Four ways to make chloropleths in R


Population of Australia by state

A powerful way to visualize spatial data is to colour the regions with the variable of interest. These sort of maps are called chloropleths. If you are visualizing data in the USA, you are quite lucky because the maps package, and even chloroplethr, can be used directly to make chloropleths. Outside of the USA, however, it is trickier and we have to do some manual work to prepare the files.

Here I show three ways to make chloropleth maps of Australia. In these maps, I will colour the state (or territory) by the population for the state. To start off, I read population data from Wikipedia using the rvest package.

url <- ""

# Find all table nodes from the page
tb <- html_nodes(read_html(url), "table")

# Read the fourth table (inspect tb to find out which you want)
pop <- html_table(tb[4], fill=TRUE)
pop <- pop[[1]][-1,1:2] 

names(pop) <- c("Region","population")

# Remove commas by substituting them with nothing ("")
# and convert to millions.
pop$population <- as.numeric(gsub(",","", pop$population)) * 10^-6

We’ll make a quick plot of the population by state.


mutate(pop, Region = reorder(Region, population)) %>% 
  ggplot(aes(x=Region, y=population)) +
  geom_point() + coord_flip() + theme_minimal() +
  labs(y="Population (millions)", x="")

Map 1 : spplot

The first map I will show is made using the spplot from the sp package. Before we make the plot, we have to find data that contains the spatial outlines of the states (and territories) of Australia. An excellent collection of files with administrative boundaries for many countries around the world is GADM. Conveniently, they even store rds files which we can directly read into R with readRDS.

On the GADM site, I found the file I wanted, and copied the link, which is pasted below.

url <- ""
tf <- tempfile()

# Download the file to a temporary file 
# (mode="wb" is necessary on Windows only)
download.file(url,  tf, mode="wb")

# Read the rds file. 
aus_shp <- readRDS(tf)

The object aus_shp is a SpatialPolygonsDataframe, containing the states etc. of Australia at quite high resolution. This type of object takes a bit of time to get used to, but basically it contains both polygons of the regions, as well as a dataframe containing descriptors of these polygons. As a result some dataframey functions are still useful, like nrow(aus_shp) gives the number of polygons.

The second thing to know is that the data descriptors are held in the @data slot, so that aus_shp@data returns all 11 rows of data for the polygons. From this we can see that the column NAME_1 contains the name of the state, which we will need later.

# Next we merge the population data onto the descriptor data
# in the spatial polygons dataframe (aus_shp).
# Here is is important to keep regions that don't exist in
# the population data - because we need to end up with the same
# number of rows.
aus_shp@data <- merge(aus_shp@data, pop, 
                      by.x="NAME_1", by.y="Region", 

# We define factor levels by cutting population into bins.
aus_shp$colbin <- cut(aus_shp$population, 0:7, 

# Set the palette for coloring.
colpal <- brewer.pal(7, "Purples")

# And make the plot.
spplot(aus_shp, "colbin", col.regions=colpal)

Map 2 : ggmap

The next method to make a chloropleth map uses the ggmap package. In this approach, we download a nice Google Maps tile, and add-on whatever spatial elements we like. Less convenient is the fact that ggmap does not have methods for spatial polygons dataframes, so we have to convert it and merge with the population data.

Here we continue with the aus_shp object made above (including merging the population data).

# We will also need ggplot2 to add the polygons,
# but we already loaded it above.

# First, get a google map tile.
# We can specify coordinates or use geocode directly.
center_map <- geocode("Australia")
aus_map <- get_map(c(lon = center_map$lon, lat = center_map$lat), 
                   maptype = "terrain", source = "google", zoom=4)

# Use just ggmap by itself to plot the map (not shown).
# ggmap(aus_map)

# First we add an 'id' to aus_shp, which we will need later
# as it is also output by fortify. This id variable will link
# the polygons with the population data.
aus_shp@data$id <- rownames(aus_shp@data)

# fortify (from ggplot2) mysteriously converts the spatial object
# to a dataframe where coordinates are stored in rows.
# The 'id' column refers to the polygon ID.
fort <- fortify(aus_shp, "NAME_1")

# And now merge this dataframe with the data descriptors 
# from the spatial object, which contain our population data:
aus_pop_data <- merge(fort, aus_shp@data, by = "id")

Now that we have a dataframe with the spatial coordinates as well as the variable of interest (population), and the map returned by get_map, we can make our chloropleth using ggmap and geom_polygon.

Note that group=group is necessary, as fortify adds that variable. We fill the polygons by population, add map coordinates, and set a fill gradient from grey to red.

ggmap(aus_map) + 
  geom_polygon(aes(x = long, y = lat, 
                   group = group, fill = population), 
               size = .2, color = 'black', 
               data = aus_pop_data, alpha = 0.8) +
  coord_map() +
  scale_fill_gradient(name="Population (millions)", 
                      low = "darkgrey", high = "red2") + 
  theme(legend.position = "bottom")
## Coordinate system already present. Adding new coordinate system, which will replace the existing one.

Map 3 : leaflet

The next implementation uses the fancy leaflet package, which gives us a very impressive map that can be zoomed, scrolled, and gives pop-ups with more information. Also worth pointing out that leaflet returns responsive HTML which is viewed in a browser, but if you want to save a snapshot you can use webshot from the mapview package. That package is in fact a sort of wrapper around leaflet but support for chloropleths seems to be quite undeveloped at time of writing.


# For formatting the popup text.

# Cut the population into bins, and assign colours.
# The colorBin function takes RColorBrewer palette names as input.
pal <- colorBin("YlGn", domain=aus_shp$population, bins=0:7)

# Define the text that will appear on the popup; this can contain
# HTML tags.
state_popup <- paste0(aus_shp$NAME_1, 
                      "<br><strong>Population (millions): </strong>", 
                      round(aus_shp$population,1)) %>% 

# Make the map. 
leaflet(data = aus_shp) %>%
  addProviderTiles("CartoDB.Positron") %>%
  addPolygons(fillColor = ~pal(population),  # refers to pal defined above
              fillOpacity = 0.8, 
              color = "#BDBDC3", # colour between polygons
              weight = 1,
              highlight = highlightOptions(
                weight = 5,
                color = "#666",
                dashArray = "",
                fillOpacity = 0.7,
                bringToFront = TRUE),
              label=state_popup) %>%
  addLegend(pal = pal, values = ~population, 
            opacity = 0.7, title = NULL,
            position = "bottomright")
## Warning in pal(population): Some values were outside the color scale and
## will be treated as NA