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 email@example.com, 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!
This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Aaron King, GIS Consultant at the Scholarly Commons. Welcome, Aaron!
What is your background and work experience?
I am from Wisconsin originally, and studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I focused on wolf and carnivore species populations in northern Wisconsin and in Yellowstone. Then my senior year, I stayed on to study Geography, which led to my career in GIS. I worked as a GIS analyst for one year while finishing up my geography degree. Afterwards, I worked at National Geographic in Washington D.C. Then, I worked as a GIS Analyst and Consultant for Intalytics in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while going to school for a Master’s in GIS and Bachelor of Science in Physics at Eastern Michigan University. I did a stint for Department of Defense in Madison, Wisconsin. Afterwards, I took time off to become a kayak guide, and decided to finish my schooling here at the University of Illinois.
Currently I work with Remote Sensing of the environment and geostatistics.
What led you to your field?
My background in environmental and climate science, as well as my love for geography led me into this field. I believe satellite data can be used a tool to expand this research and hopefully contribute to science and helping the world as a whole.
What is your research agenda?
I plan doing research on phenology, using a variety of data science methods. Additionally, I want to explore wildfire risk, and possibly look into health characteristics of greenspaces. Currently I am pursuing my Master’s, and I hope to continue my PhD here as well.
Do you have any favorite work-related duties?
When you get into research or your field, your knowledge blinders become very focused on what you are doing. Being in a position like this allows me to think past what I know, and explore areas of GIS that I normally do not think about, reflecting the endless possibilities of GIS. Plus, I just find it fascinating what other people are working on, and I love being part of it.
What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?
Programs for GIS outside of ESRI. There are a wealth of programs, free and open-source, that work just as well but are different than the standard ESRI programs. ESRI is a great option, but the amount of data and programs out there to help you with your problem is staggering. The other resource I would recommend in taking some coding lessons like through DataCamp, codeacademy, SoloLearn, or Lynda, because having that underlying knowledge of how programs work helps you understand.
If you could recommend only one book to researchers starting out in the GIS field, what would it be?
There are many great books about GIS. But the book you need to read to get into geography, which is the foundation of GIS, is How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier.
Honorable mention: The Nature of Maps by Arthur Robinson and Barbara Bartz Petchenik.
What fields can use GIS research methods?
I had a professor, in my first class, ask us this same question. His answer was, “There is not a science or business that can’t utilize GIS in some way. Your job is to find it.”
Are there any big names in your field that people should know about?
Dr. Mei-Po Kwan (she works here, tell her I say hi), Dr. Waldo Tobler, Dr. Mathew Zook, William Morris Davis, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Robinson, Michael Jordan (seriously he studied geography, look it up!).
To schedule a consultation with Aaron, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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!
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!