Tag Archives: Antz

Beyond the Dot: Building Visual DNA for Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping is often referred to as dots on a map. Perhaps the time has come to move beyond the dot. After all, what’s in a dot? A heck of a lot, as it turns out. When we add data to a map using a dot, we are collapsing important attributes and multiple dimensions into just one single dimension. This reduces entropy but information as well. Of course, simplification is important but this should be optional and not hard-wired in the form of static dot on a map. This is why I’m a big fan of GeoTime, i.e., 3D immersive mapping, which unpacks the temporal dimension by adding a Z-axis to dynamic crisis maps, i.e.,  time “flows upwards.”

This is a definite improvement in that the GeoTime map gives a more immediate at-a-glance understanding by uncollapsing dots into more dimensions and attributes. The icons still “hide” additional information, however. So how do we unpack as many attributes and dimensions as possible? How do we visualize the underlying DNA of a dot on a crisis map? I recently spoke to a colleague who may have an answer, which looks something like this:

And this:

No longer dots on map. Here, the geometric shapes, sizes, colors, relative distances, etc., all convey information unpacked from a single dot. Tags on steroids basically, especially since they don’t sit still, i.e., they all move or can be made to vibrate at various speeds referencing further information that is other-wise hidden in a collapsed dot. In other words, the toroids can represent live data from the field. Additional toroids and geometric shapes can be added to a “dot” to represent more attributes and temporal elements.

Unpacking dots in this way leads to more perceptivity and discoverability. Patterns that are not otherwise discernible as static dots emerge as curious geometric shapes that beg to be explained. When “flying through” the map below, for example, it was very clear that conflict events had very distinct geometric shapes and constructs that were simply not discernible when in the form of dots. New questions that we didn’t know to ask can now be asked and followed up on with hypothesis testing. This type of visual DNA also allows one to go beyond natural languages and use a common geometric language. Users can also compare their perceptions using objects rather than natural languages.

Reading these maps does require learning a new kind of language, but one that is perhaps easier and more intuitive to learn, not to mention customizable. The above is just a glimpse of the evolving work and the team behind it is not making any claims about anything just yet. The visualization code will be released as open source software in the near future. In the meantime, a big thanks to my colleague Jen Ziemke for putting me in touch with the team behind this remarkable tool.