Data Probing and Info Window Design on Web-based Maps

Info windows are the familiar pop-up balloons that often appear when interacting with features on a map. This activity is generally called data probing. For example, click on a Google Maps marker and up comes a little bubble with information about the place. The uses for data probing are seemingly limitless, ranging from the retrieval of map-based comments, annotations, and descriptions of 'what's here?', to map stats and info graphics, to map use instructions (e.g., "get directions"), explanations (e.g., "group of 3 markers"), and controls (e.g., "zoom here"), to alternate map views (e.g., an historical map). All of this, of course, can come through in the form of text, photos, audio, and video.

Data probing is essential. In one sense, its needed because we've got tons of data about the world, but just small, low-resolution computer screens to view it all on. Like a drop-down list or an accordion menu on a Web page, data probing is a design compromise that can save space on maps. In another sense, however, data probing is an important design decision that can help direct map readers' attention and understanding from the general to the specific by offering details on demand. Without data probing, we'd either have crazy-cluttered maps or watered-down maps not taking advantage of all of that rich data out there.

Of course, data probing is everywhere outside of mapping as well; on charts, graphs and all sorts of other info graphics. But here I focus on Web maps, specifically on info window design, and outline some major design considerations and provide a few examples that could help inspire your next effort.


I'm pleased to announce we've launched! After 8 years, which is about 80 in web years, it was time to update and overhaul the much-loved ColorBrewer. I was lucky to be a co-designer on the original and with the Flex development talents of Andy Woodruff we were finally able to implement ideas that had been kicking around. This remains totally free and adds some new features that'll make using this easier and faster.



New ideas in terrain mapping for cyclists


I live with a couple of cyclists, who spend many of their summer days out on the trails west and south of Madison. A few months ago, one of them asked me to make a bike map for him, pointing out what he felt was a shortcoming of the ones available to him: it's hard to figure out where the hills are. This is particularly critical if you ride in places like the Driftless Area, as my roomates do. A map showing you where to turn and which roads have wide shoulders and low auto traffic is very useful, but it doesn't tell you how rough the next hill is going to be.

Figure 1: The above is a draft of one of my first attempts, in this case depicting a particular ride that one of my roommates hopes to participate in this summer. click to see fullsize Figure 1: The above is a draft of one of my first attempts, in this case depicting a particular ride that one of my roommates hopes to participate in this summer. click to see fullsize Read more...

[Cartogrammar] Accidental map projections

If you want to make an omelette, you're going to have to break some eggs, and if you want to code geographic projections, you're going to have to bend the world. Here's a look at the Axis Maps blooper reel courtesy of Cartogrammar developer Andy Woodruff's blog. Enjoy!

Link: Accidental map projections (via Cartogrammar)

Azimuthal Redux

ARRA funding map

ARRA Funding Map

Lots of maps are coming out that document when, where, and how stimulus money is being spent through the ARRA, like these at the Foundation Center. With all of the reporting, accountability, and transparency required of ARRA grant recipients, I'm sure we'll only be seeing a lot more of these in the future. directs traffic to states' Web sites where some of this data is appearing. I'm looking forward to seeing more and more mash-ups and interactive maps and graphics as developers and designers get their hands on this stuff and data from other sources that track stimulus money.


Virtual Globes are a seriously bad idea for thematic mapping

Google Earth is amazing. As we've commented here before, it continues to blow our minds and has also done wonders for the popularity of maps. And let's be honest, it looks super cool. There is no doubt that Google Earth is much sexier than that boring old atlas collecting dust on your shelf: It's interactive, seamlessly integrates distributed data sources, animates the surface of the earth over time, facilities virtual communities, can be customized by both developer and user, etc, etc. It's hard to not be impressed.

So all of our maps should be in Google Earth, right?


In fact, despite recent efforts to create a suite of thematic mapping approaches, Google Earth is a terrible environment for presenting many kinds of thematic maps. I'd go so far as to say that the 3D prism maps and 3D graduated symbol maps we see popping up in Google Earth are pure chart junk, of the kind Tufte warned us about repeated for past 25 years.

3D prism map of population in Google Earth 3D prism map in Google Earth ( Read more...

SXSW: Axis Maps Roadshow

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to get invited to the SXSW Interactive conference to speak on a panel called Neocartography: Design and Usability Evolved. Here are some collected thoughts I had from running through the panel again in my head.

Do you need a cartography degree to make maps? As the only trained cartographer on the panel, they just couldn't wait to ask me this question (could I really say that Stamen's "non-cartographers" shouldn't be making maps?). I gave the popular answer, "No," but with a caveat: "You just need to care about cartographic design." Elegant design and clear communication are universal to all aspects of design. Cartographers have a slight leg up in the map game because we've been using our design chops to get good at applying these universal concepts to maps, but concepts like subtle use of color, visual heirarchy and map / UI composition can directly be applied from graphic design to map design. Incidentally, this is the hardest stuff to teach to cartography students. However, there is a lot of cartographic design that is uniquely geographic. Issues like projections, thematic symbolization and generalization don't exist outside of maps and largely exist because of the challenges of representing a complex world on a small, flat piece of paper. These same issues remain even moving from paper to the computer screen, but unfortunately they are largely ignored. On a preachy note, I think it is our responsibility as cartographers to CONSTRUCTIVELY engage ourselves with the new mapping discourse.


Spicing up Google Maps in Flash

Note from the future: the example in this post broke somewhere along the line, but this whole post is obsolete anyway now that the Google Maps API allows styled maps!

This isn't news to everyone, but it's worth pointing out the fun things one can do with maps using the ActionScript ColorMatrixFilter. Tired of the boring old yellow and orange Google map in the Flash API (or any other map in Flash/Flex)? Lay down a ColorMatrixFilter on that sucker!

The ColorMatrixFilter, if it needs to be pointed out, essentially allows you to mix up the red, green, blue, and alpha channels of vector or raster graphics to produce exciting new colors. Adobe has a nice little article explaining it, along with an interactive demo.



Dear Map-Enthusiast,

We are very pleased to announce the launch of Indiemapper is a project that is very near and dear to our hearts. When we were starting as a company or even before that at the University of Wisconsin, we constantly talking about the tools available to us as cartographers. Talking might be putting it lightly... we were complaining.

The same things were coming up time and time again. Why is it so hard to make a simple map from digital data? Why did we need to keep PC's around when all of our design work was done on Macs? Why was all the current software so expensive when we were only using 10% of its total functionality?


Map Evolution

Recently, we took on a nice little print mapping project for a few hotels located in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. The project involved making a one-sided, page-sized map showing hotel locations and the locations of a few points of interest in the area. The idea was that hotel guests could use the map to find their way around downtown as well as get a sense for where they were staying in relation to the university, interstates, airport, etc. The map was to be printed in grayscale, plus 3 spot colors (red, yellow, and blue).

Before starting out, we discussed the possibility of sharing the project with those interested in seeing all the stuff that goes into designing a map like this. The map design process is notoriously difficult to articulate and we're keen on the idea of making pieces of it more transparent, where possible. One option was to screen capture the hotel map as it appeared in the production software at regular time intervals from blank page to finished product. So, here is a sequence of 116 images, originally captured at 10-minute intervals, compiled to show the evolution of the hotel map in just under 2 minutes. Clearly, not all maps are made in the same way, but this should expose some of the kinds of design decisions made in a relatively simple project like this.