In Visualization

“80 percent of business data has a geographic component.”

This meme has been hanging around the World Wide Web since its inception. Does it represent reality? Who knows. More importantly, does it represent a useful concept?

As stated in a 2013 report from Deloitte, “a place is no longer simply a point on a map or a political jurisdiction, but a living, evolving hub of information, a convergence of digital and physical worlds.” This is why geospatial views have such prominence in situational intelligence—place provides more subtle, rich, and even sub-conscious information to aid our interpretation of data than tables, charts and dashboards, detached from the locale they reference, can provide.

Placing information in a landscape or familiar environment allows multiple senses to feed our intuition about what the data means and what we should do about it. Badwater Basin, in Death Valley, and Mt. Whitney, in the Sierra Nevada, are at roughly the same latitude and about 85 miles apart as the crow flies. With only that information at hand, you might expect similar data readings from equipment installed at these locations. On the other hand, if you have a topographical map available, you can see that the same two pieces of equipment are operating at the lowest and highest points in the Continental U.S. and that wildly different readings may be within normal range – an artifact of place, rather than an indication of trouble.

In addition to providing more context, geographical placement can provide powerful cues that help us retain and share information. People who memorize seemingly superhuman amounts of information use a technique called a “memory palace.” They select a familiar physical environment that they can easily visualize, then associate the information to memorize with locations and objects within that visualized environment. When they want to recall information, they can bring up the associated location or object, or simply take an imaginary stroll through their memory palace to locate the information.

Geography functions like a memory palace for situational intelligence—a well-known physical environment to which people can connect information. Mention a notable site, such as the overlook at Niagara Falls, and everyone who has been there has immediate access to information such as the ambient noise, the dampness, the size of the parking lot, and whether there’s anything decent to eat nearby.

The difference is, with situational intelligence, the geospatial display can become a memory palace that’s shared among dozens of users in multiple parts of an organization.

I don’t know if 80 percent, or even a majority, of data has a geographic component. I do know that associating data with place whenever possible provides users with much richer and more useful insight.

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