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Mapping tools for botanists, part one: SimpleMappr

Steven Bachman
27 February 2013
Blog team: 

The first in a series of reviews by Kew's Geographic Information Science (GIS) Unit of online mapping tools: this time we look at an online tool for distribution mapping called SimpleMappr

Here in the Geographic Information Science (GIS) unit we handle the majority of the mapping needs for staff in the Herbarium and other departments at Kew. One of the most common requests from botanists is for a simple distribution map as part of the publication of a new species or a revision of a group. The maps are usually simple dot distribution maps showing where the species has been found.

Take a look at this example from a recent edition of Kew Bulletin (Timothy M. A. Utteridge. Four new species of Maesa Forssk. (Primulaceae) from Malesia. Kew Bulletin. September 2012, Volume 67, Issue 3, pp 367-378.)

Utteridge_map_kew_bull

Distribution of Maesa fraseriana [▲] and M. malayana [●] (Map reproduced with kind permission from Kew Bulletin and the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Often all that is needed is a simple map with country boundaries, points (or other symbols) to illustrate the location of specimens or observations of the species, and a few mandatory cartographic elements such as a north arrow and a scale bar.

Until recently, the botanists at Kew would have to rely on the GIS unit to complete this task. A few brave souls have had a crack at doing their own maps, but the feedback we often get is that GIS software is overly complex and comes with a steep learning curve. It simply takes too long to produce the maps - “we just want a simple dot map!”. Well, the botanists' prayers may just have been answered with the development of a new web mapping tool called SimpleMappr.

Web mapping technology has improved significantly over the last few years and it seems that now you can create these simple maps quickly and easily without the need for a complex GIS. In this post we will give a quick overview of SimpleMappr and will present the pros and cons.

Getting started

First, go to the SimpleMappr home page here: http://www.simplemappr.net. From the home page you can see the map viewer with a toolbar on the left, the settings on the right and some tabs at the top (Help is on the far right).

SimpleMappr home page illustration

 

SimpleMappr home page
Download larger image

You can click the zoom button to get to your area of interest and then try some of the settings on the right to add different layers and labels. For example, try turning on the ‘State/Provinces’ layer and labels by checking the boxes. You may also want to add a graticule grid to show the lines of latitude and longitude. For cartographic correctness you should also project your map and there are a few options with SimpleMappr. Choose the most appropriate one according to the location of your species. You can also crop your map using the crop button - note that you need to have the crop highlighted before you save, otherwise it will default to the full size map. Click the download button to save your map. You can download in multiple formats e.g. svg, png, tif, pptx, docx, or kml, and you can adjust the dimensions as well as add a border, legend and scale bar.
 

simple_madagascar_map

Quick map of Madagascar showing provinces with labels

Adding points and layers

Click on the 'point data' tab and either manually add latitude and longitude co-ordinate pairs, or cut and paste from another format, for example from an Excel table. You can then customise your points by shape, size and colour. Note that with each layer you can add a different species.

 Map of points for SimpleMappr

Cutting and pasting decimal latitude and longitude co-ordinate pairs from Excel (on the right) into the point layer window of SimpleMappr (on the left)
Download larger image

Another neat option is the ability to highlight regions e.g. countries or provinces. You can add this by typing the name of a country or by using ISO codes. You can then set the colour that the regions will be highlighted with. In the example below I used MDG[AV], MDG[TL] MDG[FI] to highlight the major regions in Madagascar where my species occurs. Before you know it you can produce a reasonable looking map to a standard that would be acceptable in many journals. You can see a couple of examples below that were generated in a few minutes.

Maps for botanist mapping tools blog

The left-hand map shows points for the species, and provinces highlighted in grey. The right-hand map shows points with a relief map background
Download larger image

My Maps

Another nice feature is the ability to link existing accounts such as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Facebook and Yahoo to SimpleMappr. This means you can save your maps either to edit and finalise later or to use as a template so that you don't have to start from scratch again.

 

dmt social networks login options

Range of login options to SimpleMappr

A recent article from Kew botanist Paul Wilkin utilised SimpleMapr to produce a dot distribution map for a species of Dracaena in northeastern and central Thailand - no GIS needed! Although a scale bar might have been nice...


Wilkin_Draceana_2

Distribution of Dracaena jayniana in northeastern and central Thailand based on both specimen data (●) and observations (■). Map Created with SimpleMappr, http://www.simplemappr.net. (Map reproduced with kind permission of Kew Bulletin and the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Pros

  • The interface is clean and easy to use and quickly gives pleasing maps
  • There are many customisation options that cover most of the requirements for standard maps used in publications
  • The developer is very responsive and deals with bugs and new feature requests quickly - see the Feedback tab on the website
  • There is a mailing list so you can stay informed of recent activity (scroll to the bottom of the Feedback section to find the link)
  • For the developers there is an API (application programming interface)

Cons

  • The addition of projections was a great improvement, but more could be added. Also the lack of projection around 180 degrees is problematic for distributions across the pacific
  • Positioning of labels cannot be controlled. It would be good to have some automatic avoidance for text against point data (i.e. you do not want text obscuring the points - although we are being very fussy now!)
  • Map elements such as scale bar and legend cannot be adjusted (but in some cases you can adjust them afterwards in an image editing program)
  • The Help section is a little on the light side - some screencasts or tutorials would be useful 

The final verdict

There are a few minor shortcomings, but we believe this is one of the best web mapping tools available at present for producing publication-ready maps. It has lots of potential when linked with the API. So, will the GIS unit now be out of a job? Unlikely... we have plenty of exciting analyses of plant data to be getting on with, as you’ll see in upcoming posts.

 

- Steve and the GIS team -


 

Related link

SimpleMappr

 

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Comments

27 February 2013
Comment: 
Thanks Steven for your post. I'm the guy behind SimpleMappr. Here's some background for readers and users. SimpleMappr is a hobby that emerged from a whimsical tool on the now sadly defunct Nearctic Spider Database. Unbeknown to me, people were using it to make maps for inclusion in presentations and publications (gasp!). I had no idea and frankly, was embarrassed to see some of the low quality outputs. Folks at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) contacted me in 2007 to rejuvenate the functionality for integration in their specimen database. Others learned of this and asked to gain access. So, I received approval to make a lightweight, standalone "SimpleMappr". Clearly there was a need for a web-based solution, free from typical GIS bloat. Every time I see a publication that features SimpleMappr outputs, I am no longer (as) embarrassed. I list the citation among the growing list of really nice work. This is not to say SimpleMappr is perfect. Rather, users provide valuable feedback and I develop on their ideas where and when I can. Seeing final versions on reprints also gives me ideas to pursue. The code is open source with an MIT license and there have been various integrated solutions such as a Drupal module and use in Tropicos. Thanks for the list of cons in your post. The easiest to tackle is a more thorough help section. And, I'll continue looking for appropriate projections that span the International Date Line :)