It’s Not a Map, It’s a Data Pool

When a Map is more than a “Map”

Athena Intelligence
5 min readJan 23, 2024

Graphical representations of data serve as powerful tools in conveying information. Maps and graphically expressed data, while both serving as tools for visual communication, differ in their nature and applications. Maps are inherently spatial, focusing on geographical relationships. In contrast, graphically expressed data can represent information in a visual form, which may be spatial or non-spatial. Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, expresses spatial data as a “map” with multiple layers.

Understanding the difference between maps and GIS reports is crucial for recognizing the value of Athena’s conditional, geospatial wildfire risk models for enhancing decision-making in wildfire risk mitigation.

Maps and graphical representations of data serve as powerful tools in conveying information, but they differ significantly in their fundamental nature and applications. Both maps and GIS reports provide insights into spatial relationships, they employ distinct methodologies and very different. The human brain processes big data more easily, intuitively, when it is graphically expressed. This is especially true for location specific information.

What is a Map?

Maps are the base of any GIS report. Maps are visual representations of geographical information, typically depicting physical features, boundaries, and spatial relationships. They utilize symbols, colors, and labels to convey information in a spatial context.

Cartography, or map making, goes back to ancient times. A map, in common usage, refers to a two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world. Maps facilitate the analysis of spatial patterns, distribution, and relationships, aiding in decision-making for urban planning, environmental studies, and more. Maps are pictures, or in the world of software, raster files, where pictures are stored in the form of pixels (ie. PDFs, JPEGs, PNGs, BIFs, etc.)

Link to original is under the next picture

For example, this map is of 5 counties in Northern California which had significant wildfire risk in 2020. The degree of risk, in each area, is shown by the colors.

Geographic Information & Data

Graphical representation of data involves visualizing non-spatial information through charts, graphs, colors, size or other visual elements. Not all graphically expressed data has a direct correlation with geographic space, but for Athena’s purposes, maps are the easiest way for our clients to begin using our data.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) leverages the human brain’s ability to interpret colors, shapes and patterns rapidly. Therefore, graphical representations of data, in the form of maps, are powerful tools for analyzing trends, correlations and patterns in spatial datasets. Just as graphs and charts simplify complex data, making it easier for a diverse audience to understand and interpret information, spatial information tied to recognizable locations is easier to interpret than columns and rows of numerical data.

GIS reports are maps integrated with an overlay of multiple layers of spatial data for comprehensive analysis. Consider a paper road map, versus the GPS in your car. The map shown when you select your route is a 2-dimensional . The estimates of milage and time to destination comes from the GIS data, as does all the images on the screen you see (and the voice giving directions) while you are driving.

In addition to driving information, GIS is used in location-based services, or business intelligence, such as urban development, demographics, crop yields or, in Athena’s case, wildfire risk. Again, in the language of software, are polygon, shapefiles or vector files, with file extensions of JSON, KML, GML and many others.

Athena’s focus is prefire insights for wildfire risk. This GIS example uses the same area as the prior map example. (That is, the same 5 counties in Northern California which had significant wildfire risk in 2020.) Click here to view and click the white arrow to go to the data.

The right side of swipe tool showcases the risk classes (red, yellow, and green) that Athena classified at the beginning of 2020, the left side of the swipe showcases the actual burn perimeters for fires that happened in 2020.

Link to ArcGIS example.

As you move around our GIS example, you can expand the map on your screen to see more detail and click any colored area to see Athena’s risk data by county or WUI block. It will show you something like this:

Link to ArcGIS example.

Bottom line, GIS may look like a map, and maps and GIS reports are both visual communication tools, but their nature and applications differ. A GIS report is a data pool. Athena’s GIS reports are computable and useful in a variety of ways across multiple industries and client types.

The widely used Wildfire Hazard Potential (WHP), from the US Forest Service’s Fire Modeling Institute is often presented as a map, and shared as a raster file. Risk modelers can access the layers, from the USFS website, and create GIS reports to assist utilities and communities in decisions related to deploy resources. The user’s challenge is that the information is numeric and not easily converted into useful insights.

Athena’s model is different from the WHP because our advanced algorithm converts the information into a more accurate, granular information designed to be easier for our customers to use in decision making. This is the goal of all GIS systems, to make complex data (tied to locations) more easily understood by human brains.

Maps are inherently spatial, focusing on geographical relationships, while GIS reports usually include non-spatial data tied to locations. Understanding these differences is crucial for leveraging their unique strengths and integrating them effectively in various fields, thereby enhancing decision-making processes and information communication.

Athena Intelligence is a prefire data vendor with a geospatial, conditional, profiling tool that pulls together vast amounts of disaggregated wildfire and environmental data to generate spatial intelligence, resulting in a digital fingerprint of wildfire risk.

For power companies, this helps them assess, a year in advance, where a consequential fire is most likely. For insurance or financial services companies, this assists in underwriting, portfolio risk optimization and loss cost probabilities for reserving.

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Athena Intelligence

Athena Intelligence weaves vast amounts of disaggregated environmental data. Drop us a line (, or visit