Adventures in Digital Research: Use Maps for Free in Your Presentations and Publications

For many topics, especially the more complex ones, maps can be a useful way of visualising data and presenting them in an approachable way.

Credit: mapchart.net

Death by Powerpoint is a sad fact of modern life. Personally, I prefer presentations that are performed ex tempore (I’m always impressed by researchers who know their subject so well they don’t need notes), but Powerpoints are still handy when you need to present complex research data, or provide visual cues for your audience. There’s nothing worse than a set of Powerpoint slides consisting of nothing but text, read aloud by the speaker.

Powerpoints can be enlivened by the diligent use of graphics, although too many animations and whizz-bang effects are very distracting. Images, especially if they are chosen well, can convey far more than text alone. They can provide a focal point for discussion, stimulate debate, and engage the audience’s attention much more effectively than text. Unfortunately, when you have a historical subject, or one that is very technical or abstract, images are not always easy to come by. Many tables and charts require a lot of exposition, and are difficult to interpret when you’re sat at the back of a room.

For many topics, especially the more complex ones, maps can be a useful way of visualising data and presenting them in an approachable way. If the events and phenomena you are talking about are geographically focused, or spatially distributed, or you want to convey a sense of movement to your narrative, maps are a great way of condensing information and communicating it to an audience. But what happens if the specific map you need is copyrighted, or not available to re-use? And what happens if you need to make a custom map from scratch?

Google Maps is the go-to destination (ahem) for basic maps on the web. Google’s licensing makes it clear that you are able to re-use Google maps for non-commercial purposes. You can use pins to highlight particular locations, draw routes, get directions, and view street-level images of places of interest. After you have downloaded a particular map, you can then annotate it as you wish – this is perhaps the easiest option for people who want a rough-and-ready map to use in their presentations.

Unfortunately, for more advanced needs, Google Maps leaves a lot to be desired. For a start, you are restricted to the particular base maps Google offers (satellite, road, terrain etc.). Google does not offer a completely blank map you can rework or colour in as needed, for example, to highlight particular regions or countries of interest. A blank map is often needed when you want to use colour to show the geographical distribution of a particular phenomenon, such as morbidity or per capita income (this kind of map is known as a choropleth).

Mapchart.net is a fantastic, free online resource for researchers who wish to create such custom maps for their presentations. Created by a web-developer named Minas, Mapchart.net allows you to choose from a range of world, regional and country maps you can colour in or label as you wish. Historians will appreciate the historical maps of Europe before World War I and World War II (other historical maps will be made available in due course). With the upcoming general election in Britain, political scientists might also appreciate the national map of the UK broken down by constituency (which you can then colour completely in blue, hah!). A variety of international political organisations are also accounted for (EU, OECD countries, NATO, etc.), and their member states can be highlighted automatically using the toolbar.

To highlight a particular area, all you need to do is click the area in question and colour it in using the tools provided (deselect the area by right-clicking). You can then label the areas you have selected with an optional legend. Once you are finished, convert the map to an image and download it to your computer. All downloaded maps will be in .png format and are completely free to re-use in presentations, with the caveat that you must credit the source. Publication is also permissible with credit, but note that the terms and conditions specify Mapchart.net has the right to freely reuse any chart you make through the service (for example, in marketing), so this might not be ideal for copyrighted books or journal articles.

To see the kinds of maps you can make on Mapchart.net, check out the Showcase on the Mapchart.net website.

Alternatives

For slightly more advanced uses, and for non-commercial publication in books, journal articles and so on, consider Simplemappr. All the base maps on this website are in the public domain, so this is a more robust option from a publishing and copyright point of view. Like Mapchart.net, you can colour particular countries and regions to create outline maps and choropleths. In addition, you can indicate points of interest and add various layers, such as rivers, roads and ecoregions. For geographers, various map projections are available.

WorldMap, currently under development by Harvard University, is another great option for researchers who have very large quantitative datasets they wish to visualise geo-spatially. Based on open-source software, it allows you to add custom map layers to various base maps, and share these layers with collaborators. Thousands of map layers created by the WorldMap community are available to view, from air pollution and transport routes, to health indicators and interesting historical events. WorldMap is quite technical though, so be sure to check out the manual before diving in.

None of these free tools are a complete replacement for advanced mapping solutions such as ArcGIS, which might be provided by your university. However, they are a great option for researchers who wish to create simple maps to use in presentations and publications – on the whole, they are convenient and straightforward to use. Using these tools, even the dullest of Powerpoint presentations can be given a much-needed shot in the arm.

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