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Information overload: In this extract from his new book of data visualisations, Alastair Bonnett presents four previously unimagined ways of looking at how our world is affected both by man-made enterprises as well as natural phenomena.


Here is a world woven over with lines of flight. They knot themselves in dense, bright tangles in some places, only to be teased out into yawning black holes in others. Irrespective of recession, taxes and terrorism, the number of flights keeps on growing. Global passenger numbers were up over six per cent in 2016, and have been rising at about or above that rate for years. Industry forecasters confidently predict growth all the way to 2030. The weave will get tighter and evermore brilliant. And the gaps in the fabric will start filling up.

In fact, what is striking about this map is just how many empty zones there still are. Africa has barely two per cent of the world's air traffic (equated with revenue-paying passengers multiplied by distance travelled). At 31 per cent, Asia has more than Europe, but as it is a continent that is so vast and populous, that's a low figure. Certainly its skies aren't laced with contrails like those of Northwestern Europe. So what at first glance looks like a very contemporary vision of the world turns out to be oddly backward-looking. The rise of the Asian economies and the shift of world industry to the East has not yet been mirrored in air traffic terms.

So what's going on? Air traffic is an expensive way of transporting goods, the majority of which go by sea. And the swelling middle classes of China and India, nations with a billion-plus people each, have yet to gain access to mass air travel. This is about to change. Here is a map on the brink of becoming a historical curiosity. The big growth in air traffic is coming from those holes in the weave: from Asia, Latin America and the fast-growing economies of Africa.


This isn't the world that was; it's the world that is to come. Pangea is the name that has been given to an ancient supercontinent, one that existed 300 million years ago. It broke up, and the continents we know today came into definition. But the movement of the great plates upon which the oceans and land sit hasn't come to an end. Based on our knowledge of past movements of these plates, we can roughly predict where we are headed, and it appears that is straight back to where we came from. It's a place called Pangea Ultima.

In about 300 million years' time, our continents will have moved together again. If our very distant descendants are there to enjoy it, they will have the freedom to walk in a continuous trail from what was once Antarctica, up through Australia and Asia and down to the tip of South America, a journey that will afford many fine views over a vast inland ocean.

This speculative supercontinent is not the only possibility. Amasia and Novopangea are the names given to other contenders, but they all predict a return to a Pangea-like single mass. This amount of plate collision would produce considerable uplift, with new mountain chains being created in the areas where continents collide.

Beyond Pangea Ultima there will be a continuous cycle of the breaking-apart of supercontinents, then the combination and collision of their parts into new Pangeas: the back-and-forth, squeeze-and-relax of a dynamic--perhaps the right word is 'living'--planet.


Despite being limited to 140 characters (for some lucky few now increased to 280), Twitter messages have become a barometer of world opinion. This map looks at a particular species of tweet: the retweet, in which users forward a tweet to which they want to draw attention. Seen in this way, it is a map showing which parts of the world are interested in each other and which aren't--at least in the Twittersphere--and it's distilled from all the retweets sent between 23 October 2012 and 30 November 2012.

After much collating and sieving of the data, the final image is of the strongest 42,000 connections. Many of the patterns are clear: there are big sweeps of light across the Atlantic and down through the Arabian Peninsula to the cities of Southeast Asia. Conversely, North and South America aren't as interested in each other as one might expect. Europe and South America have a much stronger retweeting bond. Twitter is banned in China, so it's no surprise the connections in East Asia skip over China's great cities and go straight to South Korea and Japan.

On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that most retweets are much more local. The East Coast of the US is the busiest hub, both in that country and on the planet, and across the world people are more likely to retweet from nearer than from further away.

Even after simplifying all the lines of connection, the density of messaging in some parts of the world is startling. Of the world's 328 million active Twitter users at the start of 2017, 70 million live in the US and about 14 million in the UK. As the map suggests, the numbers in Africa are much lower, with about two million users in Nigeria, the continent's most populous country. If, as Twitter insists, it is 'the pulse of the planet', then our planetary heartbeat is much stronger in some places than in others.


As world trade has become more global, there have been many attempts to create maps that show its flows and exchanges. Many are very specific, such as this simplified version of a map of the nut trade first published in 2015 by the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Foundation. It shows us where the big production areas are, and the direction of import and export. At a glance it is apparent that production zones are very concentrated. The US dominance in almonds is clear from that large black arrow leaping from the US and heading for Europe. The statistics behind this one arrow are that, of the world total of almond kernels traded (464 tons/471 tonnes), the great majority come from the US and, of these, 233 tons (237 tonnes) were exported to Europe.

Let's take another example: the large thick grey arrows coming out of West Africa. This colour denotes 'cashews in shell'. Of the world's trade total in this product (810 tons/824 tonnes), West Africa sent 435 tons (442 tonnes) to India and 280 tons (285 tonnes) to Vietnam. This is a trade route between Africa and Asia; the former has the right environment for production, and the latter a food culture that uses a lot of cashews.

There are other stories hidden in the smaller details. Looking at South America, we can see that Brazil nuts do not come from Brazil but from Bolivia, and that there's a smaller export from Peru. It turns out that the flowers of this huge nut tree are pollinated by tropical bees whose own reproductive cycle depends on their visiting a very particular orchid that grows high up in the tree canopy. That orchid doesn't grow in Brazil, but it does grow in Bolivia and Peru. No orchid, no bees, no nuts; and so no purple arrows out of Brazil.
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Title Annotation:New Views
Comment:Information overload: In this extract from his new book of data visualisations, Alastair Bonnett presents four previously unimagined ways of looking at how our world is affected both by man-made enterprises as well as natural phenomena.(New Views)
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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