mapping elections

I am attempting to stay apolitical here, but the digital “magic” map walls used by the media are totally inadequate and misrepresent the complexity and distribution of American citizens. How was that for an opening statement? There were plenty of lessons to be learned from last Tuesday’s election, but I woke up Wednesday looking at all the finalized digital maps thinking this country is in need for some geography and geo-spatial technology education.


It was very odd watching the pre-debate news shows on tv; CNN in particular. It was like watching ESPN’s College Game Day with Anderson Cooper and the panel staged outside with political fans holding signs behind them cheering on their favorite team…;I mean candidate. In general, I feel Americans are treated as a dichotomous society incapable of possessing more than two perspectives. However, as the pollsters and prognosticators are figuring out, the American people, and society, are much more complex than a blue and red map would suggest. And that is the point with this introduction: Geography is a perspective…. The geographical perspective provides a broadly applicable interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything distributed across Earth’s space.

Honestly, I believe the news outlets understand this argument. However, it is difficult to tell a complicated narrative in the three to five minute news segment allotted. This is where good maps and geo-spatial technologies come in. Maps can convey an obscene amount of information in seconds. Yes, the pundits are needed to help interpret these data visualizations and critical thinking about reliability of sources and data by the consumers will be a necessity (see the need for geography education?), but it is time to go beyond two color maps and look into the quilt of American society.

Below are some examples of how media is visualizing the election results to the world. There is no way this event is this clear and clean…nothing in life is.

source: google search – “election results”

source: google search – “Pennsylvania election results”

And below is what a little high school geography teacher with some knowledge about geo-spatial technologies can do with free software and open data. Which map teaches up learners and which map(s) limits learning and critical thinking?

Josh Williams – (Full Size Image Here:

It really was not that tough to make…granted it took a day, but that is what it takes to clean up data. Below are the data sites and free geo-spatial technologies used to create this more complex tapestry of Pennsylvania. There is more data to pull and visualize, but this was start…a way to figure out my own misconceptions about American identity.

Technologies Used:
Google Earth Pro (Create KML files) – Link
Google’s My Maps (Converts Google Earth Pro KML to a KML file that the Maps API can read…ugly hack, but works) – Link
Qgis (Visualize and Create GIS files used to guide KML styling) – Link
LibreOffice (To clean data) – Link
Notepad++ (Not needed, but used to clean up KML styling: Windows Only / Mac alternative BBEdit) – Link Notepad++ | Link BBEdit

Data Sources:
Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access: (Download County Boundaries – Almost every state has this…Census also has all the state counties

Pennsylvania Department of State: (Election Data)

KML Files:
If you have Google Earth on your computers you can download the below files from by Google Drive and explore using Google Earth.
If you are on Chromebooks you can import the files using the Google Drive URL into and explore. See Video below.

Simple Colors KML (Blue and red based off on county winner):
Complex Color KML (Range from blue to red based off of % of republican votes per county):


hour of kml code

For the past four summers, I have had the fortune to present at Google’s Geo Teachers Institutes (GTI). At these GTIs, educators learn about varying Google Geo Tools (though I prefer services over tools) like Google’s My Maps, Google Earth, Earth Engine, StreetView/360 Imagery, Google Tour Builder, and more. My task this summer was to create an advanced session using kml. This assignment was in my wheelhouse. After all, learning kml was the stepping stone to creating Oddly enough this task was assigned around our school’s “hour of code” week. One of the coolest things about teaching geography is that every week has the potential for an hour of code. It was in this thinking that the “An Hour (ish) of KML Code” session was created. Sorry, this post is about to get real geeky, but geek is chic.

Coding with KML…an attempt to present through a blog. This is totally going to fail, but it will be fun to write.

Google Earth (For viewing our kml)
Google Drive (For hosting our kml)
XML Editey (Used for coding kml within Google Drive – You can use any text editor, but this drive addition makes life easy) (Taking Google Drive URL and turning it into a direct link)
Simple KML – Link
Package of patience (Trust me on this)

Why teach kml?
Keyhole Markup Language (kml) is an open standard language used by Google Earth to visualize geographic data sets. Because kml is an open standard, other platforms ie. ESRI, QGIS, OpenStreetMap, Leaflet, along with just about every GIS platform can read/render .kml files. Kml files are essentially XML files with the addition of a coordinate system (Latitude and Longitude). In short, kml files are easy to read and write…code.

How to Video: (Written Steps Below)

1. Download Simple KML – Link
2. Upload Simple KML to your Google Drive
3. Set the “Simple.kml” share setting to anyone with a link
4. Copy/Paste “Simple.kml” share link into input box
5. Then in click “Get Link”
– The output link from is a direct link to your kml.
6. Open Google Earth
7. Create Folder in Google Earth –> name it “Simple Network Link”
a. Click “Add”
b. Click “Folder”
8. Create Network Link
a. Click on “Simple Network Link” folder
b. Click “Add”
c. Click “Network Link”
d. Name Network Link
e. Copy output link from and paste into Google Earth Network Link
f. Click “OK”
10. In Google Drive add Editey XML
11. In Google Drive open “Simple.kml” using Editey XML
12. Find id for “highlight”
13. Change size from 2.0 to 5.0 and….
icon url from “” to “”
14. In Google Earth refresh network link and mouse over pin.
a. Right Click Network link –> “refresh”
b. It takes about a minute for Google Drive to update saved files. I attempt to speed up this process by refreshing XML Editey,
but I don’t think that works. However, it helps to pass the time.

Congratulations if you made it this far! You are a Super Star!

Here is a link to Google’s KML reference library and endless opportunities –

Happy Coding!

It has been a very busy three weeks for

Wow! I have not had a three weeks like that in awhile. Fortunately, creating has opened up professional development opportunities that I never thought, early in my teaching career, I would get. In the past three weeks, I have used cars, planes, trains, buses, and my own two feet to get from Austin to Mountain View, North Austin to South Austin, and Austin to Corpus Christi. During our district’s teacher professional development day my new principal presented his vision of professional development as, “a focus on continuous improvement” with, “individualized professional development.” My individualized professional development these past three weeks included a Top Contribute meetup at Google in Mountain View, an Austin area technology conference, a campus staff development, and finally a Texas social studies conference.

I feel so inspired listening to other teachers and professionals about their successes. In addition, I love sharing activities and lessons learned from my experiences. That stated, my ongoing inspiration for the past 10 months or so are the #worldgeochat every Tuesday night at 8:00 central.  This community if very welcoming that helps inspire, create new ideas, and gives me the opportunity to reflect on my own pedagogy.

There are many challenges in teaching these days. However, this is a great profession that I wish more could experience. As mentioned earlier this week, not all our lessons are great, or even good. But nothing is more rewarding, nothing gives greater joy than a lesson or unit that progresses the development of our students. Those days are the best and made possible by the professional experiences of the past and present.


**the 360 image above is me practicing my craft. Has little to do with the post…; just more for my own development.** – Climate Controls

Several weeks ago I mentioned how became a project that got away from me. Here is video post demonstrating the lesson that kept me up night after night creating the site. Please feel free to take, modify, or recreate the lesson.

I understand that this lesson could very well be done with a good atlas; and originally, students used an atlas and paper. However, part of what makes technology a great tool for education is the ability to capture curiosity in a greater number of students.  If I can get a student to look at spatial distributions for an extra five minutes I’m all in. Granted there can be some downsides, like students jumping around the interweb never fully completing a thought, but hey…learning is messy.

Google Docs Lesson Template

Peter Spiegel’s Blog Post

1st map lesson: Maps Lie –

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why geography educators have to constantly justify geography’s importance to decision makers. In a previous post I shared a working definition of geography being an “…interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything across Earth’s space.” To me, geography requires students to use all their knowledge to investigate the one, and currently only, world people live on. You cannot get more Project Based, Problem Based, Connected Learning, Vertically and Horizontally Aligned, *insert latest learning theory here* then geography. Geography is no easy task because, once again, geography is a perspective. One of my quick “checks for understanding questions” is for students to quickly write their description of the classroom. While there will be similarities among the 25 students in the room, no one description of the classroom will be identical. Again, there are 50 eyes perceiving the same place differently. Scale that up to 7+ billion people and all the places on  Earth.

Another giant issue with students, and adults, is that the primary tool people use in observing the world is the always flawed map. In my opinion, our very own mental maps are so entrenched that our brains will flat out deceive us. Disclaimer…I am not a brain expert, but my brain has lied to me.

Above image/idea from National Geographics Channel Brain Games

One way to demonstrate our own ignorance to the Earth is using flawed maps. Many geography teachers start their “Map” unit with skills like cardinal directions, map legends, scale, title to maps, etc. I completely understand this approach, especially for younger grades. However, high school students tend to be more engaged with these map lessons when they buy into why these skills they have learned since kindergarten are important. Ideally, students will transfer this approach in critically observing maps, an implicit authority on truth in space, to any perceived authoritative source. Please do not get me wrong. I love maps and believe in their usefulness and a visualization tool; so much so that created a mapping website. But, every student should know maps limitations.

In the past I, like many geography teachers, started my map skills unit using the below West Wing clip. I still use this clip in class, but later in the lesson. To me, the clip takes too much thinking away from the students.

Now, students experience (observe) issues with the Mercator projection using Students themselves draw polygons around Greenland and drag the shape to equator. See Below Video

You can also use Google’s My Maps site is great too!

**You can use any of the three sites above. I use because students will be using the site throughout the year and this activity gives them an opportunity to learn how to navigate the site.**

After demonstrating Greenland’s size, students are given to opportunity to draw polygons around anything and explore how the Mercator Map distorts size as objects move away from the equator. Hopefully, these observations are building curiosity and engagement for when they, or sometimes I, ask why? Why does Google use such an inaccurate map? (analysis) The responses often center around peoples familiarity with the Mercator projection and also on the purpose of Google Maps…primarily as a resource used for giving directions. That happens to coincide with why Mercator maps were created in the first place. (students had read about map projections before entering class and the direction comments often stems from that).

Once the students start asking why, again sometimes prompted by the teacher, the next question is always the “so what?” “why is it important?” “what are the implication?” It is at this point where I show the West Wing clip from above. Then highlight that maps are visualizations that are to help people make spatial decisions, but better spatial decisions are made when the user understands the advantageous and disadvantageous with a visual tool that has to generalize spatial information in order to make sense out of the complexities of places.

This year I added to this idea of critical observations and analysis of maps by including this warm-up to the the next day’s lesson via Google Classroom’s question function. Students were to read this article “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ New Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.“, brought to my social feeds by Dr. Seth Dixon, and answer, “In what ways and why are all maps biased?” Students were very quick to point out Google’s commercial purpose of Google Maps being an advertising platform. However, they struggled connecting Google Maps to Google’s overall search strategy in selling advertisements. In other words, Google’s traditional search methods attempts to use key terms, past and present, to add context to the user in order to tailor advertisements. Google Maps does the same, but attempts to add spatial awareness to that context. Next question…”what are the implications?”

Again, there is nothing new or earth shattering to this activity/lesson. In fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of methods that can be used to get student thinking about sources and spatial distributions. Hopefully, this post provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on why geography is important in education.

Always looking for suggestions. Please use the social media links to make a request.