There’s a Map For That

For some time now, I have been planning to write an an article on my favorite map sites and mapping tools, but it was Hurricane Sandy that motivated me to push the project forward. Whether needing to find gas stations that still had gas or trying to plot my commute into Manhattan on public transportation, maps were of far greater value to me these past weeks than #nygas twitter hash tags or text message updates from the MTA website.  Maps also played a huge role in the news these past two weeks, helping people understand the extent of the damage in the Caribbean and the United States or who had won key “battleground” states in the presidential elections.

Maps are arguably one of the oldest forms of information visualization, and while there is much dispute over what would qualify as the oldest map in the world (do pre-historic petroglyphs count if there is a chance we might interpret intent wrongly?) there is no dispute that they have been with us for a long time (at least since 2,500 BC). And now, needless to say, most people expect instant access to interactive maps and directions  using such tools as HopStop or Google Maps.

Customization and Mapping API

What a lot of folks don’t know is, that with a little familiarity with Javascript (and the patience of master weaver) this mapping technology can be manipulated to fit their precise purposes – far beyond what can be done using standard versions of Google Maps or MapQuest.  Many companies offer mapping API – in fact, the API directory on the website Programmable Web lists well over 100 mapping APIs that are either open source or commercial enterprises.  One of the most popular and widely used is the API from Google Maps, of course, which you can learn more about at the Google Geo Developers blog.   If API is not in your comfort zone, however, there are services that offer menu-driven customizations.  For example, image to the right is of a map that I put together in about 5 minutes using a free MapBox account.

Racist Tweets Map

A college friend of mine, Matt Zook, and the team at recently created a map of post-election racist Tweets using a database they’ve developed called DOLLY and the menu-driven map building site, GeoCommons. Click here for interactive map and here for an explanation of how they did it.



Library Databases with Interactive Maps

Whenever I can, I like to mention the fantastic resources we have at the FIT Library, and it just so happens that a number of our databases come with map features of one type or another.   Opposing Viewpoints in Context offers maps that illustrate trends in current social and ethical issues facing the United States.  SRDS Local Market Audience Analyst and Passport GMID offer US and World maps that correlate to general demographics,

Singapore Map – WGSN City by City

pyschographics, and market forecasts. And WGSN has a section called City by City, which includes interactive maps of major cities that are tailored for those in the fashion, design, or retail industries. Here’s Singapore, for example.

By far the most powerful mapping tool we have in our possession, however, is found in the database Demographics Now.   With this database you can map data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Consumer Expenditure Survey), and

Columbia, MO Book Expenditure Map from Demographics Now

display it by a wide array of geographic categories ranging from ZIP code to broadly defined metropolitan areas in the United States.  The image you see is a map of my hometown

displaying the current average expenditure on books by block groups (higher expenditure is indicated by a darker hue).


The Flat File and the Curio Cabinet

Buy Buy Baby/266 Seventh Avenue today and 1903

Technology has made it easier than ever to map data, directions, and locations, but what about personal narrative or history. One of my very favorite map sites, History Pin, attempts  do exactly that by allowing individuals and institutions to upload photographs of particular places to matching coordinates and street addresses, and to allow these photos to overlay the Google Maps “Street View” mode.

If history is your thing and you love the beauty and character of old maps, then you will also really enjoy the following two sites.  The first, simply titled Old Maps Online, is a portal to digital maps collections from libraries and archives around the globe.  One can search by place, as well as date. One of the digital collections whose maps turn up in the search results is the New York Public Library’s Map Warper collection, which is an incredible site all by itself.  NYPL Map Warper allows you to take historic maps from the the NYPL’s digital

West 27th and 7th with 1819 overlay depicting building plots

collection and layer them over and reshape them to fit contemporary maps of the same locations, an action that they call “rectifiying.”  If you don’t wish to rectify any maps yourself you can also browse or search the collection for maps that have already been rectified.


I would love to see some of the mapping tools listed above incorporated in teaching lessons or student projects.  If you are a professor or a student at FIT and would like to know more about using some of these tools, please feel free to contact me via this this blog by posting a comment below.