Mapping Tools and Platforms

Depending on your goals, there are a wide variety of pre-built platforms that are useful for visualizing, analyzing, and telling stories about spatial data. Below are some common platforms, starting with ones with the generally lowest level learning curve and moving to the highest.

Knight Lab StoryMapsJS

StoryMapJS, a free online tool developed by Northwestern University's Knight Lab, allows creators to combine spatial information with multimedia and textual data to tell location based narratives. Its simple user interface and ability to use both standard and customized underlays make it a good platform for simple story-mapping projects. Its limitations include the fact that it cannot be hosted locally and little customization in terms of styling or functionality is possible. Spatial data points must also be inserted individually either on a map or through long/lat coordinates, making work with large datasets difficult.

Main use: Storytelling, Access: Free, requires a Google account

The example project seen below combines text, video, and images to highlight how Chicago's dialogue with classical antiquity has shaped the city's look, reputation, and identity.

ArcGIS Online/ArcGIS Online Story Map

ArcGIS Online is ESRI's free online data visualization tool and can be integrated directly with ArcGIS Desktop or Pro. It is possible to create a free personal account or to join the Boston College account system by contacting Research Services.

While ArcGIS Online can be useful for making simple interactive maps, where it really shines is in its storymapping functionality. Like Knight Lab StoryMapJS, ArcGIS StoryMaps allow you to create inspiring, immersive stories and tours by combining text, interactive maps, and other multimedia content. ArcGIS Online, however, is a much more flexible platform, allowing creators to present their data in a wider variety of formats and utilize a wider variety of map types. Its learning curve is steeper than Knight Lab's StoryMaps and it requires the user to have a greater understanding of how they want to organize and share their spatial data.

Main Use: Storytelling, Data Visualization, Access: Free version available, license version also available to BC faculty, staff, and students

This example ArcGIS StoryMap from BC student Wenwei Su won the 2020 Boston College Libraries GIS Contest (digital division) for looking at health care expenditures and mortality rates in the US through the lens of the movie "Dying to Survive." (For more examples, check out the ArcGIS online StoryMap gallery.)

Google Earth (Cloud and Desktop)

The free tool Google Earth Pro (available for use online or for download to mobile and desktop) is a common tool for creating simple maps with points, lines, and polygons to share with others. The program maps the Earth by superimposing satellite images, aerial photography, and GIS data onto a 3D globe, allowing users to see cities and landscapes from various angles.

The new GoogleEarth Creation tools allow you to create a "story map" experience by adding items such as images and videos into location descriptions. It is possible to share your creation in the cloud (through standard google sharing methods) or download your spatial data as a .kml file to open on a variety of platforms.

Main Use: Storytelling, Simple Visualization, Access: Free, requires a Google account

The example project seen below uses historical photographs, artwork, Google street views, and satellite imagery to tell the story of Henry Box Brown, an enslaved person who shipped himself from Virginia to Pennsylvania to obtain his freedom.

Tableau Mapping

Tableau is a data visualization and analytics platform that enables users to connect to a variety of data sources and explore the data in a simplified way. The drag and drop interface makes it very easy to visualize and create interactive dashboards without any programming skills. The mapping features of Tableau Desktop give users the ability to get the answers to spatial questions. Tableau's spatial file connector allows you to easily connect to and join Esri Shapefiles, KML, MapInfo tables, GeoJSON files, and other forms of geospatial data. You can also import geographic data from R or GIS (or whatever other spatial files or custom geocode data you have) and make it more easily accessible, interactive, and shareable. Census-based population, income, and other standard demographic datasets are built-in.

With Tableau, you can create the following common map types:

Main Use: Data Visualization, Access: Tableau Public is a free version available to the general public, a free version of Tableau Desktop can be acquired by academic faculty, staff, and students (see instructions)

The example map below from the project, Immigrant Settlement in Greater Boston, shows the foreign-born population around the Boston area community from 1870 to 2010.

ArcGIS (Pro and Desktop) and QGIS

ArcGIS and QGIS are the two most common platforms for organizing your data into a true database and for analyzing data using common spatial methodologies. As such, they are often the go-to for someone wanting to move beyond an Excel or Google Sheet file for recording their datasets. The two platforms are similar, though ArcGIS only runs on Windows computers while QGIS is a free and open source GIS platform that runs on Windows and Macs. While both platforms can be used for sharing visualizations as exports in traditional file formats such as .jpg and .tiff (commonly used in publications), sharing interactive online visualizations requires integration with a secondary platform like ArcGIS Online or Leaflet.

Boston College has an ArcGIS campus license for students, faculty, and staff, so please see the BC Services ArcGIS page for more information on how to get a license for your computer. Both platforms are available for use in the Digital Studio. If you just want to start from the basics in ArcGIS or QGIS, we recommend running through a few of the beginner tutorials from the LearnArcGIS Hub or the QGIS tutorials page.

Main use: Spatial Organization, Spatial Analysis, Spatial Visualization, Access: ArcGIS licenses are available to BC faculty, staff, and students; QGIS is free and open source, download from QGIS


Leaflet is an open-source JavaScript library for interactive web maps. It is lightweight and flexible and is probably the most popular open-source mapping library at the moment. Of the web mapping platforms discussed here, it is certainly the most powerful, but at the same time is the least user friendly, as a knowledge of coding in javascript is required. Many types of functionalities may be performed more easily using the other platforms described above, yet Leaflet (especially with its many plugins) is by far the most customizable.

Main use: Data Visualization, Access: Free and open source, download from Leaflet

The example map below is an interactive Leaflet based map from the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies (IAJS) Jesuit Online Necrology Project, which the lives of more than 33000 members of the Jesuit Priesthood. The map shows the myriad of locations mentioned in the necrology, allowing the user to search by location and identify the Jesuits associated with a location.

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