Options to map your data

Good data collection practice demands that in addition to measuring your specific target (dissolved oxygen, pH, etc.) you should be collecting metadata to put observations in proper context. This can include data on weather, who collected the data, equipment used, and more, but it should definitely include time and place of data collection. Geospatial data can help tell a meaningful story about the data collected and can be used to create maps. Maps are a universal language, and can help you reach members of the public, policy makers, and other stakeholders.

Below are some options you can use to map your water quality data.


ESRI’s ArcGIS is a widely used mapping and geospatial analysis software, and its online platform provides a simplified and intuitive way to plot, analyze, and display all sorts of data including on water quality. Licenses are free for non-profits besides a minimal administrative fee.

Using the online platform, users can display multiple data layers, provide context on displayed information, and more–all of which can be modified or updated to incorporate new data. Here is an ArcOnline example from River Network, and another from the New River Conservancy. Story maps now make it even easier to display your data in a meaningful way via a dynamic display that joins narrative text, images, video, and maps and data. Below is an example from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which used Story Maps to create a report card on the quality of estuaries in the region.

 Mapping with R

The R statistical language and software may not be the first option you’d consider when trying to map your data, but it offers lots of flexibility in analyzing and displaying your data. There’s a decent learning curve, but R can be a powerful tool for your mapping needs, and is completely free and open source. R can incorporate geographic data including shapefiles, KML files, and more.

Here’s a course developed for River Rally 2018 that goes over the basics of mapping data in R.


Leaflet is a free and open-source JavaScript library that allows users to display mobile-friendly interactive maps. There are many tutorials to help you get started.


Mapbox is a provider of custom online maps–basically an alternative to Google Maps–that is mainly used by websites and applications needing a mapping interface, but can also be used for smaller scale projects like displaying water quality data. Use of the software is free on up to 50,000 map views per month.


Kepler.gl is a free and open-source geospatial analysis tool (like ArcGIS) that allows users to analyze and display large amounts of data through a simple platform.

Google cloud maps

The Google Maps platform offers additional capabilities on top of the ubiquitous maps platform. Non-profits can apply for free credits to use the platform.