I wrapped up a project recently where I created some thematic maps of 2005-2007 ACS PUMA level census data for New York State. I decided to do all the mapping in open source QGIS, and was quite happy with the result, which leads me to retract a statement from a post I made last year, where I suggested that QGIS may not be the best for map layout. The end product looked just as good as maps I’ve created in ArcGIS. There were a few tricks and quirks in using the QGIS Print Composer and I wanted to share those here. I’m using QGIS Kore 1.02, and since I was at work I was using Windows XP with SP3 (I run Ubuntu at home but haven’t experimented with all of these steps yet using Linux). Please note that the data in this map isn’t very strong – the subgroup I was mapping was so small that there were large margins of errors for many of the PUMAs, and in many cases the data was suppressed. But the map itself is a good example of what an ACS PUMA map can look like, and is a good example of what QGIS can do.
- Inset Map – The map was of New York State, but I needed to add an inset map of New York City so the details there were not obscured. This was just a simple matter of using the Add New Map button for the first map, and doing it a second time for the inset. In the item tab for the map, I changed the preview from rectangle to cache and I had maps of NY state in each map. Changing the focus and zoom of the inset map was easy, once I realized that I could use the scroll on my mouse to zoom in and out and the Move Item Content button (hand over the globe) to re-position the extent (you can also manually type in the scale in the map item tab). Unlike other GIS software I’ve experimented with, the extent of the map layout window is not dynamically tied to the data view – which is a good thing! It means I can have these two maps with different extents based on data in one data window. Then it was just a matter of using the buttons to raise or lower one element over another.
- Legend – Adding the legend was a snap, and editing each aspect of the legend, the data class labels, and the categories was a piece of cake. You can give your data global labels in the symbology tab for the layer, or you can simply alter them in the legend. One quirk for the legend and the inset map – if you give assign a frame outline that’s less than 1.0, and you save and exit your map, QGIS doesn’t remember this setting if when you open your map again – it sets the outline to zero.
- Text Boxes / Labels – Adding them was straightforward, but you have to make sure that the label box is large enough to grab and move. One annoyance here is, if you accidentally select the wrong item and move your map frame instead of the label, there is no undo button or hotkey. If you have to insert a lot of labels or free text, it can be tiresome because you can’t simply copy and paste the label – you have to create a new one each time, which means you have to adjust your font size and type, change the opacity, turn the outline to zero, etc each time. Also, if the label looks “off” compared to any automatic labeling you’ve done in the data window, don’t sweat it. After you print or export the map it will look fine.
- North Arrow – QGIS does have a plugin for north arrows, but the arrow appears in the data view and not in the print layout. To get a north arrow, I inserted a text label, went into the font menu, and chose a font called ESRI symbols, which contains tons of north arrows. I just had to make the font really large, and experiment with hitting keys to get the arrow I wanted.
- Scale Bar – This was the biggest weakness of the print composer. The scale bar automatically takes the unit of measurement from your map, and there doesn’t seem to be an option to convert your measurement units. Which means you’re showing units in feet, meters, or decimal degrees instead of miles or kilometers, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since I was making a thematic map, I left the scale bar off. If anyone has some suggestions for getting around this or if I’m totally missing something, please chime in.
- Exporting to Image – I exported my map to an image file, which was pretty simple. One quirk here – regardless of what you set as your paper size, QGIS will ignore this and export your map out as the optimal size based on the print quality (dpi) that you’ve set (this isn’t unique to QGIS – ArcGIS behaves the same way when you export a map). If you create an image that you need to insert into a report or web page, you’ll have to mess around with the dpi to get the correct size. The map I’ve linked to in this post uses the default 300 dpi in a PNG format.
- Printing to PDF – QGIS doesn’t have a built in export function for PDF, so you have to use a PDF print driver via your print screen (if you don’t have the Adobe PDF printer or a reasonable facsimile pre-installed, there are a numberÂ of free ones available on sourceforge – PDFcreator is a good one). I tried Adobe and PDFcreator and ran into trouble both times. For some reason when I printed to PDF it was unable to print the polygon layer I had in either the inset map or the primary map (I had a polygon layer of pumas and a point layer of puma centroids showing MOEs). It appeared that it started to draw the polygon layer but then stopped near the top of the map. I fiddled with the internal settings of both pdf drivers endlessly to no avail, and after endless tinkering found the answer. Right before I go to print to pdf, if I selected the inset map, chose the move item content button (hand with globe), used the arrow key to move the extent up one, and then back one to get it to it’s original position, then printed the map, it worked! I have no idea why, but it did the trick. After printing the map once, to print it again you have to re-do this trick. I also noticed that after hitting print, if the map blinked and I could see all the elements, I knew it would work. But, if the map blinked and I momentarily didn’t see the polygon layer, I knew it wouldn’t export correctly.
Despite a few quirks (what software doesn’t have them), I was really happy with the end result and find myself using QGIS more and more for making basic to intermediate maps at work. Not only was the print composer good, but I was also able to complete all of the pre-processing steps using QGIS or another open source tool. I’ll wrap up by giving you the details of the entire process, and links to previous posts where I discuss those particular issues.
I used 2005-2007 American Community Survey (ACS) date from the US Census Bureau, and mapped the data at the PUMA level. I had to aggregate and calculate percentages for the data I downloaded, which required using a number of spreadsheet formulas to calculate new margins of error; (MOEs). I downloaded a PUMA shapefile layer from the US Census Generalized Cartographic Boundary files page, since generalized features were appropriate at the scale I was using. The shapefile had an undefined coordinate system, so I used the Ftools add-on in QGIS I converted the shapefile from single-part to multi-part features. Then I used Ftools to join my shapefile to the ACS data table I had downloaded and cleaned-up (I had to save the data table as a DBF in order to do the join). Once they were joined, I classified the data using natural breaks (I sorted and eyeballed the data and manually created breaks based on where I thought there were gaps). I used the Color Brewer tool to choose a good color scheme, and entered the RGB values in the color / symbology screen. Once I had those colors, I saved them as custom colors so I could use them again and again. Then I used Ftools to create a polygon centroid layer out of my puma/data layer. I used this new point layer to map my margin of error values. Finally, I went into the print composer and set everything up. I exported my maps out as PNGs, since this is a good image format for preserving the quality of the maps, and as PDFs.