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Web Mapping Reflections from CFGIS Workshop

October 13, 2014

Last month, I attended the 8th annual CFGIS Workshop in Orlando with fellow Spatial Networks employees Andie Dodd and Bryan McBride. The event brought together Central Florida’s GIS enthusiasts from the public and private sectors, as well as many national vendors. At the conference, I observed that local governments are making a huge push to publish their GIS data on publicly available web maps. I have a few reflections on this topic and can suggest a tool to help create a great end product.

CFGIS Workshop

As someone who is outside of local government, it was interesting to hear employees’ perspectives and reasoning behind publishing GIS data via web maps. Many of their motivations were situated between “because we have to” and “because we can”; and their end results suffered because of this. However, agencies that put serious thought behind both their goals and citizens’ use cases presented some great success stories.

The local governments that created successful web maps focused on:

  • Making the map as easy to use as possible
  • Asking why citizens will be visiting the map
  • What their motives were with the web map
  • Questioning how these goals would change based on the device used to access the map

Success comes by keeping it simple. It is important to remember that standard GIS software is not intuitive for someone outside of the profession. Therefore, taking this interface and forcing it onto a web map that is intended for the public is a bad idea. Javier de la Torre, CEO of CARTO, says it best: “The future of geo isn’t a single app with hundreds of buttons. The future of geo is hundreds [of] apps with a single button.” Citizens will quickly give up and look for the information elsewhere if the user interface is clunky and confusing. I know I certainly have.

Even though you should strive for an interface that is as seamless and easy to use as Google’s slippy map, don’t just make a rehashed map of data that can easily be found on Google. Do some research as to why citizens are visiting your website; look into the search terms and links that drove traffic to your site. That’s the information people are seeking. This can also serve as a jumping-off point for finding out what information citizens could get from your map beyond what they currently are. Furthermore, make sure it is easily found via search engines. Brian Timoney from Mapbrief.com estimates that 60% of map traffic comes from search engine requests. You will be missing out on a lot of potential traffic if a search engine can’t even find it.

What are your motives? Do you want interactivity? Maps can be a great, user-friendly way to interact with the world. It can be a simple way for citizens to report problems such as water breaks, flooded roads, or missed trash pickup. Just have them click on where the problem is and fill out a simple form. This can easily compliment or replace current forms. If your motive is to simply make shapefiles of your agency’s GIS data available for the public, then perhaps a simple map showing the extent of your files is all you need. Maybe you don’t even need a map at all. What’s wrong with download links?

How will your users be accessing the map? A smart phone user will not only require a different interface than a PC user but they will most likely have different use cases as well. Mobile uses tend to be immediate; for example “What is the closest post office to me?” or “I need to report a flooded storm drain that I’m standing next to”. Mobile devices can no longer be ignored when creating any content on the web, and this includes designing for the different motives of mobile device users.

A solution to many of these concerns is a mapping interface called BootLeaf, created by Bryan.

Launch Fullscreen Map

The map is lightweight, interactive, open source, flexible, and works seamlessly across both mobile and traditional devices. This interface can address the intended purpose better than commercial, out of the box systems that you may be tied to. These add-ons to complex GIS software often produce overly complicated maps that only trained GIS users can understand. BootLeaf will ensure that your map is streamlined and, even with minimal tinkering, can support map contributions from both traditional and mobile devices. For example, Fulcrum can be used to push data straight to your map. Kyle Tolle recently created the GeCo in the Rockies Happenings app for a conference he attended last month. It is built on top of Fulcrum and BootLeaf and allows anyone anywhere to submit a record to a live web map. Apps like this can allow a local government to provide an easy, fast, and consistent way for citizens to report issues and find information.

Your goals, as well as citizen expectations & use cases, are important topics to consider and cannot be addressed simply by which technology you use. These components must be given serious thought. Posting a map online just because you can is not good enough. However, when web maps are kept simple and address users’ needs they will prove to be successful and benefit your community.

More information about BootLeaf can be found on Bryan’s github page.