I’ve been working on a project presentation that utilized quite a few maps as visual aids, so I thought I would post about the different mapping tools I’ve found throughout this project and their advantages and disadvantages.  Please leave me a comment if you know of others I should look into!

Probably my favorite of the mapping options that I have come across is Tableau.  Tableau automatically recognizes several different location tags in a data set like zip codes, states, cities, etc., draws the shapes around those regions, and allows the user to display attributes of those regions by varying the fill color of the shapes to reflect a continuous metric (gradients) or a categorical metric (various color palettes).  Alternatively you could use a location marker and vary the size of that marker to represent your data (useful if you have addresses rather than regions).  One drawback of this tool is that users who do not purchase a license have to use Tableau Public, which requires that any data you put into the program becomes publicly available for download by any other Tableau Public user, so if you have proprietary or sensitive data then Tableau Public would not be a good option.  Another limitation with this program is that it can get complicated to map multiple different data types on the same map, for example a map that has both specific address markers and region polygons.

Map created with Tableau displaying a categorical attribute at the zip code level (see this post for explanation of this map):



Map created with Tableau displaying a continuous attribute at the zip code level (see this post for explanation of this map):



Google Fusion Tables are also really useful for mapping data. This tool can geocode lists of addresses even if your data is a bit messy.  One difficulty with this tool is that it does not have the repository of region boundaries that Tableau has.  If you want to draw regions using Google Fusion Tables, you have to find (or create) and upload a kml file that contains the boundaries for each polygon you want to draw.  Luckily it isn’t too difficult to find kml files for various geographic regions just by searching the web (kml for the Chicago wards is available through the Chicago data portal, kml for US zip codes and US states I have found through other various sources).  One advantage of this tool over Tableau is that it is very simple to map both regions and points on the same map.

Map created with Google Fusion Tables with a gradient representing the per capita rat complaints for each Chicago ward (dark red indicates more relative complaints, dark green indicates less relative complaints).  This map also includes a marker for the Chicago Streets and Sanitation Office:



My Maps allows you to create and save maps by adding markers and various free form lines and shapes.  This tool will also easily let you change marker style and color (and there are many options), so for example if you wanted to include a map on a wedding website, you can create a map with a bed symbol for the hotel, a heart symbol for the ceremony location, and a music symbol for the reception, and draw lines connecting all of these events.


The last tool I will mention is Radius Around a Point Maps, which allows you to plug in a location and a radius around the location and the tool will draw that radius.  You can either do this by hand if you have a few, or you can upload a .csv with the latitude and longitude of each center and the distance of the radii you would like drawn around each.  It is pretty limited in other functionality, but this was the best free tool I could find for drawing radii and it is definitely user friendly.

Map created using the radius around a point mapping tool showing a 50mi radius around each US State capital city: