Data Graphics

Snowden Route Maps

Compendium of not-great maps produced by the media showing the alleged route that data leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have taken around the world. Thanks to Spatial Analysis for tipping me off with the Guardian’s effort and seeding the idea for this blog post.


Apparently the route from Hawaii to Hong Kong goes via Brazil and Madagascar. The map’s filename includes “v2-final” indicating this is not a first draft. The labels variously show the city, the state, the country, or sometimes a combination.

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 17.21.48

Better, although uses fake (but incorrect) Great Circle curves.

The Guardian:
Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 15.04.27

Google Maps?!

Business Insider:

Google Maps!

Daily Mail:

The long way around to Hong Kong. Includes nice shadow effect showing that the curve is simply due to the height of the plane above the ground – the further you go the higher you fly!

Here’s how to do it – use Great Circle Mapper:

Great Circle Mapper is Copyright © 1996-2013 Karl L. Swartz. All rights reserved.

(N.B. Some long-distance air routes use jetstreams rather than Great Circle approximations, as this is more efficient in terms of fuel/speed, even if the journey is further.)

7 replies on “Snowden Route Maps”

Interesting to see that shortest route from Moscow to Havana passes over US mainland – demonstrates that getting this right is not jst a matter of cosmetics

I think great circle accuracy here is a bit of a red herring primarily of interest to us mapping nerds, as you say aircraft rarely travel by those routes.

I think the BBC map best nails the important information here. I suggest that the key considerations for this graphic are 1. Clear ordered labeling 2. correct direction of travel 3. unobtrusive background map 4. unbroken route (though corrected in snowglobes comment) 5. differentiate visually between flights that were taken and those that were not (or may not have been at time of publication).

I think the proposed solution fails on four of these five points: The route across the Atlantic is broken, the direction of travel is not specified, the dark satellite map is too strong – overwhelming the thin red line and there is no way to tell which flights Snowden took and which he didn’t.

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