“I love maps!” Why seeing data spatially matters

As a mapping professional, I smile when I hear this phrase. It makes all of those long hours spent finding that perfect shade of blue to represent the water, along with the just the right spacing in the dashed lines around the city boundary worthwhile. Don’t even get me started on the beauty of a perfect contour label!

If you have tried to make a map in the past, you may have used complex GIS (geographic information systems) software. I know at Oakland County, we used desktop products with 20 different toolbars, any one of which deserved its own training class. Sometimes we then had to take the map into graphic design software to really make it sing.

However, gone are the days of map makers hiding in their GIS towers with National Geographic maps hung on their walls and Pantone color charts scattered about their desks. Mapping is now in the hands of people who might just as easily think “GIS” stands for “geography is sweet”. (Can you hear the nostalgic sighs of us old school map makers?)

Modern online tools from Esri, Google, and others make mapping accessible. All you need is a list of locations (like addresses), and within minutes, you can use software like Microsoft Excel with the Esri Maps for Office extension to create an online map to share with others. Smart symbology helps those not cartographically inclined to create a visually pleasing map without spending hours agonizing between cerulean and azure.

Go even further by easily analyzing your location information. For example, use “hotspots”, or areas of concentration, to show where the most parks can be found in your county, or where the most break-ins occur in your community. Use online tools such as ArcGIS Online to take your map and analysis to the next level, and share it as a fully functional web application or dashboard.

So it’s great that map making is now so easy, but why is this important? Seeing the spatial relationship between objects brings another dimension to any story. Think about how you communicate to the public. What’s easier to understand, a list of hazardous waste drop-off locations, or a map that shows your residents which location is closest? How about people relocating to your community? If they can see a map of your government services, parks, health centers, entertainment areas, they quickly get a sense for the opportunities that await them. Even engage your audience with the occasional fun map…how about mapping the sledding locations on the eve of the next snowmageddon, and tweet it out!

Challenge yourself to consider maps as just another tool in your toolbox. You use email, write documents, make spreadsheets, and now…make some maps! Insert them into your next report, add them to your next presentation, share them on your website. You will be amazed at how powerful just one map can be. I hope that one day, you too will smile when someone looks at your new map creations and says, “I love maps!”