Some thoughts on the state of HGIS visualization

A couple of months have passed since the CHGIS partnership met for the first time, and progress is underway as we have begun the initial research phase for the various white papers we have planned. As the research assistant under Jim Clifford and Byron Moldofsky, who are working on the white paper focused on data and information visualization for online HGIS, I can say that every day I work on this project I learn that the state of science and technology for the dynamic and interactive maps we plan to discuss is more varied than I realized the day before. For example, there are classic Flash-based interfaces like this one at GapMinder, simple but very useful data exploration and map visualizers like Palladio, open source GIS APIs and suites like OpenLayers, and systems that are proprietary but give you much freedom to design, build, and serve your maps as does ESRI’s Story Maps. But for all the work that HGIS scholars, industry professionals, and enthusiast have put into studying, developing, and discussing the various tools and platforms available, there is still much work to be done.

In light of the diverse elements we’re trying to bring together for this paper, we’ve adopted a three-thread approach for our initial stages of research. To begin with, in an effort to develop a typology of the online mapping and visualization tools that are available (and of value!) for an HGIS project, we’ve been scouring the internet for all the possible tools we can find, and discussing the characteristics, merits, and shortcomings of each in our weekly meetings. While I think we’ve still got a ways to go before we explore all the options that are available, we’re definitely making headway toward a useful means of comparing and determining the value of the tools.

Second, as we’ve been evaluating the various websites and leafing through journal articles, it’s become clear that there is little consistency to the words and names used for the various tools, options, methods, etc… you are likely to use for an HGIS project. The loose definitions and multiple names are due in no small part to the various proprietary tools we’re looking at. But, as with most things digital, time doesn’t stand still. Whether reading academic journals, industry papers, company websites, or blogs, the language we use to describe the contemporary technology is always shifting – when’s the last time you did anything ‘cyber’? So, while we have our work cut out for us trying to standardize the terminology we use when discussing HGIS visualization, we think it’s important to develop a clear lexicon so that: 1.) our readers will know what we mean when we use particular words; and 2.) other researchers may find it helpful to draw from when writing their papers.

Third, we’ve begun our literature review by sifting through the existing literature on HGIS-related visualizations. Once again, we are drawing on a broad swath of previous work; the research we’ve looked at so far has ranged through cognitive theory, visualization methods, the practice of online cartography, and also the social and political ramifications of web-mapping. Two articles that have been of particular help to us so far: Roth, Donohue, Sack, Wallace & Buckingham’s (2014) A Process for Keeping Pace with Evolving Web Mapping Technologies (doi:10.14714/CP78.1273), which presents an excellent methodology for the type of comparison we’re tackling, and Roth’s (2015) Interactive Maps: What We Know and What We Need to Know (doi:10.5311/JOSIS.2013.6.105), which includes a wide-ranging discussion of the questions GIS practitioners should consider when developing interactive maps. Thankfully, the depth and variety of literature available for us to draw on is a good thing – having several well-researched fields to draw on, each with multiple threads comprised of thorough, peer-reviewed works, means we can be sure our work is well-founded and supported.

On that note, if you have anything to share with us or the HGIS community, let us know! You are invited to join the conversation by adding your name to the “Friends of the CHGIS Partnership” mailing list. Email our project manager at:

Kevin Roy, Master’s Candidate & Research Assistant

This post is also available in: French