A Mapping Tool for the Rest of Us – Tech.pinions

By Steve Wildstrom | March 13th, 2014

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Maps are the great data visualization tools. There is something about the ability to take database information, superimpose it on a map, and have an image that makes visual sense instantly pop up.

Unfortunately, this is often a lot harder to pull off than it seems it should be. On one end, there are massive geographic information services, such as ESRI ArcView, that can generate great maps, but are both expensive and complex to learn. At the other extreme, assorted Google mapping services, including web clients and Google Earth, enable all sorts of tricks, but the job of creating really good data superimpositions can be depressingly difficult.

PolicyMap, a subsidiary of the non-profit Reinvestment Fund, has released a splendid new version of its web-based mapping tool.

“For the last six years, we have largely catered to state, local and federal government users as well as banking and housing professionals, college students and researchers looking to better understand geographic data and trends,” said Maggie McCullough, President, PolicyMap. “As interest in data and data visualization has exploded, we’ve rebuilt PolicyMap into a more powerful but easier to use tool that appeals to our traditional customers, as well as newcomers to mapping and web managers looking to elevate their business intelligence, research, analytics or presentation capabilities.”

I created the above map, which shows the percentage of white population by census tract in my neighborhood of Montgomery County, MD, in less than 15 minutes. The original interactive version lets me show the change in pattern over a limited range of time. Almost everything about it is instantly customizable, from colors to data ranges and divisions.

The biggest issue here is an embarrassment of riches as vast quantities of data, often available with good geographic coding, continue to pour online. Federal government data comes from a big variety of agencies: the Census Bureau (including the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey), Bureau of Labor Statistics, FBI, Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and many many others. Data is often available on a variety of of geographic bases, from census-block level up to states, and often additional efforts have been made to normalize the data to get the information onto common bases.

PolicyMap data also draws heavily from a variety of private and semi-public sources, especially for financial information. If you want to find American Bankruptcy Institute filing data, Community Development Financial Institutions Fund tax incentive locations, or Environmental Protection Agency brownfields redevelopment sites, it’s all ready to click and pick.

The PolicyMap provides a basic free offering, but the heart is a more expansive subscription service that works to keep prices low (after a free trial), and offers a wide variety of plans that provide great value, considering the richness of this geospatial mapping tool and the quantity, range, and quality of the data. A standard service provides up to five seats for $2,000 a year (with some additional charges applying for proprietary data sources.)

It’s well worth a look.