Visualizing stories of migration

Visualizing stories of migration

By: Marena Brinkhurst

Migration Trail is an interactive experience that uses a map, data visualization, and text to follow the journeys of two fictional migrants traveling to Europe, over ten days, in real-time. Creator Alison Killing is speaking at SXSW on Saturday, March 9th about storytelling using maps and data. We caught up with Alison to learn more about how and why she built Migration Trail.

What inspired you to create Migration Trail?
In 2013 and into 2014 there was a sharp increase in the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats, trying to reach southern Europe. There were a number of shipwrecks and capsizings where large numbers of people died. This was clearly an urgent story and yet, while there was some excellent reporting of the issue, this story wasn’t getting anything like the coverage it seemed to demand. I created Migration Trail to find a new way to tell this story using maps, and developed it as a real-time experience to make it urgent and immediate for audiences.

Whose stories are these?
The two migrants in Migration Trail are fictional characters, but they are based on very real experiences and true stories. We couldn’t tell real stories as they were happening because that would put those people in danger, so we had to tell these stories as reconstructions. We decided to create fictional characters to give us more freedom to tell a range of stories, from a wider range of people. The voices of the characters were written by professional writers from Nigeria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan which we then produced as instant message feeds that the audience could follow as the story unfolded — either on the website or on their phones in Facebook Messenger.

What data did you draw on and how did you gather it?
We used a lot of open data on displaced people, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees data portal, the European Commission’s statistics division, the Passport Index, and the International Organisation of Migration’s Missing Migrant project.

We also conducted extensive research in the field, including traveling the routes themselves. In 2015, I traveled from the Greek island of Lesbos, where many migrants were arriving into Europe, through Greece, the Balkans, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, to the Netherlands. In 2016, I went to Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece following the closure of the humanitarian corridor through the Balkans, and also spent two weeks on a rescue boat in international waters in the southern Mediterranean. In 2017, I started in Sicily and traveled through Italy before crossing the border into France. Along the way, I did interviews with migrants, volunteers, local government, border police, and NGO workers and this provided much of the information necessary to create realistic stories.

Why did you decide to use interactive maps to share these stories?
One of our biggest challenges was how to explain such a complex issue, with the huge amount of information that we had collected, in a way that was understandable and relatable. Presenting the story of migration to Europe as an interactive map experience allows people to visually and spatially ‘join the dots’ of the stories they have heard. The map and the journey provide a framework for understanding how different issues related to migration in Europe — from Libyan people smugglers to Hungarian border policing, and camp evictions in France — are part of the same wider story. Zoom levels allowed us to show different types of information. As you zoom in on the character’s location you get more personal data, like how far they could continue to travel before their phone battery ran out, or where they could find wifi nearby, since internet access is so crucial to people on the move. Zooming out, you start to see data that puts their journey into context, like the locations of border walls or current flights over Europe (which refugees typically have no access to). We also had layers showing statistics, such as the numbers of people traveling to different countries and the likelihood of having their asylum claims granted.

What is one of your favorite aspects of the design of Migration Trail?
We wanted the experience to feel very dynamic to draw people into the narrative and give a sense of time passing as you follow the characters’ journeys. To achieve this within a map, we created five custom styles in Mapbox Studio so that we could have the colors of the map change over the course of the day, getting gradually darker in the evening and then light again with the dawn the next day. It was also very helpful to be able to style datasets based on zoom level — we use opacity controls to have data like border wall locations or search and rescue zones fade in and out based on their relevance at a given ‘level’ of the story. We also used leaflet.js to add other dynamic layers, such as wind and shipping traffic.

What’s next for Migration Trail?
We would like to tell more migration stories using this format and are looking for co-producers to work with to make that happen. This is a format that could also be used to tell other stories where you have change taking place over a large geographic area, whether that is following a scientific expedition to the Amazon, mapping changing ice coverage in the Arctic, or tracking animal migrations. We’d like to find partners to work on more of these sorts of projects.

How can people engage more with Migration Trail?
We hope to run the full Migration Trail experience, complete with the Facebook Messenger feeds, again in the near future. If you’d like to keep up with our work and be notified of the next ‘live’ experience, you can sign up for our newsletter. We also made a podcast series following real-life migrants over the course of two years as they left their homes, traveled to Europe and tried to settle. It explores wider issues about borders, immigration, and asylum.

Alison Killing is currently working on a number of projects related to data security and surveillance using maps and location analysis, including automating satellite imagery analysis for monitoring human rights issues and authoring a chapter on maps and geolocation for the Citizen Investigation Toolkit, a guide to open source investigations by the Tactical Technology Collective. Follow her on Twitter, and catch her session at SXSW to learn more about Migration Trail, how it was designed and built, and lessons for telling stories using maps and data.

Visualizing stories of migration

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