Geovisualization, short for "Geographic Visualization", refers to a set of tools and techniques supporting geospatial data analysis through the use of interactive visualization.


Like the related fields of scientific visualization MacEachren, A.M. and Kraak, M.J. 1997. Exploratory cartographic visualization: advancing the agenda. Computers & Geosciences, 23(4), pp. 335-343.] and information visualization Stuart K. Card, Mackinlay, J.D., and Shneidermann, B. 1999. Reading in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think. San Francisco: Morgan Kaumann Publishers.] geovisualization emphasizes knowledge construction over knowledge storage or information transmission. To do this, geovisualization communicates geospatial information in ways that, when combined with “human vision and domain expertise”, allow for data exploration and decision-making processes. Jiang, B., and Li, Z. 2005. Editorial: Geovisualization: Design, Enhanced Visual Tools and Applications. The Cartographic Journal, 42(1), pp. 3-4.] MacEachren, A.M. 2004. Geovisualization for knowledge construction and decision support. IEEE computer graphics and applications, 24(1), pp.13-17.]

Traditional, static maps have a limited exploratory capability; the graphical representations are inextricably linked to the geographical information beneath. GIS and geovisualization allow for more interactive maps; including the ability to explore different layers of the map, to zoom in or out, and to change the visual appearance of the map, usually on a computer display. Jiang, B., Huang, B., and Vasek, V. 2003. Geovisualisation for Planning Support Systems. In Planning Support Systems in Practice, Geertman, S., and Stillwell, J. (Eds.). Berlin: Springer.] Moreover, geovisualization represents a further development in cartography that takes advantage of the ability of modern computers to render changes to a map in real time, allowing users to adjust the mapped data ‘on the fly’.


The term visualization is first mentioned in the cartographic literature at least as early as 1953, in an article by University of Chicago geographer Allen K. Philbrick. New developments in the field of computer science prompted the National Science Foundation to redefine the term in a 1987 report which placed visualization at the convergence of computer graphics, image processing, computer vision, computer-aided design, signal processing, and user interface studies [McCormick, B.H., DeFanti, T.A., and Brown, M.D. (Eds.). 1987. Visualization in Scientific Computing. Computer Graphics, 21(6). p. 63.] and emphasized both the knowledge creation and hypothesis generation aspects of scientific visualization.

Geovisualization developed as a field of research in the early 1980s, based largely on the work of French graphic theorist Jacques Bertin. Bertin’s work on cartographic design and information visualization share with the National Science Foundation report a focus on the potential for the use of “dynamic visual displays as prompts for scientific insight and on the methods through which dynamic visual displays might leverage perceptual cognitive processes to facilitate scientific thinking”.

Geovisualization has continued to grow as a subject of practice and research. The International Cartographic Association (ICA) established a Commission on Visualization & Virtual Environments in 1995.

Related Fields

Geovisualization is closely related to other visualization fields, such as scientific visualization and information visualization. Owing to its roots in cartography, geovisualization contributes to these other fields by way of the map metaphor, which “has been widely used to visualize non-geographic information in the domains of information visualization and domain knowledge visualization.

Practical Applications

Geovisualization has made inroads in a diverse set of real-world situations calling for the decision-making and knowledge creation processes it can provide. The following list provides a summary of some of these applications as they are discussed in the geovisualization literature.


Geovisualizers, working with European foresters, used CommonGIS and Visualization Toolkit (VTK) to visualize a large set of spatio-temporal data related to European forests, allowing the data to be explored by non-experts over the Internet. The report summarizing this effort “uncovers a range of fundamental issues relevant to the broad field of geovisualization and information visualization research”. Andrienko, G., Andrienko, N., Jankowski, P, Keim, D., Kraak, M.-J., MacEachren, A.M., and Wrobel, S. 2007. Geovisual analytics for spatial decision support: Setting the research agenda. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 21(8), pp. 839-857.]

The researcher team cited the two major problems as the inability of the geovisualizers to convince the foresters of the efficacy of geovisualization in their work and the foresters’ misgivings over the dataset’s accessibility to non-experts engaging in “uncontrolled exploration”. While the geovisualizers focused on the ability of geovisualization to aid in knowledge construction, the foresters preferred the information-communication role of more traditional forms of cartographic representation.


Geovisualization provides archaeologists with a potential technique for mapping unearthed archaeological environments as well as for accessing and exploring archaeological data in three dimensions. [Watters, M. 2005. Geovisualization: an Example from the Catholme Ceremonial Complex. Archaeological Prospection, 13, pp. 282-290.]

The implications of geovisualization for archaeology are not limited to advances in archaeological theory and exploration but also include the development of new, collaborative relationships between archaeologists and computer scientists. [Watters, M. 2005. Review of Exploring Geovisualization , Dykes, J., MacEachren, A.M., and Kraak, M.J. (Eds.). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 2004. In Archaeological Prospection, 12, pp. 265-266.]

Environmental Studies

Geovisualization tools provide multiple stakeholders with the ability to make balanced environmental decisions by taking into account the “the complex interacting factors that should be taken into account when studying environmental changes”. Geovisualization users can use a geo-referenced model to explore a complex set of environmental data, interrogating a number of scenarios or policy options to determine a best fit. [Danada, J., Dias, E., Romao, T., Correia, N., Trabuco, A., Santos, C., Serpa, J., Costa, M., Camara, A. 2005. Mobile Environmental Visualization. The Cartographic Journal, 42(1), pp. 61-68.]

Urban Planning

Both planners and the general public can use geovisualization to explore real-world environments and model ‘what if’ scenarios based on spatio-temporal data. While geovisualization in the preceding fields may be divided into two separate domains—the private domain, in which professionals use geovisualization to explore data and generate hypotheses, and the public domain, in which these professionals present their “visual thinking” to the general public—planning relies more heavily than many other fields on collaboration between the general public and professionals.

Planners use geovisualization as a tool for modeling the environmental interests and policy concerns of the general public. Jiang et al. mention two examples, in which “3D photorealistic representations are used to show urban redevelopment [and] dynamic computer simulations are used to show possible pollution diffusion over the next few years.” The widespread use of the Internet by the general public has implications for these collaborative planning efforts, leading to increased participation by the public while decreasing the amount of time it takes to debate more controversial planning decisions.

ee also

*Animated mapping
*Computer-aided design
*Computer graphics
*Computer vision
*Exploratory data analysis
*Image processing
*Signal processing


Further reading

*Cartwright, W. 1997. New media and their application to the production of map products. Computers & Geosciences, 23(4), pp. 447-456.

*Philbrick, A.K. 1953. Toward a unity of cartographical forms and geographical content. Professional Geographer, 5(5), pp. 11-15.

*Taylor, D.R.F. 1994. Geographic Information Systems: the microcomputer and modern cartography. In Geographic Information Systems: The Microcomputer and Modern Cartography, D.R.F. Taylor and A.M. MacEachren (Eds.). Oxford: Pergamon, pp. 333-342.

External links

* [ International Cartographic Association Commission on GeoVisualization ] (since 2007)
* [ International Cartographic Association Commission on Visualization and Virtual Environments ] (1995-2007)
* [ Penn State GeoVISTA Center]
* [ - portal on GeoSpatial Visual Analytics]
* [ ESRI Overview of Geovisualization]
* [ Geovisualize the 2004 Election]
* [ Geovisualization at the National Cancer Institute]
* [ GeoViz Toolkit -- Open Source Toolkit for Geovizualization]

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