The Best Free Data Mapping Tools
As the trend for data visualisation and mapping increases, so does the demand for tools that allow you to put this trend into action and produce content that portrays statistics in a more accessible and visually interesting way.
For example, some mapping websites allow you to take a fairly basic excel file, upload it and then with very little manipulation create a map of visualised data in less than 10 minutes. These sites are a great way to open data up to a wider audience.
Open Heat Map
The simplest tool I have found is the openheatmap (http://www.openheatmap.com). Simply upload an excel file with some geo-location, ranging from specific co-ordinates to merely a place name, and the software will do the rest. While it produces a fairly basic map of the data, when it only requires one click you can’t really complain. Below is an example of the map that is produced when you upload the English population by county, excluding London:
All I had to do is change the colours from the default so the higher the population, the denser the colour shown. The main drawback with this map is the lack of a key, and therefore no breakdown of where the differentials come into play. However, if you’re looking to produce heatmaps in a matter of seconds from uncomplicated data sets, to be used as a visual supplement to in-depth analysis, then this tool is very good. A quick look at the map and we can see straight away that the higher populated suburbs in the South East, around Birmingham and in the North West.
Target Map (www.targetmap.com) has 3 different levels of sign up; a premium version, a free private version which blocks you from seeing all of your data and a free shared version where you can view your full map only after you have made it available on their website, which is a drawback. However if you are prepared to make the data for others to see you can produce professional maps fairly quickly and to a good standard. Firstly, pick the region or country you want to map then upload an excel file.
Finally we come to a tool by Google that seems to be a very strong overall contender for best free simple data mapping tool - Fusion Tables (www.google.com/fusiontables). Listed as being in an experimental stage, it is fast becoming the go-to tool for data mapping at this level. Data is uploaded through excel, Google docs or created at source in a similar way to previous tools.
You then geocode the data with the ability to guide the tool through location hints if you only have basic information available. This ensures that if your file only has place names and some ambiguity may occur, you can nudge the geo-coding towards the right location to reduce the chances of misplacing your data in a similarly named location somewhere else in the world. If you only have base place names you can get a map like this UK population one. However if you have specific location data such as co-ordinates, you can map a very specific polygon heatmap as shown here.
Re-using the London energy data from the earlier example shows just how much more clearly defined this map is, with an even greater option for personalisation to get it looking just how you want it to. Here we can see the boroughs broken down into much greater detail - I chose to go from light red for the least average energy use up to deep red for the highest. With this added level of detail we can get a great insight into how differing areas perform, portrayed on a clear map with an obvious, helpful key. Furthermore if you want to see specific data you merely need to click on a region to see the information appear.
These three tools are doing a good job at opening up the world of data mapping to a wider audience and I would encourage people who have maybe been put off by mapping and visualising data to go ahead and try these tools. After familiarising yourself with how they work you will be pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily you can take some data and transform it into a map for further use.
Please feel free to get in contact through the comments section if you have any questions about the tools listed or have any recommendations of your own.