Google Fusion Tables: A Quick, Easy, and FREE Nonprofit Mapmaking Tool!
In our last few articles, we've looked at some free desktop-based applications that nonprofit staff can use to create choropleths and cartograms, two specific types of maps. These desktop tools, while they can be free and powerful, aren't always user-friendly and many nonprofits don't have the necessary underlying datafiles to use them properly.
Today we'll examine a web-based tool from Google that allows us to make visualization maps (like our choropleth example from this week) quickly and easily using data we already have or can easily create. As a reminder, a choropleth is a "color-coded" map comparing regions to each other. The example most Americans are familiar with is the traditional red-vs-blue election result map of presidential elections. We can also make choropleths that illustrate a spectrum of values, not just one of two colors, as seen in this example below from the US Geologic Survey.
Without further ado, let me introduce Google Fusion Tables! Fusion Tables is a new web-based database from Google Labs, the wing of Google that introduces Beta products. Fusion Tables allows users to import data - from their own spreadsheets or from a Google Doc spreadsheet - and then manipulate and query that data in a database model. Just as Google Docs provides online web-based versions of spreadsheets and word processors, Google Fusion Tables can be thought of as an online web-based database query and reporting tool. Fusion Tables can be used to import your existing data, share it, write custom reports, and generate custom visualizations such as charts, graphs, and... wait for it... maps! :)
Because it's officially "Google Beta" status, let me caution you not to plan a long-term project using Fusion Tables -- this isn't open source software so at any time Google can just cancel the project. Because we import our own data when using Fusion Tables, though, we don't have to worry about data-lock-in... just don't delete your spreadsheets once you import them into Fusion Tables!
Fusion Tables lets you store and query different "types" of data: text (such as names), numbers (such as Clients Served or Dollars budgeted), locations (such as an individual street address or a state or country), and dates and times. This lets you generate reports such as "Display all Clients from the 'At-Risk' group that were served in Fiscal Year 2009" and then create charts and graphs from these reports. We'll be using the "location" type of data to have Google create a map for us based on the values we put in the table.
For this example, we're going to make a shaded map showing the number of electoral votes of each of the United States. I've got a source spreadsheet that I'll be using listing each state and its number of electoral votes.
To begin, you need to login to your Google account and visit http://tables.googlelabs.com. (If you don't have a Google account, you can follow the instructions on that page to create one.)
Once in the Fusion Tables application, click the "New Table" button. Google will allow you to either import a spreadsheet stored on your hard drive or import data from an existing Google Docs spreadsheet. This is one of the coolest features of Fusion - if your staff collaboratively share data using Google Docs, then you can have real-time interactive maps, live on your website! For our example, we'll just be importing a spreadsheet of US states and the electoral votes each state has. Fusion Tables claims to import ODS files, but I've had numerous issues with that process and usually end up just saving my files to Excel's XLS format before importing.
After telling the import wizard about the columns in your spreadsheet, e.g., that the "State" column is a location, you should have your new Fusion Table ready to go! You can now do simple database functions on your table (or tables once you really start using the product). You can group, filter, sort, search, aggregate, and generate various reports, charts, and graphs. But of course we're most interested in the mapping features!
Google has two options for mapping under the "Visualize" menu. The first option, "map," creates what many people think of as a "Google Map" or "cluster" map: it simply puts a single marker (or "push pin") on each of our location values. This option would be useful for displaying actual geographic points - perhaps a map showing pushpins for each community center in our neighborhood, or for each program site in our city.
For the purpose of our map, we want to visualize each state's number of electoral votes (or poverty rates, or immigrant population rate, or any other value you wish to visualize that is based on regions and not specific points). These markers don't help - we need to use the "Intensity map" option under the "Visualize" menu. This is actually creating a choropleth map, to use the official geography/cartography terminology. Once we select this type of map, we get the typical color-coded map that we're accustomed to:
It's not totally perfect - the legend is crammed on the left, when we'd prefer it probably somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, it shows our coastal borders as well, which is why the Florida Keys and Long Island are so visible, and why Michigan's U.P. has morphed on top of Lake Michigan like a gigantic blob. This looks like the Census Bureau's TIGER shapefile to me because of the Michigan problem, and I'm surprised Google didn't use a shapefile with coastal areas subtracted for the US-specific visualization. (Note: you can visualize countries in the world and US states in the US, or for a few other province/regions-within-countries - I've noticed that there are usually some minor issues like specifying to Google whether you're referring to Georgia the state or Georgia the nation.)
It is "interactive" though, in the sense that hovering over an individual region shows the value for that region (this is a Flash-based map). There's no "export to PNG" option to allow you to save the map as a static file anyway, and even if you did screenshot it, you'd lose the dynamic ability to change it merely by editing the underlying data.
In fact, it's the "Get Embeddable Code" button above the map - the ability to embed a live, constantly-updated-in-real-time Flash version of the map on your own website that makes this Fusion Tables product cool in my opinion. I've looked at a lot of free map generators and creators, and I think this one is probably the most versatile and powerful that I've seen for people with no GIS or cartography experience or expertise whatsoever.
I've embedded the sample map from this article on a separate page on our site so you can check it out! If you make a cool nonprofit map using Fusion Tables, drop us a line and let us know!