Cultural Differences in Map Data Visualization

Roger Peng

Matthew Panzarino had an interesting article in TechCrunch on Apple’s process for rebuilding their Maps app. While most of the article describes the laborious process of data collection, one part jumped out at me, which was the team that Panzarino describes as the “Department of Details.” They are responsible for a number of odds and ends regarding how maps are presented, but they are particularly concerned with presenting maps to people around the world.

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

What struck me is that I’ve never heard much discussion in the statistics data visualization literature about cultural differences in data perception. My assumption all along was that there would be perception theory that would try to determine the “optimal” data density for a given level of zoom (for example), based on metrics of, say, remembering certain features, or reasoning about what is seen. The idea that whatever the optimal density is might depend on the cultural background of the viewer is new to me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not terribly familiar with the literature on data visualization and perception. But I’d be happy to accept pointers to where this has been studied more thoroughly.