The importance of context
Can you imagine a world without context? Every sentence you say having no relationship to what came before it? Every new skill you learn being mutually exclusive from what you learnt in the past?
Everyone, I’m sure, has experienced something they say being taken out of context. It’s misleading and often results in conclusions that are anything but the truth.
Context provides meaning and linkages between the simplest of everyday activities. Context matters.
Context is extremely important when working with any type of data. Data should be analysed with the tools that are purpose built for dealing with it. Nowhere is this context more important than with location data.
It’s simple. Data with a geographic or location component belongs on a map.
Working with spatial data in spreadsheets and databases is like working with revenue figures in a word processor. You may be able to see basic truths (if the numbers have gone up or gone down) but you can’t perform any calculations or analysis.
Why is every data type except geographic data housed in systems that are purpose built for handling it? Customer data has CRM, accounting data has financial planning systems and management data has ERP.
All of these systems put numbers and words centre stage but the “where” component of the data is often hidden in the background.
Geographic data is different
Geographic data has its own characteristics, its own patterns and behaviour. Geographic data feels at home on a map.
Unlike other data sources, geographic data is intensely visual and pattern oriented. These characteristics are lost when the data is contained in systems designed for words an numbers.
Before I worked with maps, I often demoted address, coordinate and zip code data to the last columns of my spreadsheets or reports. I knew this data was important but found it difficult to relate to the other data sources. You can’t easily correlate revenue figures with address data without working on a map.
It is hard to appreciate the unique characteristics of location data. Take for example the perceived size of certain countries or continents. We all know that Africa is huge and the other continents are pretty big too. However, it’s hard to understand the true size of an area without visualising it in context. The image below provides a true appreciation for the size of Africa and was a bit of a surprise to me when I first saw it.
Surprises like these happen all the time when you start to put your data on a map. Even the most obvious of assumptions are challenged and geographic context really starts to matter.
Make maps matter
It’s time to free your data from spreadsheets, databases and tabular reports. Nearly all business decisions place some importance on location.
If location data exists it needs relevant context. It needs to be visualised and analysed on a map.
It’s time to stop taking your data out of context. Geographic data needs to come home. Geographic data needs maps.