The Emotional Aspect of Discovery In Web Maps (Featuring The Interactive Ft. McMurray Wildfire Damage Map)
Written by Kyung Lee In June of 1993, I boarded a flight at SeaTac International Airport bound for St. Louis, Missouri. As the plane began to descend for landing, I looked out my window and marveled at acres and acres of freshly plowed fields stretching out to the horizon in every direction. We continued to decrease altitude and I began noticing shiny objects spread all throughout the fields. Were they water monitors? Devices for scaring birds away from newly planted seeds? Or maybe just natural mineral deposits?
A moment or two later, my gut dropped, and it had nothing to do with the altitude. Those sparkly spots weren’t objects… they were reflections… of the sun… on brown, muddy water… as far as the eye could see.
Upon landing I immediately bought a newspaper and started reading about the Great U.S. Flood of 1993. Nothing in print gave me that same overwhelming response—the moment of raw emotion that accompanies discovery. I had never really experienced that feeling with a map… until now.
Web maps are used for a wide variety of uses: to disseminate information, to provide directions between locations, or to predict changes to the world. One aspect that isn’t discussed much is the emotional aspect of discovery that accompanies interactive web mapping.
This is different than editorial maps intentionally created to evoke an emotional response. Discovery is organic to the user, not the producer. Static maps have already had their information culled and editorialized. Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake of 2010 were also epic in scale, but the maps of those events presented very clinical facts of damage delineations. They were informative, but still just lines on a piece of paper. Web maps add the aspect of interactivity, which leads to discovery, which can instill an emotional response from the user.
The Ft McMurray Damage Map is provided by the government of Alberta, Canada, to provide information to the 60,000+ residents forced to evacuate due to a massive wildfire. It interactively displays 50 centimeter-resolution images taken by Pléiades satellites.
At its initial extent, nothing seems amiss. There are no immediate signs of damage and it’s difficult to assess what has burned and what hasn’t.
Zooming in three levels, we can clearly see where the wildfires had burned. But at least the houses were saved.
And there’s that gut-wrenching feeling. You’re not seeing what you thought you were seeing. The action of discovery, not the information itself, is overwhelming. Conceptually, we know 2,400 structures burned in this town, but here we’ve hit that moment where it becomes real.
Discovery is what truly elevates web maps from their static siblings. The same information packs more punch when the user can explore the map and gain their own sense of the scope and/or depth of the information. Try to add a component of discovery to enhance your web map user’s experience, rather than just displaying a series of static maps.