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 In Data Resources for Nonprofits, Data Visualization Tools

What is the best online mapping software you’d recommend to a colleague?

It’s a question I get asked a lot by data journalists, governments and nonprofits alike, and have sometimes struggled to answer concisely. There is no silver bullet; no one right solution that will meet the needs of every organization. Everyone has different priorities.

I’ve talked about data visualization tools before, but in an effort to help answer this specific question more thoroughly — and accurately — for you, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about what criteria really matters when choosing online mapping software, and which platforms are best suited to meet varying needs.

4 Criteria You Should Consider

I’ve come up with four key decision drivers that any organization should take into consideration when shopping for online mapping software. Of course, your mileage may vary — your team may have niche priorities not accounted for here. If you think I’ve overlooked something critical that’s not exclusive to your organization or field, please let me know!

  • Audience

Who are you telling your story to? What matters to them? Where and how will they interact with your maps – for example, do you need online or printable maps? Static or interactive? A fantastic free tool for creating beautiful online maps means nothing at all if your audience tends to view your work in print media. Likewise, you don’t want to waste valuable resources investing in interactive mapping tools to create maps your audience won’t manipulate.

  • Data

The type and amount of data you have is also a crucial consideration when choosing your online mapping software. Is your data geographically traditional? Is it relational? Will your data change as time goes on, or is your goal to create a more static snapshot of your data? Different tools were designed for different purposes, and it’s important to find one with strengths that match your requirements.

  • Budget

As wonderful as it would be to not have to consider financials when choosing tools you or your organization will choose, realistically, that’s just not possible. Of course, that’s not to say that the best tools are only available to those with access to deep pockets — many open source software options offer tools that match proprietary versions in quality and capability. The trick is to set your budget and then find the best match for your needs in your price range.

  • Learning Curve

This is a big — and often overlooked — factor you must consider. How much time do you have to devote to learning how to use this software? If yours is a one-off project you don’t intend to repeat, you may want something that’s easy to use with minimal training. If you plan to use online mapping software regularly for future projects, you might do well to invest some time gaining proficiency with a more complex tool.

Our Choices for the Best Online Mapping Software

Just because I sometimes hesitate to pinpoint exactly which online mapping software is best suited for a client, student, or partner standing in front of me, doesn’t mean we don’t still have our favourites here at Datassist. If you’re looking for specific recommendations, you’re in luck.

Here are our top 5 picks for online mapping software.


Based on the four key decision drivers I outlined above, here are our top choices:

1. Tableau

Tableau is completely free at its most basic levels and offers paid versions for those ambitious folk who want to get a little more advanced in their data projects. It’s loaded with primarily US address data and is a tool we use a lot. One caveat: all maps you create using the free version are publicly viewable. If privacy is important, you’ll have to shell out the $1000 for a private version.

Pros: Free, very easy to use

Cons: Data is primarily American and your work is public when using the free version

Bottom line: We love Tableau. It’s our favourite online mapping software. If you’re considering it and want more detailed advice, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to discuss it in greater detail. Also, check out our recent post on Tableau Web Data Connectors!

2. AcrGIS by Esri

There is basically nothing AcrGIS can’t do. If functionality is your top concern, you’ll be able to do pretty much anything you like using this online mapping software. There are free basic versions available, but where this tool shines is when you can invest in buying the full license and taking the time to learn it properly — their support team is phenomenal and will always lend a hand if you’re stuck.

Pros: Incredibly powerful and versatile

Cons: Expensive and somewhat challenging for beginners

Bottom line: If you want a tool you can use for a wide range of projects over time, AcrGIS by Esri is the best. If you want something cheap and easy, better give this a miss.

3. PolicyMap

This online mapping software probably has the best proprietary database of good base maps and geographic information system (GIS) indicators out there. If you want to combine your own data with lots of external data (for example, mapping sociodemographic data), PolicyMap is a great choice. Aside from a 7-day trial, there is no free option here. Be prepared to invest in a subscription and spend some time learning how to use it.

Pros: Best database around

Cons: No free option, takes a little time to learn

Bottom line: If you want to quickly create custom maps that combine your data with external data, PolicyMap is worth the investment.

4. Carto

Carto is our second favourite way to make maps online. If budget is a concern but you still want flexibility and capability, this is your answer. This online mapping software can handle layers and spatial analysis, and will generally let you make professional-looking industry standard maps. It’s not free, but very reasonably priced and has a comfortable learning curve – beginners will find it easy, and as you gain familiarity, you’ll discover more advanced tools.

Pros: Easy to use, capable of complex projects with some effort

Cons: No free version

Bottom line: If you have GIS data and want to do more advanced analysis without paying too much, Carto is fantastic. Although basic operations are intuitive, be prepared to spend a bit of time learning for more complex tasks.

5. Google Maps/Fusion Tables

If your budget is unforgivingly tight but you’ve got some half-decent coding and developer skills, Google Fusion Tables may be the right choice for you. If you have GIS data and want to make small, familiar-looking maps for free, you can do it with this online mapping software. Be warned: the learning curve is steep.

Pros: Free, very capable in the right hands

Cons: Can get very complicated very quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing

Bottom line: With basic coding and developer know-how, you can do nearly anything for free using Google Maps and Fusion Tables. Not necessarily suited for the novice.

Datassist: Supporting Data Journalists and Nonprofits

Still not sure about which online mapping software to use? Struggling to tell your story in a way that will grab your audience’s attention and help them understand what you’re doing? At Datassist, our goal is to help you turn data into stories and images that move people. Take a look at some of our work or get in touch with us today for more information.

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