Tag Archives: Visualization

The Biggest Problem with “Crisis Maps”

I enjoy thinking about the different analogies one can use to describe crisis mapping. I’ve likened crisis mapping to the Nascza Lines here and to cymatics here, for example. In a recent interview with Reuters/Alertnet (published here), I used the following analogy:

“Crisis mapping is to the humanitarian space what x-rays are to emergency rooms.”

I wanted to find an analogy that would steer clear of technical jargon and capture the public’s imagination. I thought through several analogies before the interview. For example, I debated using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as analogy instead of x-rays since, well, it’s a more accurate comparison.

Why?

Have a look at the first minute of this rather amusing video, which first shows some x-ray pictures and then MRI scans.

MRI scans provide “quantitative, real-time, thermal images of the treated area” (1). All x-rays do is display static, albeit still useful, information. It’s a bit like comparing today’s high-speed digital video cameras with the cameras of bygone days that produced black and white photographs.

I thought about these analogies again this evening while walking home from MIT’s conference on data visualization. That’s when something very obvious dawned on me. The biggest problem with crisis maps is the word “maps”. The majority of the world’s population including myself associate maps with printed maps—no thanks to pirates.

Source: artfiles.art.com

Source: artfiles.art.com

The term “animated map” almost seems like an oxymoron, much like the word “airbus” must have come across when the company was founded 40 years ago. For you fellow Harry Potter fans, perhaps the best way to describe what I’m trying to convey is by referring to The Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper whose articles include moving pictures. Or perhaps the magical Marauder’s map which tracks the movement of students and teachers at Hogwarts in real-time.

Source: newlaunches.com

Source: newlaunches.com

Fictional protagonists aside, Albert Einstein was spot on when he wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

We know a lot about maps but if we were to play the word association game we’d likely come up with static descriptions rather than words associated with moving pictures. The time slider feature on Google Earth is perhaps starting to shift people’s conception of maps. Hans Rosling‘s work with Gapminder is also stirring our imagination since he talks about time series data much like a sports commentator describes a horse race (see his really neat TED talk here).

source: google earth

source: google earth

But we’re even more trapped by our archaic conception of maps than we realize. Playing the word association game with the word “map” may conjure Google Earth’s time slider for a few neogeographers, but I doubt that anyone would blurt out “3D!” for example. And yet, that’s what some of us crisis mappers are increasingly thinking about.

Google invited me to participate in a full-day workshop at their DC office last week and sure enough they told us to expect that all structures (e.g., buildings, mountains) on Google Earth would be rendered in 3D within about 2 years. The team is looking to integrate Mapmaker, My Maps, and Sketch-Up with Google Earth. And we already know they have a great flight simulator.

Source: gizmodo

Source: gizmodo

Now compare the above screenshot of Google Earth with a screenshot of Simcity 4 below. And then, of course, there’s also Second Life, and more recently live video integrated into Google Earth.

SimCity4

In the meantime, the most accurate 3D map of any city on Earth has just been created using very high resolution lasers—some 7 million individual points of light to be exact. You could call this the best MRI of a terrestrial city yet!

I’ve already blogged about crisis maps evolving into 3D virtual worlds with live data feeds and agent-based models for scenario development, simulation and forecasting:

  • 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training (link)
  • GeoTime: Visual Crisis Mapping in 3D (link)

All these systems are part of the evolving info webs I recently blogged about. But the italicized attributes above hardly come to mind when we hear the word map. And I think this is biggest problem with the term “crisis maps.” Perhaps we should come up with an entirely new term. But coming back to my interview with Reuters/Alertnet, a new more accurate term would simply add more technical jargon and definitely lose the public’s imagination (and mine with it).

So I’ve got an alternative “solution” … maybe. We keep the word map, or rather M.A.P.S. Yes, that’s right “Crisis MAPS.” All we need now is to be as creative as InSTEDD and find a way to fit this acronym with something sensible.

So how’s this?

Crisis MAPS = Crisis Movies and Platform Simulations

Patrick Philippe Meier

Cymatic Insights for Crisis Mapping

I just came across Evan Grant’s fascinating TED 2009 talk on “Making Sound Visible through Cymatics.” Cymatics describes the process of visualizing sound. Sound waves create vibrations—patterns—that can be visualized on the surface of a plate covered with sand as depicted below.

cymatics

In his talk, Evan demonstrates how different sound frequencies create distinctly different geometric sand patterns. As the sound frequencies increase, so does the complexity of the sand patterns themselves. He describes cymatics as a “looking glass into a hidden world” that can “unveil the substance of things not seen.”

For example, a lexicon of dolphin language is actually being created using cymatics by visualizing the sonar beams that dolphins emit. Cymatics can also be used to create natural art forms. The picture below is a visualization of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony created using a cymatic device. Cymatics can also recreate archetypal forms of nature such as snowflakes or starfish.

cymatics3

It’s not entirely clear what all this means. As Evan notes, cymatics is still a very young field and not many people are working in this line of research. Cymatics shows that sound has form and can effect form in matter. So Evan asks us to think about the universe forming, “about the immense sound of the universe forming, and to ponder on that … perhaps cymatics had an influence on the formation of the universe itself.” Watch Evan’s 5-minute TED Talk below.

In closing, Evan encourage us to apply our passions, knowledge and skills to areas like cymatics. I find this field very interesting because of the analogies with crisis mapping. As often mentioned on iRevolution, crisis mapping is about rendering otherwise hidden patterns visible to improve situational awareness and decision-making.

One can think of conflict processes as sound waves or vibrations and the “plates” as crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi. We need to “vibrate” conflict data at different frequencies and to develop visual analytics—different templates for data visualization—in order to visualize patterns in a compelling fashion. One might call this the “String Theory” of Crisis Mapping.

——————————————————————————————–

A colleague and I tried analyzing conflict data as music back in 2006 when I was at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). I had been inspired by the work of an Italian geophysicist who had taken seismic data (tremblings of the earth) and analyzed the data as music in order to look for “melodic” patterns. We used conflict event-data from Afghanistan but the result was not particularly music to my ears—but then again, neither is war.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mapping Massacres: GIS and State Terror in Guatemala

This is the title of a paper published in Geoforum in 2006 (PDF). Note that the paper was actually submitted in 2003 but the peer-review process appears to have taken 3 years. Ridiculous. I sympathize with the authors and hope they’ve turned to blogging. But the content of their paper is actually what I want to blog about here.

The authors use GIS to visually display the locations of massacres associated with Guatemala’s civil war at the department level and include information on indigenous populations as well as physical geography. They note that “maps have become tools of empowerment in Central America and elsewhere,” and highlight how indigenous groups “have begun to use maps as tools in their fight for land and marine resources, as well as greater political economy.”

It is worth understanding that “among some sectors of Guatemalan society, there is still wholesale denial and rejection of past violent events.” To this end, the purpose of “displaying exactly where violent acts took place is to […] educate the Guatemalan public regarding the terrible violence of the recent past.” The authors suggest that “knowing the name of a specific town where a massacre took place is more concrete, potentially leading to perception of place and people, rather than simply being aware of violence in the countryside.”

Guatemala massacres

The authors produced the maps above, which clearly show that most massacres were concentrated in landscapes whose majority populations are indigenous. “Massacres were not random events in Guatemala. Instead, they took place in very specific cultural landscapes. “

The following short excerpts very much resonate with my thinking on crisis mapping:

“Even information that is easily comprehensible without maps takes on new meaning when it is portrayed spatially.”

“However, knowing in a general sense where the violence took place is not enough. If we fail to accurately display such information spatially, we fail to fully understand where and especially why these events took place. […] By using some basic geographic information systems technologies, relationships between ethnicity, location, physical environment, and violence become much clearer.”

“Mapping these tragic events is critical because these maps also serve as another type of memorial for victims and their families. Many Guatemalans have yet to come to grips with the violence of the past. Maps, more so than words can help deconstruct violent events by providing a mental image of a location and event in the onlookers mind.”

The authors have certainly contributed a better spatial understanding of the violence thanks to this study. What is perhaps missing is an equally compelling temporal resolution so that events can be incrementally analyzed over time and space. Doing so may shed more light on the tactics and strategies employed to carry out the violence. These may produce specific patterns or a library of “fingerprints” that could then be used to investigate massacres in other countries.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Doctor Snow’s Health Map Propaganda

Doctor John Snow’s cholera map of 1854 is often heralded as an example of how mapping can illuminate powerful insights on otherwise hidden patterns. Not so, writes Mark Monmonier in his excellent book on “Spying with Maps” which I just reviewed here.

cholera-snow-map

Mark writes the following on John Snow’s famous map:

“If disease mapping has a poster child, it’s John Snow (1813-1858), the London anesthesiologist credited with discovering the water borne transmission of cholera. […] Snow is best known for his 1854 map showing victims’ homes clustered around Soho’s infamous Broad Street Pump, which he identified as a source of contaminated water. According to epidemiological lore, the good doctor tried unsuccessfully to convince public officials to close down the pump.”

“Undaunted, he too matters in his own hands, removed the pump’s handle, and demonstrated the correctness of his theory when new cases plummeted. Truth be told, the epidemic had already run its course. What’s more, Snow made his famous dot map several months later, for a revised edition of his book on cholera transmission. Even so, his pin map continues to embellish discussions of GIS and disease.”

“Medical geographers, GIS experts, and some epidemiologists perpetuate the Snow myth because it promotes disease mapping as a discovery tool and enhances the stature of their own disciplines. But a careful examination of Snow’s writings indicates that he understood cholera’s mode of transmission well before he made the map.”

“Although Snow was a thoughtful observer, neither his map nor those of his rivals were of any value in generating insightful hypotheses. Snow’s famous cholera map was pure propaganda—and copycat propaganda at that—but proved eminently useful later in the century, when public officials needed convincing arguments to isolate drinking water from sewage.”

Although Mark is rightfully critical of Dr. John Snow’s legendary map, the last sentence above is quite insightful. The map, while unhelpful in knowledge discovery of cholera’s source, did become “eminently useful” to influence public health policy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Doctor Snow’s Health Map Propaganda

Doctor John Snow’s cholera map of 1854 is often heralded as an example of how mapping can illuminate powerful insights on otherwise hidden patterns. Not so, writes Mark Monmonier in his excellent book on “Spying with Maps” which I just reviewed here.

cholera-snow-map

Mark writes the following on John Snow’s famous map:

“If disease mapping has a poster child, it’s John Snow (1813-1858), the London anesthesiologist credited with discovering the water borne transmission of cholera. […] Snow is best known for his 1854 map showing victims’ homes clustered around Soho’s infamous Broad Street Pump, which he identified as a source of contaminated water. According to epidemiological lore, the good doctor tried unsuccessfully to convince public officials to close down the pump.”

“Undaunted, he too matters in his own hands, removed the pump’s handle, and demonstrated the correctness of his theory when new cases plummeted. Truth be told, the epidemic had already run its course. What’s more, Snow made his famous dot map several months later, for a revised edition of his book on cholera transmission. Even so, his pin map continues to embellish discussions of GIS and disease.”

“Medical geographers, GIS experts, and some epidemiologists perpetuate the Snow myth because it promotes disease mapping as a discovery tool and enhances the stature of their own disciplines. But a careful examination of Snow’s writings indicates that he understood cholera’s mode of transmission well before he made the map.”

“Although Snow was a thoughtful observer, neither his map nor those of his rivals were of any value in generating insightful hypotheses. Snow’s famous cholera map was pure propaganda—and copycat propaganda at that—but proved eminently useful later in the century, when public officials needed convincing arguments to isolate drinking water from sewage.”

Although Mark is rightfully critical of Dr. John Snow’s legendary map, the last sentence above is quite insightful. The map, while unhelpful in knowledge discovery of cholera’s source, did become “eminently useful” to influence public health policy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Spying with Maps

Mark Monmonier has written yet another excellent book on maps. I relished and reviewed his earlier book on “How To Lie with Maps” and enjoyed this one even more on “Spying with Maps.” I include below some short excerpts that I found particularly neat and interesting.

Picture 1

“Mapping, it turns out, can reveal quite a bit about what we do and who we are. I say mapping, rather than maps, because cartography is not limited to static maps printed on paper or displayed on computer screens. In the new cartographies of surveillance, the maps one looks at are less important than the spatial data systems that store and integrate facts about where we live and work. Location is a powerful key for relating disparate databanks and unearthing information […].”

Big Brother is doing most of the watching, at least for now, but corporations, local governments, and other Little Brothers are quickly getting involved.”

“Much depends, of course, on who’s in charge, us or them, and on who ‘them’ is. A police state could exploit geographic technology to round up dissidents—imagine the Nazi SS with a GeoSurveillance Corps. By contrast, a capitalist marketer can exploit locational data by making a cleverly tailored pitch at a time and place when you’re most receptive. Control is control whether it’s blatant or subtle.”

Corrona Satellites

“Spy satellites became a top priority during the Cold War, and Congress generously supported remote sensing. […] analysts with security clearances pored over images from the CIA’s top-secret Corona satellites at the agency’s clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).” By 1967, “a massive research and development effort had refined the [resolution] down to an impressive 1.5 meters (5 ft.).” Today’s “intelligence satellites have even sharper eyes: various estimates suggest that pictures from Corona’s most advanced successors have a resolution of roughly 3 inches.”

“Because image intelligence focuses on detecting change, 1-meter satellite imagery is often more informative [then people realize]. A new railway spur or clearing, for instance, could signify a new missile site or weapons factory. And a suspicious accumulation of vehicles might presage an imminent attack. As John Pike observes, ‘if a picture is worth 1,000 words, two pictures are worth 10,000 words.'”

“Washington strongly discourages the sale of high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel, and during the 2001 Middle Eastern campaign, the government thwarted enemy media hopes by buying exclusive rights to Ikonos imagery of Afghanistan.”

I really appreciated Mark’s take on the panopticon. His points below are largely ignored by the mainstream literature on the subject and go a long way to explaining just why satellite imagery has not (yet?) acted a strong deterrent against genocide and crimes against humanity. For more on this, please see this post on geospatial technologies for genocide prevention.

Panopticon

Panopticon

“Although the [panopticon] metaphor seems largely appropriate, I am not convinced  that the similarity between Bentham’s model prison and video surveillance tells us anything that’s not obvious about the watcher’s power over the watched. My hunch is that the prison’s walls and bars as well as the isolation of inmates in individual cells exert far greater control over prisoners’ lives than a ready ability to spy on their actions. […] What’s relevant […] is the power of surveillance to intimidate someone already under the watcher’s control, like a prisoner (who can be beaten), an employee (who can be fired), or a motorist who runs red lights (and could be fined or lose his or her license.”

I had come across ShotSpotter a while back but rediscovered the tool in Mark’s book. What is neat is that ShotSpotter combines audio and mapping in a way that may also be applicable to crisis mapping.

Shotspotter

Shotspotter

“[…] police in several California cities rely on ShotSpotter, which its investors describe as an ‘automatic real-time gunshot locator and display system’ […] a clever marriage of seismic analysis and acoustic filtering. […] Like an earthquake, a gunshot generates a sharply defined circular pulse, which expands outward at constant speed. […] ShotSpotter’s microphones detect the wave at slightly different times depending on their distance from the shooter’s location [which the computer can use] to triangulate a location in either two or three dimension. […] The process pinpoints gunshots within 15 yards […].”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think

I just finished paging through “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think” and came across some interesting tidbits. I’ve shared these below in the form of short excerpts.

Information Visualization

“To understand something is called “seeing” it. We try to make our ideas ‘clear,’ to bring them into ‘focus,’ to ‘arrange’ our thoughts. The ubiquity of visual metaphors in describing cognitive processes hints at a nexus of relationships between what we see and what we think.”

“The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures.”

“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, memory, thought, and reasoning are all constrained. But human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limits. The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities. How have we increased memory, thought and reasoning? By the invention of external aids: It is these things that make us smart. An important class of external aids that make us smart are graphical inventions of all sorts.”

The progress of civilization can be read in the invention of visual artifacts, from writing to mathematics, to maps, to printing, to diagrams, to visual computing. […] Information visualization is about […] exploiting the dynamic, interactive, inexpensive medium of graphical computerse to devise new external aids enhancing cognitive abilities.”

“A few years ago the power of this new medium was applied to science, resulting in scientific visualization. Now it is possible to apply the medium more generally to business, to scholarship and to education.”

“It is sometimes said, ‘A picture is worth ten thousand words.’ […] This quotation was simply made up [in 1921] by ad writer Frederick R. Barnard as an invented ‘Chinese proverb’ in a streetcar advertisement for Royal Baking Power. (The company assumed that consumers would be compelled to buy a product that had the weight of Chinese philosophy behind it). The ad writer wanted to make the point that pictures can attract attention faster than other media.”

“In 1985 […] satellites were sending back large quantities of data, so visualization was useful as a method to accelerate its analysis and to enhance the identification of interesting phenomena.”

“Information visualization is particularly useful for monitoring large amounts of data in real time and under time pressure to make decision.”

Patrick Philippe Meier