Solving Mysteries with Location Intelligence

December 22, 2010

3766407 c5e967d66c1 150x150 photo (data visualization)

3766407 c5e967d66c1 150x150 photo (data visualization)

In 1854, an outbreak of Cholera in London killed 127 people in just three days. A week later, it had killed 500 people. At that time, the common belief was that Cholera was caused by breathing “bad air,” but Dr. John Snow believed otherwise. Dr. Snow, now considered the father of Epidemiology, interviewed affected families in an attempt to find the source of the infection. Then he plotted the deaths on a map which revealed that they were centered around a water pump on Broad Street. With this map, he was able to convince authorities to remove the handle from the pump, which put an end to the outbreak. 

If  data visualization is the key to grown up business intelligence, then location intelligence may be an adolescent path towards adulthood. Location data is inherently visual, and plotting data on a map can provide additional insight that isn’t obvious until you see it.

In 2005, New York news stations covered the “maple syrup events” in New York City, where the pleasant odor of maple syrup appeared in certain areas of the city and then disappeared. Residents called the “311” line, fearing some kind of chemical warfare attack. In 2009, the mystery of the maple syrup events was unsolved, and city officials decided to use the 311 data to solve it. When calls came in to the 311 line, they were plotted on a map and supplemental data was noted such as temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed. Together with the map and the data, officials determined that the odor was coming from a group of industrial plants in New Jersey. It turns out that one of those plants was processing Fenugreek seeds — a substitute flavor for maple syrup.

Visualizing location data is powerful because you can communicate multiple pieces of information simultaneously. With a single colored circle on a map, Oakland Crimespotting is able to communicate three pieces of information: where the crime occurred, what type of crime it was (violent, property, quality of life), and the specific crime that occurred. Just by looking at multiple dots you begin to understand the data even better without any additional information being provided to you. You may see patterns or trends such as certain crimes that seem to happen together or areas of the city with the most violent crime. Hopefully you’ll see something in the data that helps put a stop to some of the crime. It’s the power of location and visualization together.

If your next data set can be linked to a location, why not try to visualize it on a map? You might find that the visualization helps you discover new information that may even help solve your own mystery!

Steve McDonnell
Spotfire Blogging Team