Why did Bomb Sight go viral?

On Monday, the Bomb Sight team had a debrief and a very large cup of coffee each. We took the opportunity to discuss why we thought the project went viral with the help of different social media, our official press release had not gone out and we do not have anyone working PR. No one in the team has experienced this type of phenomena before. We asked JISC, our funders,  and the Press Office at the University of Portsmouth and they too had not had a project become an overnight interest to the media with such fervour. Do you know of any other small academic mapping projects that have gone viral?

When the project went live we quietly launched with just a few tweets to our followers and then on Wednesday 5th December the buzz around the project really picked up. I was contacted that evening by a Reuter’s journalist who I will be doing an interview for – he was the first journalist to contact me. I asked him today how he found out about the project and it was via Facebook. So perhaps people started to share links via the Addthis facility on the website?

So the question remains how did such a small project become such an internet phenomena (with more than 1.8 million page views)? We think there are a number of reasons ranging from both technical and human in nature.


A good interface that is both useful and usable interface

As academics myself and Patrick are interested in usability – how can you develop useful and usable mapping applications.  Good interfaces need to be easy to learn,  have functionality that is  easy to remember, does not take too long to complete tasks, has low error rate and finally the interface must leave the users feeling satisfied. We tried to follow some basic principles of usability engineering, using the following methods:

  • Developed user stories
  • Created wireframes
  • User testing the wireframes
  • Created a prototype
  • Extensive user testing using set tasks and think aloud techniques

The result, we believe, is an interface that is intuitive and easy to use by a wide variety of users – many who are unfamiliar with Geographical Information Science (GIS) as a discipline but are familiar with mapping applications such as Google Maps.

Cartographic impact 

We tried to design the interface to consider some basic rules of cartography  to engage the emotion, to create a visual hierarchy and to ensure simplicity.

The map is the most important feature of the interface.  We made it as large as possible so it takes priority.

We tried to make sure that at whatever zoom level the data had visual impact. We did struggle with the cartographic design of the smaller scale  – where the user is zoomed out to view all of London. The current visualisation we thought, as experts, looked a little messy but during user testing users said that sheer quantity of red dots had a powerful visual impact. So whilst this visual may look crowded it successfully engages an emotional response in the user.

bbc screenshotThe zoomed out image seems to be the one that has been most commonly used by the media when reporting on the project. It has created a considerable impact. Described by the BBC as the “Circle of Fire”

We actually originally had a clustering algorithm functioning on our prototype which as the user zoomed out to a smaller scale, the display would cluster the data together to create a graduated symbol map with larger circles showing greater counts of bombs.  Once we had digitally captured all the 31,000+ bombs for the region 5 area and integrated the point data into our interface, we soon realised that client side processing of the clustering algorithm would be unsustainable. This is because our users vary from academics, students, and citizen researchers. Thus we could not be sure our users have the latest high spec laptops that could process such a large dataset and people stop using the interface if it takes to long to carry out tasks. Therefore, we had to choose a more simple method of displaying the data – that could then be created into a tileset. This decision represented a choice between cartography (methods of generalisation) and usability engineering: ensuring users did not have to wait more than a second to zoom into the next cartographic layer.

Our use of colour – using the read circles to mark the location of falling bombs and the red icons when the user is zoomed in. Emphasises the visual impact of the display. Red is the colour our eye is drawn to first so by colouring the bombs red we ensure they are the most important piece of information on the map.  At some point we did have purple icons – but this is really less effective.

The design of our interface

When designing our interface we wanted a design that was serious and simple. That was neutral in styling and apolitical. It was important to us that the subject matter of the data would be presented in a way that was reverential to the horror of war.


Users were interested to look up locations that are significant to them and explore what happened at a particular point in history. Enabling people to enquire about their local neighbourhoods and engage with local history and explore how neighbourhoods have developed.

For certain generations the war is far enough away in time that it is difficult to imagine but close enough to be personally relevant and interesting .

Therefore the website is able to bring archives data into the present day – increasing accessibility to fascinating data and widening participation by bringing old data to life through the merger of geography, history and technology.

The inclusion of memories and photographs adds meaning to the points on the map – presenting an enriched view of a particular point in history. Therefore the combination of qualitative data with quantitative data combined together created a powerful view of local environments.

Do you have any thoughts on why the website went viral?

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