Ensuring Your Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many pointed pictures have surfaced that clearly show the level of destruction that the storm wrought on coastal communities. These pictures are invaluable in the response and initial start of the cleanup. A series of before and after aerial photographs tells volumes about recent storm damage.

As the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions launch into recovery, they are going to need more than pictures. Coastal managers are going to need a variety of information to make very important decisions about how to begin to rebuild their communities. This information could include flood zones, frequent flooding zones, likely impacts from storm surge, elevation, erosion prone areas, damage assessment information including lost houses, roads and bridges, and land use information, just to name a few. Obviously, to any GeoZone fan reading this post, the most logical way to portray all of this information is in a map. Because many map-related products are going to be developed over the ensuing months, I thought it might be a good idea to review a few key best practices in digital cartographic design.

  1. Know your audience and the message they need – This seems like an easy one, yet it can be quickly overlooked when you are trying to get a product developed in a timely manner.  Ask yourself what is needed. Do they need a map with spatial information or would a simple photo do the trick? If a map fits the bill, before doing your spatial analysis, identify the reason the map is being developed and what information your user needs to gain from the product.
  2. Avoid the data trap – Geospatial professionals love data, and why not? What is not to love?  However, including too many data sets can be very confusing to your user. If you need to use a variety of data sets to convey your message, think about producing a series of maps rather than a single display. Ensure that the data you are including helps to convey the message of your map.
  3. Choose your color palette carefully – The goal is to help the users visually see patterns and trends in data in your maps. Using contrasting colors that are pleasing to the eye can help you do this. If you are at a loss for which color combinations might look good together, check out the Colorbrewer website for ideas.
  4. When in doubt, leave it out – In the digital age we are living in, it is so easy to be overwhelmed with information. Avoid this overload with your maps by editing out ancillary information.  Oftentimes it is helpful to have a peer or end user review the map and give you feedback about the level of detail you have provided. It helps to have specific questions to ask such as, “Do you see this map is representing what three feet of flooding would look like?” rather than, “Do you like my map?”
  5. Publish your map – There are lots of ways to publish a map these days. Again, make sure your format meets the needs of your user.  Checking with your customer/map user to ensure your web map is intuitive for THEM is often a good idea. If you need to add some text around your map, you might want to think about using ESRI’s story map format. For more information on how to create visuals and depict flooding, check out the Coastal Inundation Toolkit.

Screen grab of the wetlands benefits storymap.

The data and information in this graphic are presented using ESRI’s story map format. This map identifies where threatened or endangered species reside in Wisconsin. This map will be published on Digital Coast once partner comments have been finalized.

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