GIS and Geospatial Data Tools

I was recently appointed the geography subject librarian for my library, which was mildly terrifying considering that I do not have a background in geography. But I was assigned the subject because of my interest in data visualization, and since my appointment I’ve learned a few things about the awesome potential opportunities to integrate Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geospatial visualization tools into information literacy instruction and library services generally.  A little bit of knowledge about GIS and geospatial visualization goes a long way, and is useful across a variety of disciplines, including social sciences, business, humanities and environmental studies and sciences.   If you are into open data (who isn’t?) and you like maps and / or data visualization (who doesn’t?!) then it’s definitely worth it to learn about some tools and resources to work with geospatial information.

About GIS and Geospatial Data

Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, are software tools that enable visualizing and interpreting data (social, demographic, economic, political, topographic, spatial, natural resources, etc.) using maps and geospatial data. Often data is visualized using layers, where a base map (containing, for example, a political map of a city) or tiles are overlaid with shapes, data points, or choropleth shading. For example, in the map below, a map of districts in Tokyo is overlaid with data points representing the number of seniors living in the area: 1

You may be familiar with Google Earth, which has a lot of features similar to a GIS (but is arguably not really a GIS, due to its lack of data analysis and query tools typically found in a fully-featured GIS). You can download a free Pro version of Google Earth that enables you to import GIS data. GIS data can appear in a variety of formats, and while there isn’t space here to go into each of them, a few common formats you might come across include Shapefiles, KML, and GeoJSON2  Shapefiles, as the name suggests, represent shapes (e.g., polygons) as layers of vector data that can be visualized in GIS programs and Google Earth Pro.  You may also come across KML files (Keyhole Markup Language), which is an XML-style standard  for representing geographic data, and is commonly used with Google Earth and Google Maps.  GeoJSON is another format for representing geospatial information that is ideal for use with web services.  The various formats of GIS and geospatial data deserve a full post on their own, and I plan to write a follow-up post exploring some of these formats and how they are used in greater detail.

GIS/Geospatial Visualization Tools

ArcGIS (ESRI)

ArcGIS is arguably the industry standard for GIS software, and the maker of ArcGIS (ESRI) publishes manuals and guides for GIS students and practitioners.  There are a few different ArcGIS products:  ArcGIS for Desktop, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS server.  Personally I am only familiar with ArcGIS online, but you can do some pretty cool things with a totally free account, like create this map of where drones can and cannot fly in the United States: 3

ArcGIS can be very powerful and is particularly useful for complex geospatial datasets and visualizations (particularly visualizations that might require multiple layers of data or topographic / geologic data). A note about signing up with ArcGIS online:  You don’t actually need to sign up for a ‘free trial’ to explore the software – you can just create a free account that, as I understand it, is not limited to a trial period.  Not all features may be available in the completely free account.

CartoDB

CartoDB is both an open source application and a freemium cloud service that can be used to make some pretty amazing geospatial visualizations that can be embedded in web pages, like this choropleth that visualizes the amount of various kinds of pollution across Los Angeles.4

CartoDB’s aesthetics are really strong, and default map settings tend to be pretty gorgeous.  It also leverages Torque to enable animations (which is what’s behind the heatmap animation of this map showing Twitter activity related to Ferguson, MO over time).5  CartoDB can import Shapefiles, GeoJSON, and .csv files, and has a robust SQL API (built on PostGreSQL) that can be used to import and export data. CartoDB also has its own JavaScript library (CartoDB.js) that can be leveraged for building attractive custom apps.

More JavaScript Libraries

In addition to CartoDB.js mentioned above, there are lots of other flexible JavaScript libraries for mapping and geospatial visualization on the scene that can be leveraged for visualizing geospatial data:

  • OpenLayers – OpenLayers enables pulling in ’tile’ layers as base maps from a variety of sources, as well as enabling parsing of vector data in a wide range of formats, such as GeoJSON and KML.
  • Leaflet.js – A fairly user-friendly and lightweight library used for creating basic interactive, mobile-friendly maps.  In my opinion, Leaflet is a good library to get started with if you’re just jumping in to geospatial visualization.
  • D3.js – Everyone’s favorite JavaScript charting library also has some geospatial visualization features for certain kinds of maps, such as this choropleth example.
  • Mapbox Mapbox.js is a JavaScript API library built on top of Leaflet.js, but Mapbox also offers a suite of tools for more extensive mapping and geospatial visualization needs

Open Geospatial Data

Librarians wanting to integrate geospatial data visualization and GIS into interdisciplinary instruction can take advantage of open data sets that are increasingly available online. Sui (2014) notes that increasingly large data sets are being released freely and openly on the web, which is an exciting trend for GIS and open data enthusiasts. However, Sui also notes that the mere fact that data is legally released and made accessible “does not necessarily mean that data is usable (unless one has the technical expertise); thus they are not actually used at all.”6  Libraries could play a crucial role in helping users understand and interpret public data by integrating data visualization into information literacy instruction.

Some popular places to find open data that could be used in geospatial visualiation include:

  • Data.gov  Since 2009, Data.gov has published thousands of public open datasets, including datasets containing geographic and geospatial information.  As of this month, you can now open geospatial data files directly in CartoDB (requires a CartoDB account) to start making visualizations.  There isn’t a huge amount of geospatial data available currently, but Data.gov will hopefully benefit from initiatives like Project Open Data, which was launched in 2013 by the White House and designed to accelerate the publishing of open data sets by government agencies.
  • Google Public Data Explorer – This is a somewhat small set of public data that Google has gathered from other open data repositories (such as Eurostat) that can be directly visualized using Google charting tools.  For example, you could create a visualization of European population change by country using data available through the Public Data Explorer.  While the currently available data is pretty limited, Google has prepared a kind of open data metadata standard (Data Set Publishing Language, or DSPL) that might increase the availability of data through the explorer if the standard takes off.
  • publicdata.eu – The destination for Europe’s public open data, a nice feature of publicdata.eu is the ability to filter down to datasets that contain Shapefiles (.shp files) that can be directly imported into GIS software or Google Earth Pro.
  • OpenStreetMap (OSM) –  Open, crowdsourced street map data that can be downloaded or referenced to create basemaps or other geospatial visualizations that rely on transportation networks (roads, railways, walking paths, etc.).  OpenStreetMap data are open, so for those who would prefer to make applications that are based entirely on open data (rather than commercial solutions), OSM can be combined with JavaScript libraries like Leaflet.js for fully open geospatial applications.

GIS and Geospatial Visualization In the Library

I feel like I’ve only really scratched the surface with the possibilities for libraries to get involved with GIS and geospatial data.  Libraries are doing really exciting things with these technologies, whether it’s creating new ways of interacting with historical maps, lending GPS units, curating and preserving geospatial data, exploring geospatial linked data possibilities with GeoSPARQL or integrating GIS or geospatial visualization into information literacy / instruction programs.  For more ideas about integrating GIS and geospatial visualization into library instruction and services, check out these guides:

(EDIT 4/13) Also be sure to check out ALA’s Map and Geospatial Information Round Table (MAGIRT).  Thanks to Paige Andrew and Kathy Weimer for pointing out this awesome resource in the comments.

If you’re working on something awesome related to geospatial data in your library and would be interested in writing about it for ACRL TechConnect, contact me on Twitter @lpmagnuson or drop me a line in the comments!

Notes

  1. AtlasPublisher. Tokyo Senior Population. https://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=6990a8c5e87b42ee80701cf985383d5d.  (Note:  Apologies if you have trouble seeing or zooming in on embedded visualizations in this post; the interaction behavior of these embedded iframes can be a little unpredictable if your cursor gets near them.  It’s definitely a drawback of embedding these interactive visualizations as iframes.)
  2. The Open Geospatial Consortium is an organization that gathers and shares information about geographic and geospatial data formats, and details about a variety of geospatial file formats and standards can be found on its website:  http://www.opengeospatial.org/.
  3. ESRI. A Nation of Drones. http://story.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/?appid=79798a56715c4df183448cc5b7e1b999
  4. Lauder, Thomas Suh (2014).  Pollution Burdenshttp://graphics.latimes.com/responsivemap-pollution-burdens/.
  5. YMMV, but the performance of map animations that use Torque seems to be a little tricky, especially when embedded in an iFrame.  I tried to embed the Ferguson Twitter map into this post (because it is really cool looking), and it really slowed down page loading, and the script seemed to get stuck at times.
  6. Sui, Daniel. “Opportunities and Impediments for Open GIS.” Transactions in GIS, 18.1 (2014): 1-24.

5 Comments on “GIS and Geospatial Data Tools”

  1. Kathy Weimer says:

    Folks should know that ALA’s Map & Geospatial Information Round Table (MAGIRT) has a full list of Map / GIS technologies & data on their LibGuide : http://magirt.ala.libguides.com/c.php?g=133146&p=870541. MAGIRT also provides webinars on these topics.

    • Lauren Magnuson says:

      Awesome, thank you Kathy! I’m sorry I didn’t know about this sooner, but I did add a link to that amazing guide to the post.

  2. Paige Andrew says:

    It is a shame that nowhere in this article is ALA’s own Map and Geospatial Information Round Table (MAGIRT), a group of dedicated geospatial/map professionals — many of whom have deep skills in the areas of GIS, data visualization, managing spatial data collections (more commonly known in the past as “map collection” management), and metadata creation (“map cataloging”) skills — who stand ready to assist our fellow professional librarians. In fact, one of the two programs MAGIRT will be delivering (jointly sponsored with GODORT) at the upcoming ALA Annual Conference is on data visualization services in libraries and one of the co-presenters is Angela Zoss, along with Justin Joque. We are beginning to roll out PR for that program and a second on the Open Context research software sponsored by our GIS Discussion Group, I would appreciate it if both our programs and MAGIRT as a whole were mentioned more broadly in ACRL circles.

    Sincerely,
    Mr. Paige Andrew
    Chair, MAGIRT
    and Maps Cataloging Librarian
    Pennsylvania State University

    • Lauren Magnuson says:

      Paige, thank you so much! I’m so sorry I didn’t have this in the original post, but I did just add some info about MAGIRT. The ALA programs sound amazing; thank you so much for sharing them!

  3. Paige Andrew says:

    Lauren,

    I hope my original post did not come across too harshly, I most certainly could have approached the idea of bringing MAGIRT to light in a better tone! I’m glad I raised your awareness though, and hopefully other fellow ACRL members, and so you’re welcome about providing some information you and your readers can use, and share. I want to thank you for sharing out the MAGIRT LibGuide information that Kathy posted as well, that is sincerely appreciated!

    Suffice it to say that (1) your article was excellent in content and scope, especially as it was written from someone new to the geographic/geospatial area of librarianship and you wanted to be helpful to others who may encounter a similar circumstance (and it happens fairly frequently!), and (2) in the midst of ACRL members (and ALA at large) is a group of us with lots of experience in these areas who stand ready to help guide others. And of course we would welcome new members to MAGIRT — membership would further enhance the ability of those new to the “geo” aspects of librarianship to be able to connect with others who can be a resource to one’s needs. For more info on MAGIRT please see: http://www.ala.org/magirt/

    Sincerely,

    Paige