by Mardee Handler

Dating back to the early explorers, maps were tools used to help uncover buried treasures… Now, many maps have become treasures in their own right. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interactive map can often encapsulate an entire story, tailored to your individual research needs and interests. Following is a list of our favorite interactive reference maps:

1.  What’s the population of my state, county or municipality?

That’s just for starters. The Census Explorer is a relatively new – but incredibly powerful – interactive tool provided by the U.S. Census Bureau that includes an array of demographic, social, economic and housing data at the state, county, and census tract level. The map defaults to information from the current (2007-2012 5-year) American Community Survey, but users can also select historic data from the 2000 Census or 1990 Census for comparison. The tool allows users to focus on a variety of state socio-economic indicators, from population to education, income levels, labor force – to name a few.

2.  How healthy is your state?

Is smoking prevalent among residents of your state? How does your state compare to others when it comes to obesity? The US Health Map sponsored by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, provides annual life expectancy, hypertension, obesity and physical activity rates for U.S. states and counties. A sliding rule at the bottom of the map allows you to change years, from 1985 to 2010, depending on the data, and to toggle between data for the male and female populations.

3.  Which state has the highest foreclosure rate? 

Thanks to RealtyTrac’s Foreclosure Map, you can not only compare foreclosure rates by state, but you can also hover the mouse over a specific state to see the current number of homes in foreclosure and total number of homes for sale. You can also click on a specific state to drill down to the county level, comparing how counties in that state stack up to one another.

4.  Are the bridges in my state structurally sound?

The U.S. Department of Transportation offers an interactive map that allows users to view national, state and county data on Structurally Deficient Bridges on the National Highway System. Once you define a geographic level (e.g., a particular state), the site retrieves the data, and draws a map showing which bridges are deemed “deficient.” An accompanying table to the left of the map provides specific details about the bridges in the defined area.

5.  How is power generated – and used – in my state?

If you’re looking for “powerful” energy data by state, look no further than The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s State Energy Portal. By clicking on any state (or U.S. territory) on its interactive U.S. map, you can access an overview of its energy profile, with options to tailor the map to show coal mines, power plants (by type), oil/gas refining facilities, fossil resources, and more. Each state’s energy profile page also includes consumption data (by source and sector), production (by type), and prices (lagged by a couple of months).