Maps To Tell a Story

The Boylan Heights neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina - Click through to get to Google Map

In his recent Software & Systems Modeling1 article ‘What makes a good process model?’, Wil van der Aalst uses lessons learned from process mining to identify seven problems in process modelling.

The first problem he mentions is Aiming for one model that suits all purposes. We process mining folks know that you can take multiple views on the same process and Wil draws a parallel to maps, which are created on different levels of abstraction and for different purposes.2

I recently came across the work of Denis Wood, a geographer and artist who has taken the creation of maps for different purposes to the extreme.

In 1974, he began teaching environmental perception at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, USA, and together with his students he ended up mapping out Raleigh’s neighborhood Boylan Heights (see map above) in many different - and pretty amazing - ways.

When you look at the different maps, all reflecting Boylan Heights but focusing on unusual aspects such as sound, street lights and Halloween pumpkins, you start to get a sense of that neighbourhood. The shape of the underlying geographic map starts looking familiar and a story puts itself together from the individual pieces.

All maps are by Denis Wood and at the bottom of this post you find further links to articles about Denis and to his book. Enjoy.

Streets and Traffic

The Car Space map shows you the curved-shaped streets of the neighborhood but also all the little alleys and less formal car spaces such as the driveways.

Car Space Map (click to enlarge)

The Traffic across these streets is very unevenly distributed.

Traffic Map

And this map shows just the Traffic Signs (the actual signs) at their respective positions, nothing else. As you can see, most of the signs are at places, where people just pass through.

Sign Map (click to enlarge)


The Underground map shows the gas, water, and sewer systems beneath Boylan Heights.

Underground Map (click to enlarge)

The Lines Overhead map, in turn, has the overhead cables such as for electricity or telephone mapped out.

Lines Overhead Map


The Jack-o-langern map is a map of pumpkins at Halloween, whereas just the face of the pumpkin is projected on the map itself.

Pumpkin Map

The Mentions in the Newsletter map provides another view on the social geography of the neighborhood. You may notice that the areas with the most frequent mentions match up nicely with the pumpkin map.

Newsletter Prominence

In the Police calls map you see codes for the different types of calls that were made to 911 over a six month’s period.

The size of the number denotes the frequency at that location of that type of call. For example, a 17 is a motor vehicle accident and a 16 is a vehicle blocking the flow of traffic. There are a lot of 16s and 17s at one particular intersection (compare that with the traffic map).

Furthermore, numerous calls reporting disturbances were made from all over Boylan Heights. According to Denis Wood, these are quite high numbers, given the low crime rate, and show a reluctance to knock on the neighbors’ doors to complain.

Police calls

A part of Absentee Landlords visualizes the rent money paid to owners living elsewhere in the city. The length of the line shows the distance the rent traveled, the thickness the number of properties owned.

Rent money paid to owners living elsewhere in the city


The Fences map shows the type of fence at each house in the neighborhood. It’s an open neighborhood with few front yards fenced. The mansion with the highest newsletter mentions seems the have the biggest fence.


The Graffiti map records the location and content of each graffiti on the side walk (made in wet concrete).

Sidewalk Graffiti (click to enlarge)


For the Stars map they lay down in the middle of the intersection of Boylan Avenue and Dupont Circle and looked up the sky to map the stars as they spread themselves over the neighborhood. They used a magnetic compass and later improved their plotting using an atlas of star positions.

Stars Map

The Street Light map is a map of the locations of the street lights, whereas - just like the pumpkins - not an abstract position marker but the actual street light is depicted.

Street Light Map

With the Light at Night map they went even further and not just recorded the position of the light sources but measured the actual light levels at night with a light meter. Denis then made a light contour map from it for one block on Cutler Street (see below). Straight lines are house facades, and the small rings are porch lights.

Light at Night on Cutler Street


The Mailman map shows the delivery route of the mailman.

Mailman Map

The Bus Ballet map shows six bus routes passing through the neighborhood between 3:00 and 3:20 on a weekday afternoon, with the time rising vertically.

Bus Lines Map


The Shotgun, Bungalow, Mission does not show a 3D view of the houses but is a representation of how close each house is to the traditional style of a white, wooden one-story house on a red brick foundation with a front porch and wooden railing. The taller on the map, the more typical the house is.

House types in the neighborhood

Similarly, the Porch Ceiling Colors shows that in 1982 most porch ceilings were white. When your ceiling wasnt white, people noticed. To get a sense of how houses look like today, you can wander around a little bit with Google street view.

Porch Ceiling Colors


In the Footprints map the neighborhood is shown in the larger context of the city. It’s an ichnographic city plan, which is a ground plan of all the buildings. One can nicely see that Boylan Heights consist of mostly one-family houses and that there is much open space in Raleigh.

Ichnographic city map

The Boylan’s Hill map shows a landform relief representation of the hight levels. Depending from which side you approach the neighborhood, you get a different idea of “how much on a hill” Boylan Heights really sits.



The Views from street level map shows what of the rest of the city can be seen from any location in Boylan Heights. Views northward are blocked by nearby buildings and trees, except along the sightline opened by the railroad cut; views southward are obstructed by Dix Hill.


The Study for Viewsheds shows the basis of the map above. To make the map, Wood stood at each intersection and mapped what he could see onto sheets of tracing paper laid over a USGS topographic map.

Study for Viewsheds


Barking Dogs were recorded while following the route of the mailman (see above).

Barking dogs

The Wind Chimes map visualizes the sounds of the wind in the neighborhood. Denis Wood writes:

When we did the house types survey, we also paid attention to the presence of wind chimes. They were all overbamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Wind Chimes

The Radio Waves shows the radio wave fronts passing through the neighborhood, silently, unfelt, and unnoticed, unless tuned into.

Radio waves

Read more

If you want to read more about Denis Wood and his maps, here are a few links to start:

The second edition of Denis Wood’s book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas will be published in May 2013. You can pre-order here (not an affiliate link).

I don’t know how you feel about it, but I got the sense that I know the Boylan Heights a little bit by now.

Which map do you like best? Let us know in the comments.

  1. You can find the original Springer publication here↩︎

  2. In his PhD, most of all the Fuzzy mining paper, Christian was pioneering the use of maps as a metaphor for guiding model simplification in process mining. ↩︎

Anne Rozinat

Anne Rozinat

Market, customers, and everything else

Anne knows how to mine a process like no other. She has conducted a large number of process mining projects with companies such as Philips Healthcare, Océ, ASML, Philips Consumer Lifestyle, and many others.