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 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!

Creating Quick and Dirty Web Maps to Visualize Your Data – Part 2

Welcome to part two of our two-part series on creating web maps! If you haven’t read part one yet, you can find it here. If you have read part one, we’re going to pick up right where we left off.

Now that we’ve imported our CSV into a web map, we can begin to play around with how the data is represented. You should be brought to the “Change Style” screen after importing your data, which presents you with a drop-down menu and three drawing styles to choose from:

Map Viewer Change Style Screen

Map Viewer Change Style Screen

Hover over each drawing style for more information, and click each one to see how they visualize your data. Don’t worry if you mess up — you can always return to this screen later. We’re going to use “Types (Unique symbols)” for this exercise because it gives us more options to fiddle with, but feel free to dive into the options for each of the other two drawing styles if you like how they represent your data. Click “select” under “Types (Unique symbols)” to apply the style, then select a few different attributes in the “Choose an attribute to show” dropdown menu to see how they each visualize your data. I’m choosing “Country” as my attribute to show simply because it gives us an even distribution of colors, but for your research data you will want to select this attribute carefully. Next, click “Options” on our drawing style and you can play with the color, shape, name, transparency, and visible range for all of your symbols. Click the three-color bar (pictured below) to change visual settings for all of your symbols at once. When you’re happy with the way your symbols look, click OK and then DONE.

Now is also good time to select your basemap, so click “Basemap” on the toolbar and select one of the options provided — I’m using “Light Gray Canvas” in my examples here.

Change all symbols icon

Click the three-color bar to change visual settings for all of your symbols at once















Now that our data is visualized the way we want, we can do a lot of interesting things depending on what we want to communicate. As an example, let’s pretend that our IP addresses represent online access points for a survey we conducted on incarceration spending in the United States. We can add some visual insight to our data by inserting a layer from the web using “Add → Search for layers” and overlaying a relevant layer. I searched for “inmate spending” and found a tile layer created by someone at the Esri team that shows the ratio of education spending to incarceration spending per state in the US:

"Search for Layers" screen

The “Search for Layers” screen














You might notice in the screenshot above that there are a lot of similar search results; I’m picking the “EducationVersusIncarceration” tile layer (circled) because it loads faster than the feature layer. If you want to learn why this happens, check out Esri’s documentation on hosted feature layers.

We can add this layer to our map by clicking “Add” then “Done Adding Layers,” and voilà, our data is enriched! There are many public layers created by Esri and the ArcGIS Online community that you can search through, and even more GIS data hosted elsewhere on the web. You can use the Scholarly Commons geospatial data page if you want to search for public geographic information to supplement your research.

Now that we’re done visualizing our data, it’s time to export it for presentation. There are a few different ways that we can do this: by sharing/embedding a link, printing to a pdf/image file, or creating a presentation. If we want to create a public link so people can access our map online, click “Share” in the toolbar to generate a link (note: you have to check the “Everyone (public)” box for this link to work). If we want to download our map as a pdf or image, click “Print” and then select whether or not we want to include a legend, and we’ll be brought to a printer-friendly page showing the current extent of our map. Creating an ArcGIS Online Presentation is a third option that allows you to create something akin to a PowerPoint, but I won’t get into the details here. Go to Esri’s Creating Presentations help page for more information.

Click to enlarge the GIFs below and see how to export your map as a link and as an image/pdf:

Share web map via public link

Note: you can also embed your map in a webpage by selecting “Embed In Website” in the Share menu.


Saving the map as an image/pdf using the "Print" button in the toolbar. Note: if you save your map as an image using "save image as..." you will only save the map, NOT the legend.

Save your map as an image/pdf. NOTE: if you save your map as an image using “save image as…” you can only save the map, NOT the legend.

While there are a lot more tools that we can play with using our free ArcGIS Online accounts – clustering, pop-ups, bookmarks, labels, drawing styles, distance measuring – and even more tools with an organizational account – 25 different built-in analyses, directions, Living Atlas Layers – this is all that we have time for right now. Keep an eye out for future Commons Knowledge blog posts on GIS, and visit our GIS page for even more resources!