Mapmaking tools, my experience thus far

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately tinkering with potential mapmaking tools, looking at existing projects, and getting frustrated with my lack of knowledge on the developer/GIS side of things.  Modest Maps, Polymaps, and R can produce some excellent results, but they all require a basic understanding of programming in order to use them properly, a skill which I simply don’t have time to learn during the remainder of the summer.  ArcGIS on the other hand, the industry standard for professional cartographers, doesn’t require any programming knowledge, but its interface is incredibly complex and requires a great deal of training to understand.  Therefore, I’m going to stick with using some simple mapmaking tools for my first few cartography projects.

There are a number of intuitive mapmaking programs worth mentioning which are capable of quickly producing high quality results, so picking the easiest/best one can be difficult. Tableau, Many Eyes, GeoCommons, Indiemapper, CartoDB, and TileMill can all be used to build maps by uploading layers from a wide variety of data sources.  However, the simplicity of use and the customization options vary greatly among these programs.  Tableau is one of the more versatile and highly customizable tools, but it is extraordinarily expensive.  The personal edition and professional edition cost $999 and $1,999, respectively, at the time of this post.  However, there is a “public edition” of Tableau available for free, but just like Many Eyes, users are required to upload their work and cannot keep it private/unlisted.  GeoCommons, Indiemapper, CartoDB, TileMill, and Many Eyes are all free, but each mapmaking tool has its own set of strengths and weaknesses in visualizing certain kinds of data sets.  I’d recommend giving many of these sites a quick glance to see which program works best for your particular project, the right program being largely dependent on the complexity of the data set you are trying to visualize.

For now, Google’s toolset should work just fine to get me started.  Google just recently granted access to Google Maps Engine Lite, which allows you to create clickable layers (a much needed feature unavailable in Google Maps), but limits the size of the data sets to 100 rows.  Unfortunately, nearly all the projects I have in mind are much, much larger than 100 rows.  Therefore, to visualize the street lighting data, I plan on exporting my data from Google Maps into Google Earth as a .kml file, a task which isn’t as simple as a click of a button, but not hard to learn how to do.  From Google Maps, just click on the create a link button, which gives you a copy/pastable url for your map.  Paste that url into an empty address bar and type (without the quotation marks) “&output=kml” at the end of your url.  Hit enter and that should create a downloadable .kml file which you can then open with Google Earth.  So far, my data looks great superimposed over Google’s 2013 map of Mexico City, giving the viewer a good sense of the rapid growth of the city over the last 50+ years.  I should be able to finally publish the data in the very near future, so stay tuned.

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