Masking Up – The Data Science Way

A mask with an image of Charles Minard

Charles Minard and his flow map of European imports

Masking up during COVID-19 has been the responsible thing to do and a staple of the past year. Even with the availability of a vaccine, the virus will continue to be a presence. Wearing a mask makes a statement that you are looking out for your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Masks also make a statement about you. They do not have to lack style. They can reflect your personality, interests, and causes. You can easily design your own masks and have them custom printed for your everyday use or as holiday gifts. 

My DIY project, “Legends of Data Visualization,” featured Joseph Priestly (A New Chart of History, 1769), John Snow (Broad Street Cholera Map, 1850); Florence Nightingale (Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the ARMY in the EAST, 1858), and Charles Minard (CARTE figurative et approximative de Coton et laine importees en Europe en 1858 et en 1861, 1862). The maps and charts represent a significant contribution to data visualization: Priestly’s timeline, Snow’s disease map, Nightingale’s coxcomb diagram, and Minard’s flow map

An image with three masks, each has a picture of a different historical figure

From left to right, John Snow, Florence Nightingale, and Joseph Priestly

Each mask contains two images: a portrait of the historical figure and an image of the famous visualization. The portrait was converted to a grayscale image and centered on the mask. This reflected the historical nature of the individual. The background image was left in the original colors and filled the mask background. This reflected the vibrancy and importance of their work today. Images were copyright-free.

Creating each design was a simple process that started by assembling the images. Relatively high-resolution images were required for successful printing. First, an image of the individual was located on the Internet and downloaded. The images were processed using GIMP, an open source alternative to Adobe Photoshop

The image was cropped so that only the head of the individual remained and the background was removed. The image was exported as a transparent PNG so the head would be visible while the remaining part of the image would show the background.

Next, the map or chart image of the background was identified and downloaded. The image was cropped to an area that showed the detail of the map and covered the entire mask. This image was also exported as a transparent PNG image. 

Once all the images were ready, it was time to design the mask. I did an unscientific study looking for a mask printer with the capability to: produce masks in small numbers, print high resolution images in full color, print over the full extent of the mask, create different size cloth masks, and provide service at a relatively low cost. I ended up selecting Bags of Love. For $36.49, they would print and ship four custom designed masks. Each mask could have a different design and be a different size. 

The Bags of Love website includes an application that allows you to design your mask. I uploaded the cropped portrait and background image and centered them on the mask outline. This gave me a good idea of the appearance of the final mask. Also, the application provided helpful guidance if the image did not fully cover the mask or was too low resolution.

The design process let me add small touches that most will not notice, but which add meaning to the mask. For example, the John Snow mask placed the Broad Street pump right next to Snow’s face. The pump was the source of the cholera epidemic and the key to Snow’s findings.

Overall, the project was a success. The masks met the criteria, were easy to design, fit well, and survived a number of washings with the colors intact. They are among my favorite masks to wear and each one tells a story. What will your design be?



Bags of Love website.

Public domain maps that are available for download and can be used in your design.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Current US-TOPO maps

USGS Historical Topographic Map Data

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Current Nautical Chart Data

NOAA Historical Map & Chart Collection

Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, includes a variety of historical maps, including Sanborn Insurance Maps

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