Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

Worlds of Information: The Geographic Metaphor in the Visualization of Complex Information

Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

Worlds of Information: The Geographic Metaphor in the Visualization of Complex Information

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This paper explores the potential of the geographic metaphor in helping generate systematic, flexible, and powerful visualizations of textual information. It is part of a larger project aiming at the development of a general spatialization framework for complex non-spatial information. The focus here is on two fundamental questions: first, what is the cognitive rationale for applying the geographic metaphor to non-spatial information; and second, what may be the significance of basic geographic concepts such as place, way, and region within information spaces represented as geographic landscapes. Following a discussion of information spaces in general, the paper examines the notions of situated and embedded cognition, and some principles for the design of spatializations deriving from these. The next section considers the potential meanings, uses, and presentation modes of the geographic concepts of place, way, and region within a spatialized representation of (textual) information. The final discussion and conclusions point towards an informal research agenda for further work in that area.

Introduction

Data visualization techniques have been a necessary and successful response to the mixed blessing of the modern information glut. In making complex data visible, computer-based visualizations capitalize on the innate human capacity to process visual information efficiently and fast (McCormick et al. 1987). Many are based on relatively simple metaphors (such as the desktop or the overlay) which exploit the users' familiarity with everyday objects to encourage intuitive manipulations of the information presented. Most of these solutions are developed around a small number of successful ideas among which no systematic connection exists.

Information visualized is information turned into spatial form and therefore, in principle, amenable to current spatial analysis techniques (Pazner 1994). The notion of spatialization of information is even broader, indicating a more comprehensive and systematic mapping of the information onto the spatial and temporal domains (Benedikt 1991a; Kuhn and Blumenthal 1996). While any graphic presentation of non-spatial information is a spatialization of sorts, true spatializations go beyond the conversion of information into general visual patterns to reproduce aspects of the kinds of spaces that are familiar to people from everyday experience: those of working areas (e.g., desktops), of rooms, buildings, or of larger geographic-scale spaces. Spatializations work by allowing the establishment of metaphors linking a particular task domain with a familiar domain of experience in such a way that the modes of thought and action appropriate in the familiar domain are also appropriate in the task domain (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Kuhn 1993). Thus, for example, storing a digital file in a digital folder corresponds to the (until recently!) more familiar action of storing a paper file in a physical folder.

This paper investigates the potential of the geographic metaphor in generating visualizations of complex, non-spatial information that are systematic, flexible, and more powerful than those currently available. As defined in this paper, the "geographic metaphor" is the universe of potential sub-metaphors that may be derived from the geographic world. The advantages of the geographic metaphor are twofold. First, the geographic world constitutes a generally accessible and very comprehensive realm of experience for people. It not only includes a complete array of forms, colors, textures, and patterns, but it is also associated with a wide range of basic sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective experiences (walking, climbing, exploring, returning home). Indeed, "geography is essential to survival" (Hall 1992, p.17): evolution has endowed all intelligent creatures with an instinctive understanding of geographic relationships. This minimizes the amount of learning effort necessary for people to make sense of representations that have the look and feel of geographic space. …

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