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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

How to Build a Map

We have been traveling through Rajasthan for the past month and a half. That’s a month and a half spent exploring new cities, meeting new people, eating at different restaurants, sleeping in different beds, navigating new terrains, and becoming acquainted with the nuances of travel, both as individuals and as a group. I’ve felt the strong desire to document each place we’ve spent any amount of time in, including all restaurants, sightseeing spots, hotels, learning communities, etc. This urge came out of my love for exploring and mapping Varanasi, our city of residence.

Along the way, I’ve discovered some tools–Google Earth, Google Maps, QGIS, Google MyMaps,–and some resources–India’s OGD (Open Government Data) Platform, Bhuvan, Open Street Maps, DIVA-GIS. I’ve gone through the struggle of making preparatory online maps accessible during offline periods of time. I’ve explored the difference between making a map for myself and making maps for sharing and publishing. I’ve learned a lot more about GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and I’ve been pursuing this new area of study and exploration of place.

And through all of it, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about my community back home, in Huntington,West Virginia, and about how little I really know about the city and state I live in–the terrain, biodiversity, population and demographic information, or how to navigate through the state other than on interstate highways. So, in this update, I hope to introduce you to my newfound passion and share a publicly-available map of our Rajasthan travels that I’ve built through Google MyMaps.

Josh’s Steps to Map-Making

  1. Define your purpose(s)
  2. Consider your audience
  3. Select your tools
  4. Focus on detail and consider aesthetics
  5. Share

Step 1: Define your purpose(s)

Our group has been doing a lot of moving around. We traveled from Varanasi to Jaipur, Jaipur to Udaipur, Udaipur to Kotri, Kotri to Jodhpur, Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, Jaisalmer to Ajmer, Ajmer back to Jaipur, and Jaipur back to Udaipur. Soon, we’ll travel back to Varanasi. Because we spent such relatively short amounts of time in each city, and each period of time was also spent learning group dynamics, planning, and working for our Varanasi NGOs, the details of our travel were often lost to my memory. What did we see in Jodhpur that we liked so much? What was that restaurant that we loved in Pushkar? All of the details, all of the memories, are hard to contain without a container. Maps have become that container for me throughout this time of travel. For other people in other walks of life, maps can meet all sorts of purposes, from tracking GPS-tagged animals to analyzing arable farmland to understanding the context of a historical figure’s life. Knowing your purpose, either explicitly or organically, allows you to select the best tools for your map, choose the right platform, and share with the right audience.

Step 2: Consider your Audience

Who will be seeing what you make, and what will they make of it? As we’ve traveled, I’ve had a deep desire to share this Rajasthan experience with my friends and family back home. I’ve struggled with blogging and even journaling. I often lose focus when I’m writing or go off on long rabbit-trails that reveal a bit too much than I feel comfortable with sharing publicly, so I end up not posting a lot of what I write. However, there’s an audience back home who really wants to know what’s been going on in my life, and I’m sure that’s true of every one of my fellow group members. So I began incorporating the desires of the folks back home into the map I was at first producing only for my own records. Taking that audience into consideration led me to focus a little more on detailing the routes and means of travel, explaining the significance of some points in little text boxes, and making the map user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

Step 3: Select your Tools

The selection of your tools will no doubt be guided by your purpose and your audience. If you’re creating a map that visualizes rainfall patterns over the past decade, you probably will want a tool that allows for data input and some bit of data analysis. If you’re building a map that keeps track of travel for yourself and friends and family, like mine, it makes sense to use something shareable, aesthetic, and simple, with a focus on display more than inputted data.

Part of the process of selecting tools for any purpose is learning what tools are available and learning how to use those tools. I listed a bunch of tools at the beginning of this post, all of which I discovered and learned as I wanted to incorporate different desires or points of information into the various maps I was building. There are so many free and incredible resources available for mapmaking and GIS analysis, but finding them is hard. If you’d like to see a list of some of those tools with explanation, you can see an extended version of this post on my personal blog, here.

Step 4: Focus on Detail and Consider Aesthetics

It’s easy to walk through a list of the cities that we’ve visited in Rajasthan, but that list really doesn’t give you a good sense of what our experience has been like. You could conjecture how the changing environments may have contributed to our dynamic experience, and you could probably figure out which major destinations we visited in each of the cities, but you wouldn’t be able to know where we were rooted in each city, what restaurants we frequented, or what kinds of activities or communities we were a part of. The more detailed a map of the experience, the easier it is for a reader to share in the experience. Therefore, as I’ve been working to build my shareable map, it’s been important to me to plot all of the locations, not just the big-ticket items. We spent much more time roaming aimlessly, eating, or retiring in our various hotels than we did visiting forts and riding on camels. In my opinion, those little details are more at the core of our experience than the big exciting moments.

It’s also very important to me to build something that’s pleasing to have and to share. That’s where the aesthetics come in. Artists and designers want to create a product that they themselves enjoy and that other people enjoy. Same here. I think it’s important, both for one’s own benefit and the benefit of others, to create something that’s pleasing, uplifting, fitting, and pleasurable. An ugly map that’s difficult to use is simply less accessible than a beautiful one that works with ease.

Step 5: Share

Finally, if you want your map to be a resource for others, don’t forget to share it. I’ve been learning a lot about how to share something in a way that’s discoverable and accessible for the greatest number of people. It’s necessary to consider others’ levels of technological aptitude, attention spans, and access to different online services or platforms when you share anything. So, as you share, whatever you share, consider others’ ability to access and use the resource. Decide how exclusive or nonexclusive you want it to be. Consider also what others may do with it and be clear about their right to use or further share the information. Clarity in communication when sharing a resource is something I’m constantly learning about.

In any case, I would like to share my map of our Rajasthan travels with anyone who may be interested. You can visit the map by clicking here.