General tips for creating (interactive) thematic maps

Software required: StatPlanet, StatPlanet Lite, or StatPlanet Plus

 

1. Use standardized map color schemes

Although it can be visually pleasing to choose colors which suit the website theme, the risk is that it decreases the clarity of the map. The built in map colors in StatPlanet are from ColorBrewer, used by professional map makers, and it is recommended that you use one of these. The map legends are designed so that color categories can be most easily distinguished from one another. Of course you can choose any colors you wish, but using ColorBrewer is the safe choice to help ensure that all users/viewers can easily distinguish the color categories. See the ColorBrewer website for more information on which color schemes are color blind friendly, photocopy friendly, etc. through the 'score card' panel in the bottom-right corner.

Clicking on any of the colors in the map legend in StatPlanet will bring up a color selection panel. In this panel you can change the colors as well as the number of color classes (between 3 and 9). Choose a "sequential" color scheme if you wish to emphasize either high or lower values, and a "diverging" color schemes if you wish to emphasize both high and low values. To save the map legend it needs to be copied and pasted into the StatPlanet Data Editor. For more details, see the section 'Map legend, labels and colors' in the User Guide.

2. Customize the map legend values

StatPlanet automatically generates the map legend values for you, but often the map legend can be improved by customizing them. You might wish to increase or decrease the number of color classes, ensure that the values are nicely rounded to whole numbers, and that the map legend communicates the message you wish to bring across. Are there particular regions or countries which need to be emphasized? Then you may wish to modify the map legend values and colors so that those regions or countries stand out. The values can be customized simply by clicking on them in the map legend.

If you are customizing the map values, try to ensure that every color category has at least one country or region in it, otherwise this particular color category is not useful. You can check which countries/regions are in a color category by moving the mouse over either the color or the color value range in the map legend. 

It is also possible to use labels in the map legend instead of values, such as 'high', 'medium', 'low'. For displaying non-numerical data, create a categorical map, for example like this language distribution map. For more details, see the section 'Map legend, labels and colors' in the User Guide.

3. Customize the graph type on startup

If you have no time series data, it would be a good idea to change the default graph type to have the bar chart or column chart on startup. This can be set in the StatPlanet Data Editor, sheet 'settings', variable 'GRAPH'.
 
4. Show a help screen

If the map will be published online, you may wish to show a help screen so that first-time users know how to get started. The help screen can be activated in the StatPlanet Data Editor, sheet 'settings', variable 'HELP'. The help screen can be customized in the sheet 'Text-Translations', in the section 'Help - startup'.

It is also possible to simplify the interface by hiding certain components. For example, in the StatPlanet Data Editor sheet 'settings', the variable 'VIEW12' can be set to FALSE to hide the indicators panel.

5. Describe what is being displayed in the map

Users may find it difficult to understand what exactly is being displayed in the map, especially if they are new to the topic. The following can help guide them:

  • Add a map title (the map title option can be found in the StatPlanet Data Editor, sheet 'settings', variable 'MAP-TITLE' - in the Map options section).
  • Add mouse-over descriptions for each of the indicators to provide additional information, e.g. the indicator definition and/or methodology used to derive the data (column 'DESCRIPTION' in the StatPlanet Data Editor).
  • Add a story panel to describe the data being displayed in more detail. The text can be formatted and can include images. See also - tell stories with your data
  • Add mouse-over popups for map areas. For more details, see the section 'Country / map area popup text and links' in the User Guide. Map area popups can be fixed (the same for all indicators), or specific to the selected indicator.

6. Enrich your data set

It can often be useful to compliment your data set with other sources of data, which may provide further insight and opportunities for analysis. See StatSilk's recommended list of data sources for access to data on a wide range of topics from the world's key providers of open or public data. 

7. Simplify your map

If the map will be published online, and you are using a shapefile map, it might be a good idea to reduce the map size. Maps which are over 1 or 2 mb can take a while to download over a slow connection, so you may wish to get the map size to under 1 mb if possible. See the useful free GIS shapefile map tools section for more information on how to simplify maps, which is quite a straightforward process. This section also lists other useful tools which you may use to improve your maps. The last section of the User Guide contains further tips for reducing the file size of your online maps.

8. Automatically create an index of links to all maps / indicators

The last section of the User Guide describes how to create an automatic index of every map or indicator in StatPlanet. This is an alternative way for users to explore and navigate to the different maps which are available. It also has the added advantage of being search-engine friendly. For an example, see the StatWorld list of interactive maps.

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There are many more customization options, which you can find in Chapter 6 ("Customization") of the User Guide, and by having a look at the possibilities in the sheet 'settings' of the StatPlanet Data Editor. See also the examples section for some inspiration.