How to create print-quality maps using open source software

Using QGIS and Natural Earth Data to make bespoke maps

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.

More people needed

Issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in

Today’s Economist has an article on the University of Oxford’s property development plans – in particular, building new housing.

Homes in Oxford are among the least affordable in Britain. The housing pinch is keenly felt by postdoctoral researchers, 4,500 of whom work in Oxford on short-term contracts with unspectacular pay. The university realised that these academic serfs, who form the backbone of its intellectual project, were spending huge amounts of their income on rent and that if it wanted to remain competitive it would have to find them more places to live.

Many UK cities outside of London have a shortage of skilled workers (and London too has skills shortages in particular areas). Cities and universities are hungry for more people. Infrastructural weaknesses – from dodgy travel connections to a lack of quality and affordable housing – can act as bottlenecks to future growth and obstacles to attracting talented people. The issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in.

Many European cities have ambitious growth plans. Some want to revitalise particular districts, others recognise they need another 200,000 people to become truly competitive. Where countries have targets in place to, for example, double the number of international students, cities and universities need to work together to accommodate new arrivals. I’ll be presenting new research on how universities and cities are working together on internationalisation, including addressing shared infrastructure challenges, at Going Global in May this year in London.