Infographics, GIS, and Mapping, the story continues (or part 2)

In my earlier blog post on the use of maps and mapping within infographics I focused mainly on the use of GIS applications that can create maps as one of their outputs. Here I mentioned among others ESRI ArcGIS and QGIS as examples of proprietary and open source software. The main use of these GIS software packages is – and I realize this may sound odd – not mapping. Although I do not want to get into the almost endless discussion of what GIS is, the presentation possibilities of GIS are only a part of the software. Besides the GIS applications there is a group of mapping software where the main purpose of the software is the visualization of geo data and its geographical features. Also at this point I want to stress that the world is not as black-and-white as I present it here. TileMill and Tableau are examples of tools from this second group.

The free tools list

For some time now Sharon Machlis has maintained a very useful table of free tools for data visualization and analysis at the ComputerWorld website. One of the categories in this list is GIS and Mapping. In this list there is no ESRI because it’s not free, but QGIS is mentioned as being open source GIS software. I have, from the start on, found this list a great resource even though it is not complete and always up-to-date. Two free tools that definitely should be mentioned are TileMill and Tableau Public.

TileMill from Mapbox is as they say themselves “a desktop application for creating beautiful web maps”, it has therefore very limited to no functionality to manipulate the data. It just takes the data from one of the many geo data formats and presents this data as a map. One of the main strengths of TileMill is its style language called CartoCSS that indeed looks very much like the CSS we know from web design. And for the Geo readers, compare it to the OpenLayers stylemap. TileMill is also powerful because they have separated content, data, and style. (I would nearly, like with XML write Semantic, Structure, and Style here).

Another tool that gets mentioned more and more often recently is Tableau Software. The free available Tableau Public has a simple feature to display data that has  a geo location added. Like with TileMill it is presentation software, and actually comes close to the dashboard I mentioned in my earlier blog post. The lack of a style language makes it look a little less flexible, and if it comes to the data (for example the postal codes) it is much focused on the big countries. Also the available database connections in the free version are limited. But to use it for basic maps that present the highlights from a dataset without needing the fine grain? It is excellent.

My favorite setup

What I like with both tools mentioned is that they can read the geo data that has been prepared with GIS software like ESRI ArcGIS en QGIS. By shapefiles (both), by direct read from the PostGIS database (QGIS-TileMill), or by linking to the local WMS-server (Tableau). That immediately describes my favorite setup for the mapping part of my infographics. Doing the questioning and preparation of my dataset in the GIS software, creating the right and balanced tables. Then present it with TileMill or Tableau.

The only hurdle is that Sharon Machlis indicates all GIS software in her table mentioned above with a skill level 4: “specialized knowledge in a field”.

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Infographics, GIS, and Mapping

In order to present complex information in a quick and efficient way we see a growing use of infographics. Not only in sciences but also in journalism we see that more and more often infographics are used. A recent announcement of an on-line course by Alberto Cairo, the author of the book “The Functional Art”,  has already set its counter to over 1700 subscriptions within a few days. The rapid growth of the number of submissions on websites like visual.ly and easel.ly show that more and more people find their way into this field too.

Dashboards with infographics, or more

Maps and mapping are an important group within the infographics. But when we look at the many manuals that appear on websites on how to create infographics there is actually not a real list of tools available for this type of presentation. I look at the infographics from my field of geo-information where we are often confronted with questions on how to present large amounts of complex data, for example with customers that want to have a quick and clear insight in the current state of their assets.

What many companies would like to have is Business Intelligence-like dashboards, but with the ability to ask questions in a GIS way, and then to present the results in a infographics manner. Is that too much to ask? It should not be, and in the last years I have seen many very nice examples on presenting location data in a way that comes close.

GIS Software

ESRI, the giant in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), offers us many ways to present location linked data. With some basic knowledge and the great geo data collection that comes with the software you can quickly produce some basic maps. You can even do the statistics behind the maps within the software. But let me stress that I did on purpose use the word “basic” twice in previous line! GIS and dealing with geo data is a complex discipline. Besides the software is rather expensive for when you want to use it every now and then. Apart from ESRI there are other alternatives that offer ways to store, analyze, and present your geo data. Examples of other software are Mapinfo, Bentley Map, and GeoMedia.

An open source alternative is QGIS, an aggregation of Quantum and GIS. QGIS is a very good tool when it comes to the creation of maps every now and then. Contrary to ESRI ArcGIS it is more difficult to install, although much has improved recently. A page you should definitely see when it comes to learning how to do the basic GIS operations is “how to perform basic GIS operations in QGIS in the most straightforward way“. It has a some neat tricks. When it comes to the data there are also many open source inventories.

And after you have worked (or struggled) with the tools for a while you will probably find out that we are still far from the dashboard that I mentioned above.

Mapmaking

One thing that I want to mention is that map making is a profession too. Mapping is more than just plotting your data on a map that you have found on the Internet, or in a template that comes with your office suite. But do not get me wrong, first rule is that you pick the base layer that suits the job. Over the years I have been to many great conferences that primarily focused on how to present geo data, to know that you can make big mistakes there too. Unfortunately that is what I see happening in more and more infographics. Although the learning curve is steep, GIS can be of great use here.

Let me conclude to tell you: there is a long way to go, but there is definitely a great link between GIS and infographics. More on both, and especially on how to map your data, is to come.

Continued in part 2