Future Of Real-Time: Context Cartography

Future Of Real-Time: Context Cartography

Through the union of data and location, multiple layers of real-time information can be displayed geographically, providing enhanced situational context.

Scott Lachut, PSFK Labs
  • 2 february 2011

Through the union of data and location, multiple layers of real-time information can be displayed geographically, providing enhanced situational context for ground crews and policy makers alike. Highly specific types of information can be especially useful on a large scale to help facilitate decision- making processes at the level of businesses, institutions and governments.


  • Information gives decision makers at an institutional level quick and accurate information.
  • Rapidly changing/evolving strategies can be geographically mapped and used to influence approachest to a response.
  • The union of data with place helps ensure that resources are being distributed equitably across a region and that they’re tracked while en route to a destination.
  • By understanding where an event or situation originated, response organizations are better equipped to manage or prevent similar events from occuring in the future.
  • Mapping the scale of distant events alongside familar environments promotes greater understanding through local context.
  • Knowing what is happening at any given time becomes more meaningful when this information is also linked to place.

Supporting Examples for Context Cartography

Global Health Based On Local Information
HealthMap brings together disparate data sources to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. The website integrates outbreak data of varying reliability, ranging from news sources to curated personal accounts to validated official alerts. Through an automated text processing system, the data is aggregated by disease and displayed by location for user-friendly access to the original alert.

Creative Data Overlays On Interactive Maps
Polymaps is an open-source JavaScript library of controls that simplifies and standardizes the creation of interactive online maps. Created as a collaboration between Stamen Design and SimpleGeo, the goal of the project is to better support complex, large-scale data overlays. Polymaps can load data at a full range of scales, so it is ideal for showing information starting from a country level, and descending to states, cities, neighborhoods, and individual streets.

Visualizing Complex Social And Political Data
The Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University specializes in visualizing complex political and social data, such as incarceration rates and financial expenditures, to help re-envision the relationship between architecture, criminal justice, and community investment. The lab works with data about space— numeric data combined with narratives and images to design compelling visual presentations that link social data with geography. This helps researchers and advocates communi- cate information clearly, responsibly, and provocatively. By reorganizing data using visualization techniques, and locating it geographically, they attempt to correlate disparate items of information and open new spaces for action and options for intervention.

Shared Visual Experience For Disaster Response Teams
San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center (Viz Lab) is a Navy-sponsored organization that produces geographic renderings for first responders around the globe. Using imagery collected by defense agencies and other types of government organizations, the Viz Lab is able to generate interactive maps depicting damaged locations, hospitals, refugee camps and other data rarely available to responders. These 3-D representations give command center employees more accurate and detail-rich images than 2-D maps afford, providing responders with an increased level of situ- ational awareness.

Putting Social Enterprise On The Map
iuMap is an online directory that interfaces with Google Maps. Culling together organizations as diverse as health, education, fair trade crafts, and water, the map’s goal is to centralize and codify the functions of these organizations in one, concrete hub. The map was created as a response to the lack of central- ized information, a place where one could find easily digestible and critical information to help the social enterprise com- munity learn from successes, failures and challenges, so that decisions can be made more easily, quickly, and cheaply.

Maps Created Around Major Events
Dimensions is an experimental prototype for the BBC that is designed to provide a human scale to events and places in history in terms that any person can understand and experi- ence. This is accomplished by overlaying the size of historical events, locations and objects onto satellite views of a person’s city or neighborhood Some of these “Dimensions” can be physically experienced as short, size-accurate walks, that allow individuals to get a first- hand point of view and appreciation of the distances involved.


Add your thoughts and ideas on Twitter and other social media networks using #ContextCartography

Watch the PSFK team present the report in New York in February on Feb 10 at Open UN – Engagement in the age of real-time and on Feb 18 at PSFK SALON at Soho House NY.

For your free download of this report please visit

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