Choosing geographic units for choropleth rate maps, with an emphasis on public health applications

Francis P. Boscoe, Linda W. Pickle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Choropleth maps are the most widely used map type for mapping rates, such as those involving disease, crime, and socioeconomic indicators. The essential step of choosing a geographic unit to map is often made in an ad hoc manner. Among the desirable characteristics of choropleth mapping units are high degree of resolution, homogeneity of population size, homogeneity of land area, observation of minimum population thresholds and land area thresholds, temporal stability and currency, compactness of shape, audience familiarity, data availability, and the functional relevance of the unit to the phenomena mapped. Because of the uneven distribution of human populations, no single geographic unit can meet all of these characteristics in practice, and a well designed choropleth map necessarily involves some compromise. We present guidelines for choosing geographic units that take into account the above criteria, considering 12 geographic units ranging from census blocks to states. Even allowing for differences in scale and purpose, some units confer clear advantages over others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)237-248
Number of pages12
JournalCartography and Geographic Information Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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