Thursday, December 13, 2012

1,2 or 3 Map Dimensions?

The question of how many dimensions to use on a map has been knocking around my head since going to the excellent W3G conference in October (thanks to all the organizers).

Screen shot of Recce with items turned on to show
visual clutter

3D is too much:  The last Keynote of the day was by Rian Liebenberg about Recce (reviewed here).  It's an iPhone/iPad app that shows cities in cartoonlike 3D but also adds moving planes/trains/cars.  I think this a fun app to play around with on the iPad and the rendering and speed of delivery is to die for.  However, I was surprised to hear it has real time tube data added and is also designed to  to be a navigation tool for cities.

Cartography 101 defines map making as the 'art of taking away' and that principle applies here.  I just can't imagine users' having a great experience trying to navigate using a 3D map on the small iPhone screen with planes buzzing across the screen.  I've discussed the problem of map 3D in earlier posts in more detail.

1 Dimension Anyone?  Which brings me to 1D maps.  One of the speakers (can't find the name, comment anyone?) talked about 1D 'strip maps' which happen to have a long history.

Old Stip Map of Directions to Bury St Edmunds

The basic idea is that if you are following a route and you want to know where you are, 1D is fine.  A  key point he made was that strip maps have great potential on smart phones as you don't have to bother doing pinch zoom and drag to find your way around, you can just scroll up and down which allows you to operate your phone map one handed.  This relates back to 'taking out the right things' idea.

The immediate problem with this idea is that a 1D map assumes you don't get lost, it's not much use if you miss that turning as you'll disappear off the screen.  However, I think a nice compromise would be a location aware strip map.  If your smart phone noticed you had wandered off route it would revert to a traditional 2D map until you had found your way back to the path.

Tom Steinberg Sums it Up:  The best keynote of the W3G day IMHO was from Tom Steinberg on open data. I checked out his blog later and discovered that by chance he's recently blogged on the 1, 2 or 3 dimensions idea .  The link takes you to a post where he discusses the advantages of strip maps for a journey across London (from rather than using the tube map.  He also comments that most digital map visualisations look 'hot' but concentrate on 'whooshing' animations which actually get in the way of understanding.

I'll give him the last word:
 The paper Tube map is still more fundamentally useful than 99% of hot web visualisations, even though it was crafted on an infinitely more limited technology. Why aren't more visualisations simply better, given the power at our fingertips? 
amen to that.