Then It Hit Me The Power Of Maps

By Santosh Seshadri

It is especially hard to explain the power of geo-informatics and data visualisation in layman’s terms. I mean, not even my mum understands what I do for work. I’ve tried to explain the location data industry a hundred times, but it’s not that easy.

It’s even harder when you’re doing it for diverse fields and multiple audiences, often within the same organisation. You might have:

Decision makers
These guys are at the non-technical end of the spectrum. They’re into workflows, final reports, charts and maps to help them make informed decisions and share insights and ideas with their stakeholders.

The IT team
People with a strong IT background understand IT infrastructures, communication and networking protocols. But they don’t know how these work in the geospatial industry. They’re interested in how data and applications communicate, are stored, secured and managed.

People with some GIS knowledge
These guys use data analysis, GPS and GIS techniques in their day-to-day workflow, and have a good understanding of how it can be used to its full potential. But they need some assistance to get there and share their work with a wider community. They’re interested in ways to automate their processes and streamline workflows with their teams and organisations.

Know your audience
It’s so important to know your audience. You don’t want to explain the difference between a database and a JSON file to a decision maker, express your love for pastels and labelling annotations to a database administrator or explain the difference between http and https to a GIS coordinator.

The secret to helping your audience understand the power of geospatial technology is to identify the problems faced by each and provide a comprehensive solution.

Demonstration beats information
I have one simple solution that works well for me: a demo/proof of concept page in your toolkit for pitches and client conversations. When people see working examples, they are more inclined to see the power and pitfalls of various workflows and technologies.

A good example of this is a case study project where Orbica was commissioned by a UK-based research group that was studying the impact of land use change on the economics of a New Zealand region for a multinational agricultural company.
In this case, our immediate audience was:

They were well-versed in all the analytical and statistical techniques to study correlations between various datasets.

Land use specialists They had been in the region and had extensive local knowledge about its economic dynamics.

IT specialists
This team assisted in maintaining digital assets.

We had to:

• Collect as much data as possible to study the various correlations
• Perform various analytics and produce significant results
• Present that data in a simple and cohesive manner

We were on a tight budget and a surprisingly tight timeframe as well. So, we shared data and notes on Dropbox and conducted initial meetings over Skype.

We started mining all of the open data available for New Zealand: the land cover database from Landcare research, regional council data from various councils and Statistics NZ agriculture statistics data. Then it was time for a face-to-face workshop.

The great reveal

All the other experts started spouting production numbers and PDF economic reports, whiteboard sessions about local production decisions, correlation studies etc.

I was nervous. How was I - just a GIS map maker from a start-up - going to provide anything of value to this scholarly audience? We had prepared a few maps for the meeting: nothing too fancy, just classifying land use across various years, land areas and land values provided by council, and some national agricultural statistics.

Surely, they must have seen these maps during their research, I thought, and done all sorts of spatial gymnastics on the data and extracted every bit of information as possible. So, I stood there with 12 pairs of eyes watching my screen, like kids in a magic show waiting to be amazed. I started with some examples of mapping applications we had developed and other tools available out there, then I started diving into our findings. As I explored the data on the screen and shared our findings of how land use had changed over years and how there was a visual correlation between land use and land value, to my surprise, I started hearing murmurs “ohh wow,” “this is awesome,” “we can do this?!”

That’s when it hit me: the power of maps. Though they must have seen these maps in reports and on the internet, they didn’t know that they could access and manipulate that data themselves and represent their own data in a map form.

For the many – not just the few
Now as I reflect upon it, it makes perfect sense! How often do people make maps? They all use and view maps all the time, but it’s usually with Google Maps, Bing Maps, Esri Basemaps or any of the other colossal giants. That’s why people have the perception that maps are usually published by big companies and mainly used for marketing. Even the data scientists in the team – who were well-aware of GIS and spatial data – had little experience in the actual exercise of map making. So, when they could see their hypotheses and results highlighted on a simple map, they were immediately hooked. Naturally, that led to more research, more data and more ideas.

As the ideas got complex, we had to stop and return to the reality of deadlines. We had to produce a well-informed report that would help our audience understand the power of geospatial technology and empower them with all the tools available to present their report to decision makers.

So, we went back to our little shacks and started producing basic paper maps of land use, land use change and land values, and created a series of images that could be used in reports and PowerPoint presentations. Then we had a couple of days up our sleeve before delivery, so we thought, “Why not give them a web map?” This way, they could share the web map with their readers and provide a better context for their research. Readers would be able to interact with the map: turn layers on and off and click around to get some relevant values.

Again, it was nothing too fancy.

We published those maps on the internet then quickly mashed-up an application and shared our initial idea with our team. Everybody loved it! They weren’t even expecting it, but it provided them with another medium for presenting their findings. So, with their approval and after some minor tweaks (there are always minor tweaks) we threw it on our production server, added some Google analytics to it and delivered it.

The whole team – the researchers, the IT crew and the land-use specialists - were truly impressed with the power geospatial technology could offer and wanted to use GIS in their day-to-day tasks. Each realised the value that GIS could offer in their specialty. That’s a huge win for us at Orbica, as one of core values is to create and nurture “Geospatial Champions.” All of this was possible because as GIS professionals we were able to communicate to our audience the information that was relevant to them, and kept in mind GIS 101 – know your audience!