Wednesday, 16 October 2013


''I like the idea of data as a raw material.''

Justin Palmer's gorgeous 'data maps' have rightly caught the eye of the design community in recent months. We ask him how he turned a relatively sedate subject - the age of the buildings in the neighbourhoods around Portland - into a prismatic array of futuristic hieroglyphs.

To fully enjoy them as wonderful abstract pieces of art, we've taken our favourite bits of the map and zoomed in. If you want to know more, see the link at the bottom of this page.

Below: Beaverton, Oregon

Below: Close-up of Ladd's Addition, southeast Portland

FUTURE-ROCKER: Justin, These maps are really stunning, and fascinate on so many levels. How did you do them?

The map was possible through open source tools and open access to public data.  The city of Portland maintains and releases a bunch of public data, and the building dataset is one of those releases. The dataset contains a record of over 600k buildings and many of them list the year they were created. 

After acquiring the data, I imported it into the open source map editor, TileMill.   This is where I worked on the visuals of the map, tweaking the color ranges via Carto, adding rivers and parks, etc.  After I was comfortable with everything, I exported the resulting tiles to MapBox and then used GitHub Pages  to host the website.

It's kind of fascinating to think that none of this would've been possible five years ago.  The tools didn't exist, and the data was locked away on some hard drive.

FR:  What does 'data' mean to you? To many people, it represents something scary and Orwellian, whereas you show that it can be have an inherent aesthetic quality.

Data forms the basis of art and information.  I think cartography is an especially compelling use of data, because it's easy for individuals to identify with.  People see themselves, their lives, on a map; places they've been, places they want to go, places they feel safe and places they fear.

I like the idea of data as a raw material.  Like most raw material, it's up to the craftsman to decide if they want to use it responsibly.  Data will always exist, and unlike other raw material, it's only going to become more abundant with time.  

FR:  Have you had any offers to 'do' other cities? Or would you like to?

I've been informally asked to do other cities, but I doubt I will.  Portland is my home and it's the place I identify with the most.  However, I've seen other maps pop up for the Netherlands, NYC, Chicago and London among others.

FR:  What originally got you started?

I guess you could say I started out doing design for software.  Not long after, I started programming in a bunch of different programming languages.  Along the way, data visualization became a great way for me to merge the two skill sets. 

I've been influenced by a number of sources.  I really love the way the NYTimes uses data to help tell a story.  I'm also a big fan of Eric Fisher's work.

Below: North Portland, with the Willamette River on the left

Below: Showing neighbourhoods between Beaverton ( in the north ) and Tigard ( south )

Below: Portland, showing the Willamette River ( grey ), and the Banfield Expressway ( black line curving across the centre ).

Below: Expanse of neighbourhoods, with the Banfield Expressway ( across the top of map )

Below: Map of Portland

Below: Sabin / Irvington neighbourhood, northeast Portland

For get more info - go to Justin's Website and follow the link to his blog.

Our look at the urban environment continues back here in a few months, and also in our sister mag, MONOBLOG.

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