and continental space? For cities marked by histories of industrial toxicity––such as Newark NJ and sections of New York’s waterfront––what does Wind Map fail to make legible?

When Wind Map’s web traffic spiked during Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 landfall (a hurricane that released toxic waters from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal and Newark’s Passaic into resident basements) observers watched as the map’s threads combed over the eastern metropolis without regard for the spatial divisions that urban theorists, architects and planners, city and municipal governments, have spent centuries marking. Wind Map  not only obliterates every spatial mark that might point toward Simmel's metropolis, Gottman's megalopolis, and Knox's metrourbia, but it also fails to make visible the movement of toxic water and air through and across these spaces. What would a wind map, a weather map, that registered this movement look like, and what would be the impetus for creating and viewing it? 

Wind Map

Wind Visualization Map

from Wind Map (2013)
Creator: Fernanda Vieges and Martin Wattenberg
Distributor: Google
Posted by Ethan Tussey