image of SIGGRAPH 2023 digital art installation

Power Tools: Using Combined Interfaces to Build Maps on the Web

Image Credit: photo by John Fujii © 2023 ACM SIGGRAPH

SIGGRAPH had the opportunity to chat with SIGGRAPH 2023 Labs contributor Ann McNamara about her hands-on class “Building Maps on the Web Using RStudio, Leaflet, and Shiny” and the ways advances in spatial data and mapping techniques are proving to be transformative.

SIGGRAPH: It’s great to chat with you! Can you tell us why you were compelled to present these data visualization techniques as a hands-on workshop rather than a lecture?

Ann McNamara (AM): My intent was to engage the audience in active learning in the hopes that it would lead to a deeper understanding of the material. While not everyone learns the same way, practical skills are often best digested with direct experience. The other bonus of offering this as a hands-on workshop was the ability to simulate real-world applications, allowing the audience to try out scenarios during the Labs session, and equip them to futher develop and refine their skills after the conference. The beauty of this topic is that in a hands-on environment, attendees could see immediate results — they could then adjust their code and immediately see the consequences of their actions. This allows for faster refinements and updates, but also allows participants to tailor the material to their specific needs. And from a selfish point of view, leading this hands-on Lab allowed me an opportunity to engage with the audience and get to know them a little better on an individual basis over the course of the Lab.

SIGGRAPH: What spatial data lends itself particularly well to the three development tools presented in the class (RStudio, Leaflet, and Shiny)? 

AM: These tools are excellent in many domains, as they are adaptable in managing and showcasing spatial data. For instance, they are just perfect for visualizing a wide array of geographical information, such as the location of coffee shops, significant landmarks, cities and towns, urban planning data, environmental data sets, (extreme) weather data, emergency data, wildfire tracking, and many more applications where the geographical component can be woven into the analysis and visualization.

As an example, the Texas Art Project is a unique collaboration between the Texas A&M Center of Digital Humanities Research and the School of Performance, Visualization & Fine Arts. This project, led by Assistant Professor Dr. Tianna Uchacz, showcases the legacy of artist Edward Muegge “Buck” Schiwetz (1898–1984). Schiwetz is recognized for his skills as an architectural draftsman, a commercial artist, and an acclaimed fine artist. A standout feature of the website is the interactive map, which provides a spatial representation of Schiwetz’s life and professional footprint, demonstrating a novel use of spatial mapping in archival documentation, and as a key educational tool.

SIGGRAPH: Can you talk more about how these three tools integrate and what is uniquely powerful about the combination?

AM: The tools presented are a powerful combination when working with any spatial data that requires filtering, analysis, visualization, and deployment to an interactive web application. RStudio allows for data transformation and statistical analysis, while Leaflet provides a javaScript library for interactive maps; Shiny allows the user to build interactive web applictions directly from R. Together these tools combine to provide a powerful suite to handle the presentation of spatial data. 

SIGGRAPH: What new advances in data mapping technology or techniques have you particularly excited right now?

AM: The rapid evolution of Machine Learning and AI image classification that can better interpret drone technology is revolutionizing our capacity to generate high-resolution maps, even in locations that are traditionally inaccessible. LiDar and AI are making it possible to create highly detailed 3D maps useful for many applications.   

I direct the VIVID lab at Texas A&M University, under the Texas A&M Institute of Data Science, and we’re evaluating the use of AR/VR technologies to combine immersive experiences with spatial data. This fusion facilitates accurate virtual walkthroughs, enhancing applications in  training, education, and simulation. Collaborating with artist and VIVID lab co-director, Courtney Starrett, we are venturing into embedding spatial data into tangible artifacts. These “Data Materializations” allow for interactive experiences with spatial data in the physical world.

I am really curious about the integration of spatial data with the Internet of Things (IoT) and how, when combined with mapping techniques, such integration has the potential to be transformative. Sensors can now deliver real-time data streams based on location — this could impact many real-life issues, including traffic flow, resource allocation, and safety-critical applications.

Ultimately, emerging trends will make all data more accessible, insightful, accurate, and actionable, leading to improved decision-making in all aspects of life.

SIGGRAPH: With data mapping tools being used to track and visualize issues as diverse as climate change, war crimes, pollution, and geographical health inequities, what are other ways you can imagine these tools and techniques being used to illuminate or help solve problems in our world?

AM: There are so many ways to imagine leveraging these tools to address problems. As the technology continues to evolve, applications will grow to meet evolving needs. Problems ranging from disaster management and response to health, transportation and logistics, and market analysis will benefit from spatial analysis. This will be especially impactful when coupled with advancements in AI. We don’t know what the future holds. Who could have predicted that COVID would have such an impact on our lives, but spatial mapping data was an important part of understanding the spread of the disease and the impact of the event.

SIGGRAPH: What was your personal takeaway as an instructor/presenter in the SIGGRAPH 2023 Labs program, and what advice would you give to someone who is submitting their work or idea to the SIGGRAPH 2024 Labs program?

AM: It was an enriching experience from both a personal and professional level. As an educator, I am passionate about lifelong learning, and I find it especially rewarding to share information on topics that have real application for the audience. I am delighted I got the opportunity to present, and I appreciate being included in the program.  My advice for those planning to submit to SIGGRAPH 2024 is, first of all, go for it! It’s a wonderful experience. But also think about what you want your audience to walk away with. Sometimes imparting a single key idea that is well-understood and can be built upon is more valuable than a deluge of information that is quickly forgotten. Go for quality, not quantity; the timeframe for Labs presentations is not very long, so aim to cover one or two topics well while including the next steps so your audience can leave with a robust foundation to build upon.


Ann McNamara

Ann McNamara is the associate dean for research in the School of Performance, Visualization & Fine Arts, and an associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on the advancement of computer graphics and scientific visualization through novel approaches for optimizing an individual’s experience when creating, viewing, and interacting with virtual and augmented spaces. She is the recipient of an NSF CAREER AWARD entitled “Advancing Interaction Paradigms in Mobile Augmented Reality using Eye-Tracking”.

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