Geography 970

April 4, 2010

tools for data visualizations

Filed under: Uncategorized — kjmcgrath @ 11:16 pm

This post relates to previous posts I’ve put up on the movement that is happening right now in visualizations of data through geography- i.e. a map, by people not normally connected to cartography or geography. There are a growing number of tools that work to help people to visualize their own data especially if they don’t have ability to do it themselves. This is a transition from individuals (graphic designers, computer scientests, statisticians,  cartographers, and many others  (those with know how or those that are willing to learn)) working on cartographic problems for themselves (often creating a maps/graphics  that often blazes across the blog-o-sphere like wildfire because people love graphics) seems to be moving to a paradigm where people without specialized knowledge visualize their own data. Tools are being created to help these inexperienced users create the visualizations of data without dealing with code or specialized programs and yet still produce graphics and maps that impart meaningful information to the user.

Tim touched upon one I think important  tool (Google Fusion Tables) that works to automatically to place an uploaded spreadsheet in geographic context if possible. It can also graph and visulize the tables in some nifty ways. Another is Geocommons Maker that has been out for a while ( And was worked on by people with the know how (some from this very department) to give users some basic cartographic tools to make maps.)

There are surely many others but the one that spurred this post comes from post I saw on FlowingData – InstantAtlas. While still focused on the map as the method for communicating information it provides other useful information about the data in the form of histograms, parallel coordinate plots, and other graphics that are great for digging into the data. Many good interactive maps have had this capability for some time, (e.g several of 575 projects, Zach Johnson’s Freedom Atlas comes to mind first). But these projects were often built with a story in mind rather than as a tool to give to someone to visualize their data. I have never used InsantAtlas and rarely use Maker or Google Fusion Tables but I think that these web services signal a move from a public which only consuming graphics to one where users are both creators and consumers.

I think products and tools like these will become more and more available and sophisticated (though still approachable) as the public becomes more map and data literate. When Google provides a service to a perceived problem there is likely something there. It is the job of statisticians, designers, and those with domain knowledge (yes even geographers, cartographers, and GISers) to point and create these tools so that the naive user will still have ability to draw upon the pethora of academic literature and research that has been done in each of those fields and produce a map or a graphic that shows the data and will hold up to scrutiny. These tools will make use of the huge amount of data on not only available on the web but also sitting on people’s hard drives. This move, while scary for those with domain knowledge, seems to be the way the world is rolling. In my opinion there is a place for these experts to help and become leaders in how the public consumes and creates graphics through the design of tools for data visualizations.


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