MapMaker Interactive Part 1: Earth at Night and Population Density Intro

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The famous “Earth at Night” image (see link for lengthy photo credit) in the bottom right corner is beautiful but unexplorable. MapMaker Interactive allows you to zoom into a detailed Lights at Night data set, and map with other layers.
MapMaker Interactive–one of the free mapping tools on the National Geographic Education website–lets you explore a world of thematic maps, find your latitude and longitude, customize maps with drawing tools and labels, and more. But how can you get beyond the basic functionality of the mapping tool and start to perform some simple but revealing map analysis? 
To Illustrate MapMaker’s analysis potential, I’ll use today’s post to explore population density and electricity availability and use, starting in Australia and ending in sub-Saharan Africa. (In a follow-up post, I’ll take a look at the same data layers in Asia). Of course, this is just one example of an infinite number of activities that you can perform with MapMaker, and I list some suggestions at the end of this post. (If you have not yet experimented with the basic functionality of MapMaker, please take a minute to watch the short tutorial, which you can find by clicking on the question mark (?) in the top right-hand corner of the main screen). 

Before we get started with the analysis, I’d like to point out that you can easily share you map through a URL link (click the “link” button at the top right of the screen. Links  MapMaker preserve the extent (composition), scale (zoom), layers, labels and settings for your map. For kids, this means your maps are easy to share and collaborate around. For teachers, the link can be a simple deliverable for map-related assignments–no word doc, no pdf, just a link to exactly what your student has created. 
Ok, to begin, visit this view of the interactive map. You can change the Map Mode (at the top right of the screen) to view different base maps.  You’ll notice that a thematic map layer has been “turned on,” showing nighttime lights observed from space. This is an indication of where populations are using lights–electric energy–at night. You might have seen a photo of this–called Earth at Night–but with the map layer, you can zoom into specific regions to explore more closely. You can also control the transparency to view more of the features of the underlying base map (map mode) underneath the Nights at Light layer by clicking the double pointing down arrow to the right of the map layer (left column of the screen). 
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Now, change the map mode to “satellite” and zoom into Australia. The transparency of the Lights at Night layer (currently at 35%) allows you to see both the electrified cities and the land cover of the aerial photos that make up the satellite base map. 
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Which places have lights and which don’t? At first glance, you might notice that the brightest dots seem to correspond with large population centers. You can confirm this hypothesis by turning on the “population density” layer under the “human systems- population and culture” theme tab (left column of the screen). Toggling the transparency from 0 to 90, you can compare population density to the Lights at Night layer below. 
However, by exploring the map a bit further, you can discover nuances beyond the obvious population density and lights correlation. For example, if you zoom to sub-Saharan Africa with these layers activated, you’ll find that the poorer nations like Ethiopia have large population centers with much smaller proportions of light than richer nations like Morocco (no photo on this…check it out yourself). So, you can see that people and lights are definitely linked, but it’s not a perfect one-to-one relationship.
What other factors, besides population density, might affect the appearance of Lights at Night? In the next post, we’ll extend this activity to investigate some of those factors. Stay tuned! 
Lights at Night and population are just one theme to explore. Here are a few more fun mapping explorations you can try: 
Plate tectonics and elevation: When are they linked, when are they not?
Global time zones & national boundaries: for such a natural phenomenon, time has an oddly political definition…
The distribution of phytoplankton is uneven around the world. Can you explore this phenomenon in the ocean chlorophyll map and try to explain why?
Where do your relatives live? Plot them using the markers and drawing tools. Try to find the best extent (composition), scale (zoom) and map mode (some zoom in more than others) to fit them on the page. Does distance correlate to how much you talk to them or see them (try the measuring tool)? If not, why?
-Cedar Attanasio, for My Wonderful World

Earth at Night credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAANGDCDMSP Digital Archive

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