Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 11:01 pm

Mapping the devastation

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 11:01 pm

As a journalist who also is a computer geek, I’ve long been interested in the storytelling capabilities of computerized mapping programs or, as they are more formally known these days, Geographic Information Systems. (An example would be ArcView or ArcGIS, made by ESRI, which we use, albeit not nearly well or often enough, at the N&R.)

But the idea of turning information into graphics long predates the computer era. This link shows a graphic depicting the devastation visited upon Napoleon’s army during its 1812-1813 Moscow campaign. It predates GIS technology by more than a century, but it incorporates most of the basic ideas and principles by which such programs operate and are understood today. (Here are some geek notes on it.)

For me, what elevates it from illustration to art (I’m not really a graphics guy, so my “art threshold” for visuals may be considerably lower than yours) is that its particular dynamic — using the width of a band of black or gray to illustrate how many members of the army were still alive at a given point — evokes the starvation and consequent emaciation the individual soldiers underwent during that horrific campaign. Given the similarly horrific but less linear experience of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad during World War II, I’m trying to envision how that unit’s experience would graph, but I’ll spare you that bit of nerdiness unless/until I come up with something I can show you.

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