Research on visual analysis of spatio-temporal data at Fraunhofer AIS: an overview of history and functionality of CommonGIS

Gennady Andrienko and Natalia Andrienko

Fraunhofer Institute AIS

Schloss Birlinghoven, 53754 Sankt Augustin, Germany


The roots of our approach to building interactive Internet-based systems for visual data analysis and electronic publishing of spatial maps and data originate from the software system IRIS (Information Retrieval Intelligent System) that was developed for Windows in the early nineties [1]. IRIS was implemented in C++. IRIS already realized several innovative ideas [2]:

1.      Concept of interactive maps that change their appearance in real-time upon user’s activation of interactive manipulators (see figures 1 and 2).

2.      Knowledge-based approach for the automated selection of map symbolism depending on data characteristics and user’s needs.

3.      Dynamic linking between maps and statistical graphics displays (brushing).

The development of IRIS continued by applying the Java programming language and environment for the Internet. IRIS, then renamed to Descartes, became one of the first interactive mapping systems available in the Internet [3]. As early as September 1996, it was included to the Top 1% web applets and Top 10 web applets lists by the independent Java Applet Rating Service (URL

In 1998-2001 the further development continued in the framework of ESPRIT project 28983, CommonGIS [4], which was proposed and coordinated by AIS. In the course of the project, the software was finally renamed to CommonGIS.


Figure 1. Effect of outlier removal (focusing). Due to a very high value of the birth rate in Albania all other countries in the map on the left seem to be coloured almost uniformly. When Albania is taken out of consideration (“removed”), differences between the other countries can be represented more distinctly. The operation is performed using interactive focussing control; see its appearance left and right to the map for initial and final states.


Figure 2. Visual comparison technique. On the left, the birth rate in Germany is chosen as the reference value. Countries with higher values are painted in shades of brown, and countries with lower values in shades of blue. On the right, the reference value has been changed to equal the birth rate in France. This is actually achieved just by a mouse click on France. Alternatively, user can click on a colour band (shown left and right to the map) to set the reference value.


CommonGIS is unique among both commercial and research software systems as a unique composition of well-integrated tools, which can complement and enhance each other thus allowing sophisticated analyses. The system includes various methods for cartographic visualisation, non-spatial graphs, tools for querying, search, and classification, and computation-enhanced visual techniques. A common feature of all the tools is their high user interactivity, which is essential for exploratory data analysis.

The main features of CommonGIS are the following:

1.      Powerful tools for Internet mapping that support a variety of standard formats of map and table data.

2.      A flexible client-server architecture that optimises download time and supports integration of data from network-distributed servers.

3.      A variety of interactive mapping techniques combined with statistical graphics displays and computations.

4.      Comprehensive tools for analysis of spatial time-series, including animated maps, time-aware map visualizations, and statistical graphics displays [5,6].

5.      Novel information visualization tools (dynamic query, table lens, parallel coordinate plots etc.) dynamically linked to maps and graphics via highlighting, selection, and brushing.

6.      Tools for interactive multi-criteria decision making and sensitivity analysis for individuals [7] and small groups [8] of decision makers. Recently we developed interactive methods that support various styles and procedures of informed decision making [9].

7.      Possibility to complement interactive visual data analysis by mathematical methods of statistics and data mining [10].

8.      A prototype of intelligent user guidance (task support module) [11] that helps users to follow problem solving scenarios and utilise all tools of interactive graphics for selected data analysis and decision making problems.

9.      Original methods of applying multivariate graphics (in particular, parallel coordinates plots) to the analysis of spatial data [12,13]. Also, original methods for calculating degrees of similarity in multidimensional attribute space are available.

10.  Space-time cube display for analysis of spatio-temporal events and other kinds of multidimensional data (figure 3, [14]).

11.  Tools for interactive aggregation of grid data tightly coupled with dynamic visualization of aggregation results (figure 4, [15]).



Figure 3. Multiple dynamically linked displays, including space-time cube.


The development of CommonGIS and its predecessors has always been oriented towards user’s needs. To ensure the friendliness of the user interface several usability tests were performed [16]. Their results demonstrated that only short training is sufficient for understanding and memorising the handling of the novel, and sometimes – but only prima facie - sophisticated looking tools, and their successful utilisation in problem solving. Our general experience is that new users must first learn and “feel” the very high interactivity of the direct manipulation tools of CommonGIS by way of some examples. A short introduction of 30 to 60 minutes, and some hands-on experience, would generally induce enough fun and courage so that users can continue with their own exploration of the further tools and mechanisms.



Figure 4. Data derived from two grids are represented by bar charts. If a resolution of aggregation is changed, the map will be automatically rebuilt.


A commercial version of the CommonGIS software is released by the SPADE – spatial decision support department of Fraunhofer AIS, see for details. Universities and schools can still order free licences from the same site for research and educational use.


We continue designing and developing research prototypes in the following directions:

  • Further development of methods and tools for analysis of spatio-temporal and multidimensional data.
  • Advancing interactive tools for dynamic aggregation and visual analysis of spatially- and temporally-related thematic information.
  • Creating scalable information visualization techniques that can work with very large data sets.
  • Interfacing to public-domain data mining tools; creating interactive visualization support to a number of data mining methods available in open-source external software packages.
  • Research and development for creation of tools for documenting the data analysis process and supporting construction of knowledge in the result of data analysis.
  • Advancing support for a variety of multi-criteria decision making problems and scenarios.


Our ultimate goal is to generalise our experience in designing methods and tools and thus build a theory of data analysis and decision making with the use of interactive information graphics displays. As a first step towards such a theory, we developed a classification of analysis tasks for time-related problems [17].


We are grateful to our colleagues P.Gatalsky, I.Denisovich, and M.Ostrovsky for their help in implementation of some of the techniques mentioned in this paper, and for fruitful discussions and friendly support. Partners in numerous R&D projects (CommonGIS, SPIN!, GIMMI, EuroFigures, EFIS, NEFIS, CHCC, SILVICS etc.) significantly influenced our work.


1.      Andrienko, G. and Andrienko, N. Intelligent Cartographic Visualization for Supporting Data Exploration in the IRIS System, Programming and Computer Software,1997, v.23 (5), pp 268-282

2.      Andrienko, G. and Andrienko, N. Interactive Maps for Visual Data Exploration, International Journal Geographical Information Science, 1999, v.13 (4), pp.355-374

3.      Andrienko, G. and Andrienko, N. IRIS: a Tool to Support Data Analysis with Maps, In Goodchild, M., Egenhofer, M., Fegeas, R., and Kottman, C. (eds.) Interoperating Geographic Information Systems, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, pp.221-234

4.      G. Andrienko, N. Andrienko, and H. Voss, GIS for Everyone: the CommonGIS project and beyond, M.Peterson (ed.), Maps and the Internet, Elsevier Science, 2003, pp. 131-146

5.      N. Andrienko, G. Andrienko, and P. Gatalsky, Tools for Visual Comparison of Spatial Development Scenarios, In Banissi, E. et al (Eds.) IV 2003. Seventh International Conference on Information Visualization, Proceedings, 16-18 July, 2003, London, UK. IEEE Computer Society, Los Alamitos, California, 2003, pp. 237-244.

6.      Andrienko, N., Andrienko, G., Interactive Visual Tools to Explore Spatio-Temporal Variation, In Proceedings AVI 2004 (accepted)

7.      Jankowski, P., Andrienko, N., and Andrienko, G. Map-Centered Exploratory Approach to Multiple Criteria Spatial Decision Making, International Journal Geographical Information Science, 2001, v.15 (2), pp.101-127

8.      Gennady Andrienko, Natalia Andrienko, and Piotr Jankowski, Building Spatial Decision Support Tools for Individuals and Groups, Journal of Decision Systems, 2003, v. 12 (2), pp.193-208

9.      Andrienko, N., Andrienko, G., Informed Spatial Decisions through Coordinated Views, Information Visualization, 2003, v.2 (4), pp. 270-285

10. Andrienko, N., Andrienko, G., Savinov, A., Voss, H., and Wettschereck, D. Exploratory Analysis of Spatial Data Using Interactive Maps and Data Mining, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 2001, v.28 (3), pp. 151-165

11. Andrienko, N. and Andrienko, G. Intelligent Support for Geographic Data Analysis and Decision Making in the Web, Journal of Geographic Information and Decision Analysis, 2001, v.5 (2), pp.115-128

12. Andrienko, G. and Andrienko, N. Exploring Spatial Data with Dominant Attribute Map and Parallel Coordinates, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 2001, v.25 (1), pp.5-15

13. Andrienko, G. and Andrienko, N. Constructing Parallel Coordinates Plot for Problem Solving, A.Butz, A.Krüger, P.Oliver, and M.Zhou (Eds.) 1st International Symposium on Smart Graphics, New York, USA, ACM Press, 2001, pp.9-14

14. Andrienko, N., Andrienko, G., Voss, H., Bernardo, F., Hipolito, J., and Kretchmer, U. Testing the Usability of Interactive Maps in CommonGIS, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 2002, v.29 (4), pp.325-342

15.  Peter Gatalsky, Natalia Andrienko, and Gennady Andrienko, Interactive Analysis of Event Data Using Space-Time Cube, Submitted to Information Visualization 2004 in London

16.  Andrienko, G., Andrienko, N., and Denisovich, I., Dynamic aggregation on grids for interactive analysis of multidimensional spatial information, In Proceedings AGILE 2004 (accepted)

17.  Natalia Andrienko, Gennady Andrienko, and Peter Gatalsky, Exploratory Spatio-Temporal Visualization: an Analytical Review, Journal of Visual Languages and Computing, 2003, v.14 (6), pp. 503-541