Essential visualisation resources: Tools for mapping


Originally published by Andy Kirk on Visualising Data, 1 May 2011. This article is republished with permission.


This is the fourth part of a multi-part series designed to share with readers an inspiring collection of the most important, effective, useful and practical data visualisation resources. The series will cover visualisation tools, resources for sourcing and handling data, online learning tutorials, visualisation blogs, visualisation books and academic papers. Your feedback is most welcome to help capture any additions or revisions so that this collection can live up to its claim as the essential list of resources.


This fourth part presents a broad range of visualisation resources that can be used for representing data via maps. This is a rapidly evolving subset of the population of visualisation resources, one that seems to be constantly introducing us to new tools and clever technologies to bring innovation to the representation of geographical data. There are many tools for creating maps and plotting location data, but this collection focuses on the those tools that provide the means of overlaying data to represent a visualisation within a geographical context.

Please note, I may not have personally used all the tools presented here but have seen sufficient evidence of their value from other sources. Also, to avoid re-inventing the wheel, descriptive text may have been reproduced from native websites for some resources.


Google Maps & Google Earth

Google Maps is undoubtedly the most commonly used mapping technology on the web allowing users to explore the world with incredible detail. Google Earth essentially provides a 3D interface view of the globe, letting you pan and zoom to explore the Earth. The real power of these tools from a visualisation sense comes particularly through the features of accompanying APIs (eg. Google Maps API and Google Visualization AP) and through the process of combining KML data, which enables you to overlay your own visual data onto the foundation 2D or 3D mapped views.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: Google, KML, 3D

Good examples and references: Google Earth Tutorials | Google Maps Tutorial | Thematic Mapping | GMapCreator

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



ArcGIS is a range of powerful and versatile mapping tools from ESRI. The products allow you to integrate data layers onto maps, globes, and models on the desktop and serve them out for use on a desktop, in a browser, or in the field via mobile devices. For developers, ArcGIS gives you APIs for building rich, interactive applications using JavaScript, Flex, or Silverlight, embedding your applications into Web pages or launch stand-alone Web applications.

Find out more information | Cost: Free > Paid Licenses | Tags: Desktop, web-based, APIs

Good examples and references: ArcGIS Desktop | ArcGIS Web Mapping | ArcGIS Explorer | Gallery

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



GeoCommons enables everyone to create rich interactive visualisations to solve problems without any experience using traditional mapping tools. Map real-time social data and the over 50,000 open-source data sets in GeoCommons then share your interactive maps and analysis with others by embedding them in websites, blogs or sharing via Facebook or Twitter. API’s allow developers to enhance the scope of the GeoCommons visualisations. GeoIQ extends the functionality of GeoCommons by delivering advanced security, large enterprise data support and robust location analytics.

Find out more information | Cost: GeoCommons = Free, GeoIQ = Paid Licenses | Tags: Interactive, web-based, datasets, APIs

Good examples and references: GeoIQ | User Manual | IssueMap

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



OpenHeatMap is a straightforward and accessible way for non-specialists to upload data and create maps that communicate information. Developed by Pete Warden, and incorporating the OpenStreetMap map data, it transforms data from sources such as a Google Spreadsheet into an interactive, animated view of a geographical area, which you can then share online. For developers, it’s a JQuery plugin that makes it easy to create a completely open-source mapping component on any web page, using either Flash or HTML5’s Canvas element.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: Spreadsheet, interactive, JQuery

Good examples and references: Gallery | Documentation

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



Indiemapper describes itself as a smarter, easier, more elegant way to make thematic maps from digital data, closing the gap between data and map by taking a visual approach to map-making. It is a web-based app that loads geo-data, allows custom control over mapmaking, and exports static maps in vector and raster formats. With Indiemapper you have the tools you need to make beautiful thematic maps without overwhelming you with hundreds of obscure GIS functions, with nothing being any more than 2 clicks away to keep mapmaking simple, fast, and fun.

Find out more information | Cost: Trial > $30 per month license | Tags: Portable, KML, interactive

Good examples and references: Gallery | System information | FlowingData Review

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



InstantAtlas is premium data presentation software for location-based statistical data enabling information analysts and researchers to create highly-interactive dynamic and profile reports that combine statistics and map data to improve data visualization, enhance communication, and engage people in more informed decision making. With a range of products, features and reporting options it represents a powerful option for this particular type of visualisation challenge.

Find out more information | Cost: Trial > $1,000+ license plus add-ons | Tags: Desktop & server, interactive, collaborative

Good examples and references: Products | Tutorials and Support ZoneSingle Map Examples | FlowingData Review

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)


Target Map

Developed by MapGenia of Barcelona, TargetMap aims to provide an easy way to create and share customised data maps on line, allowing everyone from individuals to large organisations to be able represent their data on maps of any country in the world and to share their knowledge through an online community and gallery of creations.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: Community, Embeddable

Good examples and references: Blog/Help

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)



TileMill is a modern map design studio powered by open source technology. It is a tool for cartographers to quickly and easily design maps for the web using custom geographical data and then integrate layers of data for visual representation. Maps created with TileMill can be displayed using the Google Maps API, OpenLayers and a number of other projects.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: Open Source, KML, Mac/Ubuntu

Good examples and references: Manual | TileMill Announcement | MapBox

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)


TileMill: Open Source Map Design from Development Seed on Vimeo.



Polymaps is a project from SimpleGeo and Stamen which offers a free JavaScript library for making dynamic, interactive maps in modern web browsers. It provides speedy display of multi-zoom datasets over maps, and supports a variety of visual presentations for tiled vector data. Because Polymaps can load data at a full range of scales, it’s ideal for showing information from country level on down to states, cities, neighborhoods, and individual streets.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: JavaScript, interactive, embeddable

Good examples and references: Examples | Documentation

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)


Color Brewer

Color Brewer offers a slightly different utility to those listed above. It is a wonderfully useful diagnostic tool that helps you evaluate the effectiveness of individual colour schemes for the use on map designs that represent data, such as choropleth maps. Utilisation of the recommended colour classes will aid map legibility and enhance the potential for accurate interpretation and general insights taken from map-based visualisations.

Find out more information | Cost: Free | Tags: Colour use, map design

Good examples and references: Academic Paper | Cynthia Brewer | TypeBrewer

Status: Ongoing (7th July, 2011)


Notable others…

Dotspotting | Dotspotting is the first project Stamen is releasing as part of Citytracking, a project funded by the Knight News Challenge, making tools to help people gather data about cities and make that data more legible.

DataMaps.eu | DataMaps.eu offers a free visualization tool that can convert your complex location-related data, without any programming effort, in to appealing, easy to understand visualisations.

GeoTime | This award-winning visual analysis tool places an emphasis on visual presentations, introducing new ways to visualize events over time, including the ability to run statistical functions on numerical attributes within your data.