Tilegrams: Make your own cartogram hexmaps with our new tool.

Simon Rogers
Sep 22, 2016 · 4 min read

This US election season, you will see a lot of maps. And mostly, they will look kind of like this:

And what’s wrong with that? It is, after all, what the United States looks like.

But try and find Rhode Island or Connecticut. Tricky, isn’t it? It’s not just finding the states that’s difficult. It’s getting a sense of how “big” those states actually are. After all, when people often think about “big”, they’re referring to metrics like population rather than actual size. On a map like the one above, New York — with 8.4M people — is barely more than a pixel, while Washington D.C. has roughly the same population as Wyoming. All of that context is lost.

People are beginning to notice that accurate geography isn’t always the most meaningful way to understand a map.

This video from Vox describes problems with the traditional election map.

Maps tell stories. And if you’re looking for stories beyond those that just have to do with accurate geography, you have to go further.

Welcome to the world of cartograms.

A cartogram is a distorted map. Rather than reflect actual geographic boundaries and spaces, the boundaries and spaces are changed to more accurately tell the story of the data it’s showing. They’ve been around since at least the 1960s, often as a tool for academic geographers. In the UK, Danny Dorling and Ben Hennig have turned them into an art form, representing multiple different types of social data in cartogram form, from stretched maps to maps comprised of hexagons.

The UK’s general election last year was the first cartogram election — Kenneth Field noted how a number of newsrooms used hex maps to show the results, including the BBC’.

But it’s not just a British phenomenon — US designers have been thinking heavily about how to use cartograms. And this election season, there are a lot of them around:

This one from FiveThirtyEight is particularly effective, explaining the electoral college votes.

How do you make one for yourself? There are lots of tools out there to create a traditional map, but fewer to make a cartogram. Where would you even begin?

We were facing those same frustrations and wanted to make it easier. This is where Adam Florin and Jessica Hamel come in with Tilegrams. The two Pitch Interactive designer-developers have developed a tool that can help you build your cartogram.

The tool is designed for serious developers and amateurs (like me) who want to make their own hexmaps. It’s published on github so anyone can take the code and re-use it. It allows you to make both static and interactive maps.

How does it work?

Step 1: Choose a pre-loaded map

The tool comes pre-loaded with a number of key US hexmaps to get you started, including the FiveThirtyEight-style map of the electoral college, the NPR state visual, and Pitch’s hexmap of the US population (where each hexagon represents 500,000 people).

Step 2: choose your data

If the pre-loaded maps aren’t what you need, then choose a dataset and see it visualised by clicking ‘Generate cartogram from Dataset’. You can also upload and paste in your own dataset in CSV format.

Step 3: edit the data

The ‘resolution’ slider changes what each hexagon represents. And if you don’t like the way the map looks, you can drag the hexagons around to create your own map style.

Step 4: export the visual

There are two export options: svg to produce a static image that can be edited afterwards; and TopoJSON for the interactive version.

You can read more about how to use it in this blogpost from the Pitch team.

We can’t wait to see what you do with it. Time to see the world differently.

Go straight to Tilegrams.

Simon Rogers is data editor on the Google News Lab and director of the Data Journalism Awards.

Google News Lab

We work with journalists and entrepreneurs to build the…

Simon Rogers

Written by

Data journalist, and Data Editor at Google. Launch editor of Guardian Datablog. Author, Facts are Sacred http://t.co/bL5erqoI7z. All views my own

Google News Lab

We work with journalists and entrepreneurs to build the future of media with Google. The News Lab is Google's effort to empower innovation at the intersection of media and technology

Simon Rogers

Written by

Data journalist, and Data Editor at Google. Launch editor of Guardian Datablog. Author, Facts are Sacred http://t.co/bL5erqoI7z. All views my own

Google News Lab

We work with journalists and entrepreneurs to build the future of media with Google. The News Lab is Google's effort to empower innovation at the intersection of media and technology

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