Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cloud GIS: Indiemapper review

Update 12/6: I spelt Indiemapper wrongly as Indemapper which I've now corrected. Thanks for the heads up Maarten.

Introduction: Indiemapper is an online GIS from Axis maps, it compares with services like GeoCommons (my GeoCommons review) and the newly released ArcGIS Explorer online (James Fee's review).

I was really excited to dive in and experiment with it as it promised to enable good map design practices. Sure, you can still make ugly maps with it if you try hard but the defaults will nudge (in the sense of this nudge book) you to make good design decisions and contextual help is there to inform you of good design practice. No one will be surprised to hear I think this idea is a Very. Good. Thing.

I discussed Indemapper with Mark Harrower on a conference call before writing this review.

  • Good Map Design as Default: By integrating colorbrewer and typebrewer into the package and providing design advice in contextual help they've produced an app that promotes good design. Yay!
  • Cloud Based: This is aimed at people who don't need the full power of desktop GIS and its a cloud based service so you can access you work from any computer.
  • Group Working: Is also possible and I can see lots of potential for this.
  • Contextual help: As well as supporting good design, contextual help is a real usability plus - instead of having to waste time finding the help section that deals with your particular problem, a contextual help button takes you straight to what you need.
  • Integration with PhotoShop: Axis maps have made a point of making it easy to export from Indemapper into other software such as photoshop.
Sort of Neutral:
  • Projections: Indemapper is promoted as being good at handling projections. I can see where Axis is coming from about this but I don't think projections are as important as they make out.
  • No User Manual (yet): Mark explained to me that one of the audiences they had in mind for Indiemapper was for people not expert in GIS who don't need full GIS functionality. For those people the GIS like interface is intimidating, they really need a set of step by step tutorials on howto make a map with Indiemapper. Contextual help just doesn't fill the need properly. Mark said they had a series of video tutorials planned covering this.
  • Free for Educational Users: All Unis I know will have GIS teaching materials authored for Arc. IMHO to persuade a tutor to switch to Indiemapper for teaching the educational licence cost has to be zero and at the moment, its just a reduction. Both ArcGIS Explorer online and GeoCommons are both free.
  • Desert Fog on Startup: When first opened Indiemapper has a blank screen. For users who have been making maps in NeoGeo tools like Google Earth or Google Maps, they will be confused and a little intimidated that there isn't a base layer visible. Better to have a default layer visible that users can change than a blank, desert fog screen.
  • Static Maps only: Indiemapper isn't designed to produce interactive maps. Mark said this was something they would consider in the future. I agree with him that there's a ton of applications for static maps but I'd like to see some simple interactions possible - clickable pop up balloons with simple html would do.
  • GIS Metaphor: Indiemapper works on a GIS metaphor in that a database is linked to a map. If you open a few layers and click on a point you will pull up the normal GIS attribute table. This is second nature to anyone who's worked GIS but newbie map makers will be confused, attribute tables and how it links to a map are quite a complex concept to understand and manipulate. Mark explained to me that the design team spent time discussing if there was a better way to organise a map than layers. I agree with their decision to use layers as the way to organise the map, I can't see a way around that, but I think they could have adopted an interface where data is still arranged in layers but the underlying data structure (XML as it happens) is hidden from the users view by simple screen interactions. Google Earth operates in this way, you don't get to see the KML with simple main screen operations.
Unlike my other criticisms, altering the GIS metaphor is probably a big structural change, so I doubt its worth implementing. That's OK so long as they make sure the issue is well covered in the video tutorials.

When Indiemapper is supported by video tutorials and able to produce simple interactions it's a tool I'd definitely consider for my teaching and for producing my own maps.


Maarten said...

I thought it was Indiemapper, not Indemapper.

I really liked the application, but it tended to slow my browser down quite a lot.

I would consider the projection part a plus: for world maps, for example, it is very easy to move away from the ever present Mercator projection (see here for an example)

I think the GIS metaphor is relevant, as you can see what data is available for presenting on the map, with symbols or with labels. The downside is you have to upload all your data again if you want to make an edit, as Indiemapper gives you no way to do so like you would expect from a GIS-like app.

For a casual cartographer Indiemapper is a very good alternative to a real GIS. But for me the price is way to high in order to consider a purchase.

Ben Sheesley said...

Thanks for the review. Glad you've discovered some of indiemapper's strengths (and weaknesses!). We're currently working on a number of the items listed as cons, including improved help for people that might find indie a bit intimidating. Educators interested in using indie in the classroom will also be targeted. For now, check out the existing video tutorials at the end of our about page. Registered users may also find a range of help topics on our support pages. Our goal is to make the process of creating beautiful maps as easy as possible for a diverse group of users, including new mapmakers, map-geeks, designers, and GIS users, so we appreciate the feedback.