Mapping the GIS Adventure: Maps and Napkins – St. Louis

I recently was tuned into a company in the UK that creates “Mapkins” via a post through the GIS Lounge, and was intrigued. However, for a price tag of $60.00 per four napkin set, the likelihood I would be getting these city customizable napkins was highly unlikely. Also, each set gets one city, whereas I had four cities all picked out in my head. No thank you.

My husband commented that with our artist relatives and friends and my GIS skills, I could probably just make the designs myself and then get them screen-printed for less of a cost (or at least, to exactly my liking). Inspired, I went ahead and started with St. Louis, which is a city I recently visited and quickly loved, and because it’s one of the cities I’ve visited and liked in one of the two states I’ve ever lived in – along with being one of the cities in my list of four whose GIS data I haven’t played around with yet. So, I simply googled “St. Louis GIS data” and off I went.

It should be pointed out that St. Louis actually straddles the Illinois-Missouri state line, and the portion belonging to Illinois is actually referred to as “East St. Louis” and is considered a city separate from St. Louis, MO. I discovered this soon enough because while St. Louis, MO has their GIS stuff together, East St. Louis does not (sorry, East St. Louis – if there’s some secret website I don’t know about, I would love to make a correction). Easily enough, I found the city boundary and street line data for St. Louis, but could not for the life of me find anything for East St. Louis. I finally turned to TIGER data from the Census, and was able to download block level data for the entire state – which is certainly going to be useful for me to have some day, I suppose, but not right now. I was able to select from there the blocks from St. Clair county, where East St. Louis resides. But at that level, I was at a loss of how to select just the East St. Louis bound blocks.

At this point, exasperated, I told my husband we could do without East St. Louis – I really had only visited St. Louis anyway. He looked at me, and said, “I’m sure you can figure it out, you’re a GIS whiz.” Well. With a challenge like that, it was time to rise. I knew I had the tract numbers for the blocks, so if I could just go up a level and see which tracts belonged to East St. Louis, I could select the blocks through that information and bam, East St. Louis. The problem was that information was not particularly available. And here comes the part where someone, one day, will read this and know the easier way to do what I was trying to do and rolls their eyes. To them I say, discovery should not come that easily! Or at least, not while I’m trying to protect my ego.

First, I looked up the East St. Louis boundaries on Google Maps, so I could know what I was looking for exactly.

Google’s idea of where East St. Louis begins and ends, and my reference map.

I then went to American FactFinder and used their “Select Geographies” tool to figure out how to select for East St. Louis. After experimenting with several methods (including their draw a polygon tool – nifty!), I was able to select “East St. Louis” – but this did not yield what I was looking for because tract and block numbers did not appear to be listed within this small geography. But if you do attempt to map St. Clair County tract information (such as AGE BY SEX) through FactFinder’s map tool, you can see which tracts are in East St. Louis. Or, you can ultimately just map the Census tracts through ArcMap and now that you’ve intimately memorized

The various Census tracts of St. Clair county around the East St. Louis area.

the shape of East St. Louis according to Google, info-click each tract following the outline and record which tracts are within the boundary. Then, I selected each tract number within my block layer, and voila! East St. Louis.

Now, I am not a cold-hearted person. I may have just outlined the difficult way to do it, but for your convenience, I have listed the tract numbers I used to select East St. Louis blocks in the table below. Though again, discovery perhaps should not come so easily – but that’s for you to decide.

ctnumbersAlso, please see the rough draft of my potential napkin map below as well. My husband isn’t a fan of color on these potential future napkins, so I’ve gone for spidery black lines for the streets. There will probably also be a scale bar of a different caliber, and a few other stylistic details, but this is the basic idea. I’m already in love. Thanks for reading, and if you have any easier ways to obtain my hard-won information (such as some handy Census resource with a list of each town’s Census tract numbers), please share! I love learning the easy way.estl

 UPDATE: One of my good friends read this post and recalled that the Census has to list the tracts in each county, so she searched for such a list and came up with the map below. Link is here:

I told you someone would get me the easy way! From the U.S. Census
Zoomed in.

Geography & GIS Reader: Articles Worth Reading -December 2016

Happy December! The month of my birthday, I am for the first time experiencing snow. While my feelings on that fluctuate, I am happy to share with you some great pieces I’ve gotten to read in the past month on GIS, geography, and those in between.

On Cartography: 

How The Gorgeous Language Of Maps Helps Us Understand The Worldby Kate Abbey-Lambertz

Any lover of maps and the internet had seen their fair share of poorly drawn maps. Not only do they proliferate on the internet, but in our classrooms and our conferences. Some may be technically incorrect (re: not projected) and some may just use the default ArcMap font settings and basic layout. It’s understandable for the beginner GIS learner. However, when you’ve been making maps for two years and you’re still not taking some creative liberty, I wonder whether you’re lazy, or scared. But not the folks at the Harvard Graduate School of Design! They’ve essentially compiled a list of best hits of maps in regards to cartography. An absolute treasure to view, and I’m betting even more intriguing in book form.

On Healthcare:

Life in Obamacare’s Deadzoneby Inara Verzemnieks

While not overtly an article on geography, it’s a theme woven inherently into the topic. Where people live and work affect their access to healthcare, and it’s important to note how even a healthcare system meant to get everyone misses a few because of geography. As a health geographer planning on living and working in the US, I found this article extremely relevant and anyone with an interest in geography or our healthcare system will too.

On Housing:

Newly Released Maps Show How Housing Discrimination Happenedby Greg Miller

Ah, redlining. In case you don’t know about this racist tactic used by real estate agencies to keep residential areas segregated, you can check out this article on the series of maps where the term came from. One of my favorite things about maps is that things like discrimination can come out all too clearly when mapped. Learn a bit more about the history of your residential area and receive a graver understanding of the power of maps – and why we should use them for good. 

On Geography: 

Science on a Sphere: Earthquakes 2001 – 2015by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

So these two geography links are less articles, more animated fun. This link will take you to a fascinating world earthquakes animation and other detailed information – hopefully my physical geography friends out there enjoy this even more than I did – it’s pretty darn cool!

What is Geography?by Mary Crooks

While also not an article, it is a handy explanation of geography to keep on hand. As GIS makes its way into other fields and physical geographers search again for what it is they truly do (see: critical physical geography), it’s always nice when someone puts together succinctly and colorfully what geography is. Remember folks – it’s a spatial kind of thing.

That’s it for this month! I tried to get something in here for everyone, but if you ever have any suggestions, please comment or email them to me – I am happy to hear them, or even if you’re just a fellow geographer wanting to say hello, please do!

On Cartography: Maps Can Lie – Here’s How We Avoid That

Regardless on where you stand with the DAPL situation (I’m anti-DAPL but that’s a different conversation), pipelines and their safety are on people’s minds. There are certainly many ways to analyze these safety concerns, and one great way is through maps. However, like any other news source, maps can lie, and when they lie, people can misunderstand the situation and be misled. As a lover of cartography and the benefits it offers the world, seeing a map that is poorly constructed and potentially lying widely shared sets me on fire. Maps are so incredibly useful, and I love when people turn to maps to understand their world a bit better, but if those maps can’t hold up to critical analysis, they cause people to lose trust in the medium, but also wonder if maps are a worthy pursuit at all.

I recently dealt with this situation with this map on the dangers of pipelines in the U.S. It’s a video lapse that displays all pipeline-related deaths, injuries, oil spills, and a category referred to merely as “Natural gas” in the U.S. since 1986 to present day. There are many, many issues with it, and while I would love to point them out in detail, I want to point to it as an example of what a person unfamiliar with map basics should look for to ensure they’re reading a map worthy of their time:

1. Is it projected?

I’ll admit – unprojected maps are one of my biggest pet peeves in the whole wide world of mapping. This points to my background as a student who took a course in the principles of GIS, but the fact is, when a map is unprojected, there’s a good chance its wrong. Not all maps need to be projected of course, but standalone maps such as the one above does. The U.S. is an easy map to see if it’s projected or not – the states first off look weird, but most U.S. map projections curve the U.S., which is most noticeable in the North, where when unprojected, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota all appear to have incredibly straight edges. A map projection is an attempt by the cartographer to display an area as closely to the way it would look on the globe. It is an attempt in accuracy of where things are. When a map is unprojected, nothing on it is as close to where it should be as where it would be when projected. Here’s an example of what a projected U.S. map should look like versus an unprojected map:

An unprojected map from
An example of several projected maps, by Peter H. Dana of University of Colorado-Boulder

2. Is the data source clearly available?

Sources, sources, sources! The good news about GIS information is that it’s harder (or at least not as worth it) to come up with fake map information, but the issue is that maps lie, and a lot of that comes from the way the cartographer chooses to display the information. Data can be manipulated in so many different ways, which is why its always good to see an attribution to the data sources on the map – you can confirm that the data comes from a reputable source, which is thankfully the case with this map, as it comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

3. Is the legend telling you everything about what’s going on with the map?

In the case of this map, there isn’t a ton of clarity – one of the symbols is defined as “Hazardous liquids (mostly oil)” which doesn’t actually tell you when those liquids are. What do they mean by “mostly”? How do they measure what is “mostly”? By half? By 80%? It would make more sense for the sake of clarity to have a list of what those liquids can be, or at least what percentage of the liquids are oil. Also, note that it also says the points for that category are scaled by spill size, but do not show you what the scale is or what they mean by size – is it measured in the amount of liquid spilled or the area covered?

The point is, your legend is supposed to clarify what appears on the map. It should be simple and straightforward, and answer any basic questions you may have about the information on the map. That’s not quite what happens here.

4. Can you tell who commissioned the map? 

Cartographers are often asked to make maps for people, businesses, and other entities. When this happens, it’s important to make it clear who asked for the map so that way any interests can be made known to the reader. It’s fine for an environmental group to request a map, but it is always worth knowing that they’re the ones who requested it so the reader can see for themselves why a cartographer might have left out or emphasized something on a map.

Those are the basics! I also think it’s important for a map to be visually appealing, but that’s just me and my cartographic eye. If you have any opinions or questions about evaluating maps for validity, please comment below!