Getting started with mapping and GIS for free (Tips from a non-expert)

gis title

Sometimes it is useful to see results on a map. Maybe you want to see where your participants are coming from or show survey results geographically.

Mapping and GIS (geographic information system) are skills that I had been interested in learning for awhile. I never seemed to have the time to really delve into it and so these interests took the back shelf while other priorities popped up.

This past year I have been working on a project where geography and location are key and so I finally had the push I needed to get up to speed. I had a minimal budget (read: $0) for software. Although there are pretty fancy GIS programs out there (that require minimal know-how) those weren’t in the cards.

Although there are other resources out there, these are the two that I used. They require no coding, making them very beginner-friendly.

1. Google Maps

If you are looking for very basic mapping, Google Maps can actually do quite a bit. You can draw polygons/boundaries, add points, add in directions, and import data (although I think data imports are limited at 50 rows).

Here is a fictitious example of a program location (the purple star) and where the program participants live (the green dots).


The nice thing about Google is that everything is saved on the cloud and you can access your maps from anywhere (and easily share them with others).



I needed to do more complex mapping than Google Maps allows and so I turned to QGIS, an open source GIS tool. I will warn you that it has a steep learning curve but there are many tutorials online (I found QGIS Tutorials and Tips extremely helpful!) and a community over at StackOverflow if you get stuck.

Here is another fictitious example of program locations (the grey circles) mapped in relation to income (red being the lowest income and the darker green being the highest income):


I’d love to hear more from others about this subject. Do you know of a great mapping/GIS tool? Have you used mapping in evaluation? Let me know in the comments!

Thinking geospatially

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun making maps in Tableau (What? Everybody doesn’t make data visualizations for fun?). Tableau is a pricy piece of software but you can use Tableau Public for free (and if you are a charity in Canada you can get the desktop version at a very, very discounted rate through TechSoup).

Mapping data is a skill that I’ve been wanting to build for awhile. Lately I’ve been working with community health data and bar charts can only tell me so much. Seeing the data on a map has made a world of difference.

In order to try out working with maps I downloaded data from Toronto’s open data catalogue. The first map I made was a schematic of Toronto’s subway (the TTC). I adjusted the size of the circles representing stations to show the number of daily riders and added a filter so that the viewer could drill down on a specific subway line. Much more interesting than simply looking at a bar chart that lists each stop, right?

Click to go to data viz

Next up I took a look at service calls place to 311 (the customer service department of Toronto). You can see that some areas of the city have quite a high call volume whereas other areas are relatively low. If you click on a specific area of the map the bar chart below will automatically filter to show you the top 10 reasons for service calls originating in that area. What strikes me the most is that throughout the city the most common reason for calling 311 by far is issues surrounding garbage, recycling, and compost bins.

Click to go to data viz

The third map that I want to share is neighbourhood safety. I took a look at major crimes and other safety-related incidents by Toronto neighbourhood. The data is a little old (2011) but you can instantly see that the majority of incidents are concentrated in a few neighbourhoods. You can filter the map by incident type on the right. Changing incident map changes the map pretty drastically. For example, filter on murder and you can see that the red areas change. Like the 311 map, clicking on a neighbourhood will filter the bar chart below.

Click to go to data viz

So far I’ve been having a lot of success with these interactive maps. It is much easier for people to instantly see and understand the data vs. having to look at a chart and then convert the words into geography in their head.

What about you – what has been your experience with presenting geospatial data?