A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths

This simulation gives an eerily omniscient vantage on the world as it fills.

In 1950, there were 2.5 billion humans. Today there are just over 7 billion. In another 30 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, there will be more than 9 billion.

Brad Lyon has a doctoral degree in mathematics and does software development. He wanted to make those numbers visual. Last year he and designer Bill Snebold made a hugely popular interactive simulation map of births and deaths in the U.S. alone—the population of which is on pace to increase 44 percent by 2050. Now, Lyon takes on the world.

"This one for world births/deaths is certainly more overwhelming than the one for the U.S.," Lyon told me, "and the rate at which they must be occurring gives another glimpse into how big the world is."

That is to say, watch this and everything you're worried about today becomes nothing. That's a healthy perspective, to a degree.

"What got me interested initially," Lyon said, "was simply curiosity about what the pattern of births and deaths might be like, based on the current rates, coupled with the desire to learn more about some of the newer technologies for the web."

In this case, that technology is primarily d3.js, a javascript library by New York Times graphics editor Michael Bostock. A larger version is on this Google Drive, and there is also a Chrome extension.

"The visualizations here, while pulling together some numbers," Lyon said, "are still qualitative because we of course don't know what the pattern is really like. However, we do know where the numbers end up, so they must get there somehow."

Last year I wrote about the U.S. map, and included my hopes that someone would make a TV show based on it. Briefly: A tormented protagonist has access to a real version of this map one day ahead of the actual deaths taking place. Only she can see it. The map gives specific names and locations. She can try and stop the deaths, and in so doing is faced with cliff-hanging decisions. (An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who died on the map. She can pull a lever that diverts the train to a track where it will instead kill one person. Does she pull it? Tune in next week.) It would be called The Mapkeeper. By season three, she is so distraught and overburdened that she can barely bring herself to look at the map. She decides to spend more time with her family and take up hobbies. This is still on the table, Hollywood.


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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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