What to do when the maps you need are not available?

I made a series of maps that visualizes municipalities that don’t have natural increase in The Netherlands. This post describes how I made it.

Municipalities with no natural increase in The Netherlands
Municipalities with no natural increase in The Netherlands

As part of me learning about data visualization I thought it would be a good idea to recreate nice visualizations published elsewhere. I wanted to learn from the pros and get nice results directly. I selected 5 nice visualizations for which I could use Visualize this! by Nathan Yau as a tutorial. It turned out differently.

Here’s how that happened.

First one on my list is the viz in this New York Times article. The way of creating this kind of map as described in Visualize This! follows the following basic steps:

  1. Get the map in SVG format.
  2. Get the data.
  3. Use his python script to visualize the data on the maps.
  4. You’re done.

I tried that.

And then I found out Dutch municipalities constantly merge and change ‘borders’. I managed to find SVG’s for the last 4 or 5 years, but that was it. So I was blocked at step 1.

I saw the source of those SVG files was Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) so I asked them to provide me the SVG’s for all years. Their response: we don’t publish those.


But they did offer very useful advice on how I could make these maps myself. In short: There’s an open source mapmaker called QGIS. You can use CBS geoservices to map The Netherlands and all municipalities using those services back to 1991, in QGIS. Plus, they offer a neat series of video tutorials (in Dutch) on how to make those maps.


I followed those tutorials and made the maps. I wanted to use python to visualize the data, but figured I could just as well do that in QGIS. I did see a python module in QGIS but didn’t want to go into it because I could use point and click and would be done.

I exported the maps from 1991 until 2016 in pdf format from QGIS. Then, editing in Adobe Photoshop and exported it as an animated gif. And that was it!

Was there a better way? Could I have used python in QGIS? I don’t know. If you know how it could have been done more efficiently or if you have any questions, please drop me a line in the comments.

P.s. CBS published an interactive animation of changing borders of Dutch municipalities dating back to 1971.

P.P.S. Here’s a bit of a showcase of what can be accomplished with QGIS.

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