Visualising for Human Geography – spatial.ly

Great article from James Cheshire reminding us how important good visualisation is.

From spatial.ly May 2013

Visualising for Human Geography

Locals Vs Tourists by Eric Fischer

The publication of the International Benchmarking Review of UK Human Geography back in March was a major event for the discipline. The report concludes that the UK human geography community is setting the intellectual agenda for the subject and can therefore consider itself the best in the world. Whilst this is a great achievement, the “relative weakness in quantitative methods and GIS” (p16) was also highlighted. The authors flag the growing interest in data visualisation, and its value for information dissemination and impact, but suggest that human geographers may not be ahead of the curve in the same way as they are in other parts of the discipline.

Compelling data visualisation is the key to communicating results from research widely and, perhaps most importantly, a means to inspire current and future students to work with quantitative data. More maps (and other visualisations) than ever are being produced, but many are methodologically floored or misleading because the people who created them are great with complex software and data manipulation, but less good at placing their visual outputs in context. I would argue that human geographers, with their knowledge of population processes, are uniquely placed to perform a “sanity check” on the many graphics that stem from analysis that has set off down the wrong path. Human geographers are also well-aware of the power of maps to change perceptions of the world (both for the better or worse) so they are perhaps a little more cautious in the way they portray data and make doubly sure that they have produced something that is both representative and defensible.

So, it is more important than ever for geographers to engage with the many relevant datasets that are now available and also with the communities (largely of computer scientists and designers) that are currently grappling with them. We don’t all have the skills to manipulate large datasets, or visualise them, but we can still contribute to the creative process and ensure the outcomes are representative of the data used to produce them. The benchmarking review lists four people/ groups that have made a start in this regard [Hans Rosling (of GapMinder), Simon Rogers (formerly, the Guardian), Danny Dorling (and colleagues) and CASA (where I work)]. Interestingly only two would probably badge themselves as geographers.  I thought I’d speculate a little about what makes each of these groups successful in this context and also add a few more groups that I think could offer the inspiration needed to get more people visualising human geography.

Hans Rosling and Gapminder

Gapminder helped to kick-start the interest in the power of data visualisation to explore the complexities of global development. The website, and energetic videos by Hans Rosling, have raised the profile of the many datasets compiled by global organisations, such as the UN, and offer a means for students to engage with data in an interesting way. For people starting to think about data, Gapminder should be one of the first websites they visit.

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