This blog post explains how to make a 3D population density render for any country in the world, using open data and free software. The main tool I'll use (Aerialod) is Windows-only at the moment, but it is amazing. I say 'render' rather than 'map' here because the images you'll generate are rendered by Aerialod, which is, technically, a 'path tracing renderer' rather than a piece of mapping software. But feel free to call them 3D maps - either way, this is an example of what they look like.
|Global population density print
But why do this? Well, partly because it's an interesting and often informative way at looking at population and settlement patterns, but also partly because this particular method produces nice-looking graphics. Perhaps the best answer I could give here is that's it's a combination of aesthetics, insight, and interest. In the image below, for example, we can see a lot of what we might already know, but it's often in the comparisons within and between places that we learn new things and that's also part of the point here - it can give us a new perspective on the world.
|Singapore, KL, Medan, Ho Chi Minh City, etc
What do we need to make a population density map like this of a single country? Well, it can be done in different ways, and you may have your own method, but the basic ingredients are outlined below. I'm going to use the example of the United Kingdom as a single country, but the data source I use has data for all countries in the world, so you can pick whatever you like and replicate the method. So, here's what we need:
- Some population data, preferably in raster format
- A tool to render it in 3D
About the vertical dimension of population density datasets
|What the tif?
|We need to re-scale this file in order to use it
Scaling population density data in QGIS
- Open the population density tif in QGIS. It should just display as a black-to-white image, with low population counts in darker colours and lighter shades for the highest values. You can see this in the screenshot from QGIS above.
- Right-click the layer > Export > Save As... and then you want to change the Output mode to Rendered image, select a folder to save it to, plus a file name, and then click OK. This will add another raster layer to QGIS. You can see a screenshot of this below.
- You'll see that the new raster layer in QGIS looks exactly the same, but it's not. Instead of the actual population values in each pixel, the values go from 0 to 198. This is what the Rendered image save option does - it scales the image using pixel values in the range from 0 to 255, where 0 is black and 255 is white.
|Saving as a rendered image
- When we add this new rendered image to Aerialod, and then change some of the settings (as in the screenshot below), we do get quite a good visual representation of population density.
- But, there's no land and the old 0 to 27,500 range has essentially been reclassified from 0 to 198, which means that the full range of classes (up to 250) hasn't been used. We'll fix that in a minute but first here's the result, below. As you can see, this does a pretty good job of illustrating the broad sweep of population density across the UK. If you're struggling with Aerialod here, you may need to go back to the links at the top of the page and see my tutorials on it, but all I did here was drag and drop the tif into the main Aerialod window and then change the settings, as per the screenshot.
|This works pretty well - but there's no land
How do we get the land to appear? (don't use black for 0)
- Go to the original raster layer (in our case the one that goes from 0 to 27,500) and then in the Layer Properties, Symbology section, we change the Render type to Singleband pseudocolor.
- What you need to do here is edit the colours so that the ramp goes from almost black (but NOT black - so don't use RGB 0, 0, 0 or #000000) to white. Aerialod will interpret the darkest colours as low values and white as the highest values - see below for a screenshot on this.
|This is one way to do it
- Once you've done this, you can then save the layer as a Rendered image from QGIS, just like we did above. It will then add a new dark to light raster layer to QGIS, just like before. Unlike before, however, when you click on a cell in QGIS with the Identify Features (i) tool, you'll get a value from just above 0 to 255, instead of the population count.
- Check: are all your highest population spikes the same height, meaning they look truncated or flat-topped? If so, this means you probably need to adjust the light-dark colour gradient again in QGIS before exporting it and loading it in QGIS. This sometimes happens in the highest density areas so it's worth looking closely at it and then if it does happen, re-scale the data in QGIS using a different kind of classification (e.g. instead of Continuous you could try equal Interval or even Quantile). Also, just remember that this approach is quite a simplified visualisation approach to displaying population density data. The vertical extrusion is not super-precise, and of course depends upon the method you use to create the rendered tif. The idea with the approach outlined here is to give a good general overview of population distribution and density in a country.
- N.B. there are loads of different ways you could do this step, including the use of different colour ramp modes (e.g. continuous, equal interval, quantile) or you could re-classify the raster using a scaling factor (e.g. divide all values by 1,000), or do it in an image program, but here I am aiming at simplicity and a method that allows us to quickly arrive at a result that is both interesting and broadly representative of the spatial patterns of density on the ground.
- So, what does it look like when we add it to Aerialod now? Well, see below for the new image.
|Reduce the Offset (on the right) to remove the land
|All this from a 289KB png file + Aerialod
I want to map the whole world this way!
|This is the whole world, from a 2.2MB png
|Zoomed in, and exaggerated heights
- Worldpop.org - WorldPop really is an amazing project and in fact one of the best data resources currently in existence, in my opinion. It has so much beyond population data, so even if you don't want to map population patterns it's 100% worth checking out. Note that in the data section of the website you'll see both 'Population Density' and 'Population Count' but here I've used the population density data. It's worth spending some time on the website to see what's available and also to understand what the data represent and how it is all collected. You can get this data either as a tif, like I've used above, or as a csv file.
- Also one of the best population data resources currently in existence, the Global Human Settlment Layer has the advantage of going further back in time, with a total of four time points - 1975, 1990, 2000 and 2014. The GHSL project is supported by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the DG for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO) of the European Commission, together with the international partnership GEO Human Planet Initiative. If you download this data, there are LOTS of options, but what you need if you want to map population density is the GHS-POP option. I've mostly used the 2015 data, at 1km resolution, in Mollweide or WGS84 projection for the whole earth, but you can also just download single tiles. This data is available in tif format.
- NASA's Gridded Population of the World, version 4 - another excellent source of global population data. The GPW v4 home page explains everything about it, and all the different variants available, as well as previous versions.