Ordnance Survey releases data visualization tool using video game software

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  • Author: Carlos Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 03 October 2013
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStockPhoto

The Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain has just presented a 3-D digital map representing over 220,000 square kilometers of mainland Britain, produced entirely with gathered data about the locations, height and terrain composition of the country. But the really cool part is that the entire map was recreated using the famous video game Minecraft, in an effort to improve both the accessibility and interest in the tools developed by the agency.

thumbnail image: Ordnance Survey releases data visualization tool using video game software

For those of you who have no idea what Minecraft is, well, it is simply one of the most successful independent games in the world. Created primarily by Markus "Notch" Persson, this game has sold more than 33 million copies around the globe, an astounding number for the industry. It is a video game based on construction, where the player can explore and modify a random generated map. Think of a digital enormous Lego set: each part of the world is built entirely of tiny cubes that you can move around to build houses, structures and other stuff. In some of the game modes your character can be attacked by awful creatures, so you have to build defenses during day to survive those terrifying nights filled with zombies, or something like that.

More interesting nonetheless, the game also has a creating mode, where you don't have to worry about surviving and all you have to do is let your imagination flow, in order to see your world of dreams come true. Or in this particular case, make your whole dataset come to life. The Ordnance Survey used some of their freely available data products to develop a computer program that created the world using Minecraft's tools. This means that the map is based on and reproduces the actual terrain and conditions of the country. So, if you happen to have a licensed version of Minecraft and about 5 GB of free space in your hard drive (The uncompressed world is about 3.6 gb), you can download it and start your digital travel.

By offering a way to digitally map statistical data, a video game has become a valuable tool for statisticians looking for ways to present complex datasets. And also, it allows us to have some fun while exploring data.

And what a travel indeed. Minecraft being a video game, your character could actually walk and live in this digital England. You will start just at the side of the agency's office. Due to the game's and data limitations, this is not Google Maps, so you'll be looking at some rather odd red blocks that represent the city's buildings. The game allows an aerial view, which is the closest this map will get to the real deal, resembling the geology of the island, its roads and rivers. It is a pleasure to fly over a digital version of London, entirely made of tiny blocks, or going to the highest mountains to awe yourself with the scaled height of the terrain. The whole island is composed of 22 billion blocks, in case you were wondering.

I found this project as a rather novel approach to data visualization. In this case, geographic data was used, but it would be plausible to detail a Minecraft map with demographic, economic or social data. The platform is not only cheap, but it is also easy and entertaining to use, I mean, it is a game. For this, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see more official Minecraft worlds: health risk maps, poverty distributions, etc.. One of the objectives of statistical science is to offer meaningful, interesting visualizations, where the information is clear and easy to understand. The idea of a chart is to share knowledge easily, even with those with poor mathematical skills. By using games, not only the presentation is useful and interesting, but attractive and easy to consume. By offering a way to digitally map statistical data, a video game has become a valuable tool for statisticians looking for ways to present complex datasets. And also, it allows us to have some fun while exploring data.

Sources:
http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/about/news/2013/minecraft-map-of-great-britain.html  
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minecraft  
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-09-24-ordnance-survey-maps-britain-in-minecraft

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