A Few Good Mapping and GIS Tools
A map can be worth a thousand words. If you're looking for ways to create maps or to display geographic data, there are a number of software package that can help, from free ones to complex and powerful ones. We summarize the tools recommended by five nonprofit experts.
Imagine that you want to show your constituents where they can buy fair-trade coffee, or represent to decision-makers the lack of doctors in a particular region of town. Perhaps you want to communicate the disparities of housing levels and heath indicators across different counties, or show the impact of polluted rivers on the surrounding environment.
These things are hard to effectively convey in writing, but a map can be worth a thousand words.
Enter GIS. Geographical Information Systems provide tools to display and analyze information geographically. By layering information on top of a map, we can visually represent data in a way that can be readily understood by a large audience. Maps can reveal significant data relationships that are difficult to comprehend otherwise.
A famous example of the power of maps comes from Dr. John Snow. As a physician in England in the mid-1800s, Snow disproved the belief that cholera was spread by bad air by analyzing data on the location of infections and the location of water wells. By plotting this data on a street map of London, he convincingly showed that individual outbreaks were clustered around a particular well. This data convinced authorities to close down the offending pump, and helped to stop a more massive outbreak of the disease.
To understand which GIS tools might be useful for displaying and understanding your geographic data, we interviewed five nonprofit GIS specialists about the tools that best fit nonprofit needs. While these aren't the only GIS tools out there, they have worked well for a number of nonprofits, and could work well for your organization, too.
Start By Setting Priorities
GIS tools range widely in complexity and in the features they offer. To choose one that will work for you, it's important to establish your own priorities:
- Set Goals. What do you hope to accomplish with GIS? Is the end goal to encourage constituents to visit locations, to encourage action, to impact legislation? How will you know if your project is a success?
- Define your Audience. Who will you present the findings too? Are they likely to be comfortable with presentations of technical or detailed analysis, or will you need to create display materials that anyone can understand?
- Identify your Data. What information is required to inform your goal? Do you need particular maps? Data overlays? Do you have access to this information? Will you need to attach geographical information — like latitude and longitude — to your existing data?
- Plan your Delivery Format. What will the final deliverable look like? For example, do you need a powerful static visual for presenting your cause, a dynamic tool your audience can manipulate, or a tool for ongoing analysis internally?
With your basic priorities defined, you can look for a tool that will meet your needs. Let's take a look at some of the specific GIS tools that our experts recommended.
Basic Online Mapping
Several tools focus their product on providing flat-map or globe views of the world. Often referred to as "geobrowsers," these systems allow you to create basic maps, plot data on top of them, and then share the maps with others via the Internet. These tools are relatively simple to learn and use, and provide a basic ability to display and share your data geographically, but don't allow for in-depth data analysis.
A huge number of maps are freely available through My Maps, providing a valuable research resource for simple map visuals.
An extensive API also allows those with coding expertise to create and manipulate maps on the fly. Many applications have sprung up that take advantage of this API to make mapping using Google Maps even easier. For instance, My Maps doesn't straightforwardly support importing a whole set of data, but MapBuilder provides a set of tools that allow you to more easily do this and a number of other map-building tasks.
Microsoft Virtual Earth
Virtual Earth is a step up from the options provided by Google Maps. In addition to simple flat maps, Virtual Earth offers high-quality aerial photography of many urban areas, along with three-dimensional views. Its "bird's-eye" view allows you to “fly through” maps, viewing features or buildings from a 45-degree angle or from four other vantage points. Users can plot points and describe them in a way similar to Google Maps, or add in additional shapes, boundaries or images. Virtual Earth also offers a tool for creating custom maps drawn to scale with their tool, which allows users to use their own map graphics rather than the stock Microsoft map images. Virtual Earth is a free, hosted solution.
Google Earth is in many ways similar to Virtual Earth. It allows you to create maps with points, shapes, boundaries and images overlaid on either map or satellite images, which users can then view, pan, and zoom in 3-D. Google Earth has a larger user base than Microsoft Earth and lots of publicly available data available to view or combine with new maps. Much of this popularity is due to the capabilities it offers for customizing and developing Web applications from mapping projects. Some people feel that the quality of Virtual Earth's imagery is more consistent than Google Earth, but both applications frequently add data sets and images. Many feel that Google Earth makes it easier to find data, plot points, and share the results. Google Earth requires each user to download a piece of software to their desktop, while Virtual Earth does not.
Google Earth offers a free version, as well as Google Earth Plus ($20 a year) and Google Earth Pro ($400 a year). The Plus and Pro versions offer additional capacities such as support for importing data from a GPS unit, or standard GIS data formats, as well as faster rendering and higher-quality graphics. Google has a substantial nonprofit program that grants free access to the Pro version to qualified 501(c)3 nonprofits.
Moving into Analysis
Nonprofits that are seeking not only to view their data but also to analyze it may find that the simple online mapping tools identified above are too limited for their needs. Data analysis becomes important for projects where many data points in many layers must be interpreted and presented in a way that is not confusing to the audience.
More sophisticated GIS packages allow you to work with data including imagery (such as maps), points (like a building), lines (such as streets) and polygons (areas enclosed by a shape, such as a census tract). You can then describe these points, lines, and polygons with other data, such as income levels, vacancy rates, or ethnicity. For instance, you could plot the ethnicity of families per household (a point) or income levels per polygon (a city). All of this data can be displayed in layers on top of one another against a map.
Looking at everything together is often quite powerful without further analysis, but in many cases the data is complex enough that it requires interpretation to pull out the right information to meet the project goals. Sophisticated GIS allows more advanced understanding of all this data when layered together, through functionality including queries and filters that help analysts focus in on particular data and layers; functions for thinning and generalizing data; tools for reconciling physical features from two different data layers into the same view; and more.
GIS analysis requires strong data-analysis skills, and using these tools effectively can require quite a leap in expertise from the basic mapping systems. Our experts highly recommend consulting with a GIS expert if you're planning to move into this realm of more advanced GIS tools.
MapWindow is a free, open-source application that has gained in popularity in recent years. It must be locally installed and works only on Windows platforms. It's a great system for people working for the first time with a more sophisticated GIS tool, as the user interface is fairly easy to use, while also offering a variety of features.
MapWindow offers flexible support for a number of data formats — you can either use the map data, imagery, and geographic data files provided within the system, or you can import your own from a variety of different GIS and GPS data. As finding data is often a challenge, this can be a big benefit.
There is also a growing repository of free, contributed add-on functionality, including tools to help convert MapWindows shape files for use in the popular online mapping tools such as Google Earth.
Manifold has a good reputation for working on Windows Vista, and most packages work well on either 32-bit or more advanced 64-bit systems — important for projects requiring large amounts of data processing and rendering. Manifold is a more complex system, requiring stronger knowledge of data transformation, analysis, and intermediate GIS skills to realize its full potential.
As the industry leader in GIS and mapping, ESRI offers a large array of solutions, training, and support for professional and large-scale GIS projects. It's likely to be far easier to find resources for working with ESRI products — many GIS professionals specialize in them, and many available datasets are in formats tailored to these products.
The free ArcReader tool makes it easy for anyone to view and query maps created in the various ArcGIS tools.
ESRI offers a nonprofit grant program with a focus on conservation programs, but also has opportunities for a variety of other causes, including education, humanitarian, libraries, and more. The application process is lengthy, but those approved for a grant receive the software for free. Alternatively, by purchasing the ESRI book, "Getting to Know GIS," customers get a full-featured six-month trial of ArcView, which for some may be enough time for some short-term, onetime projects. For more information on the grant programs available through ESRI visit the ESRI Conservation Program site.ESRI's Arcview is also available for donation to eligible nonprofits and libraries at TechSoup Stock.
Solutions for Specific Needs
A number of applications target a specific kind of GIS or mapping work. They provide mapping, analysis, and specific data sets together to make it easy for less technical users to benefit from GIS. One example is Neighborhood Knowledge California, which provides visitors a free tool for visualizing community data — such as demographic, housing, economic and health indicators — for neighborhoods across California. On a national level, DataPlace offers a utility for finding, mapping, and charting many varieties of data about particular cities and communities across the United States.
Getting Started with GIS
If you're looking to get started with some basic geographic visuals, Google's or Microsoft's tools can provide a comparatively easy way to get your feet wet. Experiment with the free maps and examples of other interactive maps to explore the best strategy for your projects.
However, developing strong visuals and analyses can be a complex task. Especially if you're looking to move into more sophisticated GIS systems, seeking the advice of peers or experts can be a big help in getting the project off the ground. It's a complex world of specialized terminology, data transformations, and analyses —and a little expertise can go a long way.
In addition, keep in mind that great maps and analyses require good data. It's critical to spend time understanding what information will be required, where you can get it, and the time it will take to transform it to a format that can be used by your (or any) GIS system.
They're not trivial to create, but maps and other geographic visualizations can be incredibly powerful. The next time you're trying to communicate locations, differences between geographic regions, or other map-based information, ask yourself: might mapping or GIS software be worthwhile to help convey your message better?
Be sure to check out these resources for more GIS toolkits and information online:
Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who lent their time and expertise for this article:
- Janel Bisacquino, GIS Center at Stony Brook
- Brian Lipsett, Movement Technology Institute
- Josh Livni, Umbrella Consulting
- Larry Orman, GreenInfo Network
- Rebecca White, Chicago Technology Cooperative