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Making Maps Accessible

4/29/2019 11:15:01 AM

A map with a pin showing a location.

It’s never been easier to create accessible content. There are abundant tools and training resources on creating accessible documents and web pages. Maps have been another story. Maps typically are loaded with lines, dots, icons, shadings, and other elements to draw the viewer’s eye. Yet the occasional map creator could not readily find resources on how to make digital maps accessible. Until now.

What’s in a map?

Several years ago, a few state employees with cartography and geographic information systems (GIS) training got together and asked themselves the question: what makes a good map? And how can we make them accessible?

The team solicited input from a wide range of map designers, creators, and accessibility experts. After much wrangling, the team decided on two broad categories of maps: static and interactive.

First, design

While each category has unique considerations, the team also determined that there were basic guidelines that all map designers should follow. They combined two areas of specialized knowledge, digital accessibility and cartography, to create a set of guidelines for map design. They intended the resulting Map Design Guide document to be a “working document” as more map experts explore the concept of accessibility in maps.

This guide is particularly valuable because many map creators do not have formal map or cartography training. They may be graphic designers, GIS specialists, or administrative staff who have been asked to quickly create a map. Until now, there was no one source that combined guidance on both maps and accessibility. This design guide brings accessibility to the forefront. The static and interactive map teams referenced the Design Guide in their work.

The design guide starts by defining what makes up a map, including, at minimum:

  • Title
  • North Arrow
  • Scalebar
  • Legend

The design guide then provides detail on how to best work with map components to make them accessible, including:

  • Fonts
  • Color
  • Objects (such as location points)
  • Symbology (what an image means, such as a fence, train tracks, location point)
  • Patterns (such as for shading an area)
  • Line styles
  • Legend

Learn more about accessible map design by reading the Map Design Guide (PDF).

Static maps

Static maps are typically in a fixed format such as a PDF document or a web page. The static map team started by recognizing that it may not be possible to make such a map fully accessible. So, they developed a list of best practices of how to combine maps with additional information such as a data table or narrative.

First the team provided a set of recommendations that make a map easier to understand, such as:

  • Organize the map’s message by arranging all the elements in a logical reading order.
  • Use captions and alternative text.
  • Order unique information first in a list of repetitive text.

Then the team developed several typical design scenarios. Static map creators can then adopt the scenario that makes the best sense for their particular map:

  • Include map, description, and data together in the document.
  • Provide descriptive text near the map.
  • Link from the map to more information.
  • Provide a human contact.

Delve into this topic by reading the Static Map Accessibility Guide (PDF).

In addition, what use is a well-designed map if the document is not accessible? Since many static maps are presented within the PDF format the static map team supplemented the static map guide with a /mnit/assets/map-tagging-acrobat-professional_tcm38-382613.pdfQuick Guide to Tagging PDFs (PDF).

Interactive Maps

With an interactive map, a user can interact with the map typically using a mouse and/or keyboard to select areas, enter coordinates, toggle layers, zoom in and out, and pan around the map. The team recognized that while each map has its own unique set of requirements, there are a few core recommendations when designing and developing an interactive map:

  • Focus on the map’s purpose and ensure the map’s primary message is conveyed.
  • Support keyboard accessibility, and do not allow keyboard traps.
  • Organize elements of the map into a logical reading order.
  • Make sure dynamic content changes are clear to all users.
  • Provide good color contrast ratios and use a combination of color, texture, and shapes to distinguish map elements. Do not rely on color alone.
  • Recognize the technological constraints of your web mapping framework.
  • Follow web accessibility principles (see State of Minnesota Accessibility Standard).
  • Testing is key! Use testing tools and exercises.

The team continues to refine the Interactive Map Accessibility Guide. The document covers a wide variety of information including, but not limited to: detailed best practices, live examples, accessibility features for mapping libraries (Esri JavaScript API, Leaflet, Mapbox), and evaluation tools. Their goal is to have the guide and companion quick card out by this summer. 

More Resources

In addition to the detailed guides, the map team also created a series of Quick Cards. State of Minnesota employees can obtain from their Accessibility Coordinators laminated copies of the quick cards. Anyone can also download accessible PDF versions from the Map page on the Office of Accessibility website.

Map Design Quick Card (PDF)

Static Map Quick Card (PDF)


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