Why are we changing maps? The power of data visualisation for storytelling

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Why are we changing maps?

Well, it’s simple really: data visualisation matters.

Presenting interesting data will no longer cut it in the marketing world. Yes, interesting content will attract more clicks of the mouse, but the way data is presented profoundly affects how we process that information and how we make assumptions about the world around us.

Data visualisation is intuitive

The importance of data visualisation is something most people naturally understand. If you are trying to demonstrate the importance of a piece of data to someone, you wouldn’t send them a raw spreadsheet with every single piece of categorised data.

So what should you do? Our instinct is to reach for the common examples; pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, frequency diagrams, timelines and so on. Their popularity is well-founded. These 2D data visualisation techniques are popular largely for two reasons:

1) They are easy to create: creating graphs using data from an Excel sheet is something even the most ardent technophobe can do.

2) They’re easy to understand: the majority of people will be able to see that one area of a pie-chart is bigger than another, that a line is trending upwards, or the progression of sequential dates.

However, although efficient, these basic diagrams do have drawbacks. If there are too many bits of data, these visualisations can quickly become messy or too complex to understand (which undermines their very purpose). Because of this, 2D data visualisations are also fairly inefficient in showing how data sets interact with each other. In most cases, the biggest problem is they are just so darn boring. Who can say they are excited at the prospect of being shown a pie-chart?

Using these visualisations to represent your data means that you’re not embracing the storytelling age. At best, you’re using visual elements to complement your story – you aren’t making data visualisation part of the story itself.

Making your data shine

As one of the foremost specialists in data visualisation and mapping, Esri has developed a range of technologies that can help marketers tell their data stories. The AcrGIS Online software is a cloud-based mapping platform which allows people to tell influential stories with their data, as demonstrated in their findings.

The technology allows you to visualise large amounts of data and convey complex ideas with visually rich, easily digestible context. The advantages of such visualisation techniques are myriad. By mapping in this way, it’s easy to get your main message across quickly, while also including the finer details which can be explored at greater length.

The map below, from the report The Age of Humans, instantly displays the distribution of the world’s 7.2 billion people by using red pixels to demonstrate the density spread. By scrolling to specific areas, it is possible to see this density in far more granular detail, supported by text, infographics and any supporting data that is required. This technique is echoed to demonstrate other key global stats: land management, forest loss, extinction rates and so on.

Each page has a clear narrative that can be understood immediately, but also contains massive data sets to visualise this message across the whole planet. How much more evocative is this compared to a pie chat visualising the same message?

Using data stories

As with any marketing technology, telling stories with data is not just presenting the facts. Fortunately, there are multiple creative ways to use visual mapping technology in modern marketing.

Starbucks, for example, uses mapping technology to visualise their marketing decision making. From picking the perfect location for a new store based on demographics, down to weather-forecasting for targeting cold drink promotions.

During the darkness of the Ebola crisis, MapAction used a storymap to convey the devastating impact of the disease in Western Africa and how MapAction helped to relieve suffering. Not only did the map achieve its primary goal to raise significant interest and money for the Big Give Christmas Challenge, it also illustrated the increased effect of encouraging people to follow a call-to-action, simply by using story mapping.

Media outlets are also seeing the benefit of interactive maps. The Independent, for instance, used this technique to support a piece on UK rent affordability, while the Daily Mirror used visual mapping to great effect during the hunt for flight MH370. Both saw greatly increased traffic and, perhaps more significantly, increased dwell times as users investigated the data more thoroughly.

There’s no reason why these benefits should be the sole preserve of newspapers; all marketers want to create eye-catching, sticky, shareable stories. If the story is good enough, this technology provides the opportunity to tell that story in the best possible form.

This article began with the question 'Why are we changing maps? Well, we’re not: maps and visual data mapping are changing the marketing world as we know it.

Esri is the world’s leading provider of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), helping people understand their world and design a smarter future.