An Introduction to Google MyMaps

Geographic information systems (GIS) are a fantastic way to visualize spatial data. As any student of geography will happily explain, a well-designed map can tell compelling stories with data which could not be expressed through any other format. Unfortunately, traditional GIS programs such as ArcGIS and QGIS are incredibly inaccessible to people who aren’t willing or able to take a class on the software or at least dedicate significant time to self-guided learning.

Luckily, there’s a lower-key option for some simple geospatial visualizations that’s free to use for anybody with a Google account. Google MyMaps cannot do most of the things that ArcMap can, but it’s really good at the small number of things it does set out to do. Best of all, it’s easy!

How easy, you ask? Well, just about as easy as filling out a spreadsheet! In fact, that’s exactly where you should start. After logging into your Google Drive account, open a new spreadsheet in Sheets. In order to have a functioning end product you’ll want at least two columns. One of these columns will be the name of the place you are identifying on the map, and the other will be its location. Column order doesn’t matter here- you’ll get the chance later to tell MyMaps which column is supposed to do what. Locations can be as specific or as broad as you’d like. For example, you could input a location like “Canada” or “India,” or you could choose to input “1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana, IL 61801.” The catch is that each location is only represented by a marker indicating a single point. So if you choose a specific address, like the one above, the marker will indicate the location of that address. But if you choose a country or a state, you will end up with a marker located somewhere over the center of that area.

So, let’s say you want to make a map showing the locations of all of the libraries on the University of Illinois’ campus. Your spreadsheet would look something like this:

Sample spreadsheet

Once you’ve finished compiling your spreadsheet, it’s time to actually make your map. You can access the Google MyMaps page by going to www.google.com/mymaps. From here, simply select “Create a New Map” and you’ll be taken to a page that looks suspiciously similar to Google Maps. In the top left corner, where you might be used to typing in directions to the nearest Starbucks, there’s a window that allows you to name your map and import a spreadsheet. Click on “Import,”  and navigate through Google Drive to wherever you saved your spreadsheet.

When you are asked to “Choose columns to position your placemarks,” select whatever column you used for your locations. Then select the other column when you’re prompted to “Choose a column to title your markers.” Voila! You have a map. Mine looks like this:  

Michael's GoogleMyMap

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “that’s great, but how useful can a bunch of points on a map really be?” That’s a great question! This ultra-simple geospatial visualization may not seem like much. But it actually has a range of uses. For one, this type of visualization is excellent at giving viewers a sense of how geographically concentrated a certain type of place is. As an example, say you were wondering whether it’s true that most of the best universities in the U.S. are located in the Northeast. Google MyMaps can help with that!

Map of best universities in the United States

This map, made using the same instructions detailed above, is based off of the U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 Best Universities Ranking. Based on the map, it does in fact appear that more of the nation’s top 25 universities are located in the northeastern part of the country than anywhere else, while the West (with the notable exception of California) is wholly underrepresented.

This is only the beginning of what Google MyMaps can do: play around with the options and you’ll soon learn how to color-code the points on your map, add labels, and even totally change the appearance of the underlying base map. Check back in a few weeks for another tutorial on some more advanced things you can do with Google MyMaps!

Try it yourself!

Scholarly Smackdown: StoryMap JS vs. Story Maps

In today’s very spatial Scholarly Smackdown post we are covering two popular mapping visualization products, Story Maps and StoryMap JS.Yes they both have “story” and “map” in the name and they both let you create interactive multimedia maps without needing a server. However, they are different products!

StoryMap JS

StoryMap JS, from the Knight Lab at Northwestern, is a simple tool for creating interactive maps and timelines for journalists and historians with limited technical experience.

One  example of a project on StoryMap JS is “Hockey, hip-hop, and other Green Line highlights” by Andy Sturdevant for the Minneapolis Post, which connects the stops of the Green Line train to historical and cultural sites of St. Paul and Minneapolis Minnesota.

StoryMap JS uses Google products and map software from OpenStreetMap.

Using the StoryMap JS editor, you create slides with uploaded or linked media within their template. You then search the map and select a location and the slide will connect with the selected point. You can embed your finished map into your website, but Google-based links can deteriorate over time! So save copies of all your files!

More advanced users will enjoy the Gigapixel mode which allows users to create exhibits around an uploaded image or a historic map.

Story Maps

Story maps is a custom map-based exhibit tool based on ArcGIS online.

My favorite example of a project on Story Maps is The Great New Zealand Road Trip by Andrew Douglas-Clifford, which makes me want to drop everything and go to New Zealand (and learn to drive). But honestly, I can spend all day looking at the different examples in the Story Maps Gallery.

Story Maps offers a greater number of ways to display stories than StoryMap JS, especially in the paid version. The paid version even includes a crowdsourced Story Map where you can incorporate content from respondents, such as their 2016 GIS Day Events map.

With a free non-commercial public ArcGIS Online account you can create a variety of types of maps. Although it does not appear there is to overlay a historical map, there is a comparison tool which could be used to show changes over time. In the free edition of this software you have to use images hosted elsewhere, such as in Google Photos. Story Maps are created through their wizard where you add links to photos/videos, followed by information about these objects, and then search and add the location. It is very easy to use and almost as easy as StoryMap JS. However, since this is a proprietary software there are limits to what you can do with the free account and perhaps worries about pricing and accessing materials at a later date.

Overall, can’t really say there’s a clear winner. If you need to tell a story with a map, both software do a fine job, StoryMap JS is in my totally unscientific opinion slightly easier to use, but we have workshops for Story Maps here at Scholarly Commons!  Either way you will be fine even with limited technical or map making experience.

If you are interested in learning more about data visualization, ArcGIS Story Maps, or geopatial data in general, check out these upcoming workshops here at Scholarly Commons, or contact our GIS expert, James Whitacre!

Spotlight: Shanti Interactive

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If you’re looking for tools that will help you create web-based visualizations, images or maps, Shanti Interactive may have exactly what you need. Shanti Interactive, a suite of tools made available from the University of Virginia’s Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI), is free to use and a helpful resource for individuals seeking to show their data visually.

The Shanti Interactive suite includes five programs: Qmedia, SHIVA, MapScholar, VisualEyes, and VisualEyes 5. Qmedia creates instructional and scholarly videos. SHIVA creates “data-driven visualizations,” such as charts, graphs, maps, image montages and timelines. MapScholar creates geospatial visualizations while VisualEyes — arguably the most well-known tool from the suite — creates historic visualizations by weaving images, maps, charts, video and data into online exhibits. While we could write an entire post on each member of the suite (and maybe someday we will), I will quickly go over some of the main functions of the Shanti Interactive suite.

Qmedia

A screenshot of QMedia's demo video.

A screenshot of Qmedia’s live demo.

Qmedia creates an interactive video experience. The screen is broken up into various, customizable boxes, which the user can then interact with. In its own words, Qmedia “delineraizes” the video, allowing it to be scanned. Tools in Qmedia include table of contents, clickable, searchable transcripts, graphical concept maps, images, live maps, interactive visualizations, web apps and websites! While this list can be a little overwhelming, you can see the incredible results with Qmedia’s live demo.

SHIVA

SHIVA's timeline capability.

SHIVA’s timeline capability.

Think of SHIVA as a multi-faceted data visualization tool. It can create charts, maps, timelines, videos, images, graphs, subway maps, word clouds as well as plain text. SHIVA works with open source and open access web tools, such as Google’s Visualization Toolkit and Maps, YouTube, and Flickr. When a user inputs data, they do so through Google Docs. One fantastic feature in SHIVA is the ability to add on layers of annotations onto your data. For more on SHIVA’s capabilities and partners, see the SHIVA about page.

MapScholar

MapScholar is a great tool for creating what they call digital “atlases,” allowing scholars to use historic maps to compare and contrast how different areas have been depicted by mapmakers through time. For example, here is the base map on the eastern United States:

And here is that map overlayed with a Native American map from 1721:

VisualEyes and VisualEyes 5

VisualEyes is a multi-faceted online exhibit toolkit, which helps create interactive websites to display data. There are two versions: Flash-based VisualEyes, and HTML5-based VisualEyes 5, which is recommended. In many ways, VisualEyes is a combination of the rest of the suite’s tools, providing a platform for some incredible integration of sources. VisualEyes’ current example is a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s life (as the program was created at the University of Virginia), and worth a look if you’re interested in the program’s capabilities! It is far more interactive than one screengrab can communicate.

This project includes historic and modern maps, a timeline, and text, which all work together to create the story of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Shanti Interactive includes diverse, free resources that can transform the way that you present your data to the world. If you need help getting started, or want to brainstorm ideas, stop by the Scholarly Commons and we’ll have someone ready to chat!