How to Make a Map Go Viral

MAY 2 2014 | Atlantic Monthly |ROBINSON MEYERMAY 2 2014,

What kind of data do you look for, and how do you find it?

I don't have a particular type of data that I look for beyond my subjective notion of "interestingness." I usually start with the thought, "That would make a neat map." Or "I wonder what that would look like." Generally, I try to find or create unique data or think of new ways of working with common data sets. I'm a human geographer at heart, so I'm typically interested in data about people and human activity (demographics, economics, history, etc).
Sometimes the data comes first. If I run across a potential data set, I'll save it even if I don't have an immediate need for it. For example, I don't live in New York, but I still grabbed the NYC PLUTO data last year just to see what I could do with it (nothing worth publishing yet). A while back, I stumbled on some 60,000 reported UFO sightings that I've been trying to make something interesting out of. So in this regard I'm always on the lookout for new data sources that might be useful one day. Mapping/GIS/dataviz forums, plus Twitter for announcements, are probably where I stumble on data most often.

When I need to find a particular data set, it's often as straightforward as a search for the topic with the word "shapefile" or "gis" attached. There's *so much* data just sitting on servers that if you can imagine it, it's probably out there somewhere (often for free). Sometimes though, finding data requires a deeper search. A lot of government-provided data sits inside un-indexed data portals or clearinghouses. Depending on the quality of the portal, these can be tedious to sort through.

Occasionally, I must create my own data using old-school GIS techniques like digitizing from maps or photos or geocoding addresses. And of course, as a last resort, some commercial vendors have data for purchase.

last updated may 2014