What is a Thematic Map? 6 Types of Thematic Maps

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Maps have come a long way from the general reference maps of the past. While they were once only used for directions and getting from point A to point B, today’s maps display all kinds of data and findings.

This is where thematic maps come in. If you’re looking to use a map to tell a specific story then you’ll likely need to utilize some kind of thematic map to do so.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this useful map variation.

What is a Thematic Map?

Thematic maps are single-topic maps that focus on specific themes or phenomena, such as population density, rainfall and precipitation levels, vegetation distribution, and poverty. This differs from reference maps which include a number of different elements like roads, topography, and political boundaries.

Thematic maps have attributes that make spatial patterns more clear, shedding new light on the theme in questions and allowing for further insights.

Why Use a Thematic Map?

These maps are very useful when you want to analyze the spatial distribution of your information, or look for any geographic patterns and trends contained within your data sets. They are also an excellent way to search for correlations between data in two different locations.

There are likely a number of important insights contained in your data that may not be evident when viewing it in a spreadsheet. Thematic maps let you visualize your location-based information and bring it to life, making those insights much easier to spot. 

Examples of Thematic Maps

There are many different types of thematic maps available through GIS software. Here are six map types you should be familiar with:

Choropleth Maps

Choropleth Maps Example

Choropleth maps represent data values in geographic areas with different colors and patterns. Data is categorized into classes, with each class assigned a unique color or pattern. 

For example, if you’re mapping sales data you could classify any sales amount under $5000, yellow, amounts between $5000 and $10,000 orange, and amounts over $15,000 red. Those colors are then used for different sales territories so users instantly know which category a territory falls into.

Dot Density Maps

These maps represent each data point with a dot and are a great way to measure density. Regions with a large number of dots packed close to together are easily identified as high-density areas, whereas regions with few or no dots are clearly areas where your data is lacking. 

Dot maps have been around for a long time but are still extremely popular due to their simplicity and wide range of applications.

Isopleth Maps

Isopleth maps use colors and shades to represent data, similar to choropleth maps. However, they differ in that data isn’t grouped within predefined boundaries such as census tracts, counties, or states.

Instead, contoured lines divide the map into different areas and show where data levels change. 

Heat Maps

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Heat maps measure density across a map. Like many other map types, they represent data using color. Darker shades indicate higher density areas while lighter shades show lower density areas.

This type of map doesn’t use geographic boundaries. Instead, it works similarly to a dot density map. Plot individual data points on the map with colors assigned based on the distribution and number of points in a given area.

Why use Heat Maps?

Graduated Symbol Maps

These maps show data using varying sizes of symbols. Larger symbols represent higher concentrations of data while smaller symbols represent lower concentrations of data. 

Similar to choropleth maps, data is placed into different categories. However, instead of color or shades representing data, different symbol sizes stand in for data categories. The number of symbol sizes depends on the number of categories you decide to create.

If you don’t want to divide your data into classes you can use a proportional symbol map, which scales the size of its symbols with an absolute magnitude.

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