Missing People Map

Sometime around middle to late November of 2019, I started getting tagged in posts on Reddit and Facebook where a map purported to show a correlation between missing person cases and caves. The two maps in question were of terrible quality in both content and image quality (so very much JPG compression). Somehow these maps managed to capture the public's attention for several weeks. In fact, more than two months later I am still being asked questions about the map.

What follows is a critical analysis of the maps from both a cartographer's perspective, as well as a caver's.


Where did each image come from that comprised the map?

The top image is titled "North America Cluster Map" and is produced by the Canam Missing Project / Missing 411. I cannot comment on the methods used to produce the map since they aren't stated. For this reason I am immediately suspect that this is conveying real information. I'll touch on why the form of this map isn't correct later in Cartographic Analysis. Link to a higher resolution map here.

The bottom image was seemingly produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife as a support image for the webpage here. Some of their methods can be inferred by the documentation on the associated website. However, there are still design flaws that I will cover later.

What was the person thinking that put the two images together?

The meme originally seemed to pick up credibility when on October 28th it was posted to the Reddit forum r/Missing411 here: Do these images look similar? The top is a map of Missing 411 cases. The bottom is a map of America’s cave systems. Caves seem to play an interesting roll in some of these disappearances. The Mammoth Cave system in particular had caught my interest.

It was posted to r/MapPorn on November 15th here: Since I love true crime and cole cases- wow! where it picked up more credibility.

(You've got to love the titles of Reddit posts. Reddit user michaeljoemcc cleverly comments, "Slaw and Order: Cole Cases.")

This wasn't the first appearance of the meme however. In the comments of the r/MapPorn post Reddit user plural_of_nemesis identifies the original post with this comment, as well as points out some problems with the map:

Notice we can't see the key on the top map?
The missing people are represented by the large orange dots in the top map, and it only includes people that have gone missing from national parks.
Edit: I found the original source of that top map. Black dots are literally just the location of caves. That's why they correlate so perfectly with the location of caves in the second map.
(link marked "b" in this thread) https://www.reddit.com/r/reptiliandata/comments/4ecdxs/maps_do_map_of_vaccine_makers_tv_stations_caves
Source: u/plural_of_nemesis
Further commentary by u/BRENNEJM notes that "The original top map doesn’t even have the black parts on it." This certainly hints that the top map was modified with data from the bottom map. With the top map lacking a key anyone could be expected to assume every black dot on the top map is a missing person case, when in fact, it's cave locations from the bottom map.

Cartographic Analysis

Mixing elements without a key or proper labels is a pretty serious flaw in the map design. This is just another strong example of why people shouldn't get information from memes.

If a student turned this map into me as a project they had worked on, I would reject it entirely for the following reasons:

1) Too much JPG. The image format JPG is a lossy data format. What that means is that you can compress the image for a minor loss in quality. As I process photographs I can choose to make the file size smaller by increasing compression, and for the most part no one will ever notice the difference. However, repeatedly opening and re-saving a JPG will result in increasing JPG artifacts.

Here is a funny example of too much JPG compression.

2) Cannot be read. None of the data labels, none of the legend items, nothing on the map can be read. What even are the colors on the top map trying to show us? How much information do you think anything can share if you cannot read what it is attempting to say? This is the result of the previously mentioned JPG compression, but is itself an entirely different flaw.

3) Improper Symbolization. Point data should only be used to symbolize infrequent data. In other words, hundreds of points on a map doesn't correctly convey density. Compare and contrast the following two maps I have made.

This map of Tennessee Caves uses a heat map to show densities of features. This is advantageous for a few reasons. At this scale a map of caves would look like a mess of points and would obscure most other map elements. Many points would be overlapping to the point where it generally seemed like a large blob. Points are inappropriate here and either a heat map or a choropleth map would work.

Tennessee Cave Distribution Map, data 2018 (11x17)

This map shows locations of Comb Graves. At the request of the author we left the point data in tact, despite my objections. Note that at the scale the map is produced at there are plenty of overlapping points and the overall design is very busy. Compare with the above map. Which better conveys information?

The Tennessee Comb Grave Tradition - Figure 1 color variant

4) Where did they even get the data? As someone who has been caving for more than a decade and making state level density maps for a a few years, I would really like to know where their cave data came from. I have high level contacts across the United States and am generally a respected caver and I had to plea, debate, beg, sign contracts, and kiss butt to get the data for the handful of states I've managed to map (read more here: The Origins of Data, and the Future of State Cave Surveys).

The data on the bottom map doesn't match old public datasets on caves, like the GNIS data (which has since retired collecting cave entrance location data). It vaguely matches my data (which is likely the most complete cave entrance location collection within the USA). It best seems to match polygon data of karst areas provided by the USGS. But again I wonder where the points came from?

5) Where is the analysis? There are tools in modern GIS packages to compare datasets. Why can we not make an empirical analysis of the data and provide that?

6) Methods? The data on methods from the original post are suspect. The best guess I can make is they used Photoshop to layer the data.

7) Conclusions. Given the vast number of flaws found in this meme it is clear that it doesn't represent what it claims to represent. Can we stop sharing it now?


The Patient

Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee

We cavers get pretty emotional about rescues. The kind of emotional that finds a group of 40 people from at least three different states happily atop a windy and frigid mountain in White County at night in the dead of winter. We are busy with tasks. Rope must be rigged. Paths must be cleared. We must be trained on how to use a haul system.

Inside the cave people are shaving rocks to widen the passage. Cavers are placing bolts to assist with moving the patient. A medic has rappelled and climbed to him and administers medication to ease the pain. Hand warmers are placed on him. He is cold from having been underground, and unable to move for so long. He hurts and is weary, but he holds a deep strength that all here know and admire.

Here is a place where normal people become heroes. Normal people learn the complex art of cave and cliff rescue and apply that to help their fellow humans. Normal people volunteer their time to their local rescue group.

We wait for the order “Slow haul!” and hand over hand two teams pull the lines a man’s life hangs by. It is a process, with many steps to bring an injured person to the surface. We work and we wait. People within the cave are communicating messages to us about what we need to do.

Sometime around 3:30am the patient emerges from the cave. He is pale, but doing well despite the ordeal he has endured. I shout "We love you!" from above and see him crack a smile. Soon he is on the back of a side-by-side and on his way down the mountain. Cold and tired we pack up and find our way down to our cars. There must be a hundred people here.

Humans are capable of such beauty and wonder. If you ever doubt your fellow man, come to a cave rescue. Tonight a team of humans saved a life. I can’t think of anything more amazing than that.

Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee


Waterfalls Maps of Tennessee

Waterfalls of Tennessee - Density

This density map is more revealing in the pattern of waterfalls on the landscape then the next map. This seems to reveal considerable sampling bias with major hotspots associated with public lands like the Big South Fork NRRA and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While this is to be expected, any dataset should be looking at itself closely and considering where its weaknesses are. Many folks contribute to the webpage Tennessee Landforms, myself included. I know my own personal bias tends towards the Upper Cumberland region where I live and work. Other waterfall hounds have their favored stomping grounds as well. Perhaps this should just be a reminder to occasionally get out of your comfort zone.

Waterfalls of Tennessee - Height

The data of this map is notably more difficult to interpret. I was attempting to see if spatial patterns for waterfall height were obvious. The first problem is figuring out how tall a waterfall is. By my measurement one may be 100' and by yours it may only be 30'. There are plenty of ways to see how this may lead to a dataset with inconsistent data. Further, there are waterfalls with no height data. This map captures mean height, the standard deviation of height (small dots show little variability, large dots a lot), and finally the number of waterfalls without height data, all by the same unit, a 500 square mile hexagon.


Secret Cave

Secret Cave lies on the Albert and Ethel Ogden Nature Preserve. It is owned by the National Speleological Society, and managed by a team of members including myself.

Ashley Williams, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 1 Megan Atkinson, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2 Ashley Williams, Warren Wyatt, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2 Rami Ayoub, Clinton Elmore, Secret Cave, Putnam Co, TN Laura Casey, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2


Capshaw Cave

Evan Hart, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2

Much of Capshaw Cave looks like the above image; subway tunnel passages following meanders of a cold underground river. The floor of the cave is generally gravel, sometimes clean washed and scalloped limestone, sometimes tires and trash. The urban nature of the cave has left it largely devoid of the kind of life one would expect to find in a wet cave of this size. You will find no cave crayfish, no southern cave fish, and no bat species that call Capshaw Cave home.

Today I am assisting TTU geology professor Evan Hart with data collection in the cave. Banks of sediment left behind from floods tell stories to those who listen. Evan's tools include a shovel, plastic siding, toilet paper, and tape. With the "U" shaped plastic siding he removes cross sections of sediment. Looking at the cut he dug with the shovel it's clear there is a story. Finely laminated alternating beds of sand and silt seem to show periods of higher energy and lower energy. The bigger story will require more work.

Evan Hart, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 3

"More," Evan says as I hand him another wad of toilet paper. He packs it atop the soil sample to preserve its structure. When we've packed it in, it then gets wrapped in tape, labeled, and stored in his backpack to be taken from the cave. The technique of preserving stratigraphic sections was something he learned from a recent correspondence with archaeologist Sarah Sherwood at the University of the South. She applies it towards rock shelters that Native Americans once inhabited. Here, we are looking at the history of water in this part of Cookeville.

While Evan works on preparing his samples, I take my photography team and wander a short distance to take a few photos. I know I can take a photo, turn 180 degrees and take another photo and for my audience it may as well be miles apart from the previous shot. It's a truth that all caves look the same, but caves all also look different. I don't know if I can explain that, sometimes it is best to let the photos do the talking.

Annabelle Dempsey, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 1

We are moving again. I'm trying to keep up with long-legged Evan whose strides seem to cut the water. My boots, while being great at protecting my feet in a cave environment, are both naturally heavy, and are currently filled with water. One of us is a dancer, the other is a snow plow. We never go far between places to take photos or samples though.

In moments I'm barking orders to my photo team. "Luke, grab two flashes." "Annabelle, stand over by my finger's shadow" as I wiggle a finger in front of my headlamp to show her where to go. Communication is difficult in cave photography. Lots of things need to happen, and if they don't happen quickly morale fails and folks get bored of working with me. In a wet cave this issue is compounded. Every moment we're stopped we're not generating heat to offset the cooling effect of the 55 degree water we're standing in. Despite this, I coax Luke into wading chest deep into the creek for a photo. A flash fired down into the water produces an pleasing blue glow around the subject. "That looks great. Pack it up," I say. Sometimes I'll make "wow" sounds and invite them over to see the finished product. Generally I let it ride. In a few days they will see themselves on Facebook.

A few more sites for sediment and photo collection and we find ourselves making the free climb through a waterfall, and then out of the cave. We emerge, wet and cold into the frigid winter air.