How to use maps to visualise data

Maps can help bring a story to life – especially if that story involves a lot of locations or numbers.

Simple pinpoint maps

If your story is about a planned new road or building, you may want to create a simple map showing its location. A map will often mean more to your story’s reader than just a street name or area.

The simplest way to do this is to add a Map block in WordPress and pinpoint one or more locations. You can easily add titles captions to each location this way.

You can also create custom maps using Google’s My Maps tool and embed them into your story.

Data-driven maps

If your story is about the different levels of recycling around the country, or the world, or Leeds, you can use a map to show your readers at a glance who’s doing the most.

There are a few free online tools that will help you create an interactive map using data that you can upload from a spreadsheet or input directly into the website’s data table.

You can create them in Canva or Infogram, but the options are limited with a free account.

Flourish is a bit more complicated to use, but that’s partly because it’s very customisable. You can use all of its features with a free account, unlike many websites. It’s worth taking the time to practice.

Here’s a map created in Flourish showing the number of cumulative deaths from covid-19 in Yorkshire and the Humber as of 3 November 2020.

This is better than a pinpoint map as you can see at a glance which areas have the higher figures.

There are a few steps to create a map like this.

  1. Find the data you want to visualise. This map was created using data from the Government’s coronavirus dashboard, which is released under the Open Government Licence (that means you can use the data as long as you attribute the source).
  2. Sign up for a Flourish account.
  3. Create a new visualisation (not story).
  4. Choose a template – this one is UK (local authorities).
  5. You’ll see a preview of the template loaded with some random data. Click on the ‘Data’ tab to see it.
  6. Delete all the numbers in the ‘Value’ column (C), and rename the column with the data you’re adding. For example, for this map I renamed it ‘Covid-19 deaths’.
  7. To create a map of Yorkshire and Humber local authorities, like this one, delete all the rows except for those local authorities. Here’s a thrilling Wikipedia section where you can find out what they are.
  8. Now add your data in column C. For this map, use the Lower Tier LA numbers.

  9. Now click on the Preview tab, and you can use the options on the right to customise your map. Ignore most of them, except for:
    • Points layer: Change to Disabled
    • Regions layer: This is where you can change colours and add a shadow, if you like
    • Header: Add a title and subtitle
    • Footer: Add the name of the data source and its URL, e.g. in this case the source is UK Government and the URL is
  10. When you’re happy with it, click ‘Export & publish’ and ‘Publish to share and embed’
  11. Click on the link and copy the URL, paste it into your article to embed it.
  12. If you make any changes, click on ‘Export & publish’ and ‘Republish’. It will automatically update the live version in your article.

Fancy a shortcut?

This map would have been really quick to put together except for one thing – deleting all the non-Yorkshire and Humber local authorities.

With a free account, all your Flourish visualisations are publicly accessible so you can use the one I made as a template by clicking on Duplicate and edit.

Remember the government updates its data constantly though, so if you happen to want to create a map showing cumulative deaths of covid-19 in Yorkshire and Humber, you’ll still need to go and find all the latest figures to add to the map yourself.