A Little Help From My Friends: A Look Inside The “Data Visualization Society Map of Global Connectivity”

(Plus a primer on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map)

My final project for the DVS challenge, download .pdf

The Data Visualization Society (DVS) kicked off its first challenge on March 10th and since I’m an active member, I thought I’d make something. Elijah Meeks made public an anonymized collection of data that was entered by the DVS community when they joined the group about a 2 weeka ago. Here’s the prompt:

I’m one of the moderators of the #historic-viz channel so I knew that I’d like to build off of something that I shared in the channel and I’ve been a fan of Buckminster Fuller for years. I suspected that others would use a traditional map projection, so my first thought was to create a Dymaxion map.

But here’s the catch: I don't know anything about making maps and I have never used a tool to map out geospatial data. My goal in writing this article is to share my process and expose my learning journey. To quote the Beetles: “I (got) by with a little help from my friends.”

The Dymaxion Map: A New Way to See the World

Noted cartographer and all-around-good-guy Kenneth Field previously wrote in the blog for the International Cartographic Association about the Dymaxion map. “First published as an article in The March 1st, 1943 edition of Life magazine, Buckminster Fuller’s compromise projection contains far less distortion than other flat maps. The map was printed as a pull-out section designed to allow readers to assemble the map. It divides the globe’s surface into a continuous surface without bisecting major land masses and it is unique in that there is no right way up. It can be read from any orientation and rearranged in a number of alternative ways.

Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, 1980 link

Field continues: “Fuller went on to publish his ‘Airocean’ world map using the projection in 1954 that employed a modified icosahedron. The term Dymaxion was a name applied by Fuller to this and many other of his inventions. Each triangular edge matches the scale of a partial great circle on the corresponding globe and it that sense, points within each facet shrink towards its middle point (which is the inverse of many other projections).” Indeed Fuller elaborates on the scale in the map to the left. “Edges of Icosa triangles equal to 63’ 26’, 3,806 nautical miles, 8 1/2 jet aircraft hours, 14 conventional aircraft hours, 7 ship days.”

Buckminster Fuller in front of the World’s Fair dome in 1967. link

The Buckminster Fuller Institute has a wealth of information about Fuller’s life, mission and impact: “Dedicating his life to making the world work for all of humanity, Fuller operated as a practical philosopher who demonstrated his ideas as inventions that he called “artifacts.” Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty. Throughout the course of his life, Fuller held 28 patents, authored 28 books, received 47 honorary degrees. And while his most well know artifact, the geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller’s true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.”

Creating My First (and Only) Dymaxion Map

To reiterate: I did not have any experience creating maps, but I am very interested in learning more and my work has never given me an opportunity to plot out geospatial data with a digital tool. I’d love to say that I took this opportunity to learn new software, but the truth is, I found Robert Christie’s interactive map downloaded a .png from his kepler.gl, then adjusted the map and distorted the pieces to fit the Dymaxion projection.

LEFT- Robert Christie’s interactive map | RIGHT: My inverted photoshop distortion based on Robert's map

Since I‘m super comfortable in Sketch, I found a .svg graphic of the Dymaxion projection, and then set out to manually draw in the points from Robert’s distorted projection.

Before I go on, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the inspiration I took from Robert’s work. In seeing his plot of the data, it informed the possibilities for me to explore a Dymaxion map. In preparing this article, I wrote to him to get his thoughts about the fact that I used his map to draw my version. I was really pleased to receive his answer:

What’s equally interesting, is that after 3 days of working on my map, Philippe Rivière then posted his interactive map which plotted the same data on every map projection. What he says on his observable notebook underscores the omnidirectional influence that is already taking root in the DVS. “Updating Chris Henrick’s riffing off of Amelia Wattenberger’s very awesome visualization for the same challenge, I thought “why not use any geographic projection, and let the user rotate it with the mouse?”. He went on to say in a thread that the “airocean” projection was not his intention but that it was just the first item in the drop down.

DVS submission by Philippe Rivière link

But this all happened on Thursday, and I’m getting ahead of myself. In the journey of this map, it was still Monday and I was just experimenting on the first version of my design. Which, for some reason, I was determined to make really “wild”:

My first attempt… ugg.

Pretty ugly, right? I was initially thinking my design would look more like a Seripop music poster than a map and started playing around with some analogous colors. But who wants to see an orange ocean?

I dropped back and realized that I needed to learn more about Fuller and the Dymaxion map. I found a few very interesting articles and got lost in a Fuller youtube wormhole for a while.

Luckily, I found this illustration which gave me the idea to make it a cut-out, but I needed to reverse the order of the images to make the 6 steps as seen on the left. Then I went back into the design and started playing around with the layer styles and added the cute little scissors. I initially cut and pasted some info about Fuller from Wikipedia and added in some raw data. I went for a more modern color scheme and switched the type to Futura. It definitely looked better:

But the truth is, I knew it wasn’t very good. I’m a UX designer by practice, so it was time to test out my design. I sent it to Georges Hattab and Julia Krolik for their feedback. What follows is a gift of criticism:

I sent a follow-up from Georges to Julia to get her POV:

These snippets don’t do justice to the consideration they both gave me in discussing my work for the next two days. But they were both right. What I had was an exercise — not a story.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969 link

Julia’s comment made me think about the Dymaxion map and Fuller’s intentions for making it. I found that Fuller had been inspired to make his map from the Spaceship Earth worldview. It turns out the Dymaxion map depicts the Earth’s continents as “one island” of nearly contiguous land masses. Fuller’s view was that, given a way to visualize the whole planet with greater accuracy, we humans will be better equipped to address challenges as we face our common future.

It dawned on me that the Data Visualization Society is on a similar journey. That the “slack party” has been a result of the connection we’ve all felt across borders and discipline. While our work differs, our intentions overlap in a way that unites us. The Dymaxion map was a perfect metaphor for that connection.

A nod to Null Island — another concept I’d never heard of before courtesy of Nic Moe

The connections themselves are metaphorical. The links do not exist in the data, but this map would never be scientifically accurate at this scale. Plotting 3,516 dots on a 15" map isn’t as visually effective as plotting 300ish dots. The network that binds us is a visualization of our communication and strengthening bonds. Each dot is the same for a reason; each connector the same for a reason. The shape of our connection becomes an equally interesting abstraction when overlaid on the Dymaxion projection.

Yet presenting this map was ultimately an exercise in copywriting. After working on the following 4 sentences for an hour or two, I then was able to title the map and rewrite the Fuller text. By sharpening my narrative it helped me to present the map in the appropriate context.

“The Data Visualization Society Map of Global Connectivity” approximately represents the first 3,516 members who joined in the first eighteen days. The points are plotted and connected to show the singular nature of this emerging organization which shares more than professional affiliation. Created in the vein of Fuller’s conception of Spaceship Earth, this illustration presents an idea of unity across borders and oceans, a unity of thought and intention. Each path is a voice in a conversation that speaks to a compulsion to share, educate, inform, and inspire.

A Breakthrough in Metaphor

My journey with this map was a breakthrough not in technique but in metaphor. Had I not had the exposure to this network, to the input of Robert, Nic and Philippe (who was inspired by Chris and Amelia), and the feedback from Georges and Julia, I would have never considered taking my work up to the next level. The resulting map is a link in a chain of dialogue and inspiration. The idea that I’m fortunate to share is in highlighting our commonality.

So next time you’re feeling stuck, or have something you’re unsure of, just ask people for input. Their feedback to you is a gift.

LEFT 2 — Elsie in Australia | RIGHT — My son Max in New York City

The Data Visualization Society is developing meaningful resources in order to establish a discourse and remove barriers between practitioners across tools and industries. To sign up please register at datavisualizationsociety.com/join