Effects of ensemble and summary displays on interpretations of geospatial uncertainty data


Ensemble and summary displays are two widely used methods to represent visual-spatial uncertainty; however, there is disagreement about which is the most effective technique to communicate uncertainty to the general public. Visualization scientists create ensemble displays by plotting multiple data points on the same Cartesian coordinate plane. Despite their use in scientific practice, it is more common in public presentations to use visualizations of summary displays, which scientists create by plotting statistical parameters of the ensemble members. While prior work has demonstrated that viewers make different decisions when viewing summary and ensemble displays, it is unclear what components of the displays lead to diverging judgments. This study aims to compare the salience of visual features – or visual elements that attract bottom-up attention – as one possible source of diverging judgments made with ensemble and summary displays in the context of hurricane track forecasts. We report that salient visual features of both ensemble and summary displays influence participant judgment. Specifically, we find that salient features of summary displays of geospatial uncertainty can be misunderstood as displaying size information. Further, salient features of ensemble displays evoke judgments that are indicative of accurate interpretations of the underlying probability distribution of the ensemble data. However, when participants use ensemble displays to make point-based judgments, they may overweight individual ensemble members in their decision-making process. We propose that ensemble displays are a promising alternative to summary displays in a geospatial context but that decisions about visualization methods should be informed by the viewer’s task.