Blog Archive

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Visualizing the Spread of Natural Gas Wells, and the Importance of Visual Impact

Last week, I sat in a window seat of a commercial flight en route from Arizona to New York.  I dislike window seats for many reasons, including an occasional pinched nerve in my right shoulder and a bad coffee habit.  However, as we flew over the four corners section of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, I happened to look out the window, and was fascinated by what I saw (not the actual scene, but reconstructed using Google Maps):

Miles and miles of this.  It went on for a while.  After a few minutes, I felt I had a pretty good feeling of what I was seeing, and when I came home, I did some more research, and was fairly certain I was looking at a large expanse of natural gas wells.  

There's been plenty of debate and activism around natural gas well drilling.  My personal opinion on the benefits and risks of the technology isn't for this blog.  However, what was truly striking to me was how this illustrates perspective as a key objective of information design, and how we should strive to achieve it in the most impactful way.  

Take the following representation of gas well drilling permits, as represented in this map, dated 2010: 

Here we see the growth of well permits in 2010 versus prior years.  The choice of colors is good; the display of basins helps.  The choice of county lines is interesting; are some counties that span basins opposed to drilling, or are there other geographical features that prohibit the drilling?  This representation raises more questions, which is a good thing.  

What's missing, though, is the emotional impact as we pull further away into space.  You have to squint a bit, but the wells are still pretty visible across an even broader expanse.  

For reference, this segment is about 25 miles across, or about 625 square miles.  

A lot of our work at AIS involves actually taking the emotion out of politicized stories in order to get perspective.  Then, we introduce it back in a more balanced way.  I grew up in this part of the country, and often travelled with my family through its incredible beauty.  So it's hard for me to see, objectively and without emotion, such broad expanses of land incredibly altered by our choices in energy production.  

It's a longer project than I have time for right now, but surely an interactive map would do this quite a bit of justice.  Things I'd consider including: 

- Land that was purchased from private owners
- Water tables and drainage maps
- Attributes of the natural habitat, and impact statements
- Production, and quantity of energy/equivalents/usage derived from this expanse  
- Ownership of wells and corporate structure

Other ideas?  Has anyone done this?  


  1. Thanks for doing this -- it's very dramatic, as you say, to show this information from a higher angle. I wonder if it would be so visible in the Northeast, with all the trees and whatnot.

    I haven't seen anything like this on any anti-fracking sites, so you might want to contact them. You may be aware of data-oriented orgs who help non-profits, like and -- maybe they would be interested.

  2. This is an interesting post, and raises many questions for me. How does one evaluate one's emotional response to the image? Is there something inherently bad about it? What is those were settlements? Do we have to have a landscape that looks appealing to transcontinental fliers?

    What about the question of scale? As you note, zooming out, you see less and less of the well network. At what scale does it become something to which an emotional response is worthwhile?

    Are you biased in favor of aerial views that appear pristine?

    I could go on and on. I"m not sure what my own answers are. I struggle with this a lot. Many years ago, I tried to imagine a big hole in the dessert with a volume equal to all the concrete in our cities (in the USA). I realized, it probably wouldn't make much of dent in the total landscape. I was surprised...relieved?