Sometimes a presentation or paper is just…missing something. Many times, a map, specially tailored to your research, is just what you need. Nearly every aspect of social science research has a geospatial component. From economics to sociology, social sciences study human events that take place in a geographic context. Adding a map to your research presentation can be an effective way to communicate your findings.

Just think of how many pages it would take to describe the contents of just one map. Look at this student work, for example, showing disputing maritime boundaries:

(Map credit: Kisei Tanaka, full project online here.

There’s no way that all of that information could have been presented effectively without a map. And it’s pretty,too.

Lucky for you, making a simple map is now almost as easy as getting directions online. (And way easier than getting directions with Apple iOS6). The most commonly used free-and-simple program is Google Earth. (We talked about some other free programs here.) If you’ve used Google Maps to get directions, then you’re on your way to being a Google Earth user.

Once you’ve downloaded Google Earth, you can select from a wide variety of layers to get the right background map for your project. Think of layers as transparencies – you need a clear base, and then you can add on the levels of information you need. For example, a project looking at transportation networks would need a layer of roads, but a project researching river pollution wouldn’t. It’s up to you.

After you’ve picked your layers and zoomed in to the location you want, you might want to add points or lines. Google Earth calls these “Placemarks” and “Paths”, but they amount to the same thing. Creating a placemark is as simple as selecting the pushpin icon and clicking where you’d like the point located. You can change the icon and the label to give the information you need.

(The Google Earth toolbar – for placemarks use the pushpin, and paths use the third button, the squiggly line with three nodes)

In the map above, the user created a red path showing Bangladesh’s maritime claim, and a yellow path showing India’s claim. To create your own path, you just select the path icon, click along the map to create a straight line with nodes, or click and drag for a free-form path. (For more accuracy, you can also import Lat/Long…but that’s a story for another post.)

After you’ve got your path or placemarks set up, you come to the fun part. Google Earth is 3-D, so you don’t have to be stuck with the boring overhead view if you don’t want to. For example, in this shot from a Google tutorial, the user has decided that an angle from the coast looking toward the bay is the best presentation of information. Again, it’s up to you.

Hopefully by now you’ve realized just how easy it can be to take your research presentation to the next level. Google Earth has some great tutorials online, and it has a thriving online community of users as well. Make your next presentation pop by adding an easy map.