3 Ways to Make Compelling Maps

For centuries, civilization has focused on using maps as a form of communication. To lead you down a rabbit hole, I was curious on famous cartographers, and individuals who helped shape modern cartography. Thankfully, Wikipedia provided me with a great list of cartographers, and the work they have done to shape modern cartography.

Yet, the one overarching question that I developed was, what makes a good map? When we are thinking about GIS, what maps a great map? How can we tell what makes maps a good? Often, we forget the complexity required to make maps. With mapping, there is truly an art in simplicity and agencies can use GIS to create simple, elegant and informative maps.

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Think of all the complexity behind GIS, all the data collection, analysis, verification, before the data ever gets imputed, mashed up and placed on a map. Esri produces dozens of resources on what makes a good map, and below I’ve listed teased out three core elements that make a compelling map.

Tells a Clear Story

A good map tells and shows a clear story to the audience. A great example comes from Esri’s Story Map initiative. Recently GovLoop and Esri hosted a meetup for GIS professionals in Washington, DC. With Story Maps, anyone can build, create, or modify a map to tell a compelling story. Maps have been used to create stories around visiting the National Mall, the sinking of the Titanic, and dozens of other important events. One great example is the map below, the map is titled, “Where Are the Centers for Education Innovation?” And takes a look at a state-by-state comparison of where STEM and charter schools can be found around the country.

Less May be More

With any kind of map, it can be very easy to add in additional details, in hopes to tell a story more clearly and concisely. Yet, maps are a form of communication, and the more direct and clear you can be, the better. An example to see is West, Texas Plant Explosion Local Impact Map, which clearly shows impact on infrastructure, business, and population. The map takes a lot of complex data, and keeps it simple for the user to understand impact. (Click the image below to explore on Esri’s site).

Using Colors Effectively

Varying color schemes can make a big difference in how the map is read. The maps aesthics should draw a user in. The simple use of varying colors and clear descriptors helps tell a clear story to the user, click the map below to explore.A good example comes from the web map below, “Relationship of unemployment to population change,” the map authors state:

The analysis shows that in some parts of the country, population and unemployment tend to parallel each other (blue):

  • The Great Plains: Declining population and low unemployment.
  • Coastal California: Increasing populations and high unemployment.

While in others, they tend to run in opposition (red).

  • Deep South, Rust Belt, and Upper Midwest: Static or decreasing populations and high unemployment

These three examples are just the beginning of what maps a good map. The key is to always focus on maps as a communication tool, and like with any kind of communications, it is essential to know your audience, understand their needs and deliver information in the most efficient and productive way.

If you’d like more resources from GovLoop on GIS, be sure to check out some of the links below:

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Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

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Michele Thistle

Great points, Pat. While reading this I couldn’t help but think about how leveraging Big Data can transform GIS, both for modern day cartographers and their intended audiences. In a recent post, Joel Cherkis, GM of Worldwide Government and Security at Microsoft, talks about the “what ifs” of Big Data and touches on next-gen tools like GeoFlow, a 3-D data-visualization tool for Microsoft Excel 2013 that lets you visually plot up to a million rows of geographic and temporal data on Bing maps.