Using CartoDB

I have always liked maps — a lot. Whether a fold-up highway map or a topographic map or any other kind of map, I can spend way too much time studying it. A digital tool such as CartoDB, which allows a researcher to create maps using various data, takes my appreciation for maps to another level.

CartoDB is a web-based application that provides both free and paid versions, depending on one’s needs. The company offers solutions for a range of purposes, from researchers and educators to government planning and real estate investment. Founded in Spain, CartoDB is now based in New York City.

Example of CartoDB map.
A simple map created in CartoDB shows the location of male and female former slaves interviewed in Alabama as part of a federally funded project.

Initial setup is easy. I only had to create an account and within minutes had uploaded data, adjusted some settings, and viewed my first map. CartoDB provides a selection of different map types, such as a simple point map, a heat map, or a cluster map. The basic user also has limited ability to modify the look of the map underlay and the legend.

Working with the Library of Congress collection “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938,” I was able to produce a number of simple visualizations that revealed interesting aspects of interviews with former slaves in Alabama. Maps also can be exported in JPG or PNG format.

Advanced users are able to create rich and valuable map visualizations. For example, the Photogrammar project at Yale University has mapped the tens of thousands of images made by photographers working for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information from 1935-1945. The Photogrammer map allows visitors to the website to see where the images were taken as well as track the work of individual photographers as they traveled the country.

CartoDB is a digital tool I expect to use for a number of upcoming projects.