Thinking about maps and ice cream

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Thinking about maps and ice cream

In November 2021, I took part in the third edition of the 30 Day Map
Challenge created by Topi Tjukanov.
Participants are given a theme for each day of November, and are tasked
with creating a map within that theme. Details of the challenge can be
found here. My own contributions can be
found on

Creating thirty maps was indeed a challenge, but over the course of the
month I developed a process for approaching the problem. This blog post
will focus more on my thought process behind creating maps (or any type
of plot) rather than the technical aspects of writing the code.

I found it useful to at least loosely define what I wanted to get out of
taking part in the challenge. The main motivation for me, was to
play around and learn some new packages for dealing with spatial data
since I hadn’t worked with that type of data before. For you, it
might be something completely different e.g. making your first map,
developing better graphics, or exploring data sources.

For example, I made the same plot multiple times using different
tools. For day 3, I created a map of Glasgow’s

using {ggplot2} and then recreated it using

for day 14. The maps themselves didn’t teach me anything new about
Glasgow’s population, but I did learn about the main differences in
processing spatial data using R versus Tableau.

Population of Glasgow using ggplot2.
Population of Glasgow using Tableau.

Thinking about themes

The only direction participants are given is the theme for each day. To
avoid bias of thinking about a theme for which I’ve already created a
map, I’ll go through my process with a new unseen theme: beaches. The
theme is the first thing I focused on. Otherwise, you can make a map
about absolutely anything which makes it really hard to settle on
something to plot. A bit like when you spend a lot of time browsing
Netflix but never actually pick anything to watch.

I also narrowed my geographical focus for the challenge to just the
United Kingdom. “Create 30 maps of the UK” sounded less intimidating
than “create 30 maps”. I did that for this map too.

Anyway, back to the theme of beaches. First, I tried to brainstorm a few
different ideas that could work. Sometimes an idea might be quite
obvious, other times more abstract…

  • Plotting British coastlines?
  • Highlighting beaches suitable for swimming?
  • Filming locations of the movie Beaches?

It’s also useful to choose a topic you’re interested in, especially if
you’re making maps for fun. Otherwise, what’s the point? For this map, I
settled on the semi-abstract topic of ice cream. No day at the beach is
complete without a 99, after all.

Digging for data

Unlike many other data visualisation challenges (such as
participants in the 30 Day Map Challenge need to find their own data
sources. The narrower geographical region I’d confined myself to, also
made it easier to find data as I was familiar with possible data

For most of the maps I made, I needed at least two data sources: (i) a
background map, and (ii) some interesting data related to the theme to

Background maps of the UK are available from the Office for National
Statistics Geoportal
(among other
places), and I reused these multiple times during the challenge. Reusing
it once more here won’t hurt.

Whilst organisations like the Office for National Statistics have lots
of data on life in the UK, I couldn’t find a public data set
specifically on ice cream in the UK. Luckily, ice cream shops are
classified as an amenity by OpenStreetMap (a classification I firmly
agree with). OpenStreetMap is a collaborative project which aims to
create a free database of global geodata. It can be accessed directly
through the Overpass API, but it’s neatly wrapped into an R package
called {osmdata}.

I used the {osmdata} package multiple times during the challenge because
it’s compatible with the {tidyverse} packages, including {ggplot2} so I
didn’t have to spend time formatting my data sources. The map I created
for the theme red on day 6 of the 30 Day Map Challenge was a map of
all the post offices in the UK using OpenStreetMap data, the code for
which is available on

Map of GB post offices

Unfortunately, OpenStreetMap returns a list of all ice cream shops
within a rectangular geographic area rather than within a chosen
country. It also returns some ice cream shops on the East coast of
Ireland, and a few in France as well. Some of the meta-data for the ice
cream shops is missing so there’s no easy way to filter them out. Given
the time constraints of the map challenge, I decided to ignore them. For
a more professional map, I’d spend the time removing those points.

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Now what?

At this stage, I have all the data I need. I often think it’s useful to
(loosely) define a question that your plot will answer. At the moment, I
have data on ice cream shops all over the UK. But I probably don’t want
to focus on all of them. The question I want to answer: How many ice
cream shops are within a 10 mile radius of the Jumping Rivers office?

Making maps

There are a couple of technical aspects of creating maps that I had to
learn to make this map:

  • transforming between coordinates systems. The OpenStreetMap data was
    in the World Geodetic System coordinates, and the base maps were in
    Ordnance Survey of Great Britain coordinate systems. To plot them
    together, they both have to be in the same coordinate system.
  • creating a circular area around the Jumping Rivers office and
    determining which points were inside the 10 mile radius.

If you’re an R user who is at all interested in working with spatial
data, then the {sf} package is your friend. It’s compatible with
{ggplot2} and I could create a basic map of my data using just those two

Map of ice-cream locations in the UK.

In terms of design, the {patchwork} and {cowplot} packages are
invaluable for arranging multiple plots, and adding annotations outside
of the plot area. This is useful if you want to add some additional text
explaining your plot. Maps are almost always improved with a textual
explanation, and I don’t think all maps need to be completely
understandable without any text. For this map, I also used an inset
zoomed-in map to show the detail that you can’t see in the UK-wide map

Then, with a little splash of colour to highlight the important aspects,
the final map is finished. Is it perfect? No. There are lots of little
things that I would like to fix about this map, and if I was using this
map for a project I would probably take the time to fix those things.
But with a challenge where you’re making a map every day, you need to
draw a line somewhere. And this is where I drew it today.

Map of ice-cream locations in the UK with JR office.

If you’re curious, OpenStreetMap says that there are 26 ice cream shops
within a 10 mile radius of the Jumping Rivers
but I’m not sure the
data is completely reliable. That’s one of the pitfalls of using a
community generated dataset that I just have to accept for now.

Final thoughts

Taking part in the 30 Day Map Challenge was really beneficial, although
sometimes slightly stressful. I learnt a lot about finding data, got
better at plotting maps (mostly in R), and found out some cool facts
that might help me in a pub quiz one day. Next year, rather than
creating a map for the sake of ticking off a day, I’d like to spend more
time on each individual map and delve a bit deeper into some of the new
packages I find.

If you’re looking for some inspiration when creating your own maps, I’d
recommend checking out the 30 Day Map Challenge
website or searching the
#30DayMapChallenge on

If you’re interested in learning how to work with spatial data in R, the
Geocomputation with R book is an
excellent free book, or you could come to our Spatial Data Analysis


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