Visualizing Geospatial Information: Understanding place and space through everyday experiences

Written for and published in the book Migratory Lines: Navigating Across Disciplines, a collection of essays accompanying an exhibition of the same name at the Broadcast Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. The gallery is part of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Mobility, connectivity, and continually increasing processing power have enabled maps to transition from static representations of the world around us. Maps can now operate as platforms for interaction, retrieving and displaying content that enriches our understanding of our world and ourselves. From providing directions to plotting data about historic events, carefully considered visualization strategies can shape new interactions and generate new stories. As mapping continues to move forward, it is important to evaluate how these changes may affect the way we perceive everyday environments.

Visualizations that manage complex, dynamic information can allow individuals to find, or discover, information that augments their everyday lives. To investigate the outcomes that emerge when data visualization includes geospatial information, it is illuminating to consider two distinct but interrelated concepts, place and space. This essay will analyze ways in which Google Maps, an invaluable digital resource for many, visualizes and represents information about our physical environment. It will then go on to discuss how these representations reveal insights about our interactions with the world around us as understood through concepts of place and space, as well as implications these insights have for the process of designing a visualization.

Place and space in everyday life
Scholar Michel de Certeau defines place as a condition where “elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence,” an instance where every object has its own static location.[1] A conventional map of a geographic region reflects this notion of place, assigning specific positions to roads, bodies of water, mountains and other features. In contrast to the clearly defined positions represented in place, space “takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables.”[2] Space is a time-sensitive activity, requiring the movement and interaction of elements.

Although the differences between place and space are distinct, the interdependence between the two concepts is essential to their existence. Describing their relationship, de Certeau proposes that if space is analogous to the reading of a text, then the written text is analogous to place.[3]

Experiences in everyday life can demonstrate complex connections between place and space. Reading a written text is an activity that involves simultaneously interacting with the text itself and interpreting the meaning of the text. The meaning a reader gathers from a text is unpredictable and could be dependent on many different factors, ranging from an individual’s past experiences to the physical environment they read the text in. To further complicate the unpredictability of reading, the interpretation of a text can even change over time for an individual. This phenomenon also reflects how space affects meaning for physical places as well: a single place (a restaurant) acquires an ever-changing meaning over time that is informed by spatial experiences (a dinner, or conversations about that restaurant). The complexity between place and space lies in the realization that place contributes to a perception of space, and space contributes to perception of place.

Visual representations of place and space
Considering representations of place and space in concrete examples reveals how these concepts manifest in everyday life and helps identify future design opportunities to enhance individual’s interactions with geospatial information.

When a location marker for an established business or organization is selected in the Google Maps[4] interface, an overlay appears suggesting a variety of possible actions associated with that location. These include: Reviews and Photos, Directions, and Street View. This essay will consider the impact of three of these functions on the user’s relationship to ideas of place and space.


An overview of the three different experiences with space and place this essay discusses: Reviews and Photos, Directions, and Street View.



1. Reviews and Photos
Reviews and Photos are both composed entirely of content submitted by users, allowing anyone who chooses to participate in helping shape a general view of a location. An impression of a place can be gathered by viewing a variety of narratives and images from many different perspectives and from different moments in time.

In this instance, a variety of documented spatial experiences contribute to something larger, leading to broader impressions that provide a sense of place. Photos may include anything from a close-up of a coffee mug to a group of friends gathering in the center of a busy restaurant, or a touristic view down a street. This loosely organized structure ultimately requires an individual to develop their own understanding of a place by synthesizing many different sources of information.

Each spatial narrative is captured and preserved through an individual’s perspective at a particular moment in time. When this content is aggregated and displayed together, it creates a fragmented representation of a place, asking a viewer to piece together content and form their own opinion. Multiple reviews may recommend a particular dish at a restaurant, while one may present disdain for the same dish. Developing a sense of a place through Reviews and Photos can quickly become complex due to the many perspectives collaged together that create records of space.



2. Directions
By default, Directions seeks to navigate someone from one location to another in the quickest way possible: entering in two or more destinations results in a thick line overlaid on an aerial map depicting the trip’s path with instructions and an estimated duration of the trip. Each step includes concise instructions, such as “turn left” or “continue for 3 miles.”

de Certeau suggests that narratives about space and place may be articulated in two different ways: he refers to these as maps and tours.[5] Maps refer to descriptions focused on an understanding of places and their physical relationships to each other, whereas tours use navigation and movement as a way to tell stories. Formulated as a series of steps, Google Maps’ Directions operate as maps, describing basic actions to get to a destination.

However, acting on the navigational steps provided by Directions can change perceptions of place and space significantly. What begins as a concise set of directions, presented through text and aerial maps, becomes a task of moving through a series of places whilst locating street signs and fitting into automotive or pedestrian traffic. From these actions a new spatial narrative is created, similar to the act of reading a text.

Experiences in the physical environment can shift what appears from the Directions, to be primarily about place into space, and what appears to be about space into place.



3. Street view
In addition to the default aerial perspective map offered by the Google Maps interface, Street View allows users to navigate along streets in three-dimensional space, rendering the street’s surroundings.

Although this method of visualizing information appears to be focused on the representation of place, the still images that are stitched together can also accentuate the power of space and movement. Artist Jon Rafman’s ongoing web-based project 9-eyes documents strange, uncanny, and beautiful occurrences found in Street View.[6] The careful curation of these images abstracts attributes of place and location, foregrounding time and narrative: images vary from confrontations with police to tigers in nearly vacant parking lots.

Aside from instances where place may begin to resemble space in Street View, this feature can also perform similar functions as Directions, though in a very different way. If Street View is used as a tool to navigate, it resembles a tour in de Certeau’s terms, directly associating movement through space with a narrative. What may simply be “turn left” in Directions, could become “I move towards the corner building with the blue and white-striped awning, then turn left and continue until I see a building with large marble columns.”

Implications for visualizing geospatial information
Data visualization expert Ben Fry suggests beginning a visualization with questions such as “Why was the data collected, what’s interesting about it, and what stories can it tell?”.[7] One set of data can be represented in many different ways, and questioning the possibilities for the data helps define valuable strategies. Following an understanding of the visualization’s goal,data artist Jer Thorp uses ‘sketch points,’ an iterative process that allows ideas and approaches to be tested with little investment.[8] Integrating quick, low-risk studies that encourage exploration supports learning from failures and successes that would not have existed otherwise. This type of process allows the complexities presented by considering place and space in data visualization to be explored rapidly, turning tiny ideas into large learning opportunities. Visualization strategies in Google Maps make it apparent that even a seemingly direct objective, such as getting someone from point A to point B, can have many solutions even within one interface. Directions and Street View can help a user achieve a similar goal, but the experience of the goal is much different between the two.

Any visualization that concerns physical space will inevitably require decisions that facilitate our experiences of place and space. Examples found in Google Maps and the uses that surround them are only a start in this direction, but they identify larger themes to consider: constructing understandings of a place, representing narratives as spatial experiences, and anticipating points where place and space may switch. Addressing these themes through visualization, as well as possessing an awareness of their presence in everyday life, will enable visualization strategies that introduce new perspectives and understandings of place and space.

[1] Michael de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkely: University of Calfornia Press, 1984), p. 117.

[2] de Certeau, p. 117.

[3] de Certeau, p. 117.

[4] Google Maps <>[accessed 25 April 2013]. This essay discusses the Google Maps interface present on the site at this date.

[5] de Certeau, p. 119.

[6] Jon Rafman, 9-Eyes <>[accessed 25 April 2013]. This essay considers the Google Maps interface present on the site at this date.

[7] Ben Fry, Visualizing Data (Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media, 2007), p.4.

[8] Jer Thorp, ‘Visualization as Process, Not Output’, Harvard Business Review <>[accessed 25 April 2013]