Thursday, April 14, 2011

7 Foot White Elephant: When Globes Fail

Negative Reviews: Observant readers of this blog may have noticed I've stopped doing reviews of Google Earth projects recently. They took a lot of time and I'd always get a defensive response from the authors which isn't any use in starting dialogue and discussion about map/Virtual Globe design. However, someone actively promoting bad techniques of geo-visualization in a keynote presentation deserves a rebuttle so here's some thoughts on Julia Grace's keynote from Web 2.0 Expo NY 2010:

At 2.29 she shows a graphic with static, old style pie, line and bar charts:

"whenever I see these sorts of charts, something inside of me dies. The bottom line is that we can do better than this"

Simple is Best: Well yes, sometimes a highly interactive graphic is a great answer to a communication problem but a lot of the time simple non-interactive graphics are better. Perfect example, David MaCandlass's graphic of scare stories with time. Its well produced but at its heart it's a simple line graph:

At 5.34 into her keynote I end up agreeing with Julia for a while. She name checks the interactive NYT Oil spill map as being an excellent visualisation. I agree with her on that, its a great use of an interactive map tools to help the user understand the spill.

Map on a Globe: At 6.06 she then discusses a 2D map of IBM offices she had to use, she thought it sucked because of map distortion, her solution? Go out and buy a 7 foot globe and project the map onto that (an image comes up at 6.39). Apparently the globe was so large it wouldn't go through the door of their offices.

The Problem with the Globe: The problem she thinks she's solved is an ancient one: you can't represent the earth's surface on a flat surface without distorting the map in some way. However, although the globe solution she's promoting does solve the distortion it has an even more important flaw: now you can't see all the offices at the same time because they're on different sides of the globe. Even if the globe was the best solution, what's so wrong with a virtual globe on an iPad? A whole lot cheaper and much, much easier to get through doors.

When High Tech is not Cool: But what I really object to in this talk is the tone. Simple visualisations are likened to 'Tron', old, flat and outmoded whereas 'Minority Report' visualisations are cool, 3D and the shape of things to come. Of course this isn't true, the best data visualisation solution is defined primarily by the audience you're addressing and sometimes simple is best. You'll notice she never mentions users and usability.


Kurt said...


Great post! More isn't always better and a globe doesn't always trump a map. It so depends on the task, data, and context in which it needs to be viewed.

Perhaps if I get one of my visualizations finished soon, I could ask you to deconstruct it into the good and bad on your blog... that way the author is already "askin for it" :)


Rich Treves said...


Always happy to look at work with a view to giving feedback - email me a link when you're ready.