Drawing beautiful maps programmatically with R, sf and ggplot2 — Part 1: Basics

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Beautiful maps in a beautiful world

Maps are used in a variety of fields to express data in an appealing and
interpretive way. Data can be expressed into simplified patterns, and
this data interpretation is generally lost if the data is only seen
through a spread sheet. Maps can add vital context by incorporating many
variables into an easy to read and applicable context. Maps are also
very important in the information world because they can quickly allow
the public to gain better insight so that they can stay informed. It’s
critical to have maps be effective, which means creating maps that can
be easily understood by a given audience. For instance, maps that need
to be understood by children would be very different from maps intended
to be shown to geographers.

Knowing what elements are required to enhance your data is key into
making effective maps. Basic elements of a map that should be considered
are polygon, points, lines, and text. Polygons, on a map, are closed
shapes such as country borders. Lines are considered to be linear shapes
that are not filled with any aspect, such as highways, streams, or
roads. Finally, points are used to specify specific positions, such as
city or landmark locations. With that in mind, one need to think about
what elements are required in the map to really make an impact, and
convey the information for the intended audience. Layout and formatting
are the second critical aspect to enhance data visually. The arrangement
of these map elements and how they will be drawn can be adjusted to make
a maximum impact.

A solution using R and its ecosystem of packages

Current solutions for creating maps usually involves GIS software, such
as ArcGIS, QGIS, eSpatial, etc., which allow to visually prepare a map,
in the same approach as one would prepare a poster or a document layout.
On the other hand, R, a free and open-source software development
environment (IDE) that is used for computing statistical data and
graphic in a programmable language, has developed advanced spatial
capabilities over the years, and can be used to draw maps

R is a powerful and flexible tool. R can be used from calculating data
sets to creating graphs and maps with the same data set. R is also free,
which makes it easily accessible to anyone. Some other advantages of
using R is that it has an interactive language, data structures,
graphics availability, a developed community, and the advantage of
adding more functionalities through an entire ecosystem of packages. R
is a scriptable language that allows the user to write out a code in
which it will execute the commands specified.

Using R to create maps brings these benefits to mapping. Elements of a
map can be added or removed with ease — R code can be tweaked to make
major enhancements with a stroke of a key. It is also easy to reproduce
the same maps for different data sets. It is important to be able to
script the elements of a map, so that it can be re-used and interpreted
by any user. In essence, comparing typical GIS software and R for
drawing maps is similar to comparing word processing software (e.g.
Microsoft Office or LibreOffice) and a programmatic typesetting system
such as LaTeX, in that typical GIS software implement a WYSIWIG approach
(“What You See Is What You Get”), while R implements a WYSIWYM approach
(“What You See Is What You Mean”).

The package ggplot2 implements the grammar of graphics in R, as a way
to create code that make sense to the user: The grammar of graphics is a
term used to breaks up graphs into semantic components, such as
geometries and layers. Practically speaking, it allows (and forces!) the
user to focus on graph elements at a higher level of abstraction, and
how the data must be structured to achieve the expected outcome. While
ggplot2 is becoming the de facto standard for R graphs, it does not
handle spatial data specifically. The current state-of-the-art of
spatial objects in R relies on Spatial classes defined in the package
sp, but the new package
sf has recently implemented
the “simple feature” standard, and is steadily taking over sp.
Recently, the package ggplot2 has allowed the use of simple features
from the package sf as layers in a graph1. The combination of
ggplot2 and sf therefore enables to programmatically create maps,
using the grammar of graphics, just as informative or visually appealing
as traditional GIS software.

Drawing beautiful maps programmatically with R, sf and ggplot2

This tutorial is the first part in a series of three:

In this part, we will cover the fundamentals of mapping using ggplot2
associated to sf, and presents the basics elements and parameters we
can play with to prepare a map.

Getting started

Many R packages are available from CRAN,
the Comprehensive R Archive Network, which is the primary repository of
R packages. The full list of packages necessary for this series of
tutorials can be installed with:

install.packages(c("cowplot", "googleway", "ggplot2", "ggrepel", 
    "ggspatial", "libwgeom", "sf", "rworldmap", "rworldxtra"))

We start by loading the basic packages necessary for all maps, i.e.
ggplot2 and sf. We also suggest to use the classic dark-on-light
theme for ggplot2 (theme_bw), which is appropriate for maps:


The package rworldmap provides a map of countries of the entire world;
a map with higher resolution is available in the package rworldxtra.
We use the function getMap to extract the world map (the resolution
can be set to "low", if preferred):

world <- getMap(resolution = "high")

## [1] "SpatialPolygonsDataFrame"
## attr(,"package")
## [1] "sp"

The world map is available as a SpatialPolygonsDataFrame from the
package sp; we thus convert it to a simple feature using st_as_sf
from package sf:

world <- st_as_sf(world)

## [1] "sf"         "data.frame"

General concepts illustrated with the world map

Data and basic plot (ggplot and geom_sf)

First, let us start with creating a base map of the world using
ggplot2. This base map will then be extended with different map
elements, as well as zoomed in to an area of interest. We can check that
the world map was properly retrieved and converted into an sf object,
and plot it with ggplot2:

ggplot(data = world) +

This call nicely introduces the structure of a ggplot call: The first
part ggplot(data = world) initiates the ggplot graph, and indicates
that the main data is stored in the world object. The line ends up
with a + sign, which indicates that the call is not complete yet, and
each subsequent line correspond to another layer or scale. In this case,
we use the geom_sf function, which simply adds a geometry stored in a
sf object. By default, all geometry functions use the main data
defined in ggplot(), but we will see later how to provide additional

Note that layers are added one at a time in a ggplot call, so the
order of each layer is very important. All data will have to be in an
sf format to be used by ggplot2; data in other formats (e.g. classes
from sp) will be manually converted to sf classes if necessary.

Title, subtitle, and axis labels (ggtitle, xlab, ylab)

A title and a subtitle can be added to the map using the function
ggtitle, passing any valid character string (e.g. with quotation
marks) as arguments. Axis names are absent by default on a map, but can
be changed to something more suitable (e.g. “Longitude” and “Latitude”),
depending on the map:

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    xlab("Longitude") + ylab("Latitude") +
    ggtitle("World map", subtitle = paste0("(", length(unique(world$NAME)), " countries)"))

Map color (geom_sf)

In many ways, sf geometries are no different than regular geometries,
and can be displayed with the same level of control on their attributes.
Here is an example with the polygons of the countries filled with a
green color (argument fill), using black for the outline of the
countries (argument color):

ggplot(data = world) + 
    geom_sf(color = "black", fill = "lightgreen")

The package ggplot2 allows the use of more complex color schemes, such
as a gradient on one variable of the data. Here is another example that
shows the population of each country. In this example, we use the
“viridis” colorblind-friendly palette for the color gradient (with
option = "plasma" for the plasma variant), using the square root of
the population (which is stored in the variable POP_EST of the world

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf(aes(fill = POP_EST)) +
    scale_fill_viridis_c(option = "plasma", trans = "sqrt")

Projection and extent (coord_sf)

The function coord_sf allows to deal with the coordinate system, which
includes both projection and extent of the map. By default, the map will
use the coordinate system of the first layer that defines one (i.e.
scanned in the order provided), or if none, fall back on WGS84
(latitude/longitude, the reference system used in GPS). Using the
argument crs, it is possible to override this setting, and project on
the fly to any projection. This can be achieved using any valid PROJ4
string (here, the European-centric ETRS89 Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    coord_sf(crs = "+proj=laea +lat_0=52 +lon_0=10 +x_0=4321000 +y_0=3210000 +ellps=GRS80 +units=m +no_defs ")

Spatial Reference System Identifier (SRID) or an European Petroleum
Survey Group (EPSG) code are available for the projection of interest,
they can be used directly instead of the full PROJ4 string. The two
following calls are equivalent for the ETRS89 Lambert Azimuthal
Equal-Area projection, which is EPSG code 3035:

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    coord_sf(crs = "+init=epsg:3035")

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    coord_sf(crs = st_crs(3035))

The extent of the map can also be set in coord_sf, in practice
allowing to “zoom” in the area of interest, provided by limits on the
x-axis (xlim), and on the y-axis (ylim). Note that the limits are
automatically expanded by a fraction to ensure that data and axes don’t
overlap; it can also be turned off to exactly match the limits provided
with expand = FALSE:

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    coord_sf(xlim = c(-102.15, -74.12), ylim = c(7.65, 33.97), expand = FALSE)

Scale bar and North arrow (package ggspatial)

Several packages are available to create a scale bar on a map (e.g.
prettymapr, vcd, ggsn, or legendMap). We introduce here the
package ggspatial, which provides easy-to-use functions…

scale_bar that allows to add simultaneously the north symbol and a
scale bar into the ggplot map. Five arguments need to be set manually:
lon, lat, distance_lon, distance_lat, and distance_legend. The
location of the scale bar has to be specified in longitude/latitude in
the lon and lat arguments. The shaded distance inside the scale bar
is controlled by the distance_lon argument. while its width is
determined by distance_lat. Additionally, it is possible to change the
font size for the legend of the scale bar (argument legend_size, which
defaults to 3). The North arrow behind the “N” north symbol can also be
adjusted for its length (arrow_length), its distance to the scale
(arrow_distance), or the size the N north symbol itself
(arrow_north_size, which defaults to 6). Note that all distances
(distance_lon, distance_lat, distance_legend, arrow_length,
arrow_distance) are set to "km" by default in distance_unit; they
can also be set to nautical miles with “nm”, or miles with “mi”.

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    annotation_scale(location = "bl", width_hint = 0.5) +
    annotation_north_arrow(location = "bl", which_north = "true", 
        pad_x = unit(0.75, "in"), pad_y = unit(0.5, "in"),
        style = north_arrow_fancy_orienteering) +
    coord_sf(xlim = c(-102.15, -74.12), ylim = c(7.65, 33.97))

## Scale on map varies by more than 10%, scale bar may be inaccurate

Note the warning of the inaccurate scale bar: since the map use
unprojected data in longitude/latitude (WGS84) on an equidistant
cylindrical projection (all meridians being parallel), length in
(kilo)meters on the map directly depends mathematically on the degree of
latitude. Plots of small regions or projected data will often allow for
more accurate scale bars.

Country names and other names (geom_text and annotate)

The world data set already contains country names and the coordinates
of the centroid of each country (among more information). We can use
this information to plot country names, using world as a regular
data.frame in ggplot2. We first check the country name information:

head(world[, c("NAME", "LON", "LAT")])

## Simple feature collection with 6 features and 3 fields
## geometry type:  MULTIPOLYGON
## dimension:      XY
## bbox:           xmin: -70.06164 ymin: -18.0314 xmax: 74.89231 ymax: 60.48075
## epsg (SRID):    4326
## proj4string:    +proj=longlat +datum=WGS84 +no_defs
##          NAME       LON       LAT                       geometry
## 1       Aruba -69.97345  12.51678 MULTIPOLYGON (((-69.87609 1...
## 2 Afghanistan  66.00845  33.83627 MULTIPOLYGON (((71.02458 38...
## 3      Angola  17.56405 -12.32934 MULTIPOLYGON (((13.98233 -5...
## 4    Anguilla -63.05667  18.22432 MULTIPOLYGON (((-63.0369 18...
## 5     Albania  20.05399  41.14258 MULTIPOLYGON (((20.06496 42...
## 6       Aland  19.94429  60.22851 MULTIPOLYGON (((19.91892 60...

The function geom_text can be used to add a layer of text to a map
using geographic coordinates. The function requires the data needed to
enter the country names, which is the same data as the world map. Again,
we have a very flexible control to adjust the text at will on many

  • The size (argument size);
  • The alignment, which is centered by default on the coordinates
    provided. The text can be adjusted horizontally or vertically using
    the arguments hjust and vjust, which can either be a number
    between 0 (right/bottom) and 1 (top/left) or a character (“left”,
    “middle”, “right”, “bottom”, “center”, “top”). The text can also be
    offset horizontally or vertically with the argument nudge_x and
  • The font of the text, for instance its color (argument color) or
    the type of font (fontface);
  • The overlap of labels, using the argument check_overlap, which
    removes overlapping text. Alternatively, when there is a lot of
    overlapping labels, the package ggrepel provides a
    geom_text_repel function that moves label around so that they do
    not overlap.

Additionally, the annotate function can be used to add a single
character string at a specific location, as demonstrated here to add the
Gulf of Mexico:

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf() +
    geom_text(aes(LON, LAT, label = NAME), size = 4, hjust = "left", 
        color = "darkblue", fontface = "bold", check_overlap = TRUE) +
    annotate(geom = "text", x = -90, y = 26, label = "Gulf of Mexico", 
        fontface = "italic", color = "grey22", size = 6) +
    coord_sf(xlim = c(-102.15, -74.12), ylim = c(7.65, 33.97), expand = FALSE)

Final map

Now to make the final touches, the theme of the map can be edited to
make it more appealing. We suggested the use of theme_bw for a
standard theme, but there are many other themes that can be selected
from (see for instance ?ggtheme in ggplot2, or the package
ggthemes which provide
several useful themes). Moreover, specific theme elements can be tweaked
to get to the final outcome:

  • Position of the legend: Although not used in this example, the
    argument legend.position allows to automatically place the legend
    at a specific location (e.g. "topright", "bottomleft", etc.);
  • Grid lines (graticules) on the map: by using panel.grid.major and
    panel.grid.minor, grid lines can be adjusted. Here we set them to
    a gray color and dashed line type to clearly distinguish them from
    country borders lines;
  • Map background: the argument panel.background can be used to color
    the background, which is the ocean essentially, with a light blue;
  • Many more elements of a theme can be adjusted, which would be too
    long to cover here. We refer the reader to the documentation for the
    function theme.

ggplot(data = world) +
    geom_sf(fill = "antiquewhite1") +
    geom_text(aes(LON, LAT, label = NAME), size = 4, hjust = "left",
        color = "darkblue", fontface = "bold", check_overlap = TRUE) +
    annotate(geom = "text", x = -90, y = 26, label = "Gulf of Mexico", 
        fontface = "italic", color = "grey22", size = 6) +
    annotation_scale(location = "bl", width_hint = 0.5) +
    annotation_north_arrow(location = "bl", which_north = "true", 
        pad_x = unit(0.75, "in"), pad_y = unit(0.5, "in"),
        style = north_arrow_fancy_orienteering) +
    coord_sf(xlim = c(-102.15, -74.12), ylim = c(7.65, 33.97), expand = FALSE) +
    xlab("Longitude") + ylab("Latitude") +
    ggtitle("Map of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea") +
    theme(panel.grid.major = element_line(color = gray(.5),
        linetype = "dashed", size = 0.5),
        panel.background = element_rect(fill = "aliceblue"))

Saving the map with ggsave

The final map now ready, it is very easy to save it using ggsave. This
function allows a graphic (typically the last plot displayed) to be
saved in a variety of formats, including the most common PNG (raster
bitmap) and PDF (vector graphics), with control over the size and
resolution of the outcome. For instance here, we save a PDF version of
the map, which keeps the best quality, and a PNG version of it for web

ggsave("map_web.png", width = 6, height = 6, dpi = "screen")
  1. Note: Support of sf objects is available since version 3.0.0 of
    ggplot2, recently released on CRAN. 

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