June 7, 2017

Maps, can they be more interesting than my geography lessons?

By Paul Laughlin

To add further diversity of voices to our Data Visualisation topic this month, a guest blog post on maps.

Guest blogger Tony Boobier, joins us again, with a short piece musing on his geography lessons and the growing importance of mapping.

Given I’ve just finished teaching a workshop, including options on data visualisation for geo-spatial data, it was amusing to read Tony’s thoughts.

Hope you find this an entertaining distraction too. Over to Tony & memories of Geography teachers a long long time ago…

Back when Tony was a lad, maps of yesteryear

I studied geography at school (which in fairness was a long time ago). At that time, it seemed that most of the content was about the extent of the ‘Once-Empire’ and colouring in maps. On reflection it wasn’t very inspiring.

Somewhat surprisingly my son went on to study geography (and Chinese, as it happens) at Nottingham. Over a beer one evening I asked him ‘why?’, and he explained to me what geography and maps were really about. It was a real case of the son teaching the father, and set me on a new pathway not only towards understanding the power of location analytics, but also how critical is the topic of effective visualisations.

The importance of location and the need for maps

You see – ‘Everything and everyone is somewhere’. And this simple concept is most effectively represented in an effective graphic or ‘map’. Think about it. A map represents geographical features like mountains, rivers and valleys – but equally is effective reflecting demographics, store locations, customer heatmaps, optimal footfalls, and so on. It is the most simple visualisation of extremely complex issues.

Give me almost any data, and I can place a location component against it. Where the customers are, where the costs are being incurred, where my best sales are, where might be the greatest risk.

Looking forward, think ‘Robotics’ or ‘AI’ and you have to accept that even these inevitably have a geographic (or location) component.

Location analysts coming out of the mapping closet

The role of the location analyst has historically been in the ‘back room’ – but is increasingly and rapidly finding its way onto the front line. It’s putting new pressure and value on a relatively hidden profession, but also opening new career paths for those willing to step forward.

There are even specialist places for innovation in geographic visualisations – the ‘Geovation Hub’ in London, sponsored by Ordnance Survey for example explores bi-directional location analytics, better visualisations and a whole new set of essential capabilities that emerge. All of a sudden, ‘location’ is moving from the back room into being a front and centre profession. Data visualisation in the form of mapping is one of the most effective reflections of this new age of analytics.

Data Visualisation matters for the future

We are increasingly understanding the importance of better visualisation in converting complex information into digestible content, through better visualisations, often in the form of mapping. It’s no longer about geography and colouring in ‘flat’ mapping graphics but about bi-directional location analytics, in a dynamic environment.

I think back to my own education. Now, why now would I not want to study geography? What a difference four decades has made. Phew.

Other points to consider

Thanks to Tony for those amusing reflections. I certainly agree with the relevance and importance of maps for visualising geo-spatial data.

Just one caveat I would offer, is that position on your visualisation (x-y coordinates or location on a map) is the most salient visual channel you can use to communicate a data attribute. So, it should be used for the most important attribute you are seeking to convey (to help your reader make the right decision etc).

If the most important attribute is location, then by all means use an engaging map visualisation. However, if it is not, the by using a map you are giving up your primary visual channel and limiting yourself to alternatives like use of dots/colour/size etc.

Always think through what your visualisation needs to convey. Like the wiser analytics it communicates, the goal should be knowledge gain (about a key business problem or action needed).

Where maps can help you on that journey, excuse the pun, then by all means adopt them as enthusiastically the geo-converted Tony.