DataAppeal is a web-based tool that automatically renders large amounts of data into three-dimensional animated maps. It offers an alternative to the often complex mapping tools available today.
MaRS Market Intelligence spoke with Nadia Amoroso and Haim Sechter of DataAppeal.
How did the idea for DataAppeal come about?
Nadia: My background is actually in landscape architecture and creative mapping and I recently wrote a book called The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles. While writing this book, I was looking at various data points within a city―elements such as demographics, crime rates and surveillance cameras. This is information that is not normally visible. I was interested in creating some type of landscape or new topography based on this data, hoping to reveal hidden patterns within a geographic space. So I began manually creating data maps. When presenting these maps at various conferences, I was amazed at the interest they created. This interest demonstrated to me the importance of creating a tool that allowed others to use visualization techniques to help them analyze data.
What about existing geographic information system (GIS) tools, which can also develop data maps?
Haim: I have been in the business intelligence space for 12 years now, and have seen all the issues GIS presents. Namely, they are very expensive and difficult to install. So what happens is that their use is limited to only a few individuals within an organization. When speaking with Nadia, it was interesting to learn how engaged people were with her data maps. Our goal with DataAppeal is to overcome the challenges presented by GIS today and make mapping tools something that people within organizations actually want to use so that they can share their data.
What do you think is special about the insights data maps reveal, as versus other forms of visualizations?
Nadia: Mapping is an ideal way to visualize geographic data. One of the key figures I was researching for my book was an architect named Hugh Ferriss. Back in 1916, New York came out with a zoning ordinance, and a lot of people in the area―citizens, architects and even city officials―had a hard time understanding what the numbers and codes of the planning ordinance meant. So Ferriss manually sketched and rendered 3D maps of the form and shape of buildings that could be built, based on the zoning bylaws. He took textual information and turned them into works of art, which got a lot of attention and even graced the covers of The New York Times Magazine. The maps provided instant insight into the data.
Why did you choose to use 3D shapes to represent the data in DataAppeal?
Nadia: The use of 3D is fairly new in the data visualization space and comes from my background in urban design and landscape architecture. Because our application is built on the Google Earth platform, you can actually walk through the 3D data itself, as if in street view, and view it from all dimensions. It makes the experience much more immersive.
From a more practical standpoint, 3D gives a dimension of height to data, which is an extra level of analysis that you wouldn’t normally get from a 2D data map. Often data maps group information in colours, but it is not easy to know the amount of variation between two data points with different shades. It is easier to see variation when one data point is, say, twice the height of another point.
What are some of the challenges people run into when using data maps?
Haim: With geo-data, the end user needs to have some overall understanding of what it is that they are looking at, otherwise the data can really be misinterpreted. If I’m showing two different values that are exactly the same―for example, the number of shootings in Orangeville versus Toronto―it will look much more intense in Orangeville because of the size of the land mass. We have built some training tools right into DataAppeal so that these kinds of errors are not made.
How do you see the DataAppeal product evolving?
Haim: One thing we are focused on creating is a data gallery to enable people to profile their visualizations on our website. Making it easy to share data will play a big role in bringing together people and organizations from around the globe. Our emphasis will not be on the sharing of numbers but, rather, on the sharing of art. That is what we feel is the key to driving transparency.
And finally, what are some of your favourite visualizations?
Nadia: James Corner is a landscape architect who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He has created some very poetic mappings by taking aerial photographs and superimposing collages to show elements that would not otherwise be seen in the image, such as an underground ravine or what is hidden within the soil. His work inspired me to create Data Appeal.