Creating interactive maps and putting them online: How’s and Why’s

carte interactive, whatfor, watermael-boitsfort, information, locale, information localeIndispensable for journalists, becoming popular for scientists, interactive maps can be quite tricky to make and share but there are tools out there. Here are three of them.

Hey, I’m back! I know it’s been a long time but, as it turns out, making science -or at least trying to- takes up a lot fo time! I have been working on local news in Brussels, and I am still trying to figure out a way to study analyze and represent the various relationships between the multiplicity of actors, machines and institutions that shape Brussel’s complex news networks. (It sounds almost cool when I say it like that).

Alright, so this week, let’s talk about maps!… Or more precisely how to use online tools to make them available on your personal website, blog our even your news website. But… Before I tell you about them, you need to now the difference I make between what I call an “online tool” and a “stand alone software”. With an online tool, you can basically go online, create your map manually (by clicking on various areas of a map) or make the process automatic by uploading a file (usually a geocoded file such as geojson files). A stand alone software let’s you do the same thing offline, but then you will have to find a way to embed it on your website, which isn’t always easy. Most online tools created a standalone version or vice-versa (yes it does make it harder to choose which platform to use). When this is the case, the two versions usually work hand in hand, but still…

Mapbox (and Tilemill)

Mapbox is my favorite tool to use so far. I know, when you’re writing a blog article, you are never supposed to start with the best item, but screw it. Mapbox deserves it. (And it’s open source).
First of all, what I call Mapbox -it’s never clear even on their website-, is an online tool. Mapbox -after having subscribed- allows you to create online maps. Mapbox is just great. It is simple to use, wether you want to make your own map or upload data from elsewhere to do so. The maps are great, look slick and there is a lot of features to change their appearances.

Cheat code to cheat life: (After you have put a dot on your map, and when you are writing the description), you can use basic HTML to put enriched the content. This means that you can enrich the text, add a picture, or pretty much anything you want to the map. Mapbox is free (unless you decide to create massive maps) and is based on OpenStreetMap.

Here is a map I did for a website:,zoompan,zoomwheel,geocoder,share.html?access_token=pk.eyJ1IjoidmljdG9ydyIsImEiOiJuemx1ZzlzIn0.VyV-PzFuTyNM5EVMJpHb6A

whatfor, watermael-boitsfort, information locale

Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I created a local/participative news website with a few friends about where I live (Watermael-Boitsfort, Brussels, Belgium, Europe, World). It’s called What for and it’s in French (and Dutch). The map here shows the various local institutions, but you can find other ones here, and here.

The only downside about Mapbox (but it is not Mapbox’s fault) is that WordPress (used as a blog such as this one) does not allow maps on a page. You have to put a link (or a nice image with a link) to the map. But that is the same problem with Tableau or GoogleMaps. You either have to use WordPress as a CMS or upgrade to WordPress business. If you want to put maps on your personal website, no problem!

The standalone software version of Mapbox is called TileMill. Now, I have to confess… I can’t quite use it yet, but it looks promising. TileMill uses a kind of CSS which enables you to customize your maps as much as you want. I promise to give it a good look soon and tell you what I think.

Tableau (public)

I know I tried to sell Mapbox for the last five minutes, but I have to admit something: Tableau is the most complete tool to use online. If you are trying to do complex things, Tableau Public is for you.


When you use Tableau, you can not only build an interactive map but also add graphs, charts, and any other kind of enrich data/information. Tableau (public) is much more than an interactive map builder, and a lot of professional journalists are using it, which I guess makes it cool. Anyway, you should check it out.

Oh yeah, and the “Public” part is for the online version, but you can download the “Tableau” standalone software version for free if you are a student, or can pretend to be one, which isn’t that hard (but Shush, it’s a secret!).

Google Maps

I am not going to get into details with GoogleMaps, because well, there is A LOT written about it, and well… it’s Google. I personally talked to someone from Google about the possibilities to enrich your maps, change them, etc. The honest answer was that, if you are not a developper, you can’t mess with them.

GoogleMaps, exemple, Victor Wiard, Whatfor

And that’s personally what I dislike about GoogleMaps,is the clear and simple fact that they are not pretty. You can put it how you want, tell me that they are effective and load quickly, I just don’t like the feel of it. I know it’s not a nice thing to say but come on, it’s Google, how can they not do anything about that? Anyway…

Have you ever tried to create maps or to put them online? Do you have any advise or something I should check out?
Just let me know!

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