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Posted by on Mar 26, 2010

Flight Patterns as Teaching Tools: Visualizations painting a conceptual picture

I am a sort of educational parasite. There, I said it. I do not feel remorse or shame or anything of the sort about this. In fact, I revel in it. I immediately and reflexively try to appropriate anything and everything under the sun for educational purposes. Unfortunately, I am not smart enough to create these materials myself. I rely on other smarter people to do it. In this case, I am relying on Aaron Koblin and Celestial Mechanics.

With the advent of data visualizations and the sense of experimentation that surrounds them, appropriating things for learning became a whole lot easier. Although not designed specifically for learning purposes, visualizing data is what modern discovery and invention is all about. Craft a concept and let the community craft its own use.

I had posted before about using the New York City Subway Map as a tool for demonstrating the economic, political, and social growth of the city. Maps are learing constructs that can be employed to chart the growth of anything. In that case, the development of the different lines of the subway demonstrated the growth of the city as segments of the populations moved to Queens or Brooklyn or up to Harlem or the Bronx. Each line represents an economic, political, and social reality; each stop tells a story.

Perhaps that was too small a vision to have of learning.

Imagine viewing the world with an economic imprint, almost literally a carbon tatoo of the reaches of capitalism, diplomacy, culture, and vested interest. It is a living, breathing key to decipher the code of endless motion. If used properly, it is a sturdy learning and teaching tool. That is where Aaron Koblin and other intelligent people step in.

This first visualization is a 24 cycle of worldwide flight traffic. Besides the fact that it is absolutely hypnotizing, it paints a stark picture of influence and resource consumption. Immediately, one sees the differences in the hemisphere, in the North/South divide, in the motions and movement.

As a teacher, one could do some preliminary questioning and discussion on perceptions of influence. What is the busiest route in the world? How long does it take to fly from A to B? That sort of thing.

One could even pose a hypothetical as a learning exercise. I want to start a business in country A and country B. I will need to travel to both countries a minimum of 6 times a year to check on the development of this business. What are the costs of this travel both in terms of money and time? Students could use Kayak or some other service to compare routes, prices, and availability.

Further learning could be established by studying the flight patterns within a specific country. I am using the US as an example as these were the visualizations that were most readily available.

Flights patterns of the US as seen by Aaron Koblin. Retrieved from

What areas are overrepresented or underrepresented? Judging by this visualization alone, where are the areas of heaviest economic growth or activity?

This video is a time delay over a course of 24 hours. When we do we see the heaviest activity? When is the most activity entering and exiting the United States? Where are they going or coming from? What does this represent economically?

This one is fascinating as an exercise in boundaries and geographies. These are plotted points as opposed to a more fluid representation. At certain points in the day, one can literally see the United States reconstituting itself, the boundaries, the outline, the actual shape. In this instance, national boundaries are not just a political reality; they represent an economically measurable one.

Tell me that wouldn’t make a dynamic and interdisciplinary discussion. If you like these, please do visit the site and if you know of other visualizations of flight traffic please do let me know. I am especially interested in visualizing this for Africa and Asia (separately).

Aside from the educational value, don’t these visualizations inspire a bit of awe (and dread at our insatiable resource consumption)? Awe at the unlimited notion of humanity, pushing from here to there, a truly restless species. Some of it is curiosity (that desire to see what we haven’t seen, to know what we haven’t known), some of it is reflexive (this is what we do and have always done so we must keep doing it), and some of it is purely economically motivated. I get the sense, though, that we as humans are meant to roam, to wander, to not sit still. For better or for worse.

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