Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gapminder and GA Conference 2011

So at the GA Conference last weekend the most interesting thing for me was Hans Rosling and Gapminder. Hans's talk was excellent, as he was addressing a set of Geography teachers he went into more depth about some map design characteristics of the Gapminder World. If you haven't come across it I recommend you give it 4.5 minutes of your time by watching this video

Thematic Maps: Gapminder started out visualising the data with a standard thematic map of the world which they colored to show changing variables like rise in GDP. Hans said they soon rejected that as countries with big areas such as Australia dominate the view visually. That's a clever insight IMHO.

Map with Symbols: So they tried circle symbols and varied their sizes. This was better but a change in size isn't as visually arresting as movement. Hans's smart phrase was : 'movement has a direct highway to the brain'. So they ended up with their famous graph visualisation and a map tab you can click to see a map presentation. I think the key point about the data presentation is that country location isn't that important, all you really need to know is which continent a country is in. This means the map can be ditched in favour of a graph plot which brings with it the advantages of movement and the ability to draw tracks.

I couldn't help thinking that Hans the statistician seems to know more about good graphical and map design than a lot of GeoWeb developers and GIS specialists I know.

Happy Easter Break!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

GA Conference 2011 - Links and Slides

I had a great time at the GA conference last week, I gave two workshops on using Google Earth in education. Lots of people thought the sessions should be longer and asked for links to the materials. These are the slides from the Introductory session (you'll need a Google account if you haven't already got one). They include:
  • Links to the first 3 lessons as presented in the session
  • A Link to video versions of the other 5 lessons
  • Links to the files I used to illustrate the Case Studies
These are the Advanced Session Slides. They include:
  • More Case Studies of use
I'll write up some thoughts on the conference later.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

7 Foot White Elephant: When Globes Fail

Negative Reviews: Observant readers of this blog may have noticed I've stopped doing reviews of Google Earth projects recently. They took a lot of time and I'd always get a defensive response from the authors which isn't any use in starting dialogue and discussion about map/Virtual Globe design. However, someone actively promoting bad techniques of geo-visualization in a keynote presentation deserves a rebuttle so here's some thoughts on Julia Grace's keynote from Web 2.0 Expo NY 2010:

At 2.29 she shows a graphic with static, old style pie, line and bar charts:

"whenever I see these sorts of charts, something inside of me dies. The bottom line is that we can do better than this"

Simple is Best: Well yes, sometimes a highly interactive graphic is a great answer to a communication problem but a lot of the time simple non-interactive graphics are better. Perfect example, David MaCandlass's graphic of scare stories with time. Its well produced but at its heart it's a simple line graph:

At 5.34 into her keynote I end up agreeing with Julia for a while. She name checks the interactive NYT Oil spill map as being an excellent visualisation. I agree with her on that, its a great use of an interactive map tools to help the user understand the spill.

Map on a Globe: At 6.06 she then discusses a 2D map of IBM offices she had to use, she thought it sucked because of map distortion, her solution? Go out and buy a 7 foot globe and project the map onto that (an image comes up at 6.39). Apparently the globe was so large it wouldn't go through the door of their offices.

The Problem with the Globe: The problem she thinks she's solved is an ancient one: you can't represent the earth's surface on a flat surface without distorting the map in some way. However, although the globe solution she's promoting does solve the distortion it has an even more important flaw: now you can't see all the offices at the same time because they're on different sides of the globe. Even if the globe was the best solution, what's so wrong with a virtual globe on an iPad? A whole lot cheaper and much, much easier to get through doors.

When High Tech is not Cool: But what I really object to in this talk is the tone. Simple visualisations are likened to 'Tron', old, flat and outmoded whereas 'Minority Report' visualisations are cool, 3D and the shape of things to come. Of course this isn't true, the best data visualisation solution is defined primarily by the audience you're addressing and sometimes simple is best. You'll notice she never mentions users and usability.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Investigation into Placemark Clustering

First of all I'll start by making a point by considering a couple of examples of the development of everyday technologies:

College Dropout changes Computer text: The text you're reading on screen would be very different were it not for the actions of a student dropout. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed college but, because it interested him, still attended a class in calligraphy. The techniques he learnt, about elegant letter spacing and formats, were later applied to the Mac and from there were copied by windows. We've all benefited from Steve's nerdy love of text.

Spam Email didn't have to exist: Email was invented early in the history of the internet but because everyone then knew each other by name, no one bothered to produce code in email programs that checked the ID of senders. We all suffer because this didn't happen, the internet is swamped by spam email traffic that could have been avoided. Google Wave was an attempt to get us all off email to avoid this sort of problem, it didn't take off despite having the promotional weight of Google behind it.

Get Technology right early on: My point is that its incredibly important to try and get early technology right otherwise you may never be able to correct it. One of the issues I see like this in web mapping is the clustering of points, if we get it wrong now we may never be able to undo it and we will end up using sub optimal visualisation techniques just because we've always done it.

Clustering Placemarks: Previously I've written about the problem, placemarks need clustering because at a certain density of points it is becomes impossible to pick individual points out. IMHO some of the ways of visualising these are poorly designed e.g. clustering placemarks into 'blobs' with numbers.

It may be that numbered blobs work as a way of clustering placemarks - maybe users immediatly get the concept of a large blob being a cluster and that outweighs other problems I've identified. But what worries me is that this technique is all over the place in web maps and no one has actually done any user testing to show that its effective.

Enter my new MSc student Craig who's doing his project on this map visualisation. By doing a series of user tests we hope to answer the questions:

* Does blob clustering work compared with other techniques?
* If not, can we adapt it so it does?

Wider Point: This isn't the only example of a technique that is being widely used in web maps without being user tested (anyone for 3D thematic maps?) so I think Craig's work will also be important in promoting the more general idea that we need usability testing in web maps. At the moment I think web programmers are applying these untested techniques because they think the look flash and/or they are easy to apply because the software needed is readily available.