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Spatial Reasoning Needed for Analysis of Big Data

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"Yes, data are undeniably important but they are not holy. Data are middlemen." So claims Kirk Goldsberry, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis. In his article on the Harvard Business School blog, "The Importance of Spatial Thinking Now," Goldsberry says that data visualization - "an emerging, important discipline" - is not an end in itself, aesthetically pleasing though it may be. To be useful, big data needs a type of reasoning that's too often missing from current discussions.

Data Visualization and Narrative

Here are two examples of beautiful infographics that do more than look lovely. The first reflects the population of Detroit - blue indicates population increase, red shows population decline:

 

Notice that although there is an unmistakable pool of red in the center of the city, we also see a few specks of blue - indicating that the downtown is actually beginning to resurge. This dataviz of New Orleans depicts the city's tragic losses after Hurricane Katrina:

 

As writer John Pavlus points out, these infographics are important because they do more than look good to the eye:

"These are the best kinds of data visualizations: they offer a fractal-like wealth of zoomable detail, but they also tell a compelling narrative."

Where Does the Narrative Come From?

If data needs narrative to make sense - how do we discover and define those narratives? Goldsberry argues that to find the stories and meaning within the data, we need geographic or spatial reasoning. Unfortunately, he says, not enough people know how to make meaningful maps or handle large spatial datasets. (He points to the eradication of geography departments in the mid-twentieth century as a cause of this knowledge gap.) Goldsberry urges up-and-coming data visualizers to go back to the twentieth-century masters to shore up their geographic understanding.

 

Data for Life

Maponics provides high-quality location-based data to businesses not only because we love numbers. Our slogan - "Data for Life" - says it all: the data is only as relevant as the stories it tells. More often than not, those stories are about the people and places that matter most in life. They also help drive decisions and policies that affect quality of life. Our newest product family, Context™, is the market's first-ever dataset of lifestyle and behavioral analytics. Goldsberry's take:

"The best visualizations never celebrate the data; instead they make us learn about worldly phenomena and forget about the data. After all, who looks at the Mona Lisa to think about the paints?"

Learn more about geospatial data from our  sites GIS data repository.