The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind for everyone as we’ve all sought to adjust to working, attending school, socializing, and just carrying out our daily lives online. Here at the Scholarly Commons, we’ve been working hard to ensure that this transition is as smooth as possible for those of you relying on specialized software to conduct your research or do your classwork. That’s why this week we wanted to highlight some resources essential to anyone using or teaching with GIS as we work through this period of social distancing.
One of the first challenges encountered by anyone seeking to start a new GIS project is where to find good, high quality geospatial data. The field of geographic information science has a bit of a problem in which there are simultaneously too many possible data sources for any one researcher to be familiar with all of them, as well as too few resources available to help you navigate them all. Luckily, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data is here to help!
This week, geographers around the globe took some time to celebrate the software that allows them to analyze, well, that very same globe. November 13th marked the 20th annual GIS Day, an “international celebration of geographic information systems,” as the official GIS Day website puts it.
But while GIS technology has revolutionized the way we analyze and visualize maps over the past two decades, the high cost of ArcGIS products, long recognized as the gold standard for cartographic analysis tools, is enough to deter many people from using it. At the University of Illinois and other colleges and universities, access to ArcGIS can be taken for granted, but many of us will not remain in the academic world forever. Luckily, there’s a high-quality alternative to ArcGIS for those who want the benefits of mapping software without the pricetag!
QGIS is a free, open source mapping software that has most of the same functionality as ArcGIS. While some more advanced features included in ArcGIS do not have analogues in QGIS, developers are continually updating the software and new features are always being added. As it stands now, though, QGIS includes everything that the casual GIS practitioner could want, along with almost everything more advanced users need.
As is often the case with open source software alternatives, QGIS has a large, vibrant community of supporters, and its developers have put together tons of documentation on how to use the program, such as this user guide. Generally speaking, if you have any experience with ArcGIS it’s very easy to learn QGIS—for a picture of the learning curve, think somewhere along the lines of switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. And if you don’t have experience, the community is there to help! There are many guides to getting started, including the one listed in the above link, and more forum posts of users working through questions together than anyone could read in a lifetime.
Have you made an interesting map in QGIS? Send us pictures of your creations on Twitter @ScholCommons!
We at the University of Illinois are lucky to have a library that offers access to more journals and databases than any one person could ever hope to make their way though. The downside of this much access, however, is that it can be easy for resources to get lost in the weeds. For the typical student, once you are familiar with a few databases or methods of searching for information, you tend to not seek out more unless you absolutely need to.
This week, we wanted to fight back against that tendency just a little bit, by introducing you to a database which many readers may not have heard of before but contains a veritable treasure trove of useful geographical information, the Big 10 Academic Alliance Geoportal.
This resource is a compilation of geospatial content from the 12 universities that make up the BTAA. Types of content available include maps (many of which are historic), aerial imagery, and geospatial data. Researchers with a specific need for one of those can easily navigate from the Geoportal homepage to a more specific resource page by selecting the type of information they are looking for here:
Alternatively, if you don’t particularly care about the type of data you find but rather are looking for data in a particular region, you can use the map on the left side of the display to easily zoom in to a particular part of the world and see what maps and other resources are available.
The numbers on the map represent the number of maps or other data in the Geoportal localized in each rough region of the world, for example, there are 310 maps for Europe, and 14 maps for the Atlantic Ocean. As you zoom in on the map, your options get more specific, and the numbers break down to smaller geographic regions:
When the map is zoomed in close enough that there is only one piece of data for a particular area, the circled numbers are replaced with a blue location icon, such as the ones displayed over Iceland, Sweden, and the Russia-Finland border above. Clicking on one of these icons will take you to a page with the specific image or data source represented on the map. For example, the icon over Iceland takes us to the following page:
Information is provided about what type of resource you’re looking at, who created it, what time period it is from, as well as which BTAA member institution uploaded the map (in this case, the University of Minnesota).
Other tools on the home page, including a search bar and lists of places and subjects represented in the Geoportal, mean that no matter what point you’re starting from you should have no problem finding the data you need!
The Geoportal also maintains a blog with news, featured items and more, so be sure to check it out and keep up-to-date on all things geospatial!
Do you have questions about using the Geoportal, or finding other geospatial data? Stop by the Scholarly Commons or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, we’ll be happy to help you!
Back in October, we published a blog post introducing you to Google MyMaps, an easy way to display simple information in map form. Today we’re going to revisit that topic and explore some further ways in which MyMaps can help you visualize different kinds of data!
One of the most basic things that students of geography learn is the problem of projections: the earth is a sphere, and there is no perfect way to translate an image from the surface of a sphere to a flat plane. Nevertheless, cartographers over the years have come up with many projection systems which attempt to do just that, with varying degrees of success. Google Maps (and, by extension, Google MyMaps) uses perhaps the most common of these, the Mercator projection. Despite its ubiquity, the Mercator projection has been criticized for not keeping area uniform across the map. This means that shapes far away from the equator appear to be disproportionately larger in comparison with shapes on the equator.
Luckily, MyMaps provides a method of pulling up the curtain on Mercator’s distortion. The “Draw a line” tool, , located just below the search bar at the top of the MyMaps screen, allows users to create a rough outline of any shape on the map, and then drag that outline around the world to compare its size. Here’s how it works: After clicking on “Draw a line,” select “Add line or shape” and begin adding points to the map by clicking. Don’t worry about where you’re adding your points just yet, once you’ve created a shape you can move it anywhere you’d like! Once you have three or four points, complete the polygon by clicking back on top of your first point, and you should have a shape that looks something like this:
Now it’s time to create a more detailed outline. Click and drag your shape over the area you want to outline, and get to work! You can change the size of your shape by dragging on the points at the corners, and you can add more points by clicking and dragging on the transparent circles located midway between each corner. For this example, I made a rough outline of Greenland, as you can see below.
You can get as detailed as you want with the points on your shapes, depending on how much time you want to spend clicking and dragging points around on your computer screen. Obviously I did not perfectly trace the exact coastline of Greenland, but my finished product is at least recognizable enough. Now for the fun part! Click somewhere inside the boundary of your shape, drag it somewhere else on the map, and see Mercator’s distortion come to life before your eyes.
Here you can see the exact same shape as in the previous image, except instead of hovering over Greenland at the north end of the map, it is placed over Africa and the equator. The area of the shape is exactly the same, but the way it is displayed on the map has been adjusted for the relative distortion of the particular position it now occupies on the map. If that hasn’t sufficiently shaken your understanding of our planet, MyMaps has one more tool for illuminating the divide between the map and reality. The “Measure distances and areas” tool, , draws a “straight” line between any two (or more) points on the map. “Straight” is in quotes there because, as we’re about to see, a straight line on the globe (and therefore in reality) doesn’t typically align with straight lines on the map. For example, if I wanted to see the shortest distance between Chicago and Frankfurt, Germany, I could display that with the Measure tool like so:
The curve in this line represents the curvature of the earth, and demonstrates how the actual shortest distance is not the same as a straight line drawn on the map. This principle is made even more clear through using the Measure tool a little farther north.
The beginning and ending points of this line are roughly directly north of Chicago and Frankfurt, respectively, however we notice two differences between this and the previous measurement right away. First, this is showing a much shorter distance than Chicago to Frankfurt, and second, the curve in the line is much more distinct. Both of these differences arise, once again, from the difficulty of displaying a sphere on a flat surface. Actual distances get shorter the closer you get to the north (or south) ends of the map, which in turn causes all of the distortions we have seen in this post.
How might a better understanding of projection systems improve your own research? What are some other ways in which the Mercator projection (or any other) have deceived us? Explore for yourself and let us know!
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:
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:
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!
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!
Do you have a dataset that you want visualized on a map, but don’t have the time or resources to learn GIS or consult with a GIS Specialist? Don’t worry, because ArcGIS Online allows anybody to create simple web maps for free! In part one of this series you’ll learn how to prepare and import your data into a Web Map, and in part two you’ll learn how to geographically visualize that data in a few different ways. Let’s get started!
First things first, we need data to work with. Before we can start fiddling around with ArcGIS Online and web maps, we need to ensure that our data can be visualized on a map in the first place. Of course, the best candidates for geographic visualization are datasets that include location data (latitude/longitude, geographic coordinates, addresses, etc.), but in reality, most projects don’t record this information. In order to provide an example of how a dataset that doesn’t include location information can still be mapped, we’re going to work with this sample dataset that I downloaded from FigShare. It contains 1,000 rows of IP addresses, names, and emails. If you already have a dataset that contains location information, you can skip this section and go straight to “The Web Map.”
In order to turn this data into something that’s mappable, we need to read the IP addresses and output their corresponding location information. IP addresses only provide basic city-level information, but that’s not a concern for the sample map that we’ll be creating here. There are loads of free online tools that interpret latitude/longitude data from a list of IP addresses, so you can use any tool that you like – I’m using one called Bulk IP Location Lookup because it allows me to run 500 lines at a time, and I like the descriptiveness of the information it returns. I only converted 600 of the IP addresses in my dataset because the tool is pretty sluggish, and then I used the “Export to CSV” function to create a new spreadsheet. If you’re performing this exercise along with me, you’ll notice that the exported spreadsheet is missing quite a bit of information. I’m assuming that these are either fake IP addresses from our sample dataset, or the bulk lookup tool isn’t working 100% properly. Either way, we now have more than enough data to play around with in a web map.
The Web Map
Now that our data contains location information, we’re ready to import it into a web map. In order to do this, we first need to create a free ArcGIS Online account. After you’ve done that, log in and head over to your “Content” page and click “Create → Map” to build a blank web map. You are now brought to the Map Viewer, which is where you’ll be doing most of your work. The Map Viewer is a deceptively powerful tool that lets you perform many of the common functions that you would perform on ArcGIS for Desktop. Despite its name, the Map Viewer does much more than let you view maps.
Let’s begin by importing our CSV into the Web Map: select “Add → Add Layer From File.” The pop-up lets you know that you can upload Shapefile, CSV, TXT, or GPX files, and includes some useful information about each format. Note the 1,000 item limit on CSV and TXT files – if you’re trying to upload research data that contains more than 1,000 items, you’ll want to create a Tile Layer instead. After you’ve located your CSV file, click “Import Layer” and you should see the map populate. If you get a “Warning: This file contains invalid characters…” pop-up, that’s due to the missing rows in our sample dataset – these rows are automatically excluded. Now is a good time to note that your location data can come in a variety of formats, not just latitude and longitude data. For a full list of supported formats, read Esri’s help article on CSV, TXT, and GPX files. If you have a spreadsheet that contains any of the location information formats listed in that article, you can place your data on a map!
That’s it for part one! In part two we’re going to visualize our data in a few different ways and export our map for presentation.
Esri Story Maps can be a powerful tool to present your research. When done well, Story Maps are dynamic, interactive, and can use images and maps to enhance the presentation of your research agenda. When done poorly, however, Story Maps can obfuscate the point of your research, and distract viewers with too many bells and whistles. I believe that the most important factor in creating a Story Map is deciding which kind of Story Map to create. Creating your Story Map in a format that works for your research is an important step.
And that is why I’m here to tell you that, despite being the prettiest of the Story Map options, you need to think again before choosing Cascade.
You may call this blasphemy, but hear me out. Because Cascade is seen as being the most attractive Story Map option, Story Map users will try to force their project into a narrative it may not necessarily have just to use the prettiest Story Map. This does a disservice both to your work, as well as to those who would be interested in your work, but find it difficult to understand given the medium that it’s been presented in. Esri Story Maps can be a great way to get the word out about a project, but also a very public way to flaunt mistakes or misunderstandings about the project and its message. As a scholar, you need to choose the Story Map option that best suits the work that you’ve created.
Below are my suggestions of what to consider before choosing to use Cascade for your Story Map.
You may want to consider Cascade if you plan to…
- Use a lot of visual multimedia in your presentation. Cascade is a highly visual platform, and allows for a lot of integration between maps, images, and other forms of media, such as GIFs, videos, and even audio. In fact, in many Cascade presentations, the actual map can feel optional. Narrative and immersive sections provide a platform to showcase your non-map media in a way that emphasizes it to a greater degree than other Story Maps options.
- Tell a linear story with your presentation. If your research can be presented in a narrative, structured format, you should try Cascade. Cascade tends to be most effective when it feels like the user is reading the story
- Have a captive audience. Story Map Cascade is perfect for situations where people can’t (or have a strong incentive) not to close the window. Cascade could be the perfect accompaniment to someone doing a presentation, or creating something for a very specific audience. But if you are trying to market a project to strangers, they may just not have the attention span to deal with Cascade.
- Use different kinds of maps. Switching between different kinds of maps can, at times, be jarring in other Story Maps. Cascade allows for a narrative flow that can help give context to maps that may otherwise be jolting to the reader if they are flitting around another Story Map format.
You may want to reconsider using Cascade if you plan to…
- Create a more minimalist story. If you have one map that is the centerpiece of your Story Map, you may want to consider a format that emphasizes that particular map more than Cascade. Cascade works best when you have a number of multimedia pieces that you need to pull together.
- Present your research in a non-linear format. If your research is more non-linear, then it’s best to choose a Story Map option that allows users to skip around and play with the map a little more than Cascade does. Forcing your research into a linear story will probably lead to frustration and confusion among your viewers.
- Create a more interactive map. Cascade does not lend itself well to interactive maps. Sure, you can do it, but the format of Cascade lends itself less to viewers taking the time to click on individual components of the map.
Again, I don’t hate Cascade. I’ve seen it used well. But I’ve also seen it used poorly. Do you agree with me? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking to get started with Esri Story Maps, or want to learn more about GIS, stop by the Scholarly Commons!
Here at Commons Knowledge we love easy-to-use interactive map creation software! We’ve compared and contrasted different tools, and talked about StoryMap JS and Shanti Interactive. The Scholarly Commons is a great place to get help on GIS projects, from ArcGIS StoryMaps and beyond. But if you want something where you can have both a map and a timeline, and if you are willing to spend money on your own server, definitely consider using Neatline.
Neatline is a plugin created by Scholar’s Lab at University of Virginia that lets you create interactive maps and timelines in Omeka exhibits. My personal favorite example is the demo site by Paul Mawyer “‘I am it and it is I’: Lovecraft in Providence” with the map tiles from Stamen Design under CC-BY 3.0 license.
*As far as the location of Lovecraft’s most famous creation, let’s just say “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
Now one caveat — Neatline requires a server. I used Reclaim Hosting which is straightforward, and which I have used for Scalar and Mukurtu. The cheapest plan available on Reclaim Hosting was $32 a year. Once I signed up for the website and domain name, I took advantage of one nice feature of Reclaim Hosting, which lets you one-click install the Omeka.org content management system (CMS). The Omeka CMS is a popular choice for digital humanities users. Other popular content management systems include Wordpress and Scalar.
BUT WAIT, WHAT ABOUT OMEKA THROUGH SCHOLARLY COMMONS?
Here at the Scholarly Commons we can set up an Omeka.net site for you. You can find more information on setting up an Omeka.net site through the Scholarly Commons here. This is a great option for people who want to create a regular Omeka exhibit. However, Neatline is only available as a plugin on Omeka.org, which needs a server to host. As far as I know, there is currently no Neatline plugin for Omeka.net and I don’t think that will be happening anytime soon. On Reclaim you can install Omeka on any LAMP server. And side advice from your very forgetful blogger, write down whatever username and password you make up when you set up your Omeka site, that will save you a lot of trouble later, especially considering how many accounts you end up with when you use a server to host a site.
Okay, I’m still interested, but what do I do once I have Omeka.org installed?
So back to the demo. I used the instructions on the documentation page on Neatline, which were good for defining a lot of the terms but not so good at explaining exactly what to do. I am focusing on the original Neatline plugin but there are other Neatline plugins like NeatlineText depending on your needs. However all plugins are installed in a similar way. You can follow the official instructions here at Installing Neatline.
But I have also provided some because the official instructions just didn’t do it for me.
So first off, download the Neatline zip file.
Go to your Control Panel, cPanel in Reclaim Hosting, and click on “File Manager.”
Sorry this looks so goofy, Windows snipping tool free form is only for those with a steady hand.
Navigate to the the Plugins folder.
Double click to open the folder. Click Upload Files.
If you’re using Reclaim Hosting, IGNORE THE INSTRUCTIONS DO NOT UNZIP THE ZIP FILE ON YOUR COMPUTER JUST PLOP THAT PUPPY RIGHT INTO YOUR PLUGINS FOLDER.
Plop it in!
Go back to the Plugins folder. Right click the Neatline zip file and click extract. Save extracted files in Plugins.
Sign into your Omeka site at [yourdomainname].[com/name/whatever]/admin if you aren’t already.
Install Neatline for real.
Still confused or having trouble with setup?
Check out these tutorials as well!
- Uploading Plugins to Omeka from Reclaim Hosting
- Working with Omeka from Reclaim Hosting
- Extending Omeka with Plugins from Doing Digital History 2016
Open Street Maps is great and all but what if I want to create a fancy historical map?
To create historical maps on Neatline you have two options, only one of which is included in the actual documentation for Neatline.
Officially, you are supposed to use GeoServer. GeoServer is an open source server application built in Java. Even if you have your own server, it has a lot more dependencies to run than what’s required for Omeka / Neatline.
If you want one-click Neatline installation with GeoServer and have money to spend you might want to check out AcuGIS Neatline Cloud Hosting which is recommended in the Neatline documentation and the lowest cost plan starts at $250 a year.
Unofficially, there is a tutorial for this available at Lincoln Mullen’s blog “The Backward Glance” specifically his 2015 post “How to Use Neatline with Map Warper Instead of Geoserver.”
Let us know about the ways you incorporate geospatial data in your research! And stay tuned for Neatline 102: Creating a simple exhibit!
Extending Omeka with Plugins. (2016, July 5). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://history2016.doingdh.org/week-1-wednesday/extending-omeka-with-plugins/
Installing Neatline Neatline Documentation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://docs.neatline.org/installing-neatline.html
Mawyer, Paul. (n.d.). “I am it and it is I”: Lovecraft in Providence. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://lovecraft.neatline.org/neatline-exhibits/show/lovecraft-in-providence/fullscreen
Mullen, Lincoln. (2015). “How to Use Neatline with Map Warper Instead of Geoserver.” Retrieved May 23, 2017 from http://lincolnmullen.com/blog/how-to-use-neatline-with-map-warper-instead-of-geoserver/
Uploading Plugins to Omeka. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://community.reclaimhosting.com/t/uploading-plugins-to-omeka/195
Working with Omeka. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://community.reclaimhosting.com/t/working-with-omeka/194
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, 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 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!
- GIS for Research I: Introduction to Software, Concepts, Data on April 6 from 2 pm – 4pm.
- GIS for Research II: GIS Research, Data Management, and Visualization on April 11 from 2 pm – 4 pm.
- GIS for Research III: Geoprocessing, Analysis, and Web GIS on April 13 from 2 pm -4pm.
- Collecting Geospatial Data on April 21 from 1 pm – 3pm.