Best Practice for Presenting Maps on LGA Websites

Introduction

This paper discusses best practice as it relates to the presentation of spatial data on the public portions of LGA websites. The paper does not attempt to discuss how to present spatial data to council staff, contractors and other professionals dealing with LGAs on a regular basis.

Map Capabilities

Local Government Authorities (LGAs) manage vast amounts of spatial data. Much of this data is of interest to the public, however, many LGA websites have poor mapping capabilities and do not present their spatial data well. With regard to mapping functionality, the majority of LGA websites fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Small number of image based maps, possible in PDF format.
  2. A single dynamic map page presented on its own (outside the website template)

Neither of these strategies are considered best practice even though typical implementations falling into the second category are very expensive and can only be afforded by larger LGAs.

Familiarity

Casual users of an LGA website do not want to be faced with a steep learning curve in order for them to obtain the information they are looking for. All aspects of the website need to be intuitive and this is especially important for maps as they can be daunting to some users.

Guideline 1: Spatial data should be presented using intuitive map interfaces that are widely used by the public.

In-context Viewing

Many LGA websites present their maps separately to the remainder of their website in a single full-screen window. There are several disadvantages associated with presenting maps outside of an LGA’s website template. These include:

Map Capabilities
  • The user is unable to use an LGA’s website template menus to navigate to other LGA website pages.
  • There will most likely be no LGA branding on the full-screen map window.
  • It may appear to the user that some outside agency is presenting the map.

Maps often require a large part of the screen in order to be easily used. Ideally, the website template should be such that the map expands as the browser window is increased in size. This is often referred to as a ‘liquid layout’. Other technologies such as javascript can be used to dynamically increase the size of the map.

Guideline 2: Maps should be presented in context with the remainder of the website.

Metadata

Each type of spatial data will have different metadata. For example, libraries may have contact information and opening hours, whilst parks may have information relating to BBQ facilities and off-leash dog areas. This metadata should be available on the maps. To avoid clutter, a typical way of presenting this data is through a popup window that appears after clicking on a feature.

Guideline 3: Relevant metadata should be presented for all important map features.

Interactivity

Many LGAs present only static maps in forms such as images or PDF documents. Static maps can quickly become cluttered, particularly when they include multiple types of data. Interactive maps allow the user to control the visibility of the different types of data. They also provide convenient pan and zoom controls. Interactive maps are much more engaging and will result in more positive user experiences.

Guideline 4. Interactive maps should be preferred over over static maps.

Data Grouping/Multiple Maps

Sidebar Data Groupings

There are many different types of data that can be presented on LGA website maps. Often it makes sense to present certain combinations of this data together. For example, it would make sense to present development applications and building zones on the same map. On the other hand, it is less likely that a user would be looking for post offices and parks with BBQ facilities at the same time.

Guideline 5: Separate maps each containing interrelated data types should be presented in preference to fewer maps containing unrelated data.

Specialised Maps

LGA websites often include pages dedicated to a single feature such as a park or place of interest. An associated map tailored to highlight the feature can be of great help to the user. The map should be have an initial position and scale so that the feature can easily be recognised. Furthermore, the map should automatically highlight the feature of interest in some way, such as showing a popup window with information about the feature.

Guideline 6: Maps tailored to highlight specific features should be presented where appropriate.

Map Currency

A common mistake made by website developers is the production of sites that are difficult to maintain. It is therefore important to have a process that prevents maps from becoming stale. There are two aspects to this:

  • An entire map can become stale if it only pertains to a limited amount of features, or the features, or if the features are topical for only a limited time period. An example might be a meeting place for an event.
  • More commonly, data within maps can quickly become stale. For example, maps showing development applications need to be updated regularly.

Such dynamics demand the use of systems that allow the maps to present data that is easily updated. Map data should not be stored with within website pages. Further, the map management system must allow maps to be easily added and removed from the website.

Guideline 7: Prevent maps, and the data therein, from becoming stale.

Browser Compatibility

LGA maps need to support the widest possible range of browsers. iOS is becoming more prevalent, but it will not display Adobe Flash content which many website map systems use. Javascript-based map systems offer wider browser compatibility so long as the vast majority of Javascript is not hand crafted.

Guideline 8: Ensure maps can be viewed consistently on all modern browsers.

Performance

Users quickly become frustrated with poor performing maps. The initial download size should be no more than 2 Mb (compressed). The map content and application logic presenting the data should be cacheable by browsers to ensure subsequent page loads are fast. Map operations should use technologies such as Ajax to ensure full pages loads are not required. Base maps should use image tiles for best performance. Prefetching of image tiles adjacent to the map viewport tiles ensures good map panning performance.

Guideline 9: Maps must be fast to download and use.

Detailed Analytics

As with other aspects of a website, the maps should support the generation of detailed usage reports. The reports should allow for the analysis of visitor details and map content usage at a fine granularity. Most interactions with the map such as clicking on features and opening info windows should be reportable.

Guideline 10: Maps should facilitate fine-grained analytics reporting.

Design

The following diagram of an example web page illustrates various best practices identified in this paper.

Illustration of some best practices for presenting maps on LGA websites
  • The page is about rail commuting with an LGA area. The page has a text area providing some information about rail commuting. Colocation of the map with relevant information provides the user with a clear understanding of the purpose of the map.
  • Apart from the base map features, the map only shows features relevant to rail commuting - railway lines and rail stations. This approach ensures the user is able to find the information they are looking for.
  • The map shows feature metadata in popup windows that appear after clicking on features.
  • The map can be resized to ‘fullscreen’ mode by clicking on a button at the right side of the control bar at the bottom of the map. This is equivalent to clicking on a YouTube video fullscreen button.

Summary

The guidelines relating to the presentation of maps on LGA websites are consistent with widely accepted guidelines for presenting other website content. Surprisingly, however, many LGAs have invested 10s of thousands of dollars into website mapping solutions that fail to meet a number of these guidelines. Specifically, these specialised mapping systems often don’t meet one or more of the following guidelines:

  1. Guideline 1: Familiarity
  2. Guideline 2: In-context Viewing
  3. Guideline 5: Data Grouping/Multiple Maps
  4. Guideline 6: Specialised Maps

In order to meet all of the guidelines, it is recommended that a comprehensive map management system be used. Map management systems leveraging cloud based infrastructure and technologies can result in much more economical solutions that meet all of the guidelines identified.

How many of the above guidelines does your LGA meet?