Many maps have been made in recent years depicting migrant casualties in the Mediterranean Sea, quite often very informative. But do they adequately portray the refugees’ experiences and convey the sense of tragedy?
Working at an organization that strives to raise awareness of environmental issues, I see data communicated visually in the form of graphics and maps on a daily basis. These are made to reveal the complexities, trends, and findings on issues such as climate change or environmental crime. However, their standard design, and the use of conventional cartographic design elements, rarely connect with the reader’s feelings.
Inspired by the challenge of embedding human experiences while also generating an emotional response through visuals derived from large geospatial datasets, I started working on a new cartography of the Mediterranean Sea. The many pictures and videos of sinking boats filled with refugees often shown in the media are effective at communicating this human catastrophe, but they lack the ability that a map has to show the immense number of casualties.
The data behind this cartography project was provided by The Migrants’ Files, a large database regrouping two main sources, one by (United, and another by Fortress Europe). This file has rich information on over 3,000 events that ended with one or more individuals dying as they tried to reach Europe. It includes the cause of death, the date and location of the event, the number of dead or missing, and a short description of what happened.
In the drafting of this map, I reimagined both the design of the basemap as well as the form in which the data is presented.
By flattening destination countries to black coastlines only, the map shifts from a top down view at its bottom to a horizontal perspective that better shows what individuals were awaiting to see appear on the horizon. With this shift in perspective that emphasizes the point of view of people who lost their lives at sea, I also freed space on the page and pushed the black lines showing destination countries to the edge of the map, farther away from northern Africa and Turkey. Although this basemap greatly distorts distance and location, a wider portrayal of the Mediterranean Sea is closer to people’s experiences of the journey: navigating in unseaworthy vessels, often using handheld compasses only. The large white space between origin and destination countries communicates a feeling of unknown and uncertainty.
Assigning a unique red dot to each victim helped to better portray the unsettlingly large number of recorded losses. Although still extremely reductive — one circle for one human life —, it is one step closer to a representation centered on the individuals, in contrast with the usual proportional symbols, sized according to the number of lives lost. Often for the sake of visual clarity, conventional cartography tends to erase the individual from the map, but by doing so, it also distances the reader from connecting with the people and the issue presented.
I placed red dot symbols on the map one by one using the location information for each accident from the database. Longitudinal information is mostly correct, but because of the vertical distortion of the map, I had to classify each event based on whether it happened closed at shore, around an island, or in the middle of the sea to decide on an approximate latitudinal location.
The lack of distinct geometry behind the configuration of these ‘islands’ of drowned individuals helps humanize them, as each is unique, just as the event that took place and the people involved were also unique. The red color of the dots contrasts with the white background and highlights the people suspended in the unknown between their origin and planned destinations.
To further stress the distinctiveness of each event, I added individual lines of text waving in blue away from some of the clusters of victims that details who died, how, and where they were going. Only a few lines are shown, but they describe a diversity of events and leave the reader wondering: what about the story behind all the other dots?
↬ Levi Westerveld
The map is available below in high definition: use the + and - keys to zoom, and the arrows or the mouse to pan and move the image around.