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The Best Maps of 2011

A round-up of the maps in 2011 that were popular, engaged users, innovated, and raised the bar for cartographic standards.

by James Cheshire On December 9, 2011

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As 2011 draws to a close it is worth reflecting on what, I think, has been a defining year for mapping and spatial analysis. Geographic data have become open, big, and widely available, leading to the production of new and interesting maps on an almost daily basis. The increasing utilisation of technology such as Google Fusion Tables has made it easier than ever to map data. Sadly the number of bad maps is on the increase as a result (largely thanks to the web’s preference for the Mercator projection and push-pins) and I hope things will improve (over to you Google!) next year. To inspire another year of mapping, and in no particular order, here is the Spatial Analysis “Best of 2011″. The maps here have been popular, engaged users, innovated, and raised the bar for cartographic standards. I bet I have missed some so feel free to link to your best map in the comments section.

Paul Butler’s Facebook Connections Map

This just sneaks in as it was produced in December 2010. The map is important for what it doesn’t show (most of Africa for example) rather than what it does. It has served as an inspiration for many others, and raised the bar in terms of the detail and extent of social media mapping.

National Geographic Surnames Map

I think the National Geographic Surnames Map is one of an increasing number of brilliant typographic maps that have been produced in the past year.  Typographic maps can show many variables (using colour, font size etc) and are often instantly engaging. This one was especially popular alongside its “sister” map of London Surnames.

Galaxy Survey Fly Through

I really like this video as it serves to demonstrate just how vast the universe is. I spend my life mapping a few things over relatively small geographic areas and there is plenty for me to do. We have barely even started mapping the universe and I think this video captures the immensity of the undertaking.

iPhone Tracker

This map is not featured for its cartographic brilliance but for its unveiling of the volume of data our electronic devices, in this case iPhones, are capable of collecting. It served as a wake up call for many that data about our locations are collected all the time and it is easy to track where you have been.

FedEx Cartograms


Cartograms are becoming an increasingly popular way of mapping population data. I don’t have a problem with advertising so long as it is informative as well. I think these maps tick the box as they provide the best animations I have seen of cartograms morphing from one dataset to the other so I’m happy to give FedEx a plug for this one.

Naming Rivers


The “Naming Rivers” map shows how different cultural and linguistic factors have influenced the naming of geographic features in the US. We talk about how we live in a “world without borders” but this plainly isn’t true as things we encounter on a daily basis are still influenced by the uneven movements of various populations over time.

Scientific Collaboration


This map, inspired by the Facebook connections map (above), demonstrates the dominance of a few countries within the scientific literature and the limited collaborations between a few countries. This pattern is seen in many datasets and is another illustration that  “global” is often only a minority of countries.

Eric Fischer’s Twitter Language Map


I really liked these maps both for their cartography but also for their demonstration that linguistic and national borders can be seen online as well. There has also been a tendency for fine scale mapping of Twitter data so it is nice to get a global perspective.

ITO 10 Years of Road Casualties UK (and US)


As I was writing this, the BBC have launched their own visualisations with this depressing data. It is often said that in the context of modern health and safety standards the car would never have been allowed. With maps such as the above it is easy to see why. ITO World have tried to be more intelligent with their use of icons- they have moved beyond the simple “pins on maps” we often see. It doesn’t work so well at the regional level, but as you zoom in clear accident hot spots unfortunately emerge.

NOAA Japanese Tsunami Wave Height


This year saw a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan. NOAA produced a series of excellent maps and visualisations to help chart and explain the events. The map shows likely tsunami wave heights. I found it interesting as it shows both the extent of the waves and the way in which they appear as tentacles circling Earth.

BBC Brief History of Time Zones


Good maps help to educate and I found the above interactive globe from the BBC a really great way to learn about time zones. The BBC are becoming increasingly ambitious with their maps and I think they have excelled themselves with this one.

xkcd’s What Your Favourite Map Projection Says About You


This captures the different opinions on some of the many map projections perfectly. You may have gathered from the opening lines of this post that projections are really important and often considered too complicated to bother with. I’m all for the Winkel-Tripel although I can’t claim to have been a fan before the National Geographic adopted it, as I would have been too young to care at the time.

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This post originally appeared on Spatial Analysis.

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