I’ve worked with these files a number of times and just used them again recently, and thought I would share the process you need to go through to prepare them for use in ArcGIS, as they are not “ready to go”. If you are not using ArcGIS, you can still follow these general steps using the specific tools that your software provides.
I would opt for the Cartographic Boundary Files (CBF) over the TIGER shapefiles (that the census just released) when making a national-level thematic map, as the generalization of the CBF makes the boundaries look cleaner at this scale. Also, the generalized files show land boundaries along coasts, while the TIGER files show the legal boundaries that extend into the water. The latter are not great for thematic maps, particularly as the Great Lakes states look distorted (as their boundaries extend into the lakes).
I’ll use the state and equivalent areas as an example, as those are the files I’ve just worked with. After downloading and unzipping the national-level shapefiles, you’ll need to take the following steps in the ArcCatalog:
- Define the projection, as the files are undefined. According to metadata on the website, the files are in simple NAD83. In the ArcToolbox, the tool is under Data Management Tools, Projections and Transformations, Define Projection. Once you launch the tool, you will need to select the North American Datum 1983 as the coordinate system, which is stored under Geographic Coordinate Systems for North America.
- After you define the projection, the next step is to reproject the layer to another projection that is more suitable for displaying the US. If you are making a map for basic presentation, a projected coordinate system like Albers Equal Area Conic would be a good choice (most atlases and maps of the continental US use this projection). Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico will be distorted, but we will be able to give them a separate data frame in ArcMap with their own projection later on. The tool is in the ArcToolbox under Data Management Tools, Projections and Transformations, Features, Project. Note that this is a DIFFERENT tool than the one we used in the last step. Define Projection is used to tell ArcGIS what projection a file is in if it is undefined, while Feature, Project is used to reproject a vector file from one projection to another. A file MUST have a defined projection BEFORE you can reproject it.
- The CBF’s are stored as single part features, which means that each distinct polygon will have its own record in the attribute table. For example, each of the Hawaiian Islands will have its own record in the table. This is a problem if you plan to join state-level data to your shapefile, as the data from the join will be repeated for each record. So if you have a table with population data for each of the states and you join it to the shapefile, each individual Hawaiian island will be assigned the total population of Hawaii. If you run statistics on your data, you’ll get inflated counts. To avoid this, we need to convert the CBF to a multi-part feature, where each state will have only one record in the attribute table. To do this, we use the Dissolve tool under Data Management Tools, Generalization, Dissolve. The Dissolve fields will be the basis for dissolving the individual parts of the states into one state feature. In this case, we would choose the STATE field (FIPS code) and NAME field as the dissolve field, which will give us one feature for each state (if we chose DIVISION or REGION as the field, we would aggregate the polygons to create those larger geographic areas).
- The next step is to decide whether you want to keep your shapefile as an independent file, or bring it into a geodatabase. The geodatabase is handy if you have lots of other tables and shapefiles that you are using in your project. Right-click in the catalog tree to create a new personal or file geodatabase. Then select your shapefile and right click to export it to your new geodatabase.
- Whether you stick with a shapefile or go with a geodb, the next step is to open ArcMap and add your file to it. Now, you’ll have to make a decision about Puerto Rico. If you have a dataset where you want to map data for it, then you need not do anything. Since I am making presidential election maps and Puerto Rico doesn’t vote in the electoral college, I needed to delete it. To do so, go into an Edit mode under the Editor toolbar, select PR in the attribute table or map, delete it, then save. You’ll be left with a file for the 50 states and DC.
- At this point, if you are going to join table data to your features, do so. Your features have a FIPS code, so you can use that to do the join (NEVER use names for joining – stick with codes). I often will add a new column to my features and plug in the two letter postal abbreviations, since they are commonly used for identifying states.
- Once you’ve joined your data and are ready to make a finished map, the last step will be adding two new data frames for Alaska and Hawaii. Since AK and HI are distant from the continental US, it is better to create separate frames for all three rather than trying to display them in one. Copy your current data layer (not the features – the layer which is indicated by the yellow rectangles layered on top of each other) in the table of contents, and paste it below. Activate that layer, and name the layer Alaska. Then right click on the properties for the data layer and go to the coordinates tab. Modify the coordinate system of the data layer by choosing Alaska Albers Equal Area Conic. This will reproject the data on the fly and will display Alaska in a more appropriate projection (as the continental projection distorts it). Then, in the Layout View, you can resize the Alaska data frame and zoom in to focus just on AK. Repeat these steps for Hawaii (and Puerto Rico if you’re mapping it), and you’ll have a good looking US map!