visualization / place

A New Way of Seeing 200 Years of American Immigration

To depict how waves of immigrants shaped the United States, a team of designers looked to nature as a model.
Immigration is one of the most contentious issue of our time, and research shows that simply fact-checking common misconceptionsand myths about immigration—that newcomers bring criminality, snatch jobs from Americans, and are a drain on the economy—doesn’t seem to change anyone’s minds. But what if we replaced the current ideologically charged narrative with something else—something, well, kind of beautiful?

Northeastern University’s Pedro CruzJohn WihbeyAvni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya have created a striking visualization to do just that: They’ve depicted 200 years of granular immigration data as the colorful cross-section of a tree that thickens over time.

“I wanted to portray the United States like an organism that’s alive and that took a long time to grow,” said Cruz, an assistant professor at Northeastern. ”[The visualization] also contains the underlying message that the country was built on diversity.”

In science, the technique of studying climatic and ecological change over time via tree rings is known as dendrochronology. The bigger, older, and mightier the tree, the more rings it has, and the more data can be extracted. The method has allowed researchers to place specifics dates on ancient environmental conditions going back millennia.

Here, the metaphorical mighty tree is the United States, and if you follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it has been made thicker and stronger by the waves of immigrants who have arrived over the decades. Each colored “cell” represents 100 immigrants; over time, the algorithm deposits them in concentric rings, with each ring marking a decade. The older ones encase the core, and newer ones wrap around surface. The colors and the direction of growth represent the origins of the immigrants. The yellow cells depicting immigrants from Latin America, for example, are layered by the computer algorithm towards the bottom of the circle—signaling that they come countries south of the U.S.; those from Asia grow outwards towards the left. (Cruz noted that while the trajectories of Native American and enslaved populations are also of course integral to the story of the country, but this dataset did not include information on these groups.)

Look closely at the mesmerizing data visualization, and you’ll start seeing trends reflecting the political and economic realities of America.
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