Book Review: Learning D3.js Mapping

By | February 24, 2015

I was recently asked to review a copy of PacktPub’s “Learning D3.js Mapping” by Thomas Newton and Oscar Villarreal. I’ve done a good deal of d3 development, but the mapping portion of the library has not received much of my attention until now. A fellow d3 developer and leader of our local d3 Meetup group, Andrew Thornton, has done considerable work with d3-driven mapping applications and it is something I’ve always wanted to delve into but never really had the chance. This book served as that motivation and while it is relatively short, it provides as a great introduction to generating maps in d3 and demonstrates just how powerful the library truly is for creating geographic visualizations.

The book starts by laying out the basic setup for running the provided code samples. They suggest running with the code using a local nodejs http-server, but you can just as easily run the examples directly from the downloaded code samples folder, or using an online IDE such as CodePen or JSBin, although you will need to have access to the hosted sample JSON data files used in the examples. A basic foundation of SVG fundamentals is also provided, which can be useful for those just getting started with SVG-based data visualizations. While the more seasoned d3 developers will be inclined to skip this section, the authors focus a good deal on SVG elements such as paths, which foreshadows their importance in creating maps later in the book. The third chapter is a d3 primer, providing some history behind the library itself. The enter/update/exit lifecycle is described although novice readers will want to read further about this before attempting the more advanced d3 code samples.

The meat of the book is found starting with chapter 4 where you create your first map. The reader is introduced to projections which handle the conversion of coordinates from one space to another. The authors do a good job of covering supporting topics such as scaling and translations which may be new to some readers. Later on in the chapter, an approach to creating choropleths (a fancy way of saying “color-filled maps”) is discussed which introduces the beginners to the use of d3 scales for mapping colors to values, handling click events and adding transitions to spruce up the user interaction. Again, nothing new for most d3 experts, but the authors are clearly trying not to leave anyone out with respect to programming backgrounds. Below is an example of one of the code samples discussed in Chapter 4:

See the Pen d3 Mapping demo 1 by Bill White (@billdwhite) on CodePen.

Chapter 5 is where the book really hits its stride. Starting with the addition of tooltips and then diving into the use of pan and zoom (one my personal favorites), this chapter takes a basic d3-generated map and turns it into a functional data visualization. The reader learns about orthographic projections (representing three-dimensions in a two-dimensional format) such as this:

See the Pen d3 Mapping demo 2 by Bill White (@billdwhite) on CodePen.

Of course, maps are cool to display using d3, but a big piece of the puzzle is obtaining the mapping data to drive the visualization. Chapter 6 discusses the difference between shapefiles, GeoJSON and TopoJSON file types and even shows you where to get free shapefiles, albeit they are the largest and most inefficient of the three types. I found this chapter to be very useful since understanding the mapping source data is key to creating solid mapping visualizations. Up to this point, I had never really understood the difference between these types, nor was I aware that Mike Bostock, the creator of d3, was also behind the TopoJSON project. (It is amazing how much code developers rely upon every day without knowing the names of the key contributors or understanding the motivation for it’s initial creation. This is yet further proof that open source software makes the world go ’round).

The final chapter review unit testing techniques, which seems a bit out of place, but is helpful and informative nonetheless. Unit testing is clearly an important aspect of writing good code. However I cannot help but think that, if what we want is more scalable, maintainable and testable code, then getting away from a weakly-typed, inconsistently-implemented, functional language such as Javascript would be a good first step. But since Javascript is really the only viable option we have these days, we have to make the best of it and the techniques the authors discuss here are certainly worth considering.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to create maps using d3. The d3 library itself is quite challenging in its own right, but this book gives you enough background that you can get some geographic visualizations up and running in very little time.

One thought on “Book Review: Learning D3.js Mapping

  1. Pingback: Bill White's Blog | D3.js Mapping Meets the Pan and Zoom Minimap

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