Research spotlight on Anthony Robinson: Map symbology

As Anthony Robinson has found out, standardizing symbols on maps for the Department of Homeland Security is no easy task. 


An individual agency within Homeland Security may use hundreds of different symbols to make one map, and another agency may use a completely different set. Robinson and his team of researchers are working to develop a fix to that problem called SymbolStore, a web-based tool that allows Homeland Security mapmakers to share their symbols with the hope of proliferating the most commonly used ones.

For Robinson, a research associate with Penn State Geography, the work on SymbolStore is through the GeoVISTA Center and is just one of his projects. He’s also the lead faculty member for the department’s online GIS programs through the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, and he’s working with alumna Amy Griffin (Ph.D. 2004) on an eye-tracking research project at her institution in Australia.

His research interests focus broadly on interface design and evaluation for geovisualization tools.

“Ultimately, I’m most interested in figuring out what I can design to help people understand geographic phenomena through interactive maps,” Robinson said. “It’s about cartographic design research that focuses on what comes after paper maps, and there are an endless array of open questions about how we can best support users with new tools and techniques.”

Robinson received his master’s degree (2005) and doctorate (2008) in geography as one of Alan MacEachren’s advisees. His dissertation was “Design for Synthesis in Geovisualization.”

He is a co-principal investigator on the grant from Homeland Security for which SymbolStore was developed. Work began in 2009, and Robinson has been designing the interface for the application and planning for its eventual evaluation with DHS users.

Robinson has a simple analogy to illustrate how SymbolStore is used: It is to cartography as what iTunes is for music. SymbolStore users can upload symbols they use or they can browse and download what other people have uploaded.

He said another Penn State geographer, Cindy Brewer, and her application ColorBrewer pioneered developing specialized apps for niche aspects of cartographic design.

“ColorBrewer has been enormously successful because it helped mapmakers accomplish an important task, selecting good colors for their maps, through a really simple and engaging interface,” he said.

Robinson said Homeland Security sought out someone to standardize its mapping symbology, and through a mutual colleague, Homeland Security was referred to MacEachren and the GeoVISTA Center. This work is anticipated to be funded through 2012.

For the first part of the project, Robinson and his faculty and student colleagues analyzed the symbols that were being used within the separate agencies in Homeland Security. They concluded that strictly standardizing the symbology to enforce the use of a single set of symbols wouldn’t work.

“It’s a good example of a cartography problem that we thought was simple but turned out to be much more difficult,” he said. “What someone uses to represent fire in one place may be totally different in another.”

The symbols that are used are varied. Robinson said there may be one of a battleship for the Coast Guard, something that represents a plane crash site or disease outbreak origination, or others that represent infrastructure like schools, churches or stadiums.

In addition to the symbology work at Penn State, Robinson manages the department’s two online GIS programs, a master’s in GIS and a post-baccalaureate certificate program. He’s responsible for more than 30 faculty and graders, the curriculum, and the students’ academic experience.

At the same time, he works to evolve the Dutton Institute’s curriculum to match emerging GIScience research and technology trends and to work with instructional designers to deliver the courses and the most innovative and engaging ways possible, he said.

The intersection of the roles requires figuring out the synergies between them.

“It’s exciting for me to work between both worlds – there is still much to be learned on how to effectively manage and sustain online education at the graduate level at a top quality institution like Penn State,” he said.

Robinson also spends time working on an eye-tracking project with Griffin, an assistant professor of geography at University of New South Wales-Australian Defence Force Academy.

An eye-tracker is an infrared detection device that sits underneath the monitor of a computer. Robinson and Griffin use it to detect where and how eyes move while people are using geovisualization applications.

The eye-tracker creates data that can be displayed in multiple ways: one, using color to show the number of times the eyes looked at a certain spot on the computer screen. The other method, using lines, shows the track the eye took while taking in information so that scientists can understand the sequence of things that somebody saw while working with the computer.

The findings, when put into motion, are fascinating, Robinson said.

“What you see when you play these results back is that people’s eyes dart back and forth very quickly between legends and maps,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated behavior than you’d think. Your eye fixations are very dynamic, even if you think that you’re looking at just one thing, your eyes are actually taking in a lot more of the scene than you may think.”

The short-term goal, Robinson said, is to use the results to improve the interface of the geovisualization tools. Long-term, he hopes to secure funding to continue this research through a joint proposal with Griffin, and eventually to acquire an eye-tracker for Penn State.