Geocaching Taught Me To Visualize Information

Earlier this year I attended the IxDA Interaction 11 conference in Boulder, Colorado, one of most important in the field of interaction design. At this conference, I’m both an observer of the field and a student, gleaning ideas I can use to improve my own skills.

In my three years of attendance, I’ve learned that interaction design is not just about building products — it’s also about how to visualize information. One of my jobs is taking HTML/CSS code and making the content not only visible but easily accessible to the user. At a time when massive amounts of data are freely available, finding ways to making information not only understandable but also easier to use and manage has become its own field of study.

Making Information Visual

So what does “visualizing information” mean? For example, take a basic weather map we see on the local evening news. Apart from the physical location and geographical borders, information about air pressure and temperature are shown in graphics, instead of a straight list of numbers and statistics. This same information is given some sort of context (work, travel, agriculture) for viewing. From this, we make judgments about what activities we want to do at a certain time period (going to work, growing crops, flying on vacation).

We can use maps to overlay any information we want, depending on what we need or want to do. But one use of a map is something that we have been doing since childhood: using a map with information to find something.

And that’s just what I did at IxDA in Boulder. Each year’s conference has a different twist, depending on the location. Home to The University of Colorado, Celestial Teas and a growing tech/design area, Boulder is nestled near the Rockies and has a reputation as being eco-friendly. Well, when looking at the list of Friday activities, I found one that caught my attention: Geocaching: Treasure Hunt.

The “Treasure Hunt”

Geocaching is a hide-and-seek game where finders use GPS units or GPS-enable mobile phones to find caches. These caches are containers that have various items inside.  They can be as large a small Tupperware case. Or they could be micro caches, which can be as small as a 35mm film canister. Either one, these are located in publicly accessible areas and are hidden from view. However, the owner of a cache will leave some clues (text, title name, or images) for the finder to locate it. Of course, having a GPS unit does not mean it will be easy to find. If you have ever used one, you know that there is a certain range of accuracy depending on the signal and location.

Occasionally, these caches will have a travel bug, a type of GPS-enabled tag with a unique ID that the finder/owner can move to any location and place inside another cache. Once the cache has been found, the finder must leave something of equal/higher value in the cache, especially if something is taken from it. The finder marks that she/he found the cache via paper/app/website and replaces the cache in the exact spot for others to find.

Hmmm. Hide and seek with GPS tools. Exercise with actual pay off.  Sign me up!

Following lunch on Friday, the group got together. I was matched up with Jill, one of the advisors, due to the fact that we both we the only ones in the group who had Android phones. (BTW…interaction designers luv iPhones. Just an observation… ) I downloaded an app (there are a number of apps for iPhone and Android) beforehand and played around prior to the trip. It also helps if you have the latest upgrade of Google Maps on your phone with navigation abilities.

We traveled to an area in Boulder where we separated into three groups.  The group I was in located a micro cache about 0.7 miles north and we walked down some streets to the location. This was located in a parking lot (caches need to be in a public place). The GPS trackers got to about a couple of feet nearby. However, it had snowed a few days prior and the parking lot was covered in snow mounds about a few feet thick. I tried digging with gloves to see if I could find it but to no avail. Everyone searched around the area but no luck. Considering the area was still snowbound and we were finding a small micro cache, we decided to search for another one.

Looking at the geocaching app, we found another micro cache only a few meters away north. Unfortunately, we came up empty again – a snowbound area with little clue to finding it.

We decided to move to another one, this time a regular sized cache. This one was about 0.3mi west from our present location. Crossing streets and more parking lots later, we finally got to the location. Many of us recognized the location because of the clue given in the title. Like I mentioned before, the GPS only gives you a close proximity to the location; you still have to figure out where it actually is. Another clue pointed to its actual location. That’s easy enough.

Well, almost. Now, you have to try to get it out. Remember, these caches were not meant to be easy to find in the first place…

Finding the Prize

The tallest of the group reached in and pulled out the prize – one round metal candy tin. After a few hours of searching and coming up with the third choice, needless to say we were all ecstatic (judging from the group picture afterwards). Then we opened our prize.

Caches contain any sort of object left over from the previous finders or owner. (There are rules to what can or cannot be put there).  This one had a simple log book, with list of names and dates, referring when the cache was discovered. One of the more interesting items is a small tale/story in two small pieces of paper, folded in the cache.  It also had a squashed penny. This cache had a travel bug, which was taken by our advisor to be placed in another cache. As the custom, we had to put something back into the cache. A few items were put into the cache from other but someone shouted out “Does anyone have a coin?” I had some Canadian coins on me and threw in a “toonie” or a 2-dollar Canadian coin into the cache.

[By mentioning this, everyone here in the Innate office will automatically reply “Of course, he has one!” Needless to say, I take a lot of trips to Canada.]

Well after the celebration and signing of the small log book, everything was sealed up and the cache was place back in the same location before. The adviser marked the find on the site, along with the items that we placed in the cache.

Mission completed. Smiles but tired walking back to the bus and then back to the hotel. For me, the day was complete.

Now, when I work with information and its display, I’ll remember the connections between data and discovery that are made when geocaching.

P.S. I mentioned the travel bug earlier. Beforehand, it was revealed that one of goals, besides finding the caches, was to have at least one of the travel bugs moved bit-by-bit to the location of the next conference – Interaction 12 in Dublin, Ireland in February 2012. If this one makes it, it will no doubt be very well received.

For more information

Your turn:

  • Have you ever been geocaching?
  • What are your favorite examples of interaction design?
  • How about visualization of information?

Want to improve the interaction design for your website or online app? Innate has helped clients large and small solve their information design challenges. See our services list to see if we can help you.

Ivan Wilson

Front-End Developer

<p>Front-end developer at Innate, University of Oregon physics/math grad, competitive fencer, a lover of antiques and good music. In other words…just a human being.</p>

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