Virality in cartography: What makes a map go viral?

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When you think about viral content, maps are not the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, it is not uncommon to see maps of all shapes and sizes dominating social conversations about various issues – as well as non-issues.

In January, when the New Year had just started and we all were convinced that the Australian bushfires were going to be the worst thing that could happen in 2020, artist Anthony Hearsey pulled publically-available satellite data about the fires from NASA and created a 3D rendering of all the fires that had been detected in a one-month period.

how to create a viral map

Courtesy: Anthony Hearsey

People mistook that compilation to be a recent satellite photo showing the live extent of the fire. Singer Rihanna put out a tweet of that visualization, and in no time, it had amassed 76,8000 retweets and comments. News organizations had to step in and clarify what that graphic actually represented.

But that’s just one example of a trending map. Virtually anything interesting could make up for the content of a viral map – if done correctly.

Like Nik Freeman’s map of the nearly 5 million Census Blocks in the United States where no one lives:

how to create a viral map

Or Rome2rio’s modern-day heatmap of the travel times from London to every airport around the world – which uses a map from 1914 as its base:

how to create a viral map

But what is it that makes a map click with its audience? Researchers and cartographers alike are trying to decode the mystery.

And while nobody has stumbled upon a fixed formula using which you would be able to craft viral maps intentionally, case study examples have shown that there are certain elements that can be associated with maps that are shared widely on social media or, depending on their content, via news organizations.

Elements of viral cartography

1. Simplicity

Like all good maps, viral maps are easy to understand. It shouldn’t take anyone more than a few second to get what the map is talking about – like the one below that shows you just how densely populated India is:

how to create a viral map

Courtesy: India in Pixels

2. Usefulness

A map could also go viral if it answers a question of interest for a diverse group of people. When river ecologist Sukhmani Mantel decided to bathe the river basins of South Africa in the colorful palette below, she didn’t know it was going to go viral. But South Africans told her how they wished they had access to this map when they were in school. And you have to admit, maps like this would have made geography even more fun for all of us!

how to make a viral map

3. Aesthetics

Aesthetics also plays a very important role in making a map appeal to the masses. Let’s take the topographic map of Iceland below as an example. When you think about Iceland, you think icy whites or cold blues – not the deep reds that show the lowest elevations or the bright yellows that show the highest!

how to make a viral map

Courtesy: Aitor Garcia Ray

4. Emotional resonance

It doesn’t matter if its awe, or surprise, or joy, or fear, or anger – if a map is able to elicit an emotional response from you, chances are, you would want to share it with your friends or colleagues. Like the map below that divides Russia according to which country is the nearest to any particular point within the country, as the crow flies.

how to make a viral map

Courtesy: galacticpasta

You only have to go to Reddit to see some of the responses to this map to understand the importance of emotional resonance. Like this Norwegian guy who just found out that there is only one country that separates Norway from North Korea!

5. Humor

how to make a viral map

Courtesy: xkcd

The map above is a pointed critique that many maps that get shared on social media are just fluff rather than substance. But a little lightheartedness goes a long way to exorcise stress and connect us to each other – especially in these challenging times.

6. Topicality

Timing, of course, can also play a crucial role in making a map viral. Nate Silver’s map below was released by statistical news website FiveThirtyEight just as the 2016 US presidential elections were heating up. It’s a projection map that gives you a view into a potential future – “if only women voted”. Not only has this map been viewed and shared millions of times on social media, but it also checks the box for the argument that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

how to make a viral map

Viral maps and fake news

While researching viral cartography, Penn State geographer Anthony Robinson found that the above map had spawned a series of copycat maps, many of which also went viral. These included both the serious (what “if only people of color voted”) and the silly (“if only goats voted”).

Robinson found more than 500 such unique maps on the internet. And in the context of our battle with fake news, this is a very dangerous thing. When a map conveys more validity than it deserves, it becomes very easy to fabricate the truth; we all know how convincing auto-generated videos called “deep fakes” seem.

As Robinson says, “It’s cool that anybody can make a map now. They can take election data and do something creative with it, and it can be very helpful. But it’s also easy to make something that looks like it’s authoritative and use it as a weapon.”

how to make a viral map

The copycat maps

We must move beyond the notion that maps only show what’s “already there”. Maps can help to “create” perceptions and shape people’s “future actions” as well.

This is why it is more important now than ever to understand where a map has originated. In an ideal world, people would question map accuracy or introspect the intentions behind the map. In our world, technology will hopefully make up for the lack of skepticism among people soon. Machine learning image detection algorithms, like those from Google Cloud Vision, can be used to trace the provenance of viral maps and see how they spread online.

But until that happens, it’s our job to ensure that we and those around us, map responsibly and not just create anything for the sake of virality.

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London Retail Covid19 Impact

Measuring Covid19 Impact on Urban Retail

Covid19 lockdown forced retail stores to close in order to avoid contagion. As a direct consequence, many of them did not reopen. Many of them reopened, but will close soon as an effect of the social distancing rules. EIXOS Economic Observatory has developed a model to measure the impact on retail in geographic terms. This model has been combined with an other developed by a research team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The combined EIXOS / MIT model assigns a specific risk of closure  for each economic activity category. It evaluates complementary aspects, such as contagion probability or business financial stress derived from the situation. The MIT & EIXOS values are pondered in order to obtain a final risk value. Then, this value is graduated by an impact coefficient (low, average, high). Finally, the risk is expressed as a percentage of business closures:


Risk of Closure by Category

Risk of Closure by Category

In order to evaluate the impact of covid19 lockdown & social distancing rules on London retail,  all the retail stores in a 500 km2 area were mapped,  that includes more than 60,000 retail spaces and 15 boroughs  in it, at both sides of Thames.

According to our risk assessment model, the impact on London economic activities will be high, even in the more optimistic hypotheses.

Almost between a third and more than a half of London small businesses could close as a consequence of covid19 impact. From those, hotels & restaurants are the activities that will take the highest loss.


London Urban Model: Retail in a Road in a Garden City

London has a retail infrastructure optimized to cover huge areas of low density housing.

Retail stores align along the main streets, interurban roads. That’s what we call the “retail in a road” alignment. 

Red dots: retail stores in London

Red dots: retail stores in London

When EIXOS mapped Manhattan, we found up to 700 retail stores / km2. In Barcelona, more than 1,000. In London, with a very different urban model, there are less than 200 retail stores / km2.

The ratio of retail stores per inhabitant also confirms the low density model. In London there are between 1-2 retail stores per 100 inhabitants. In high density retail areas, like Barcelona, there’re between 3-4 retail stores per 100 inhabitants.

London Retail Essentials

White dots: essential retail stores that opened during the covid19 lockdown.

Occupancy, a key aspect to monitorize retail health, is specially critical in this highly-optimized model.

Less than 90% occupancy scenarios are to avoid. Less than 80% are catastrophic.

London pre-covid19 average retail occupancy is higher than 90%.

London Retail Occupancy

London Retail Occupancy

According to the EIXOS / MIT model, in a low impact hypothesis the average retail occupancy drops down to 70%. 

London Retail Occupancy Index Map

Left: Pre-covid19 Retail Occupancy Right: Post-covid Retail Occupancy The darker the blue, the higher the occupancy.

London Retail Recovery Strategy

Any retail recovery strategy must set the focus on protecting the vital areas. This implies guaranteeing the minimum viable commercial service all over the city.

Such a goal requires a great coordinated effort amongst all the stakeholders that have a key role in retail. Consumers, retailers, real estate agents, landlords, economic development agencies, business improvement districts do have a say in the new retail scenarios to come.

All efforts & resources must be put on preserving the key retail areas that are at risk. Specific 0,33 km2 hexagons identify those areas in a very precise way. In our full version report we provide a very accurate map of them.

We also propose a radical recovery strategy, based on regrouping the stores in order to hold the lines. It is what we call Retail Grid Optimization.

Basically, it consists of recombining the existing retail stores. The goal is to find the most optimal combination, in terms of commercial service to the city.

It could sound like a crazy solution, for it implies a lot of combined efforts. However, post-covid19 scenario will make it a reasonable one.

Related articles:

Covid19 Impact on Barcelona Retail

COVID-19 Impact on Manhattan Retail

Geomob video-conference: Covid19 impact on Manhattan & Barcelona 

Bilbao: business location opportunity detection service.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: Rationing social contact during the COVID-19 pandemic: Transmission risk and social benefits of US locations

MIT News: “Which businesses should be open?”



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