Sunday, 26 October 2014

How we read maps and dataviz - new research needed?

There's a fairly long academic tradition of looking at how humans interact with maps but, in my view, there is a need to revisit such research in relation to the new wave of digital mapping and dataviz currently available online. Some of it is fantastic and some less so, but this isn't about being critical of the bad stuff. Instead, I'm hoping others will share what they've been doing or what they've seen (via @undertheraedar) to try to understand the effect of new dataviz/mapping on how we perceive/read maps - and what impact this might have on cognition/understanding of underlying issues. 

Early last year I had some discussions about this with a very helpful colleague in psychology at Sheffield - Megan Freeth - and I gave her one of my blog images to test with her eye tracking technology. The results are shown below, in sequence (click to enlarge). I've also put them together in a slide show if you want to download them all at once.

The original 3D image

Scan path from first 10 seconds of map viewing

Scan path for one minute of map viewing

Heat map showing areas focused on most

'Region of interest' analysis

I'm aware that I am probably just not up to date with the kind of research being done in this area but before going further I should say that I am aware of people across the world who have done work in these fields - e.g. Alan M. MacEachren and others at the GeoVISTA Center at Penn State and this study from Brodersen et al at Risø National Laboratory in Denmark - but I'm not aware of what's been done in the last 4 or 5 years in particular to help us understand the effects of new approaches to mapping and visualisation on cognition and perception.

Are we understanding more because of the new wave of mapping and dataviz? Are we understanding less? Are we just enjoying how things look and being wowed by the technology more than we are critically engaging with the underlying content? Has the method become the message?

I'm as guilty as anyone of posting maps and images on twitter and this blog without necessarily thinking too much, though my aim is always to inform and engage - but as the protagonist in David Lodge's Changing Places says, "Every decoding is another encoding" and my visual 'decodings' of spatial data will always be 'encoded' by the viewer in ways I might not have expected - or even want. It's always interesting to see how people interpret things and whether this aligns with what we'd hoped. This perception issue might also come up tomorrow when one of my maps appears in the new HS2 report in the UK - we'll see.

Anyway, thoughts and insights welcome via @undertheraedar.