Irfon Valley terrain model

Owen Powell is a data visualisation artist using open source mapping data to create beautifully detailed images and 3D terrain models.

We’ve collaborated with Owen on an original image and 3D terrain model of the Irfon Valley in Wales, a location that features prominently in the photography of our first season.

Below you can view and interact with a 3D terrain model of the valley, including POV annotations for three of the images from our season 1 photography.

You can view and download a hi-res version of the image here.

Contains Natural Resources Wales information © Natural Resources Wales and Database Right. All rights Reserved. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2017.



We spoke to Owen about his work, practical applications of this technology, and what it is that draws people to landscapes.

Hi Owen, how did you get in to visualising data?

I’ve been working in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry for over ten years; making maps, working with data and doing analysis. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I didn’t study GIS but got into by accident after graduating with a Fine Art degree and applying for interesting jobs. I love it though, and got quickly absorbed in what is a massive subject.

Perhaps not the most vocational degree, but I always value the design principles that were drummed into me, such as the importance of negative space in an image, colour theory, and how to read objects – not just looking but ‘seeing’. One thing that has definitely helped me from art school is how to visually communicate an idea or message – to continually reevaluate your work to ensure it gets the concept across.

Can you explain a little bit about open data in the context of mapping data, and how that allows you to create these images and models?

For a long time geographic data was very expensive, and tied up in licences that made it difficult to share. Following on from the revolution in open source software in recent years, open data has revolutionised the GIS industry (also partly due to Google Maps, where people were less willing to pay massive amounts for mapping).

As well as crowd sourced mapping data such as OpenStreetMap, countries such as the UK have been driving innovation and transparency of information by releasing government sourced data to the public, including a wealth of map data.

As a result an archive of incredibly detailed digital terrain models have been released by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, captured from aerial LIDAR. Data such as this would have cost thousands only a couple of years ago, and to now have access to such a large amount of quality data inspires me to make things with it.

LIDAR open data landscape by Owen Powell. © Environment Agency copyright and/or database right 2016. All rights reserved.

What are the practical implications of being able to access and use mapping data in this way?

What it means is people have free access to the software tools and data to provide their own insights, and with the internet, a platform to easily share it with the world. With spatial analysis you can join seemingly disparate sources of information and identify patterns and relationships based on their location.

And what about for cyclists and adventurers in particular?

This sort of terrain data could have many uses for cyclists and outdoor exploration, in terms of planning routes and analysis of GPS data. The most detailed aerial LIDAR data available gives you a height reading every 25cm on the ground, which could give you an extra competitive advantage. Also known as ‘remote sensing’, capturing data about the landscape in this way provides you with a huge amount of information – almost as good as being there.

What do you think it is about landscapes, both real and imagined, that draws people to them?

It’s something to do with wanting to capture the feeling of being outdoors that so many people long for, and can relate to. For me, it’s about freedom and optimism. Its also about trying to make sense of your environment, and to comprehend the sense of scale – which can be humbling.


 Yosemite LIDAR by Owen Powell

Is there a community of artists working with mapping data in a similar way to you?

Yes, there are some fantastic artists and cartographers putting their work online, in my opinion driven by the availability of open data and open source software. People whose work I love include Craig Taylor, John Nelson, Stephen R Smith and Daniel P Huffman.

I think they share values that I have always aimed for, to produce accurate data-driven visualisations but with a graphic focus that makes it accessible. Something in my opinion that is often forgotten about – cartographic clarity is about getting your message across, and less is definitely more.

Quite often there is so much data available that people try and cram it all on to one map, where it easily gets lost and confused. There is also a strong respect amongst today’s digital map makers for traditional cartography made by hand, where perhaps things were more considered.

Owen works for Arup, an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists.

See more of his work at

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