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Innovating into the new year: Mapping Key Areas for Business to foucs on

January 8, 2009

Over the past several years, mapmaking has undergone a dramatic transformation. Internet-based tools have put mapmaking, once the domain of skilled cartographers, and the distribution of maps within the reach of nonprofessionals. Organizations like the Holocaust Museum can now use the language of cartography to weave a story. Realizing the power of maps to sway hearts and minds, nonprofits have seized the opportunity to engage potential supporters through this medium. They are utilizing maps to understand complex issues, document the impact of their programs, provide community services, bring transparency to obscure information, conduct advocacy, and connect activists.

Tell a Story

Maps tell stories in many ways. They juxtapose data from one source with data from another and connect it to a physical location. Before creating a map, design your story using the range of elements made available by your mapping provider of choice. Determine how you will build the strongest narrative in support of your cause. Video and photo enhance the reality of the viewing experience.

Does your story expose inequality? Consider overlaying demographic information, which can be specific down to several city blocks and is freely available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Is access to resources an issue? How are interests vested in this location? Layers of information that identify ownership, political jurisdiction, and physical proximity may illustrate a problem and provide insight on how to change it.

Alternatively, map information may remain agnostic by simply providing a series of layers from which people can draw their own conclusions and make their own discoveries.

Think About Computer Experience and Access

To whom are you trying to tell your story? If they have fast computers, are Web savvy, and can download and install applications with ease, Google Earth may be an appropriate option. If not, Google Earth may be too intimidating. Does your audience have ready access to computers? In the case, the organization created online maps to help its audience find food kitchens, but this audience is unlikely to be able to get online to see the maps (except perhaps at a public library).

Use Good Information Design

As Edward R. Tufte wrote in his landmark book Envisioning Information, “To envision information . . . is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, art. The instruments are those of writing and typography, of managing large data sets and statistical analysis, of line and layout and color. And the standards of quality are those derived from visual principles that tell us how to put the right mark in the right place.”

Tufte describes data visualization as an art form that merges design and statistics. He might be appalled at many of today’s online maps. As mentioned earlier, mapping providers offer a standard set of mapping tools, such as pins, balloons, and graphics, that make it easy to overload a map with confusing graphical elements. Apply the same design principles to mapmaking as you would to writing an essay or designing a brochure. Use good design to tell a compelling story.

Plan Your Data Sources

Maps elucidate data. What data sources support your story? How can a map help crystallize facts that are difficult to understand without visualization? Are the data publicly available, or will you have to purchase the information? Will you need to build a database to house your data?

Many of the most popular maps pull data from public sources, such as feeds (see post for an introduction to feeds). Look for feeds that meet your data needs. Perhaps you won’t have to do the work of compiling and managing data. Maps that pull data from various feeds are called mashups (see post for a note about mashups). Think about becoming an innovative assembler, rather than a creator, of data. You may find it less expensive in terms of money and time.

Make Use of Public Data

Counties, cities, and government agencies are often rich with data. You may be able to download layers from their Web site (San Francisco, for example, has a page where you can download a host of different layers) or request them. Reusing existing data may save hours of time-consuming gathering, sorting, and cleaning of your own data sets.

Socialize and Collaborate

Can you build social features into your mapping application? Some of the most successful Web 2.0 efforts rely on their users to create dynamic and useful services. Think about what your supporters can offer to one another in a map-based environment.

Develop a Marketing Plan

If no one sees it, even a great map is a failure. You’ve got to ensure that your supporters know about and use your map.

Your choice of mapping service may affect your marketing options. If you are accepted into Google Earth’s “Global Awareness” program, for example, you’ll have a head start. Google operates this program to showcase nonprofits in Google Earth. ILoveMountains and the Darfur layers are both part of this program. It gives them a tremendous boost in traffic.

Otherwise, you’ll have to promote your map like any other Web site. Write about it on your blog, buy ads, request reciprocal links, send e-mails to your list. Map marketing becomes especially important in the case of maps that depend on participation of users to build the map content, such as the California Dance Network map. Heavily utilized maps will attract increasing usage. Unused maps will seem lifeless and devoid of useful content.

Be Aware of Biases
These intentional and even unintentional biases are not always evident. Does the mapping software that you’re using or the layer that you’ve created introduce mapping biases? Consider implicit assumptions as you craft your story. If you’re presenting several data points, ask what you’re leaving out. If you’re graphically representing data, think through the ways in which that graphic may be interpreted.

Fulfill Broader Objectives

Determine how your mapping project fits into your broader strategic goals. Are you creating an experience aimed at delivering emotional impact? Are you creating a visual story for the press? Or are you offering a community service? The answers to these types of questions will guide you toward selecting relevant data, mapping tools, and graphical elements.

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