Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Shipping maps win at the Information Is Beautiful Awards

Shipping maps win at the Information Is Beautiful Awards shipmap.org, Kiln
24 Nov
A stunning interactive map shows a year in the life of global shipping. Its co-creators Duncan Clark and Robin Houston discuss how their data visualisations can be interpreted

A map showing the activity of shipping vessels won first place in the Interactive category at the Information is Beautiful Awards this year. The website, shipmap.org, plots thousands of ships on their journey through canals, major rivers and the high seas: activity often well out of sight for the general public. Geographical interviewed Duncan Clark and Robin Houston, the creative duo behind the prize-winning visualisation and founders of a new data visualisation platform, Flourish.studio.

The data load in these maps is immense, how did you source it?

Robin Houston: It came to us via UCL and ExactEarth, but ultimately it comes from the ships themselves. It plots the broadcasts of vessels over one year – 2012.

Duncan Clark: The University’s idea was to do a project on shipping and CO2, they showed us the data and asked us our opinion. We said that although the carbon dioxide angle is important, it would be more compelling to plot this data to show just how massive the global shipping is.  CO2 is a vital, though secondary, element to the industry as a whole.

The idea that each of those coloured marks represents thousands of tonnage of ship is the main narrative here

As you waded through the data, was it possible to see any patterns emerging?

RH: At first there was no way to make sense of it at all. It came to us as a collection of data tables comprising of a quarter of a billion data points. It had longitudes, latitudes, times, speed and a few other bits of information such as CO2 emission estimates, the type of vessel and capacity. There were so many elements that it wasn’t possible to make any sense of it by just looking at the numbers.

DC: However, as the map got closer to being finished there were two layers of stories that emerged. The first was the ubiquity of vessels all over the map, the dots are everywhere. The idea that each of those coloured marks represents thousands of tonnage of ship is the main narrative here. And then there are these secondary, regional stories that begin to emerge. For example, there are no ships off the coast of Somalia because of all the issues with piracy, at the same time you can see the school of oil tankers moving around the Persian Gulf.

RH: I thought the number of tankers supplying gas to Japan was particularly interesting, as it was a story pretty unique to 2012. Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Japan decommissioned all of its nuclear power stations, which meant that it suddenly imported gas as a means to generate enough power to cover the shortfall. You can see a huge amount of gas tankers supplying Japan with gas. There’s a lot of little micro-stories in there, some of which are provided in the narrative on the side.

somaliaThe Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the quiet coast of Somalia (Image: shipmap.org)

One of the most striking elements of the maps are the number of ships moving through rivers. It makes land masses look more porous than we usually assume them to be. Was that intended?

DC: As you’d assume, we started with the oceans and the land as the two distinct areas of the map. And then we drew the ships on top and we very quickly realised that the ships penetrated deep inside the continents – you get these huge container ships going right up the Paraguay River, right up the Amazon River, and also deep into the Great Lakes by a combination of natural inlets and canals near Niagara Falls. That forced us to change the style of the map. We had to get new geographic datasets with all the rivers and then cut the rivers out of the land so that the ships within them made sense.

...and what happens when the ships get to the map edges, do they disappear?

RH: Well the data is layered onto a Mercator map projection, so that gives it some limitations. You can see some ships going quite deep into the Arctic and the Antarctic, but the ice and land respectively in those areas keeps the vessels from getting too close to the Poles. Meanwhile the east/west divide means that dots jump from one end to the other. We have used it on a 360º wraparound screen, which makes a lot more sense, visually.

GreatlakesShips access the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean by a series of canals, locks and channels (Image: shipmap.org)

Shipping has increased by 300 per cent since the 1990s. Do you have plans to add older data from previous years to the maps? Or to keep adding future data to it similar to how Global Forest Watch does with trees?

DC: The current map can only compare different points in the year and because of the nature of shipping, it doesn’t change all that much season to season. To find a way to compare present levels of shipping with those at the turn of the millennium would be huge.

RH: The other answer is that if anyone gets me a decent set of more recent shipping data, I’d love to put it up!

Where to next with data visualisation?

DC: The next phase for that project is part of a much bigger change for us. We’ve just shifted from a little agency that does individual projects into a company that is making a platform called flourish.studio. Instead of making individual visualisations, we can make templates that other data gatherers can attach data to. Take the ship map template, for example. That tech has already been reused to plot the movements of the entire US trucking fleet based on US Census Bureau data. Often these bespoke graphics that people spend months making are thrown away once they have served their purpose, and everything has to be reinvented from scratch. The aim of flourish is to create templates that can be used for different data sets more than once. The tech can be reused lots of times to represent lots of different data.

For more great content like this, sign up below for our FREE weekly newsletter. The best of Geographical in your inbox, every Friday afternoon!


Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…


A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…


Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…


Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…


South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…


The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…


In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…


New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…


In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…


Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…


Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…


New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…


Public transport in India could be on the verge of…


To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires