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Mapping tools: Overview

With Kylen

Web Mapping Tools

There are a large variety of tools that will allow a user to upload a spreadsheet of data and make a map.

  • This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover a good variety of options that fulfill various purposes.
  • All of these allow you to use a spreadsheet containing mappable data to make a map.
  • They all allow you to embed the map in a website, or link to it on their site.

Google Maps

   Pros: Super Easy to use, powerful geocoding.

   Cons: More difficult to change data tables

Google Fusion Tables

      Pros: Easy to use, powerful geocoding engine, mixes well with other google spreadsheets, includes lots of other visualizations  beyond mapping

      Cons: Limited to Google basemap, more difficult to make beautiful maps. Does not always work with institutional google accounts.

Tableau Public

      Pros: Tied to very rich data visualization features, connections to time are fairly easy

      Cons: Requires software download, small learning curve, free version means everything is public. PC only


      Pros: Default maps are beautiful, very powerful

      Cons: Free maps must be public, more limited free storage, mostly relies on a basic knowledge of sql and css


      Pros: Easy to symbolize using the data, can view data and map side-by-side, nice user controls for sharing

      Cons: You don't have control over labels, nor over the contents of the info windows, interface takes some getting used to

ArcGIS Online

      Pros: Familiar interface if you're used to ESRI products, links to lots of public data

      Cons: Clunky in some of the same ways as other ESRI products

There are also a couple of ways to make maps without needing to begin with a table at all.

Photoshop (or other Image Editing tools)  -- In Photoshop, you're map will not be tied to the earth, and you will not be able to take advantage of geography for any of the analysis or visualization that the other tools afford. However, if you want to design a single map for a print publication, and you are beginning from a scanned map, this is often (usually) a great option. Here's a tutorial done by one of the Haverford Digital Scholarship students.

Omeka with Neatline -- For more serious narrative projects, Omeka with Neatline is a platform for creating spatial narratives. It has more overhead to set up and use than the other tools above, but is designed for historic and other narrative ways of looking at geography and other sources.

Tips and Tricks

Making an attractive map starts with the data. Before starting, think about what type of map you want to make and what types of data you will need. for example, to make a heat map requires numerical data for intensity and geographic data for location. Now look at the data you have and think about how to fulfill these requirements. Maybe you're data already is 

A note on geographic data: 

Geographic data can come in many forms: longitude and latitude pairs, city names, state names, country names, and more. Some of these mapping tools can be picky when it comes to which the form of geographic data. For example, Tableau Public sometimes has trouble locating small towns by name. It may be easiest to simplify your data via geocoding, which will give you geographical coordinates.

Here is one option for geocoding your data. If necessary, try poking around to find one that better fits your purpose. 

What is .csv?

.csv is a file type, standing for Comma Separated Values. It is an easy way of a saving a table or spreadsheet. Each value is separated by a symbol, most often a comma or semi-colon. Here is an example of a few lines of csv data:

State, Year, Number

WA, 1999, 50

PA, 1999, 73

NY, 2000, 96

Map Types

There are many different types of maps. It is important to choose a map type before starting. All have advantages and disadvantages compared to the others. Think carefully about what information you want your map to convey before choosing.

The most common types are:

Chloropleths: regions are colored based on their value. For example, divorce rate by state. 

Pinpoint: simply show the locations of various data points.

Proportional Symbol: a combination of the first two types. Symbols represent locations and the size and/or color of the symbol is based on that locations value. 

For more information, see these links:

How to Use Maps in Data Visualization

Visualization Types

Other Map Guides