Thinking Spatially

I want to map… how do I get started?

As members of an academic community with a myriad of research initiatives, the need to map information, to spatially analyze, to geoprocess, and to visualize space and time is becoming ubiquitous. But how do you get started? The answer to this question largely depends on what you want to map, and how you want to create your map. The what is usually easy. It is driven by your passion to pursue a research question and to have maps assist in the development of an argument. The how is the difficult part. It may depend on what data you have, what tools you have access to, how comfortable you are with software packages, if you are open to write code or use the command line.

Google Maps

While we use Google Maps seemingly daily, let’s not forget that it is most likely the world’s most powerful GIS. Its features include a global reach, temporality, transportation metrics, satellite and street map imagery, 3D navigation, and participatory and private data creation. But how safe is our data in the hands of Google?

Social Explorer

Social Explorer

Google Earth | Los Angeles Historical Map Collection (KMZ)

Even before Google Maps, Google Earth existed in the name of “Keyhole Earth Viewer.” Google would acquire Keyhole in 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history. While the boundaries between Google Maps and Google Earth are beginning to blur (Maps now includes 3D capabilities), Google Earth remains relevant as a 3D mapping platform to visualize historical imagery, and to create 3D geospatial narratives.


Palladio Home | Miriam’s excellent workshop

Do you need a jack-of-all-trades data visualizer? Look no further than Palladio, a data visualization tool built by the folks from Stanford’s Humanities Lab that combines mapping, temporal charts, faceted browsing, network diagrams, and gallery views.


d3 geo
D3 | d3-geo | command line D3


leaflet js

Google Earth Engine

Google Earth Engine

Remote sensing technology has never been made more available than it is today, thanks to the efforts of the Google Earth Engine team. Now, with just a few lines of code, researchers are able to access a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets for planetary-scale analysis.

From text to map

Behind any beautiful digital map lies the reality that every point, line or polygon is generated by some form of numerical and textual data.  Here is an example of a “placemark” written in KML:

A few more options…

Instruction: Copy and paste this code into a text editor, and save it as a .kml file. Double click on the file to open it in Google Earth.

A Simple Web Map

A different markup language produces a map for a different platform. Here, we combine CSS, HTML, and Javascript to produce a map using the open-source map library Leaflet:

Instructions: Paste this code into a text editor, and save it as an html file. Double click to open the map on a web browser.

History mapped

A paper map can be scanned and made digital.  As an image, it does not know “where it is”, in terms of its spatiality.  A process called “georeferencing” allows us to “spatialize” printed documents, and put them in the context of other spatial layers.  Here is an example of one of the most famous historical maps, the “John Snow Map” from 1854 that illustrates a Cholera outbreak that attacked London.

John Snow Cholera map (1854)

The same map can be visualized on a GIS platform, in this case, Google Earth:

John Snow map on google earth
[John Snow in Google Earth]

How to view in Google Earth

  1. Right click on the hyperlink and select “copy link address”
  2. Open Google Earth, Add, Network Link
  3. Give the network link a name, and paste the hyperlink

Age of Los Angeles


Palladio Workshop

Palladio Workshop

Visualizing A Century of New Yorker Stories What does a century of stories, navigating through space…