So You Want to Start Web Mapping?
Created by Zach Francis
Last Updated: 12/04/2020
Here, we will guide you through the basics of conducting research and displaying data using web mapping. Web mapping refers to the displaying of interactive cartography online. In other words, you want to use online resources to make a map for public viewing on a website. This does not refer to GIS, which is a category of analytical tool that allows you to analyze geospatial data. When mapping data on the web, there are some general concepts that we will consider in this handout: what tool are you using, where is your data coming from; and what is your research question?
There are many types of mapping software which attempt to fill different purposes, but they all have the common trait of working with geospatial data. Here we provide a variety of mapping software, including more heavy duty GIS software. For mapping and digital heritage beginners, we recommend ArcGIS StoryMaps or Google My Maps.
Web Mapping Software
- ArcGIS StoryMaps (previously known as Esri StoryMaps): focuses on telling blog-like stories with a variety of spatial data visualization tools.
- Neatline: a plugin for creating maps in the Omeka content management system.
- Google My Maps: a tool for creating and sharing custom maps using Google mapping software.
- Ushahidi: a tool originally created for crisis mapping
- Carto: service that provides GIS, web mapping and spatial data science tool, with many tools not requiring experience with data analysis/visualization or GIS.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
- ArcGIS: widely used GIS platform service used for geospatial analysis. There is both a desktop and an online version.
- QGIS: a widely used, open-source alternative to ArcGIS.
- Geocommons: a very useful archive of geospatial data, which is not actually GIS software, but is super useful for finding data.
Geospatial data refers to data that provides geographic information on the location of particular places. It also usually provides metadata about these location, such as a name or description. Geospatial data can come in a variety of formats, including latitude/longitude data in an excel file, geojson files, and .kml files. Before you begin creating a web map, you will have to think about what your data means.
Questions to Ask your Data
Here’s a list of questions that might be useful to ask about your data when making a map.
- What type of dataset are you working with? Answering this question is the first step to developing a research question or story using mapping.
- What do your data represent? Are you working with the location of buildings, places where events took place, geographic areas with particular attributes, or some other kind of data?
- What is the format of your dataset? What is the metadata? Are you provided lat/long? Is the data in an excel file, or is it geojson data? Determining the format of your data is important for being able to understand it.
- What types of bias are present in the data? Turn a critical eye towards what you have. Geospatial data are subject to bias just like any other type of data.
- What was the data developed for? Was there a particular research question in mind for the creation for this data? Was the data acquired as part of a larger project?
- How was the data collected? Is it possible that the spatial data are skewed towards a particular type of data your research question is missing out on?
- Who was involved or supported the collection of data? Do you find the source credible, or is it possible there is some ulterior motive for collecting the data?
- What are the strengths of your dataset? It is fun to focus on what problems of your dataset, but you should also consider what your dataset is good for.
- What sort of research question can this data answer? What is the scope? What questions was the data meant to answer, and does it answer anything else?
- What patterns do you see? Is there a particular type of data in a particular area?
Telling a Story using Mapping
Once you have found a meaningful pattern in your data, you can start making your map. Use the available geospatial data for your pattern to create an interactive map in any web mapping software begin to visualizing your stories and arguments.
For more information on how to create a map using a web mapping tool, check out the documentation for the mapping tool you want to use. LEADR also has guides for many of these tools on our resources page.
Here are some additional resources for learning about mapping: