When Curtis Wong was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, he knew that the Milky Way existed. But like most urban-dwellers, he’d never seen it.
“It was just this mythical thing in books,” says Wong, who is now a principal researcher at Microsoft. “It wasn’t until after high school that some friends and I drove an hour north of LA and got to see the Milky Way, and it was unbelievable. After that, I always wanted to make it possible for everybody to see it.” Which he eventually did, through a virtual planetarium program from Microsoft called the WorldWide Telescope.
It’s a long and sinuous road that connects Wong’s youthful amateur-astronomy experience to the Worldwide Telescope and then to GeoFlow, a new geospatial visualization tool in Microsoft’s widely used Excel spreadsheet program. But it’s a fascinating story, and one that throws light on Microsoft’s vision for the future of its most profitable product, the Office productivity suite.
GeoFlow, which Microsoft unveiled in preview form back in early April, is an add-in for Excel 2013 that turns spreadsheet jockeys into mapmakers. It lets them take geographic data stored in Excel—that is, any quantity associated with a latitude and longitude or street address—and display it on a 3D map from Bing Maps. From there, they can call up different representations of the data, compare it to standard charts and graphs, or build animated tours that can help convey a story about the information to other users.
Imagine flying through a 3D map of Seattle, with skyscraper-like towers representing quantities such as energy consumption at the level of neighborhoods, blocks, and individual buildings. That kind of thing is possible with GeoFlow—and it’s a far cry from the flat, 2D graphics we’ve been trained to expect from Excel.
You can find some of the same features in advanced geographic information systems (GIS) software such as ESRI’s ArcGIS. But you don’t have to be a mapping expert to use it. Just as WorldWide Telescope gives non-astronomers a chance to explore the heavens, GeoFlow gives non-specialists a chance to play around with geographic data, inside the same spreadsheet software they’re probably already using to run the financial side of their businesses.
“If you think about Excel, it’s kind of the database for everybody,” Wong says. “Geospatial visualizations is a world where [users] have wanted to go, but there hasn’t been an easy way to do it. So we are going to where the data is.”
And with the guided-tours aspect of GeoFlow—which was inspired by a similar feature in WorldWide Telescope—Microsoft may giving a preview of where Office is heading.
“Traditionally, the storytelling tool in Office has been PowerPoint,” says Kevin Fan, a Microsoft program manager for Excel. “But if you look at what GeoFlow allows you to do—explore your data in a more interactive way—that is exactly the direction we want to move Excel in. So, in a way, it’s the vanguard of what we want to provide.”
Wong, who’s been a researcher at Microsoft since 1998, says the germ of the idea for GeoFlow came to him in mid-2008, right after the release of WorldWide Telescope. But to understand the connection, it helps to rewind even further, to work that Wong did in the 1990s as an executive producer at Corbis Productions.
Corbis is an image clearinghouse originally set up by Bill Gates in 1989. To show what could be done with the Corbis image collection, Wong led the creation of a series of multimedia CD-ROMs about subjects such as the Manhattan Project and Impressionist art. Each of these CD-ROMs was multilayered: they contained a foundational layer of documents, paintings, photos, and the like, overlaid with gallery-like visual spaces and guided tours. The idea was to give users several different ways into the archival material.
“If you look at every project I’ve done, it’s the same information architecture,” Wong says. “In terms of cognition, what something is is stored in a different part of the brain from where something is. The process of visual-audio-touch interaction helps your form little data points in your brain that are then connected, and the more you interact with other data points, the more you are redefining that mental model—to the point that you reach critical mass and you are able to extract something you couldn’t know before.”
In the early 2000s Wong had the opportunity to apply those ideas to astronomy, when he began working with Microsoft database researcher Jim Gray on the idea of a “virtual observatory” that would bring together astronomy data from digital archives around the world, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. With help from Jonathan Fay, a Microsoft software architect and engineer, Gray’s original SkyServer database eventually evolved into a full-scale digital planetarium program, the WorldWide Telescope, in which zoomable pictures of astronomical objects such as galaxies and nebulae were arranged on the surface of a vast inverted globe viewable through a Web or Windows client program.
That turned out to be a great tool for both professional and amateur astronomers. But to Wong, the astronomy data was just another foundational layer. “I told Jim, ‘We should allow people to create virtual tours,’ and he thought that was a great idea,” Wong says. (Gray vanished in a presumed boating accident in 2007.)
Since the release of WorldWide Telescope in 2008, astronomers, educators, and students have used the guided tour feature to create hundreds of presentations that treat various objects in the sky as stops in a slide show. Tour authors are able to control the virtual camera’s point of view and add voiceover narration. Harvard astrophysicist Alyssa Goodman, for example, has published a tour called “Dust and Us” that visits spots like the center of our Milky Way galaxy and the Orion Nebula to explain how the clumping of interstellar dust leads to star formation.
From the beginning, the rendering engine in WorldWide Telescope had the ability to display data on the outside as well as the inside of a sphere. That meant it could be used to show planetary surfaces—including Earth’s. Wong says he spent a lot of time in 2008 and 2009 “experimenting with how you could use the engine to visualize data on the Earth…both spatially and temporally, in a way that would allow us to tell stories about it.”
And that’s what led to the collaboration behind the GeoFlow project. (By the way, Microsoft says “GeoFlow” is just a code name and that the feature might get a different name by the time it becomes an official part of Excel.) In 2010 Wong shared his experiments with a number of product groups at Microsoft, including the Excel team. As it happened, they’d already been thinking about new ways to show map data inside the spreadsheet program, as a way to beef up Excel’s credibility as a business intelligence tool.
“A lot of users have geographic data, and they want to explore their data on a map, but it’s an expertise we never really had,” says Fan, the Excel program manager. “So when Curtis originally approached us about the concept of WorldWide Telescope and being able to plot data on Earth, we were extremely excited.”
The Excel team had worked with Microsoft Research before; in Office 2013, for example, the in-house research group contributed to a feature called Flash Fill that lets Excel users reformat information automatically. But it turned out that remaking Wong’s concept as a feature of a spreadsheet program wouldn’t be simple. “We had wanted to plot data on maps for a long time, so that was an easy conversation,” Fan says. “The more difficult part was talking about brass tacks and how we could transfer this technology from MSR [Microsoft Research] over to Excel.”
In the end, the Excel team had to start from scratch—there’s no code from WorldWide Telescope in GeoFlow. “We are very fortunate to have an awesome engineering team, including a UI [user interface] guy who specializes in 3D visualization, and another guy who specializes in spatial geometry,” Fan says. “So we built almost everything from the ground up. But most of the concepts originated from WorldWide Telescope, or from Curtis’s mind.”
Once you’ve downloaded the GeoFlow add-in for Excel 2013 ( available as part of Office 365 Pro Plus or Office Professional Plus 2013), you can transform large Excel workbooks into interactive 3D renderings on Bing Maps. Three visualization choices are available: columns (in which data of different types can be stacked in skyscraper-like blocks), heat maps (in which quantities are conveyed using colors on a spectrum), and bubble visualizations (where the size of a bubble corresponds to the magnitude of the underlying quantity). For time-stamped data, GeoFlow maps can be played like videos, showing how quantities change by the day, month, or year.
How might such visualizations be used? To take one simple example, the Seattle Art Museum, where Wong is a board member, used GeoFlow to get more targeted about its marketing efforts. “We thought we would take some data from the big Picasso show we had [in 2010-2011] and look at where the customers were coming from, and how that correlated with bus ads and other kinds of things,” says Wong. “It’s been really interesting to see where their members are, where their non-members are, and how they might be able to focus on certain ZIP codes to begin to convert non-members to members.”
In another example, a Microsoft sales team in Dallas put local government data about per-household electricity consumption into GeoFlow, and was able to dramatize the fact that neighborhoods with older housing stock use far more energy than those with newer stock.
This kind of map-based exploration isn’t unique to GeoFlow—but the guided-tour feature is. From the beginning, the Excel team bought into Wong’s vision that GeoFlow should be a storytelling tool: a way for spreadsheet-builders to organize their data into narratives. Just as in WorldWide Telescope, GeoFlow “authors” can navigate to a specific view of a dataset, then capture that view as a stop on a tour that others can replay. But unlike a slide show, a GeoFlow tour can be interactive: the viewer can pause the tour at any point to explore the data on their own.
“A guided tour is a path into the data itself, which is much more interesting than just putting circles on a graph,” Wong says. “It’s a path that will take you in and reproduce the thing that I saw that I want you to see too.”
And that’s a big change for Excel, which has traditionally been a tool for organizing and analyzing data, not explaining it. “Storytelling with Excel in the past has been about creating charts and pasting them into PowerPoint,” Fan says. “The whole concept of tours is something we had never done before.”
That said, there’s a well-established breed of spreadsheet jockeys who use Excel as a sort of presentation tool in business meetings—it’s just that it takes a lot of skill.
“Within Office, there has always been a very blurry line between presentation and analysis,” Fan says. “There are really strong synergies when the tool you use for exploration is also the tool you use for storytelling. And since Excel is the tool where you made the calculations, the ability to walk through the analysis within Excel—rather than copying over the finished product to a slide—provides some credibility.”
But before GeoFlow, such tours were always live and ad hoc, which meant they couldn’t be shared or curated. Early users of GeoFlow have already figured out how to use the tool to make tours showing the paths of commercial airline flights, with a plane’s altitude at various coordinates (from sites like Flightstats.com) illustrated by columns reaching into the virtual sky.
“It’s a really different experience from what you traditionally associate with Excel,” Fan says. “With traditional charges, you can slice and filter and do interesting things, but it doesn’t really invite you to explore your data; it doesn’t have that immersive feel that GeoFlow has. That type of fluid experience is something we want to carry forward in our next generation of innovations.”
As Office evolves beyond its desktop origins and becomes something more akin to a cloud-based utility, GeoFlow could be just one of many Web-based visualization and business intelligence tools available to Microsoft customers. Says Fan, “I’m just thinking out loud—there are no definite plans—but you can imagine GeoFlow actually being a service, where the Nikes and Fitbits of the world have GeoFlow on their websites” and use the maps to do thinks like show user data such as fitness logs. “That’s something that is really interesting for Office in general, as we move more toward services.”
WorldWide Telescope looks up at the sky; GeoFlow looks down at the Earth. But in the end, there’s a more important difference between the two tools. It’s that distant objects in the sky don’t change much—at least, not on a time scale comprehensible to humans—whereas the quantities people track in Excel are changing almost constantly.
Which is why features like animation and guided tours were so important for GeoFlow, in Wong’s view. “When you have really dynamic data, it demands a new kind of approach—one that is not static,” he says. “If you think down the road, you have all this big data in the cloud, and if you’re trying to explain what’s going on, what better thing than to have a virtual camera moving through the cloud, capturing the dynamics of whatever is happening? It’s not a video with static frames; it’s a path that you can pause at any time and look around and bring in other data sets and perhaps get a deeper understanding of what’s going on.”
The constant goal in Wong’s work has been making it possible for everybody to see something—whether it’s a famous Impressionist painting or the Milky Way or an important business-intelligence insight. To a researcher with that perspective, there’s no reason an analytics platform like Excel shouldn’t also be a storytelling platform.
So, where the GeoFlow concept goes from here will be interesting to watch. Will a community of users sharing GeoFlow tours emerge, as it did with WorldWide Telescope? Will the guided-tour concept pop up in other Office tools such as PowerPoint? Both seem likely. But personally, I’m waiting to see what Wong’s next big idea will be.
Here’s an official Microsoft video about GeoFlow.
Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.