Mapping with Google Fusion Tables

Google’s Fusion Tables, a way to manage large amounts of data online with powerful visualization capabilities built into it, was recently graduated out of Google Labs and became an app available on the Google Apps dashboard. I have used Google’s Spreadsheet Mapper to create embeddable maps before, so I needed to know what Google Fusion Tables is all about and whether I need to update my knowledge any. Conveniently for me, Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF), one of the organizations I am working with, is also in search of a simple mapping solution to highlight the hundreds of projects they have done over the years.

So, task for today – figure out Google Fusion Tables and find a solution for PTF.

Step 1 — Learn. Why would one use Google Fusion Tables? And, what exactly is the difference between Spreadsheet Mapper and Fusion Tables anyways? Google has handy chart that compares the features of Spreadsheet Mapper and Fusion Tables. The primary differentiators that can help us make a decision one way or another:

  • Number of Markers: Spreadsheet Mapper can accommodate a maximum of 400 points or markers on the map, while Fusion Tables has no such limits.
  • Pretty Factor: The pop-up balloons (the box thingy that pops up when you click on a marker) can be customized a lot more in Spreadsheet Mapper than in Fusion Tables. 6 templates in Spreadsheet Mapper vs. 1 in Fusion Tables. Someone without HTML knowledge can go a long way with Spreadsheet Mapper templates. Of course, HTML knowledge will get you even farther (side note: with the proliferation of online tools, I am beginning to think HTML should be taught in primary schools :)).

Step 2 — Create an Excel spreadsheet for Google Fusion Tables. There are many tutorials and sample tables that were helpful in creating a dummy table with test data to figure out how Fusion Tables works and renders data. The ones that I found most useful for this exercise:

The draft Excel spreadsheet with a column each for year, country, grantee, project name, topic, grant amount, and adviser is ready for action. A lot of data was made up, particularly the grant amount column, since the test was also to see how cumulative graphs would work.

Step 3 — Import Excel spreadsheet into Google Fusion Tables. That was easy enough to do following instructions found in the various Google Fusion Tables tutorials. The two that were really helpful:

Then ta-da, an embeddable map was ready. It even had a few other visualizations that would be useful – heat map (showing density of projects), bar (which topics had what amount of projects), and timeline (chronology view of project funding by year).

Step 4 — Enhance the Google Fusion Table further. As soon as the map was ready, the next question became how to add a couple more features to it and make it look prettier (but of course! :-)). The questions and the discovered solutions:

  • Wouldn’t it be nice if we could change the style of marker by project topic? Each project topic would be indicated by a different color and size pointer.
  • In India, there are six different projects indicated in one marker in one location, thanks to the fact that the spreadsheet only had country name for location. How can we distribute the markers around so that they are not displaying on the same spot on the map?
  • To test the location marking feature, I randomly distributed various cities in India on the spreadsheet. Not just the metropolitan cities like Chennai, even smaller cities like Erode and towns like Tiruppur. Google picked up every single one of those locations. Quite Impressive!

Step 5 — Sit back and enjoy the view! Google Map of the work embedded here:

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