Review: indiemapper makes thematic mapping easy

April 28, 2010  |  Mapping, Reviews, Software

It's finally here. Indiemapper brings easy and flexible thematic mapping online. I've been looking forward to this app ever since I got a glimpse of what was to come over a year ago, through the eyes of Indieprojector. The guys at Axis Maps have taken the core functionality of advanced GIS, simplified the work flow with a well-designed interface, and made it it super easy to create beautiful maps.

Watch the clip below for a quick idea of what you can do:

While similar applications like SpatialKey are aimed at business intelligence and interaction, indiemapper is built for cartographers slash designers who want to make static maps. I've been following the blogs of the two developers Andy Woodruff and Zach Johnson for some time, and they know what they're talking about.

Features

Indiemapper is kind of like an Adobe Illustrator for maps online. Load your data, pick the features of focus, and then map it. You have several options to choose from (12, to be exact). I won't get into every one of them, but the main ones like choropleth, proportional symbols, and dot density, are there. You've got (non-continuous) cartograms available too:

Once you've built your map, you can select color schemes ala ColorBrewer, modify borders, label regions, or add more data sources if you like.

The two features that make indiemapper most useful to me though is the ability to easily change map projections and export the map as a layered SVG file. No longer will you get comments from cartographers scolding you for using the wrong projection (I didn't want to use Mercator every time, I swear). And of course the SVG export lets you make a base map in indiemapper and then bring it into Illustrator for further editing.

A Quick Example

For a quick example, I grabbed a shapefile from GeoCommons on Internet perpetrators per capita in 2007 and here's what I got in about five minutes of messing around.

Just for kicks, I tried a different projection:

Pretty good, right? Don't worry if you're not familiar with projections. There are easy-to-understand explanations for each one to help you choose what works best for your data.

Caveats

All that said, there are a few areas where indiemapper could improve that would really put the app over the top.

The first and most important is data type. Like I said earlier, Indiemapper only accepts shapefiles, KML, and GPX. These are your standard GIS file types, which make it easy to do all that stuff with projections and coloring. They essentially connect data to regions. You need that. But most of us deal in CSV, tab-delimited, etc. I'm betting most of you have probably never even dealt with (or heard of) a shapefile before. There are ways to deal with this, but they can be labor-intensive. I've been assured that CSV support is coming though.

Second: because indiemapper is all in your browser (implemented in Flash), the app can drag at times if you're dealing with big-ish datasets (like bigger than 20mb). I tried a 150mb shapefile that I pulled from data.gov, and that didn't go so well. Although, I haven't tried that in something like ArcGIS, so I can't really say how it compares.

Speaking of which, indiemapper is all about stripping excess, and making core functionality super easy, so GIS power users might be turned off if you're looking for more advanced stuff like smoothing, interpolation, or geocoding. Basically, you have to do all your data handling and processing with some other tool before you bring it in to indiemapper.

Overall

At $30 per month ($20 for those in education), you're getting a quality service. You get unlimited data storage, version control, map sharing and collaboration, and most importantly, pretty maps. While there are a lot of free options available, none come to mind that work as well as indiemapper, as far as fully customizable maps go. So it's an in between the no-cost and high-cost GIS tools. Info designers who want to include maps in their graphics will probably find indiemapper especially useful. CSV import will also be a huge plus if they can work that in.

In any case, like all online software these days, there's a 30-day free trial, so you should try it out for yourself. My suggestion: create an account, grab some data from GeoCommons, and go to town with it. Then come back here and let us know what you think.

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