/ Analysis / DataAppeal Makes Data Visualization Accessible

DataAppeal Makes Data Visualization Accessible

Matt Ball on May 15, 2013 - in Analysis, Interview

Amoroso_NadiaThere’s a great deal of change regarding how we monitor, analyze and understand our urban environments, and the volume of data that we can now access is central to this trend. However, not everyone that has data has the skill to unlock insight, and this is where a new online data visualization solution called DataAppeal comes into play. Informed Infrastructure (I2) editor Matt Ball recently spoke with Nadia Amoroso, co-founder of DataAppeal about the company’s background and approach of making data visualization tools accessible and the output from them easily understandable.

I2: Does your work on developing the DataAppeal software tie into your academic research and the books that you’ve written (The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles and Representing Landscapes: A Visual Collection of Landscape Architectural Drawings)?

Amoroso: Yes, indeed it does, more so with The Exposed CIty. I did my undergraduate studies in landscape architecture and  my Masters in Urban Design at the University of Toronto and then a Ph.D. in urban design and architectural studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, where  the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is housed.  I wasn’t really interested in just looking at traditional built forms, and designing built forms, but rather investigating textual and numerical information that has a role in shaping the city. It could be anything from crime rates, building bylaws, the number of surveillance cameras that dot the city, demographics, cell phone usages, air quality and any other  “invisible” factors of the city.

I was really interested in taking various kinds of data and using numerical information of the city as a palette to craft new  form or shaping a landscape of information, in an attempt to further understand the space. In the research, I started creating new topographical or 3D maps that use these numbers to sculpt forms. I  used off-the-shelf software, such as 3DStudio Max, Sketchup and Photoshop to individually create a “datascape”. I applied information taken from elements that effect our city, such as air quality, surveillance cameras that dot our urban core, traffic counts, market value, or other data feeds. Each type of data was crafted in a “map-landscape” of information, often taking shape as a new topographic form, or other shapes. Once digitally crafted, these “map-landscapes” were positioned at various viewpoints –top view, isometric view, or sectional views- to reveal many angles of the data-scape. Each “data-scape” was printed in large format (about 30” x 40”), and showcased at several different art galleries. These new maps were also presented in a number of industry and academic conferences. After each conference and exhibition, the participants were really engaged by these types of visuals.

After thinking about it for quite some time, I decided to automate this process– the idea of taking raw data and turning it in informative and artistic 3d and animated maps– so that anyone could take complex data and create their own insightful and artistic data maps. By doing so, they also are able to understand their information and make sense of it.
After the release of  my first book, I decided to start a data analytics and visualization company interested in helping organizations increase the use and sharing of information to improve high-quality decision making. I decided to name the company “Data Appeal”, based on the idea of turning boring, raw data and giving it an appealing twist to it and  attracting the user and the audience.

I started researching and developing a web-based application that allowed people to turn their raw boring location-based data files, into visually engaging information.

I2: This data exploration and manipulation sounds like it fills a neat niche, more about sketching with data than existing systems allow. Is your audience primarily a planning and design audience?

Amoroso: We are targeting a variety of groups, all with the need to understand, explore and make sense of their data. Planning and urban design  groups are a perfect fit. Our  application and our services also offer solutions to a variety of industries and cases from healthcare, transportation, real estate, finance, defense, government, and the environment.

The educational sector is also a perfect group. We have started to introduce the software into a variety of class curriculum settings from visual communication courses, urban design, environmental design, architecture, business, information design, geography, and graphic design. Students and professional really find this web-based tool easy to use, and find it beneficial for  their design,  analytical, and communication projects. Students are able to visually understand and make sense of their data, previous stored in typical spreadsheet files. They easily become engaged with the data visualization and begin to learn about the site of investigation.

The tool is also great for presentation and communication purposes. The graphics are a great medium to showcase the data in reports, PowerPoint presentation, posters and other presentational means.

The tool is ideal for any business that has lots of data and is not quite sure what to do with it. We help individuals, companies and organizations make sense of their confusing data through our  data visualization tools and our consulting services.

For example, we’ve had a pharmaceutical company using the application to visualize how their product has helped save lives globally. They created a data visualization that showed the benefits of using the device around the globe.

We’ve also had a company in Europe that has collected real-time pollution data in different cities using hand held eco- sensor pods on bicycles. Once the data is captured through these devices, the data is visualized in our software, showcasing real-time view of the amount of pollution in those locations.

I2: The pollution sensor example is really compelling as it’s about visualizing things that we can’t see. Is the visualization of sensor data an ongoing focus?

Amoroso: We’ve recently connected with a company in France called “Sensaris” that has developed mobile  hand-held sensor pods. Their eco-sensor pods capture a variety of environmental data from CO2, NOX, particulate matter, and noise. We have  provided this sensor pod to several users. They have roamed in specific areas in the  cities to capture and collect CO2  data. Once collected, the user has created a series of visually compelling “map-landscapes” or data visualizations of this particular data. The new data visualizations have exposed new findings in the area, which previously remained hidden.

I2: Your datascapes were initially used to understand the urban form. Are they also used to design a new urban form?

Amoroso: The idea is to look at this data in a new way, see new trends, reveal hidden elements, all from the resulting 3d data-maps or animated maps. It is not necessarily to craft a new urban form, which is fine as well. But rather, the urban designer or architect can take these new multidimensional maps as an alternative analytical piece and/or as a way to prefigure a new design for a cityscape.

In my Ph.D. work, I profiled key individuals from the early 20th century to today that took information and represented numerical data in a way that informs the public about the site. One of those key people is an architectural renderer named Hugh Ferriss from the early 1920s. He created poetic visualizations using charcoal as a medium of choice,  to visualize the 1916 building ordinance of New York. At the time, there were numerous tall buildings being constructed. Due to the increase of “skyscapers”, there was a fear of the lack of  sunlight,  air , and health being penetrated onto the streets of Manhattan. Therefore, the enforcement of  the zoning ordinance allowed the buildings to be “stepped-back”, once it reached a certain height.

A lot of people, including city officials and the general public, didn’t understand what the urban form would really look like based on these new building ordinances. Hugh Ferriss at the time drew a series of architectural renderings that pre-figured the “spatial container”  in which built form could occur. He turned that data into visually powerful information. His drawings were visually conveyed in a manner that could be understood not just by city officials and  architects, but by the general public.

This really inspired me. This is  what we wanted to achieve with our product–create powerful visually information that can resonate with everyone. We took a very simple approach, and used some design principles explained in my book – The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles. The numerical values in the data files are spatial rendered proportionately; the larger the value, the larger the model is created.

With that approach, people can really understand size and the relationship of one area to another. Your eye is drawn to the area of greater size. Each type of data is rendered the same color, since it is about one category. Only color intensity is altered. For example, higher values are rendered in a deeper dark shade while lower value groups, are depicted with a lighter shade of that same color. This is a simple principle, professed by Richard Saul Wurman (founder of the TED conferences).

I2: I’m looking at your visualization of downtown Toronto with the pedestrian versus road traffic volume. That’s a good example of what you’ve discussed, with these factors diametrically opposed, but maybe not apparent to the general public.

Amoroso: What you’re looking at is a static visualization, but because the application is based on Google Earth platform, people can dive into specific spots of interest. What makes it interesting is that we are working with three dimensional data so that you can walk through the data and while the data is engulf in the surrounding context (buildings, trees, and other site elements). You can zoom into areas of concern or areas that are outliers, and actually see the relationship between various data sets.

I2: Is there a temporal component as well, where you’re able to look at this data through time?

Amoroso: Yes there is. Many our designed maps  are animated. If there is a change in time or date in the dataset, this will create a data-visualization that “moves” or shows changes in the data over time. This is controlled be the Google Earth time bar.

I2: Are you opening a lot of eyes to the power of data visualization by presenting this information in this new light?

Amoroso: We want to make our GIS product, easy to use, with a designer-flare to it. We’re attracting various user groups and markets because of visual quality and ease of use, while still providing analytical results.  Corporations and government agencies have mounds of data. They often use complex Esri GIS products, that hard to use, expensive and not offering visually appealing material for presentations. We are not saying to replace these Esri products, if companies are using it,  but use our tool to complement it.

We often get complemented by the visual presentational look our data-maps have compared to the typical Esri ones. Users also comment on DataAppeal’s ease of use, and clear visual understanding of the data. This product is meant for anyone in an organization to use it, so that even people that have no training in GIS can use it. Also, the educational sector and non-GIS trained individuals  like the easy and the visual-look of the application. They can visualize their data, play with it, analyses it and get new insights visually.

I2: The open data movement with greater government transparency seems to be a nice alignment with your tools. Is that something that you’re taking advantage of?

Amoroso: Currently there is such a push towards open data from  Cities. Users often get data from open data stores like those from the City’s Open Data platform. The datasets often formatted in CSV, Excel, shapefiles or KML. These are all acceptable formats that can  be uploaded in our application. Users often search for and get data from the City’s Open Data, and then visualize, design it and analyze it through our application.

We’ve been working with some Cities to visualize health-rates issues per neighborhood such as diabetes rates or cancer screening rates for different areas of the city. Other types of data that the City and the public are interested to see include transportation, greens space and park systems, economic growth per neighborhood, safety and cultural amenities.

A combination of datasets and types can be overlaid in our application to see if there are any kinds of relationship or correlations between the various data. For example, we have visualized health-related data with that of green space and cultural amenities to see if  there are any connections  between these types of data in specific districts. So for example, if there is an alarming rate of diabetes in one specific area of the city that appears to have little or no cultural amenities, public transit or green space, then perhaps certain actions need to be made to increase these factors in order to help decrease this health-rate issue.

I2: There is a move on now to look at the city in a scientific way, and it’s exciting that this is a cross-disciplinary exploration. Being able to visualize in a common framework is a key to integration. Do your tools contain a collaborative element?

Amoroso: There is a lot of data accessible everywhere, and the key thing is what you do with it. Our  application unlocks the power of data. Through our tool, users become engaged with their data, rather than storing it away. By engaging with it, users learn more about place and the information associated with it information. The visuals resonate to all sectors of industries that have data– from planning, real estate, urban design, education, finance, insurance, natural resources, pharmaceutical, health-care, transportation, defense, environmental, information design, etc. The need to somehow make sense of owns information is the same in all industries.

We have Data Gallery, which is accessible to all registered users (free and paid users). This is a type of public data store. Once registered, users can browse and access our collection of data and interactive maps shared by DataAppeal’s community.

I2: How are you selling the software, is there both an individual and an enterprise approach?

Amoroso: Yes we have both. We have a “freemium” business model. Everyone can register for free, simply by entering a user name, email  and password through our website, www.dataappeal.com. Once registered, the user has access to our basic design and mapping features. We have a Premium version of our software through several options–“Pro” , “Appeal” and “Enterprise”. The upgraded version of our software allows users to upload more data, design more private maps, have access to more advanced analytical and  design features and more. Through the “Appeal” option, our design staff will also offer design guidance and also create some of the data-maps for the user. (This is a popular choice).

Often, companies and organizations reach out to us for the “Enterprise” packages, which allows them to customize their business needs with us. With “Enterprise” packages, we provide technical, design, and decision support from our expert team.  With “Enterprise” packages, we often work with companies directly. These companies often retain us for consulting work, and we work together with them to ensure their needs are met.

As part of our services, we offer a suite of options. One is product customization. Our location analysis online application can be used in ‘white-label’ applications to maintain an organizations’ or company’s brand. We also provide Spatial and Site Analysis. The DataAppeal team can support geography-dependant analytic projects such as site-analysis. DataAppeal will help to visualize land surveys and interpret key information to better understand the property’s environment and land condition. DataAppeal can also use spatial analysis to help organisations with market analysis and segmentation, customer interaction, gravity modelling, distribution channelling, and other related projects.

We often receive requests to do data visualization. We can help organizations find alternate ways of displaying information by acting as the data visualization partner. Our team can work with organizations’ staff to visualize raw data and interpret key findings. We also have the expertise to work with marketing teams and transform the application’s maps into high quality promotional images and videos.

We also do application integration. We help organizations integrate their IT systems, data stores, or other third/party applications with the DataAppeal platform to allow for an automated and continuous data feed. We have an online “a la Carte” mapping request form on our website, located under Pricing. We will design custom maps on an as-needed basis for organizations or individuals.

In the past four months, we’ve been pushing new design and analytical features as part of our premium packages; new design features are constantly being added onto the premium packages of our software. This has attracted more companies and organizations. Our team of GIS experts, business analytic experts, creative cartographers and designers drive our services and keep the product innovative.

If individuals or companies would like to contact us directly, they can do so at info@dataappeal.com or through our Contact section on our website www.dataappeal.com

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