Nadia Amoroso never imagined that she’d be working in a tech startup. What she did know was that she would be some day be working with data – and analyzing what it means for the spaces around us.
Now Amoroso, who has a PhD in architectural design from the University of Toronto, is the co-founder of DataAppeal, a Toronto-based startup that takes data tied to a location and presents it as a 3D visualization.
While Amoroso didn’t know much about coding or programming when she first started the company, she realized she did have something the tech space could use – a knowledge of ‘big data’ and the ability to decode it.
“I was examining data and the invisible forces that shape our city, things are not normally shown. So demographic patterns, CO2 levels, and cellphone readings and things like that,” she says.
“So instead of actually designing built environments, I was thinking, how can data become a built environment? So I started creating three-dimensional topographical map landscapes that were crafted based on the palette of data.”
Everything clicked into place during a conference in Detroit, Mich. in May 2010, where Amoroso was appearing as a panellist.
“I had a visual of ozone levels in London and toxicity areas in the Great Lakes region and that really kind of sparked an interest in the audience. And at the time, I had just come out with one of my first books … and it all came together at that point,” she says.
“There was that research, there were people talking about it … and the next logical step was the idea of making the technology available to everyone.”
Amoroso went on to co-found DataAppeal in December 2011, along with her cousin, programmer Carlos Amoroso, and Haim Sechter, who focuses on the business side of the company.
To use DataAppeal, users can go to the company Web site and upload their own data files. Typically, these would be Excel spreadsheets or similar types of data files. The data files need to include addresses with latitude and longitude coordinates, as well as numerical values assigned to the addresses – for example, the number of people living in that area or the number of sales at a retail store.
The numerical values are then rendered into a 3D model on Google Earth, creating shapes on a map. The shapes can appear as cones, spheres or spikes – whatever the user chooses to best illustrate their data.
And since DataAppeal is linked to Google Earth, users can even opt for an additional design feature called 3D Buildings Layer, which shows the shapes layered on top of images of buildings and roads. For example, a user could depict a spike jutting out of an individual building.
“The whole premise of our platform is to make data spatial, to make it three-dimensional because we live in a spatial world, so I was thinking of taking information and making it alive,” Amoroso says. “So you can begin to design it and play with the information and get a visual flair to it.”
So far, DataAppeal has attracted users from a variety of sectors, including some who work in mining, transportation, retail, urban planning and healthcare. Users with an educational background are also trying out the mapping process, since students respond better to data visualizations than static spreadsheets, Amoroso says.
SMBs could potentially use DataAppeal’s technology as well, she adds. For example, an IT company could track how many users actively use its applications and then redouble its branding efforts to target other markets. DataAppeal currently has about 2,000 users creating visualizations from their own data sets.
Amoroso envisions DataAppeal as an everyman’s tool in analyzing data and presenting it in a visually pleasing way – all the better for getting information across to others, she says. While there are other visualization applications out there, many of them require some skill, training and study in using a geographic information system.
Amoroso believes her startup is a simpler way for anyone to use data and tell a story through it – especially now that it is more accessible through the Internet.
It’s a welcome change, says Harvey Low, who works in the social research and analysis unit within the City of Toronto. The city also provides open data, meaning anyone can go online to access it. This could be useful for city residents who are curious about their neighbourhoods, and who might even want to observe correlations and trends within that data.
While the city has its own ways of visualizing data, Low says they only have access to 2D maps, so his department has used the DataAppeal’s 3D maps in its presentations.
“Sometimes, having an alternate way of describing and visualizing your data is a good thing,” Low says. “And we encourage that because we don’t have those technical tools, and that provides a user-friendly way of looking at our data that we would never have thought of.”
In the next few years, Amoroso says she hopes DataAppeal will continue to grow as big data becomes more ubiquitous. The startup currently offers users three subscription plans, ranging from a free package with basic features to other packages that start at $199 a year or $499 a year. Users who want to have maps created for them can send their data files to DataAppeal, and the designers will build them for $59 or more per data set.
“We’re trying to put this twist on creative cartography,” Amoroso says. “There’s this idea that data is becoming bigger and bigger as every day goes by … but people don’t know what to do with it.”
“We’re visualizing their information in a much more poetic way.”
DataAppeal created the video below as a tutorial for its data visualization process.