Interactive mapping


Interactive mapping involves using maps that allow zooming in and out, panning around, identifying specific features, querying underlying data such as by topic or a specific indicator (e.g., socioeconomic status), generating reports and other means of using or visualising select information in the map.

Interactive mapping uses the GIS (Global Information System) to show pinpoint data on a map. Working in a system of layers, the different levels of geographical information are placed on top of each other. Unlike static maps, interactive maps have the advantage of a number of features designed to improve the display of a large amount of complex data. 

Some of these features include:

  • The ability to create layers of information that can be shown or hidden at the click of a button
  • Addition of text boxes to data points that show up when clicked to give a quick summary or description
  • Zoom functions that allow users to focus on either the details of a particular region or to gain a quick overview of a wider area
  • Data can be quickly updated, and these updates are made transparent to users
  • Points on a map can be linked to external supporting documents, such as images, video, or graphs

Why use GIS and interactive mapping?

(Rabinowitz 2013)

  • The nature and distribution of a problem is made clearer by use of different map layers to give new insights and comparisons.
  • It is easy to demonstrate how an issue affects different populations and geographic areas.
  • The ability to choose which layers of information to display on an interactive map allows for the isolation and examination of individual variables.
  • Interactive maps can be used in the design, implementation and evaluation of interventions, by providing evidence that can be used in planning and implementation decisions, "as well as a basis on which to justify those decisions to funders and policymakers." (Rabinowitz 2013)
  • They can show change over time, highlighting where and how programs and interventions are succeeding and not succeeding.
  • Interactive maps are flexible: information and design elements can be changed, reorganized, and manipulated, creating each time a new representation that can clarify conditions and relationships.
  • Interactive maps are powerful tools for presentation.
  • "Perhaps most important, GIS maps can help influence policy. Policymakers, particularly elected officials, often know relatively little about the issues their decisions affect.  Because they are so powerful at representing conditions in an area, GIS maps can help policymakers understand issues more clearly, and lead to policies that address reality in rational ways." (Rabinowitz 2013)


Fraser River Basin Map (Watershed Watch Salmon Society)

This example of an interactive map was created by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society to highlight the threat to salmon in the Fraser River, British Columbia. The map itself showcases a wide range of features available in interactive maps, including: adding animated text; pop up boxes; allowing the user to click to select which data set is shown on the map; creating links in the map to case studies and pop-up graphs which show changes over time; a sliding timeline which adjusts the data shown according to the time period selected.

Map of Fraser Basin with overlaid data highlighting significant waterways

Source: Watershed Watch Salmon Society (2012)


The Nigeria Security Tracker: Map Deaths by State (Council on Foreign Relations)

This interactive map, the Nigeria Security Tracker, created by the Council on Foreign Relations and edited by Ralph Bunche, Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, is a simpler design than the example above but effectively displays information about the number of deaths in Nigeria by state. Users can select the time period they are interested in using a sliding scale, and hovering the cursor over a particular state will bring up more information about that particular area, as well as an external link to the data. The data used in the map is updated regularly.


Map of Nigeria with data overlaid highlighting the number of deaths by state - the state of Borno is coloured dark red suggesting a very high number of deaths

Source: Council on Foreign Relations (n.d.)


Interactive Map on Migration (Interactive Center for Migration Policy and Development)

The Interactive Map on Migration (no longer available online), implemented by the International Center for Migration Policy Development, is a support instrument for intergovernmental dialogues on migration by allowing for the exchange and access of information by way of visualizations, up-to-date data and country profiles. There are a number of maps and visualizations on the website that can be viewed online or downloaded. This Interactive Map of Irregular and Mixed Migration Routes in the Budapest Process, Mediterranean Transit Migration Dialogue and Prague Process Regions allows users to explore areas of the map with zoom and scrolling functions while moving the cursor over particular routes will highlight the route and bring up the route name. 

Map of North Africa, Europe, Middle East and parts of Asia with both black and yellow lines identifying significant migration routes

Source: International Center for Migration Policy Development (2011)

Advice for choosing this method

  • Interactive mapping runs off the GIS system which has the following needs:
    • "Hardware with the power to effectively run the GIS software
    • GIS software with the capabilities you need
    • Accurate data, in a form that can be fed into the software program
    • People trained to use the GIS system" (Rabinowitz​ 2013)
  • ​​Think carefully about the questions you are trying to address with your interactive map, and what sort of data is going to work best in map format.
  • Consider which software will work best for your needs. There are many free tools available online for the creation of interactive maps, as well as paid software programs. Considerations to keep in mind would be: 
    • Budget
    • How much control you would like over the final design and layout
    • How well the software will integrate different forms of data (can the data be entered  easily, either manually or imported from the programs you are using, or will it need to be translated?)
    • Will the mapping software perform necessary calculations easily? (calculating population density, for example)
  • When designing your map, think about what layers of information are most useful to include in order to address your project's aims, and how these can be accentuated by the features available to you


Council on Foreign Relations (n.d.). 'Map: Deaths by State'. Nigerian Security Tracker. Edited by Ralph Bunche. Retrieved from:

International Center for Migration Policy Development (2011). 'Interactive Map of Irregular and Mixed Migration Routes in the Budapest Process, Mediterranean Transit Migration Dialogue and Prague Process Regions​'. I-Map. Retrieved from: (no longer available online)

Rabinowitz, Phil (2013). Section 16. Geographic Information Systems: Tools for Community Mapping. Community Tool Box, Work Group for Community Health Development, University of Kansas. Retrieved from:

Watershed Watch Salmon Society (2012). Fraser Basin Live Map. Retrieved from: 

'Interactive mapping' is referenced in: