After the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 737 Max 8 jets on March 13, planes weren’t stranded where they were at the time of the halt. The Bloomberg graphics team explored the thousands of miles that the grounded planes flew around North America in the days that followed the FAA order.
Dean Halford, Lauren Leatherby and David Ingold parsed tens of thousands of lines of flight data to create an interactive animation of flight paths that shows where planes have clustered since the halt, highlights each airline’s activity and contrasts the days after grounding against the flurry of activity on a normal day. The project’s code, done at a breaking-news pace, transformed a massive dataset into a smooth and captivating visualization.
What makes this project innovative?
To show both the activity of a full day of flights and a map of where flights ended up, the team created a custom animation engine that simulated all of the flights across U.S. airspace. Halford’s seamless system, which interpolated planes between each row of data—the plane’s coordinates, altitude and direction at minute-by-minute time stamps—made for polished plane movements as well as a continually building footprint of all of the flight paths. Achieving this in the browser and on the phone required an enormous effort to pull a sizeable amount of flight data, join and clean broken paths, and compress it down to a browser-ready file size. In order to make the plane simulation look natural, in many cases the team had to fix data and broken paths using spatial joins and filtering. This was a breaking news piece done within four days of receiving granular flight data. Creating an animation with an enormous bundle of data in a short time frame made the project truly innovative.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The project was widely shared with lots of positive feedback from people outside of the data visualization community, including in several forums. The project was voted by the public to the top of a popular forum site called Hacker News, where it spawned forum discussions about the safety of the test flights, the quality of the visualization itself, and prompted members of the public to take and post photos of grounded 737 Max sightings at their airport.
Source and methodology
Flightradar24, Planespotters.net, Federal Aviation Administration, OurAirports.com, the airlines, and Bloomberg reporting.
We used R Studio to filter a large collection of worldwide flight data and compile the data into a single sheet of US flights. Our interactive flight map was made using D3 and Canvas. We set up an animation engine using requestAnimationFrame and simulated planes flying by interpolating between lat/lon coordinates, altitude, and plane heading – the position and rotation data contributed to a “living” feel for the planes within the browser. For the flight trails we built a custom canvas renderer that would plot the path of each plane as they moved across the screen. We spent time crafting our own design so that it highlights the approaches taken by different airlines.
Dean Halford, Lauren Leatherby, David Ingold, Justin Bachman, Alex Tribou