Easier Online Maps with CartoDB


For the recent Teaching & Technology Expo, I was asked to host the ESRI ArcGIS table to introduce W&M faculty and staff to how they can incorporate GIS mapping into their courses, research, and work. As I prepared for the event, I struggled with how to present basic approaches that non-GIS savvy individuals could actually implement. Further, in passing conversations with fellow AT bloggers Mike Blum and Pablo Yáñez, we could all lament our struggles with ESRI’s ArcGIS software from its clunky interface to anything-but-intuitive processes and outputs. Indeed, you can learn about some of Mike and Pablo’s specific struggles in Mike’s recent post. If those of us with some experience and know-how with ArcGIS are verging on bewilderment, how could I present ESRI’s software as a viable tool for the uninitiated?

CartoDB’s Interface Makes for Easier Data Visualizations

Meanwhile, I have been working with Dr. Pam Eddy to generate some maps that depict the commonwealth’s community college landscape. Although the ultimate goal of the project is to examine leadership in community colleges from a spatial perspective, I initially prepared some basic visualizations of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) to share at the Council for the Study of Community Colleges’ annual meeting. I have utilized ArcGIS in my academic research and public-sector work, but not since 2009. And as I battled with the cumbersome software I was reminded why I hadn’t missed it. ArcGIS is a powerful and comprehensive tool, but it is far from intuitive or user friendly. I reached out through my geography channels and a good friend suggested some tips and books, but also directed me to CartoDB.

What a boost! CartoDB is a open-source online mapping tool that allows users to quickly and (relatively) simply create online maps with their own data. It allows you to map anywhere in the world and publishes to a nice interface. There are even fairly robust free accounts for academics.

Making Maps to Visualize the “Rural Horseshoe” of the Virginia Community College System

Here's the map I came up with using CartoDB.

Here’s the second map I generated using CartoDB’s data merging capability.

Intriguingly, CartoDB has an extremely useful “merge” function which allows you to connect data from multiple tables (those familiar with ArcGIS will know this as a “join”). This kind of functionality goes beyond what I had expected from an online mapping tool.

For instance, after generating my first map representing the 23 colleges, 40 campuses, and their related service regions, Dr. Eddy remarked how it would be useful to see the Carnegie Classification codes as a way to reveal rural/suburban/urban patterns among the campuses. I was able to “merge” data available from the Carnegie website with the map I had already made, tweak the settings, and generate a new map that further illustrates the rural horseshoe that is gaining traction in VCCS policy development.

A Few Shortcomings and Final Thoughts

But there are shortcomings. While there are some workarounds, CartoDB maps are not currently embeddable in a WordPress site. Your free account is limited to just six tables of data, and if your map should prove popular, you might run up against the ceiling for the number of views (currently set at 50,000). Additionally, the maps are only viewable on the Web, and aren’t exportable in any other format. However, I’m starting to look into the promising Mapbox and Tilemill programs which support a variety of exports including PDFs for including in your academic writing.

These emerging open-source programs are going a long way towards closing GIS’s digital divide, and several attendees of the Teaching & Technology Expo were intrigued and excited about exploring the far more practical and approachable CartoDB for their mapping interests.