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Custom Google Maps: A Great Digital Engagement Tool

Member Map

One of my favorite features of Google Maps is the ability to create personalized maps that you can save and share. I’ve used the feature to map out a route (and more) when we took a road trip through the Western United States in 2011, and to develop a daily tourist itinerary for a visit to Dublin, Ireland in the fall of 2012.

But custom Google maps aren’t just useful to individuals. They also have a variety of potential applications for organizations, groups, and communities, which can use them in ways that produce value for both themselves and their individual members/stakeholders.

Key Features

Google maps are…

Visual. The popularity of infographics and sites like Pinterest and SlideShare clearly demonstrate how much people appreciate visual displays. Google maps are a great way to show geographically-oriented information in a visual way. Here are some examples:

  • We have created a Member Map to illustrate both the geographic diversity and relative distribution of the membership in our LinkedIn group. In a similar vein, non-profit organizations could use them to share chapter information, chambers of commerce could display member businesses, and academic institutions could use them to illustrate where their graduates have ended up (an alumni diaspora if you will).
  • ERE.net has a EREjobs map that enables recruiters to “navigate through recent recruiting job openings geographically.”
  • Craig’s List created a housing map that shows properties for sale and rent, as well as sublets and available rooms.
  • Google has a 2007 Googleplex map that displays “photos of life at Google Headquarters.”
  • The America’s Highway project produced the America’s Highway: Oral Histories of Route 66 map.

Customizable: As many of the examples above illustrate, the pins on a custom map can include more than simple text. They can include photos and links to websites as well. You can also change the pin icons themselves and format the text in a variety of ways, and even edit the html.

Flexible. Map owners can choose whether to make their maps public or keep them “unlisted.” They can also opt to leave the map in its Google location or embed it on their own website (as we have done).

Collaborative. Map owners can invite other individuals to develop and edit individual maps.

Dynamic. As soon as there’s a significant change, most maps can be updated quickly and easily.

Engaging. There are many ways to use Google maps to generate interest and dialogue. At the simplest level, people who view the map can rate it or write a comment directly on the map. When the map is embedded in a website, it can also stimulate discussions about the map’s contents and/or give people an incentive to take action. Finally, the map and its activity can be shared via social media to regularly invite people to check it out and engage. Here’s one of our recent tweets as an example:

Toronto is the seventh urban area to hit 100 members! ow.ly/iaX8v Check out our updated member map!

General Development Tips

You can get super-fancy with Google Maps, which involves lots of coding and technical skills. But as Google themselves noted when they introduced the feature in 2007, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can create a fairly simple map manually, using a free service like this one, or by converting data in an spreadsheet to a KML file (we used BatchGeo for this) and then uploading it (if you’d like specific tips on doing that, please email [email protected]).

Here are a few specific lessons Assistant Community Manager Sean Pearson and I learned from our recent efforts:

  1. Every map has an “owner,” who has to have a Gmail account. Rather than having the owner be an individual, it’s probably better to create a Gmail account using a corporate identity (i.e., [email protected]).
  2. If you have map collaborators who don’t have access to the login credentials for the corporate Gmail account, each of those collaborators will also need Gmail accounts.
  3. Individual Google maps are limited to 200 pins. If you’re going to need more than that, you’ll need to collapse pins and/or create multiple maps.
  4. Determine how you want to display the list of pins on the left-hand side of the map, focusing on an arrangement that best meets your goals and makes the most sense to a map viewer. Once you’ve determined that order, make sure the pin list accurately reflects that order, both when the map is created and as you add to it.
  5. It’s very simple to embed a custom map on a web page. Google creates the code; the only adjustment you may have to make is to correct the height and width to fit in the space you’ve allocated.
  6. The default url for custom maps is L-O-N-G! Google will also create a short url for you. If you don’t plan to embed the map in your own website, use the short url.

If you’re experienced with creating custom Google maps and have other tips to suggest, we’d love to hear them. And although we’re no experts, we’re also happy to try to answer any questions you may have.

Happy mapping!

– Courtney Shelton Hunt

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Courtney Shelton Hunt

@David – very clever! I’m glad both you, @Stephen and others found the post valuable. Custom Google maps are definitely an undervalued gem!

Martha Garvey

Love Google Maps.

When Hurricane Sandy hit my town of Hoboken hard, some incredibly generous guy used them to map where people could charge their phones, get water, get aid, get…well, you get the picture. I actually printed a bunch out and passed them out on the bus, as some folks had very limited access to power and electronic devices.

Stay tuned–we may reactivate the map for the upcoming Civic Hacking Days in June. 🙂


Courtney Shelton Hunt

That’s a great example of how to use custom Google maps, Martha! I especially appreciate the fact that you printed the maps for people who didn’t have power, which beautifully illustrates how digital and “traditional” technology can work together, as well as the fact that social media isn’t just electronic!

I’d love for you to add the example to the original blog post too.Here’s a link: http://www.sminorgs.net/2013/03/custom-google-maps.html