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Map Versus Visualization: An Evaluation of Visual Communication Tools for Planning
ACSP (2012)
  • Thomas Wuerzer, Boise State University
  • Peter Mallow, University of Cincinnati

Widely available for more than two decades, GIS systems provide planners with a powerful tool for spatial data generation and analysis. However, communicating the information contained in the GIS system through non-verbal means has received little attention (Few 2009). Data visualization methods have garnered attention in recent years as technology and data collecting have become democratized. Data visualization is an effective tool for displaying complex spatial data into easy to comprehend maps for the public.

Yet, the principles of data visualization often are ignored in the communication of planning. This may be due to lack of education on the principles of data visualization, or users not understanding their data, or the tools commonly available do not allow the user to intuitively visualize and communicate their data. Talen (1998) presented in Visualizing Fairness – Equity maps for Planners a vital approach on equity issues based on access to public parks while pointing out that software such as ArcGIS can help in the effort of mapping those issues. Whereas her focus was the importance on the methods how to measure this access inequity and how GIS could ease a planners mapping efforts, the critical need of better visualization was not addressed. Drummond and French (2008), describe the potential future of GIS and how the planning discipline will adapt to new technologies such as web-based GIS or mapping portals (influenced today by social media). In addition, new technologies and lower costs for computing power have led to widespread use of these tools from small communities to the largest of cities.

This paper focuses on the role GIS tools incorporate the principles of visualization to create better means of non-verbal communication by planners. The assessment considers set up, ease of use and handling, and quality of output. Further we consider additional features such as modeling or analysis capabilities, costs and training efforts as relevant but weight is given to the visualization components.

A multi-tier and interdisciplinary evaluation matrix is conceptualized to evaluate common spatial visualization tools. The matrix is built on criteria found in literature reviews and supported by expertise in planning, design, and visualization techniques found in business intelligence and other disciplines (Brunsdon et al. 2007). Using a dataset on food desert research five software tools are assessed on the visualization capabilities ArcGIS, Quantum GIS (QGIS), Tableau, MATLAB, and Spotfire. ArcGIS is an ESRI product and widespread in the US. QGIS is very common in the European GIS open-source community. Tableau in its most recent version has added mapping and spatial features. MATLAB has found its way from engineering and medical sciences to planning research. Spotfire is business intelligence software with spatial capabilities.

Based on preliminary results we anticipate a significant distinction between the objectives of data generation and analysis, and the visual output capabilities of the examined software. However, the research is currently ongoing and it would be too earlier to comment on respective strengths or limitations.

The proposed presentation will present the background and structure of the study, include an in-depth discussion of the evaluation matrix, and demonstrate how better visualization can support planning academia and profession.

Publication Date
Fall November 1, 2012
Citation Information
Thomas Wuerzer and Peter Mallow. "Map Versus Visualization: An Evaluation of Visual Communication Tools for Planning" ACSP (2012)
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