16: mapping tools

November 13, 2015 – 9:44 am

Mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) provide a way to visualise and contextualise complex data. There is a wide range of software available that researchers can use to display and share their research data via blogs, Google Earth & Maps and social media. Whether you’re uploading information from spreadsheets to show geographical distribution or overlaying historical photos on streetview maps, visualising information can help make complex data more easily understood. Many of the sites we’ll discuss here are also useful as research tools themselves, and some enable you to contribute information yourself and add to an ever-expanding knowledge-base. The information and links below are just a start!


Geotagging is the process of assigning the geographic coordinates of a camera’s location at the time an image was created (i.e., placing the camera on a map).


Newer cameras and smart phones will have GPS incorporated in their software. If not, you may need to connect a separate GPS device. In that case, record a log of your position and time when taking photographs. Applications (listed below) can then use the GPS log to embed the position into the image metadata. Alternatively, you can do this manually once you’ve located the image position on a map.

Most photo-sharing sites will automatically place images on a map based on any metadata embedded in the image.

Free Tools

Things to explore


Georeferencing is the process of assigning geographic coordinates to features within an image (i.e., making a map from an image). This allows you to compare directly maps, aerial photography and satellite imagery with other geographical data making it a very effective tool for tracking changes in locations over time.

Georeferenced maps of Melbourne

Georeferenced maps of Melbourne (https://www.flickr.com/photos/digitisation-uom/14015244981/)


Georeferencing is a bit more complicated than geotagging and requires additional information for a single image. A number of applications can facilitate the process, while the complexity of the task depends on the accuracy required.

Google Earth provides a simple way to overlay images above satellite imagery and maps. By adjusting the transparency of the image, you can see the underlying map enabling you to manually move, scale and rotate the image until they are aligned.

More complex geographical information systems (GIS), such as QGIS, ARCGIS and Global Mapper include georeferencing tools as part of their functionality.

Tools to try

Things to explore:


Historypin aims to build an understanding of the world through user-generated content. Using geotagging with Google maps, users can ‘pin’ photographs to a map, and add contextual information such as a title, description, date, creator and any copyright conditions. Once the photo has been pinned, other users can add comments to the image, providing further depth and context. Historypin allows you to present research visually and can also be used as a research tool itself, providing a repository of photographs and personal memories that can be used to reconstruct the history of place. Images can also easily be shared through over 200 social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Blogger and WordPress.

Pins can be grouped in a variety of ways. Collections of photographs are linked by theme, subject, date or any other way the user wishes, giving a specific context to a group of images. Tours allow pinners to arrange their pins in a specific order to provide a visual narrative of a place, event or period. The March on Washington takes the viewer on the civil rights rally in August 1963 around Washington, DC.

The Streetview feature allows you to overlay images on Google Maps’ streetview, blurring the line between the past and the present. The process can be somewhat time consuming and can only be used where Google Maps Streetview is available, so there are some limitations. UMA Historypin profile shows the original School of Engineering in its contemporary surroundings.

Photograph of the School of Engineering (c. 1901) pinned onto Google Streetview

Historypin runs community workshops based around oral history projects. You can apply to coordinate your own research project or approach an institution to work collaboratively. The ‘Changes Places: Yarra Ranges’ Main Streets project was led by Yarra Ranges Regional Museum, highlighting the history of the Yarra Ranges region and fostering local identity, creating on ongoing educational resource.


With over 65,000 individual users, and over 18,000 institutions such as libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and schools contributing, Historypin’s audience is growing. Always remember to consider copyright and supply or follow the correct attribution information.


A great place to start visualising data on a map is CartoDB. Free for small maps, it lets you upload spreadsheets or other data, choose a visualisation type (bubble, category, intensity) and get an immediate result. You can tweak the visualisation’s colours, add custom marker images, and even write your own styling code in CartoCSS for advanced visualisations. Built in tools for geocoding (converting addresses to locations) and map embedding make it a great all-in-one platform, but you may find yourself reaching the limits of the free plan – and then it gets expensive.

Map Authoring

If you need to create map data from scratch, try:

  • Google MapsEngine Lite is a fairly powerful platform for creating map-based data: that is, drawing points, lines and polygons on a map, rather than uploading a spreadsheet in full.

Question for Thing 16:

Blog or comment on your experiences to date with any aspect/application of mapping tools. If you have no previous experience, what interests you about this topic?


Tags: , , , , , ,

  1. 11 Responses to “16: mapping tools”

  2. My first experience with geotagging was at an Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC) meeting (many moons ago). The powerhouse presented on https://www.powerhousemuseum.com/layar/ which combines geotagging and augmented reality. I really enjoyed playing with the app and the multilayered experience of explore my local surrounding albeit unbound by time. However more recently, and in light of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015, I’ve not been overly eager to engage or experiment with these tools.

    By Tatum on Nov 19, 2015

  3. Ugh, so many typos…

    By Tatum on Nov 19, 2015

  4. I have no experience with mapping tools.
    I have absolutely no sense of direction and like to go bushwalking. A very bad combination! My walking group has software (which I have not used) that lets you plot where you’ve been. I think you need to carry a smartphone to capture GPS data while you walk. One day I’d like to have a go.

    By Gertrud on Nov 27, 2015

  5. Oh, and just like Tatum, I don’t like the idea of the government having access to two years worth of my location data.
    If you haven’t played with Will Ockenden’s metadata yet, it’s fun:

    By Gertrud on Nov 27, 2015

  6. I remember Paul Hagon (now at the National Library of Australia) discussing GeoTagging at the 2009 ALIA conference. He was doing some amazing things with Flickr, and old photos and Google maps.
    I can see how it would be very useful way to present research for those looking at changes over time, or for animal/plant research.

    By Tracy Bruce on Dec 7, 2015

  7. Responding to all your comments in one go now…I remember Paul Hagon talking about geotagging also!
    Yes the Will Ockenden metadata experience was very revealing!
    Apologies for all the exclamation marks!
    So in talking to a researcher about using these tools – some comments on privacy, tracking, retention etc would be also needed.

    By ACULibrary on Dec 22, 2015

  8. Sorry, catch up time for me…I like the idea of geotagging for research purposes but like everyone else, don’t like the idea of people knowing where I am. I am thinking of one of my science lecturers who would find these tools very useful and plan on mentioning them to her in my next drop in.

    By Nica on Jan 7, 2016

  9. Part of 23 Research Things is just exposing you to possibilities. Passing on is also part of it!

    By ACULibrary on Jan 7, 2016

  10. I have not used these tools, except for Google earth. I love seeing old picture of places that i know, I think i could spend hours in History Pin. What a nice idea.

    By sally kudrna on Jan 15, 2016

  11. So visually powerful.

    By ACULibrary on Feb 5, 2016

  12. My only experience is Google Earth and Google Street View so you can visualise the place you need to find. I have supported the acquisition of software for such purposes (i.e. the ones in what you have called the expensive range Kate)as at ANU we supported the Research for the Dept. of Geography so we were always investigating what was out there in the geographical information systems arena. This data is very valuable for town planners and urban designers when contributing to the look and feel of a place. I know this is extensively used for urban planners who are looking to maximise green building features into what were previously heavy industry areas around Australia’s major cities (e.g. Newcastle and Wollongong). They seek out information of what features create “liveable” cities with reduced vehicle access and what worked in the past when people didn’t have such ready access to cars and relied far more heavily on public transport and bicycles. This type of information is also heavily used by Historical Societies and can be of great value when looking at how communities change and what might have caused the changes in demographic trends. Though not a user of the products, I find the concept of being able to do this fascinating and can see how highly valuable it would be to a researcher looking at the history of places.

    By Helena on Jan 25, 2016

Post a Comment