Last week I attended the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference and heard a talk by Robert Groves, Director of the US Census Bureau. Aside the impressiveness of the bureau’s work I was struck by how Groves conceived of visualisations as requiring either fast thinking or slow thinking. Fast thinking data visualisations offer a clear message without the need for the viewer to spend more than a few seconds exploring them. These tend to be much simpler in appearance, such as my map of the distance that London Underground trains travel during rush hour.
The explicit message of this map is that surprisingly large distances are covered across the network and that the Central Line rolling stock travels furthest. It is up to the reader to work out why this may be the case. Slow thinking maps require the viewer to think a little harder. These can range from more complex or unfamiliar ways of projecting the world as demonstrated by this gridded population cartogram of Africa from Benjamin Hennig’s PhD thesis
or the seemingly impenetrable (from a distance at least), but wonderfully intricate hand drawn work of Steven Walter (click image for interactive version).
I have seen bad examples of both slow thinking and fast thinking maps but there is undoubtedly more rubbish in the latter category. I blame the rise of infographics in addition to the increasing ease with which data can be mapped (I note, this latter point has also facilitated many great maps). It’s not all bad though, much like tabloid newspaper headlines I think clever fast thinking visualisations have required a lot of slow thinking by their creators and are good for portraying simple but important messages. My concern, however, is that slow thinking data visualisations are on the decline, especially online, because they do not grab the attention of potential viewers quickly enough or a similar impact (in terms of internet traffic) can be achieved with less data processing or, in the case of geography, cartographic flair. In addition there is a (perhaps legitimate) fear that producing complicated visualisations will buy cheap