More usefully cool stuff from Stamen

My plumber’s last name is Thieme. I was just looking up his phone number, and got distracted when I realized that the people search in Live Bing does a fair job of visualizing the geographic distribution of surnames. If you do a people search for Thieme, New Hampshire, and start panning around at county and state resolutions, you can see where Thiemes have clustered and where they haven’t.

As I was doing this, I suddenly realized: Why don’t maps offer named zoom levels? If you want to pan across the country at state or county resolution, it requires an enormous amount of continuous zooming in and out. Of course the sizes of states and counties vary as you move across the country. But that’s the whole point. Computers can do the math and automate those adjustments.

What prompted this thought was the newly-redesigned Oakland Crimespotting, which features a nifty new widget for selecting times of day. Stamen Designs’ Eric Rodenbeck, whom I recently interviewed, calls it the time pie. It’s fun to spin your way through the hours, making contiguous or discontiguous selections. But what’s really useful are the named slices: light, dark, commute, nightlife, day, night, swing shift. As Stamen’s blog notes:

The last time slices (day, night and swing) are the ways that the police view this information, and one thing we hope will come from the project is a better understanding of how the police view their data as it’s collected.


What you may not notice, as you navigate the new interface, is that every adjustment is reflected in an exquisitely detailed URL. It’s not obvious because the URLs are really long, and the changes happen outside the visible part of the browser’s location window. But watch:


Hide all crime types:

Show all and extend dates to max range:,Mu,Ro,SA,DP,Na,Al,Pr,Th,VT,Va,Bu,Ar&lon=-122.270&hours=0-23&zoom=14&dtstart=2009-05-08T00:00:00-07:00

Narcotics only:

Nighttime narcotics:

Wee hours narcotics:

As noted on the Stamen blog, this means that:

It’s now possible to navigate and link to recent newsworthy events like the assassination of journalist Chauncey Bailey, the Oscar Grant riots from January 2009, and the Lovelle Mixon incident from this past March.

The Stamen crew is renowned for brilliance, and rightly so. But the principles at work here — thoughtful naming, granular linking — are ones that we all can and should practice, in the many small ways that we can as we explore and co-create the infosphere.

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12 thoughts on “More usefully cool stuff from Stamen

  1. Ambiguity of “state-level” zoom requires the user to express intention. For many common cases, it works just fine. If I’m looking at Harrisburg, PA, then “state-level zoom” likely means “show me all of PA”.

    However, if you’re looking at, say, Texarkana, what does “state-level zoom” mean? Enough zoom to see all of TX? Enough zoom to see all of Arkansas? All of Louisiana? All of all three states? All of most of the three states? If you pan to neighboring smaller/larger states, does the zoom level change on you?

    It might be fudgable by taking proximity-of-the-focus-point-to-the-nearest-state-border into consideration as a weighting factor for zoom level.

    Anyways, just thinking out loud…


  2. > It might be fudgable by taking
    > proximity-of-the-focus-point-to-the-
    > nearest-state-border into consideration
    > as a weighting factor for zoom level.

    That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. It ain’t gonna be perfect. But it might be really useful. And the process of thinking through what the vocabularies would need to be would, in itself, be incredibly instructive.

  3. The vagary of ‘state-level’ could perhaps be usefully addressed by the work that our friend Aaron Cope is doing at flickr, where users’ geotagged photos are used to determine the outlines of variously-thought-about geographic areas:

    “My neighborhood” means a very different thing if you’re in London or the middle of Montana.

  4. Seems interesting. Unclear what it’s intended to do though. Tried these queries:

    Keene NH -> map centered on Keene

    New Hampshire -> map centered on Concord (the capitol)

    southwestern New Hampshire -> map of San Diego (huh?)

  5. OK, having read up on WOE (Where On Earth) IDs and their use in Flickr, I think I see what’s happening here. The idea is not to naturalize the query for place, but to naturalize the names under the crosshairs as you pan around after having searched for a conventionally-named place.

    So when positioned over Long Island, successive zooms yield:

    New York
    Suffolk County
    Sterling Forest

    And from there, panning yields adjacent neighborhoods:

    Upper Greenwood Lake

    But..searching for Vernon takes you to a different place, because Vernon the town isn’t the same WOE ID as Vernon the neighborhood next to the Upper Greenwood Lake neighborhood, and search isn’t WOE-aware.

    “users’ geotagged photos are used to determine the outlines of variously-thought-about geographic areas”

    So that’s how WOE shapefiles are defined? By clustering the tagnames in geotagged photos and associating them to irregular areas?

    Very cool. Thanks for the heads-up on this!

    And you’re right. This does appear to be an important step in the direction of the idea I sketched.

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