Assessing the effectiveness of different visualizations for judgments of positional uncertainty

Publication Type:

Journal Article


International Journal of Geographic Information Science, Volume 30, Issue 2, p.221-239 (2016)



heuristics, human judgment, positioning, uncertainty, Visualization


Many techniques have been proposed for visualizing uncertainty in geospatial data. Previous empirical research on the effectiveness of visualizations of geospatial uncertainty has focused primarily on user intuitions rather than objective measures of performance when reasoning under uncertainty. Framed in the context of Google’s blue dot, we examined the effectiveness of four alternative visualizations for representing positional uncertainty when reasoning about self-location data. Our task presents a mobile mapping scenario in which GPS satellite location readings produce location estimates with varying levels of uncertainty. Given a known location and two smartphone estimates of that known location, participants were asked to judge which smartphone produces the better location reading, taking uncertainty into account. We produced visualizations that vary by glyph type (uniform blue circle with border vs. Gaussian fade) and visibility of a centroid dot (visible vs. not visible) to produce the four visualization formats. Participants viewing the uniform blue circle are most likely to respond in accordance with the actual probability density of points sampled from bivariate normal distributions and additionally respond most rapidly. Participants reported a number of simple heuristics on which they based their judgments, and consistency with these heuristics was highly predictive of their judgments.