The basics of map data visualization

In this post, we explore geospatial data: what it is, what it’s for, and why map data visualization is used by every business that’s serious about analyzing connected data.

Using our graph visualization toolkits to map a complex system of energy pipelines across Europe
Using our graph visualization toolkits to map a complex system of energy pipelines across Europe

Our world has become much more geo-orientated since the explosion of smart technology like cellphones, watches, fitness trackers and more. So many apps have a built-in map mode that helps us with common activities like ordering a takeaway, checking the local weather forecast or booking a weekend away.

We use geospatial data everyday and we don’t even realize it.

What do we mean by geospatial data?

Geospatial data simply means any data with a specific location attached. It’s commonly associated with geography and cartography, but every person, object or event can be represented as geospatial data. The geospatial element could be small or large scale: from pinpointing the location of your mobile phone or plotting the fastest route from A to B, to surveying a thousand-acre forest or maintaining critical national infrastructure assets.

A cellphone displaying a Google map of Chicago, USA
Smartphones come with Global Positioning System (GPS) chips as standard and mapping apps are mainstream.

Geospatial data can have a time-based element too. It helps us track everything from the time it takes to cycle through town or the location of a delivery driver, to the spread of infectious diseases or the degradation of glaciers over weeks, months and years. Geospatial data becomes even more powerful when you can interact with it and watch it evolve over time.

Tracking a person of interest’s movements over time using cell tower data
Tracking a person of interest’s movements over time using cell tower data

Why visualize geospatial data?

Sometimes, data can be hard to understand until you see it in the context of the world you live in. Map-based data comes to life once you visualize it. When you combine geospatial charts with additional network or timeline data, you gain more insights from seeing entities and events in real-world scenarios rather than as columns and rows in a table.

If your data contains location information as latitude and longitude properties, you can visualize it easily. You can also add ordinary images as scalable background maps to give better context to visualizations and create powerful dashboards.

This IT infrastructure example combines a background image of a New York office’s server setup with a global view of the entire network:

It’s easy to transition seamlessly between background images and traditional geospatial charts, creating a map data visualization to better convey useful insight.

For more details on how to create a background image and map view, see Map-based connections: presenting graphs on images

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How has geospatial visualization evolved?

Until recently, geospatial technology was a specialist, niche domain. It took huge software programs with steep learning curves to produce a simple digital map. That was still a significant progression from the original paper map when cartography was an artform in its own right.

Digital mapping in the 1960s paved the way for geospatial data visualization. In the early days, digital maps had to be built layer by layer. This was a time-consuming process for the commercial or government agencies who often kept their source map data private.

The goal of digitizing maps was to make them easier to store, and faster to continuously update and access. Other technologies evolved and improved the data collection process further with enhanced aerial photography, satellite imagery and remote sensing.

Network and timeline analysis requirements have evolved too, as organizations want to boost their visualizations with maps. Our geospatial visualizations give you the power to interact with entities and events plotted on top of a detailed, customized background map image of your choice.

This ReGraph visualization for investigating insurance fraud uses geocoded data to reveal how far drivers were traveling to get their cars fixed.
This ReGraph visualization for investigating insurance fraud uses geocoded data to reveal how far drivers were traveling to get their cars fixed. For more details, read Designing simple visual models that users love

As most software now has an integrated mapping capability, we’ve instinctively accepted geospatial data as a part of our everyday lives. We often take for granted the extra insight that comes from visualizing geospatial data – no more getting lost in a new city or having to guess where the next gas station is on your car journey.

Your users have come to expect a map mode wherever possible too. If their connected data contains valuable insights or hidden threats, you want to give them the investigative tools they need to visualize and analyze what’s important.

a map data visualization app tracking movements of volunteer students
We built a map data visualization app that tracked the movements of volunteer students to reveal interesting patterns of behavior. For the full story, see visualizing GPS data alongside a timeline with Kronograph

Who needs map data visualization?

Anybody with location-based graph and timeline data benefits from the ability to see it on a map, but we’ll cover just a couple of the most popular use cases here.

Geospatial charts for security and law enforcement

Our customers working in anti-terrorist and law enforcement spaces find our map mode essential. Real-time situational awareness relies on dashboards that must be easily understood by everyone involved, and map data visualization provides the necessary real-world context.

Using Esri basemaps and services to map a crime spree

Security agencies use background images in charts to visualize nodes and links on everything from building footprints to transport hubs, crime scenes to prison layouts. They can be customized however you want to suit the needs of your user.

Mapping data for the busiest movement of passengers between terminals at an airport
Mapping the busiest movement of passengers between terminals at an airport

Map data visualization and supply chains

Another significant use of our mapping tools is in supply chain management. From retail and manufacturing to governments, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, visualizing and tracking the movement of products over time uncovers bottlenecks, prevents disruption, and helps with regulatory compliance.

liquor stores location data on a map of Toronto, Canada
Here we’ve put location data about liquor stores directly onto a map of Toronto, Canada. If we need a delivery driver to move stock from one store to another across town, we use the shortest path graph algorithm to calculate it.

How does map data visualization work with our SDKs?

Using map mode is easy. Under the hood, our data visualization toolkits use Leaflet, the popular JavaScript library for interactive maps. This gives you the freedom to choose from a huge ecosystem of map tile providers, projection systems and third party plugins.

If you’re using Esri mapping systems, check out the integration details in Esri ArcGIS data visualization for powerful geospatial analysis

map tile options for our map data visualizations
Some of the many map tile options available for our map data visualizations

Start mapping your connections

Are you ready to see your connected data on maps? Discover map data visualization for yourself with a free trial of our toolkits.

A screen showing a hybrid graph and timeline visualization created using ReGraph and KronoGraph
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