Name: MapStory
$: Free
Examples: LRA Killings, Village Destruction in the Darfur Region (featured image)
Level: Intermediate
Use For: Visually representing research; Telling a story with a geographic or time component


MapStory allows the user to join an online mapping community and create interactive online maps. Maps are comprised of StoryLayers which is what a set of data is called. All data that is uploaded can be used by others on MapStory. Maps are called MapStories. MapStories combine StoryLayers and annotations, which can include text, photos, and video.

StoryLayers can be uploaded as an ESRI Shapefile, CSV, Raster, or Zip. When creating a MapStory the user can use their own StoryLayers or the StoryLayers that others have uploaded. Other StoryLayers can be searched by keyword, map extent, or time range. The user can choose from a variety of basemaps, add annotations, and choose whether or not to display a timeline. Which annotations are shown can change as the map changes over time.


Maps are published to the MapStory website, can be shared through a link, or embedded. If the map includes a time component the viewer can control how quickly time progresses and the time range they want to see. MapStory is a great free way to create maps with a time component and to share geographic information.


Google Products Overview

Google Maps

Google Maps is free and allows the user to choose from a variety of basemaps, upload files, and draw features onto the map.

Google Maps Engine

Google Maps Engine is similar to Google Maps but it has more capabilities and is not free. Google Maps Engine can support a wider variety of file uploads, more complex maps and has more sharing options.

Google Earth Pro

Google Earth Pro is the paid version of Google Earth. Unlike Google Maps and Engine it uses high quality satellite imagery and 3D imagery. The user can create maps, model new buildings, and create a video of 3D imagery.

Google Earth Tourbuilder

Google Earth Tourbuilder is free and uses Google Earth imagery to allow the user to create a tour.

Google Crisis Response

Google Crisis Response responds mainly to natural disasters. Often Google Crisis Response will have a resource page and host a crisis map with information from authorities and the crowd. Google Crisis Response also has a variety of products for responders.

Google Maps Engine


Name: Google Maps Engine
$: Varies
Example: Healthcare Equality Index 2014 Rated Facilities (featured image), Krivenik Minefields
Level: Intermediate
Use For: Visualizing research


Google Maps Engine allows the user to create interactive online maps. The user has their choice of a variety of basemaps and can add vector, image, terrain, and KML files to the basemap. The types of files supported can be found here. Image data can be turned into a mosaic, which will join the files together for ease of viewing. Once uploaded the data can be filtered and the symbology can be changed. Info windows can be added so the viewer sees descriptive information when they click on a feature.The user can also set a default viewport for a map or a layer.

Google Maps2

Maps can be viewed on desktop or mobile devices. Maps are saved in Google Drive and the user has control over the map privacy settings. Other people can be invited to view or edit the map. There are two kinds of sharing, those who have access to the draft version of the map and those who have access to the published version of the map. Maps can be shared through a link, printed, turned into a KML file or embedded.

Google Maps Engine is the paid version of Google Maps. It has the ability to create more complex maps and supports a wider variety of geographic data files. For more information on its features and capabilities click here. Google allows nonprofits to apply for a grant if they need use of Google Maps Engine.

*On January 29, 2016, Google Maps Engine will no longer be available for use. Google Maps (My Maps) will remain available.

Google Maps


Name: Google Maps
$: Free
Level: Beginners
Use For: Visualizing research; Activism


Google Maps allows the user to create maps visualizing data. There are a variety of basemaps the user can choose from. Layers can be added by importing data or drawing data onto the map. The user can import files that are CSV, XLSX, or KML. The user can draw points, lines and shapes onto the map and give these features a title and description. If the user has a particular location where they would like to place a point they can find it using the search bar. The user can add walking, biking and driving routes or use the add directions option which allows the user to include Google directions in the map. There is also a measure distance and area tool.

Maps can be viewed on desktop or mobile devices. Maps are saved in Google Drive and the user has control over the map privacy settings. Other people can be invited to view or edit the map. Maps can also be shared through a link, printed, turned into a KML file or embedded. Google Maps is particularly well suited for communicating the path of a march or the location of a human rights event. For more advanced mapping and sharing options the user can use Google Maps Engine.



Name: Leaflet
$: Free
Example: The Ellis Act
Level: Advanced
Use For: Visually representing research


Leaflet is a JavaScript library that allows the user to embed maps into websites. Their website has tutorials which explain the code needed to create different kinds of maps and a page which clearly outlines their API. Leaflet can be used on a variety of desktop browsers and mobile devices. Many plugins have been developed to expand the capabilities of Leaflet.


Maps are interactive with popups and zoom. Layers, such as markers and polygons, can be added. Leaflet is compatible with OpenStreetMap, Mapbox, CartoDB, and ArcGIS maps.



Name: CartoDB
$: Varies
Examples: Syria conflict: a year of deaths mapped (featured image), A Map of Attacks on Health Care in SyriaDeath sentences and executions in 2014Does your country share your data with the USA?
Level: Intermediate
Use For: Visually representing research; Mapping change over time


CartoDB allows the user to create interactive online maps. Free accounts cannot have private maps but have unlimited map views. Subscription plans start at $29 per month or $319 per year and Enterprise plans start at $7,999 per year. Most of CartoDB Editor’s features are designed so they can be used by those without coding knowledge. However, using CartoDB Platform developers can incorporate the maps into their applications. CartoDB maps can be viewed on a variety of browsers and mobile devices.

Data can be added to CartoDB in a variety of forms, including SHP, KML, and CSV. These files can be imported from a computer, Google Drive, Dropbox, Twitter, ArcGIS Online, and Salesforce. The user can also create an empty table and add data to it manually. Once uploaded the data can be edited and georeferenced as necessary.


It is easy to switch between table and map view while editing. To create a map that can be shared the visualize option must be selected, this allows the user to configure the map for desktop or mobile and add elements such as titles and annotations. When mapping the data, multiple layers can be added and SQL can be used to choose what data from each table is mapped.


CartoDB has a variety of basemaps or custom maps from platforms like Mapbox can be used. There are also visualization wizards that allow the user to choose from a variety of preset ways to visually represent their data. The map legend is preset by the wizard but can be adjusted. The Torque option allows the user to create animated maps that show changes in data over time. Information windows can be set to appear when the geographic feature is clicked or hovered over and can be adjusted to include the desired fields from the table.

CartoDB has a fairly intuitive platform, however the online introductions and tutorials are very helpful. CartoDB also provides guides about how to use SQL and CartoCSS in the editor. The geolocation feature can be difficult to use for some types of information, but overall is an incredibly valuable tool.



Name: Mapbox
$: Varies
Examples: Demand Justice Now (featured image), North Korea: Political Prison Camps, Syrian Humanitarian Funding, Registered Syrian Refugees
Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Use For: Generating basemaps; Visually representing research


Mapbox allows the user to create interactive online maps. It is free with limited map views, storage and custom styles. Subscription plans start at $5 per month and go up to $499 per month. More advanced users can build custom mobile and web applications.


The user can create customized maps using Mapbox’s online platform. Mapbox has street, terrain, and satellite basemaps that can be customized with colors and languages. The user can draw markers, lines and polygons or import a variety of files including CSV and KML. The features can be given a title and description.


Maps can be viewed on desktops and mobile devices and can be shared through links or embedded in websites. Each map has a Map ID which can be used to import the map into other platforms such as StoryMap JS. Those who are new to Mapbox can use its guides to learn how to create maps.

Mapbox Studio:

Mapbox Studio is a desktop application that allows the user to create maps. It has some preset map styles or the user can choose their own files. Mapbox recognizes shapefiles and allows multiple layers to be added to any project. Mapbox provides a guide about how to convert an ArcMap visualization into Mapbox. To change the appearance of the layers CartoCSS is used; Mapbox Studio has a guide to CartoCSS in the program under Docs. The user can adjust coloring and font, as well as make these features specific to the level of zoom.


Once the map has been adjusted to the user’s satisfaction the map can be uploaded to Mapbox online, the user can also upload styles and data. The map can be further adjusted once it is on Mapbox online. Mapbox Studio also allows the user to export an image of the map as a png or jpeg. For those who do not know CartoCSS Mapbox online is a better option than Mapbox Studio.