An Artist's Guide to Making Map Art: Finding Data

Posted by Michelle Chandra on

If you are interested in making map art, but don't know where to begin, look no further! The first stop is to find geographic data.

With the rise of open data, there is a wealth of geographic data available - if you know where to look for it, and how to get it in the right format. 

What Kind of Data is Available?

There is all kinds of geographic data available.

For cities, you can find data for building footprints, city lots, street centerlines, city boundaries, sidewalks, and even rivers and streams! 

If you are interested in natural data, you can find data on water features, elevation contours, and bathymetry, or data on natural events like tornados, and earthquakes.

There is satellite imagery and 3D data too. Or, you can create your own data using a drone. 

Where to Find Geographic Data

There are a few places you can look for map data. If you are looking for data specific to a city, the first place to check is if the city you are interested in has an open data portal. If you find an open data portal, but can't find geographic data, don't despair. Many cities store their geographic data in a separate data portal, so try searching for "gis data" + "city name" in a search engine to see if you can find the city's geographic data portal.

San Francisco provides data from an open data portal, such as their street centerline data:

However, Salt Lake City provides geographic data from an ArcGIS data portal:

Another place to check for data is especially if you are looking for national geographic datasets like water features, and dams, etc. 

With either of these sources, make sure to read up on the data policy and license of the data portal. Many cities and governments provide data as public domain, but there are also cities that restrict usage of the data they provide.

Lastly, if you still can't find the data you are interested in, the next place to turn to is OSM data (open street map). With OSM, you may not be able to copyright a design you make from OSM data as OSM data belongs to the community of mappers who create it. You will also be expected to include attribution to OSM.

I highly recommend using Mapzen's Metro Extracts tool, which offers an easy to use interface for downloading chunks of OSM data such as data specific to a location.

What to Do With Map Data

Once you have found your map data, how do you get it into a usable format? If you are interested in working with your data in a vector graphic software like Illustrator, then you will need to convert the data to an SVG format.

CARTO provides a drag and drop interface for mapping data. With a FREE account, you can upload up to 250MB of data. You can export data you import to CARTO as an SVG file. 

Mapzen offers a UI to grab OSM data and export as SVG:

You can also try exploring desktop GIS software such as QGIS to convert data to SVG, or command line tools like GDAL

Now that you have your map data, what should you make? Stay tuned for part two of this two-part blog for inspiring map art...

artist process cartography data art

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