Whether it’s a densely packed city block, a tree-lined suburban subdivision or a sprawling dairy farm, you could probably describe your neighborhood in striking detail. You might be able to do the same for the next block over. But at some point, familiarity wanes and we lean on our generalized understanding of places—if we understand them at all.
The contiguous 48 states are a 1.9 billion-acre jigsaw puzzle of cities, farms, forests and pastures. Government data establishes top-line figures of how all that land is used, but understanding how America uses its land in intimate detail wasn’t really possible—until the Bloomberg News team of Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby set out to paint that picture.
Merrill and Leatherby poured through government databases and obscure agency spreadsheets to calculate how every acre of U.S. land is used. Merrill calculated the data as 250,000-acre chunks and painstakingly divided them among the contiguous 48 U.S. states. The result: nearly 8,000 equally-sized squares categorized by the primary use of the land and then arranged—by hand—based on where on the map it fell.
It was a lot of work, but well worth it. The maps are a striking and digestible visual display. Most American readers are comfortable navigating data displayed on U.S. maps, and journalists have many sophisticated tools at their disposal to create them—tools the Bloomberg Graphics team routinely lean on. But these manually-composed maps resonated with readers for being simultaneously familiar as a U.S. map and novel in its presentation. Leatherby optimized the navigation between maps, and readers raved on social media about the seamless interactions, especially on phones. The story is one of Bloomberg’s most read in 2018.
But most importantly, Merrill and Leatherby helped readers understand in detail how the patchwork of U.S. land feeds us, powers our economy and keeps us entertained, including 2 million acres—an area larger than the Delaware—devoted to golf courses. Readers found specificity in what otherwise could be unfamiliar. It helped them understand more about their neighbors.
What makes this project innovative?
The project is innovative for both its graphics and the idea behind the project: to visualize all of these arcane government spreadsheets in one place for the first time. Merrill and Leatherby combed through pdfs and csvs on government, nonprofit and company websites to create a comprehensive dataset of how land is used. Merrill’s meticulous hand placement of every square on the map according to the underlying geography resulted in maps that dazzled the millions who looked at them, and Leatherby’s use of ai2html underneath a seamless scrollytelling format resulted in a captivating setup with crisp images.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The project quickly became one of the Bloomberg graphics team’s most-read stories ever. More than seven months later, it still occasionally surfaces as one of the top-read stories on the Bloomberg site for the day. The story spread far and wide. Several other blogs and web sites recommended the project. Data viz blogs commended its presentation, agriculture blogs praised its thoroughness, and others were simply excited to see such a cool presentation about the country they call home. At least one academic journal cited Merrill’s work, as did the Wikipedia page on land use. And, anecdotally, the sheer number of old friends and family members across the country who reached out to the authors about the story shows the breadth of people who engaged with and were delighted by this data visualization.
Source and methodology
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service: Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012; U.S. Department of the Interior, National Land Cover Database, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau; State governments; stateparks.org; American Farmland Trust; Golf Course Superintendents Association of America; USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service; USDA Census of Agriculture; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Forest Service; Weyerhaeuser Co.; The Land Report magazine. Land use classifications are based on data published in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in a report called the Major Uses of Land in the United States (MLU). Data from the report provide total land-use acreage estimates for each state across six broad categories. Those totals are displayed per 250,000 acres. Data from Alaska and Hawaii are excluded from the analysis. Special-use land and forestland make up the biggest land types in those states. Bloomberg referenced the USDA data against estimates from the National Land Cover Database to generally locate these categories within each state. Miscellaneous uses are defined as wetlands, rural residential lands, non-harvestable forests, desert, tundra and barren land of low economic value. Unlike all other land-use categories in the USDA data, a component breakdown for miscellaneous uses by state is not provided in the MLU. To locate miscellaneous areas, Bloomberg referred to the National Land Cover Database to generally calculate and locate acreage by miscellaneous uses. “Rural residential lands” in the USDA data make up most of the 69 million-acre miscellaneous-use category. This category does not equally correlate to data in the National Land Cover Database, so Bloomberg subtracted the total of the other miscellaneous components to arrive at a rough estimate of “rural residential lands”—about 50 million acres. Total pasture/range areas are proportionally divided by animal group based on National Agricultural Statistics Service livestock counts. Data showing the 100 largest landowning families are based on descriptions of acreage and land type in The Land Reportmagazine. Representative amounts of acreage were subtracted from private timber and cropland/range to show this category, which is not a part of the USDA data.
Dave Merrill - author, Lauren Leatherby - author, Alex Tribou - editor