Given how common mapping capabilities have become via the Internet and smartphones, it is surprising that we don’t see more geographic mapping in market research. Researchers nearly always look at customer demographics, and a key component of a person’s demographic profile is where he or she lives. This data is far more compelling if you can present it visually with maps.
It does not take super fancy (and expensive) mapping software or specialized firms to create accurate, useful, and compelling maps from market research data. We recently created maps for a client showing where in a three-county region their best customers lived. Everything we used to make these maps was free and publicly available for download on the Internet. Here are the steps we used:
1. Download shapefiles from the U.S. Census Bureau. These files contain data to demarcate all legal and statistical geographical areas in the U.S. including states, counties, county subdivisions, census tracts, blocks, and so on.
2. Edit the shapefiles with a program like QGIS. There are several high quality, free, open-source software packages that you can use to read and manipulate census shapefiles. We used QGIS, which is a program created and continually developed by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation.
3. Link customer data to shapefile data in a spreadsheet program. We looked at the number of customers in every zip code, then linked that data to county subdivisions in the shapefile by using a minimum distance function based on latitude and longitude coordinates.
4. Plot the data and create the map using R. R is quickly becoming the statistics package of choice in the academic world. It is a free “integrated suite of software…for statistical computing and graphics” and can easily turn shapefiles and data linked to those shapefiles into visual displays.
Ultimately we created a heat map that displays customer location data for the three counties, which are divided into more than 50 townships, as shown in the map above, with darker colors signifying more customers than lighter colors.
As always, the ongoing challenge for researchers working with a burgeoning volume of data is how to interpret all that data, synthesize it, and simplify it into a story that is useful to decision makers. Maps have always been a useful and compelling way to visually present data. Finding the path to producing them from your data is now easier than ever.
–Joe Hopper, Ph.D.