The Price of "Free": CARTO and Third-Party Software in Research

In the last post, I discussed how the issue of data silos affects the dissemination of and access to digital archives; that many organizations now focus on connecting the many disparate--but excellent--humanities resources on the internet. But in spending some time working with CARTO, a browser-based tool for building dynamic, interactive web maps, I was struck by another issue digital humanists now face.
 
CARTO functions as a middle ground between complex desktop GIS software and web publishing tools. It has many of the same display and analysis capabilities as desktop software, allowing users to control for color and styling, in addition to incorporating features such as timelines, heat maps, or switching through map layers. However, if such maps were made with desktop software, a researcher would need to undertake additional work to publish that map data on the web with tools like D3, the ArcGIS javascript API, or MapBox. With CARTO, the map can be embedded in websites with no additional work. It is highly flexible and easy to use; the map below I created with state data from the US Census Bureau and awards data from the National Endowmentment for the Humanities, to show the total amount of funding awarded to institutions in each state, in less than an hour (click on each state to see the dollar amount awarded):
 

 
To be sure, CARTO offers a number of advantages over other mapping tools. The combination of basic analytic tools as well as the ability to publish an interactive map to the web--with no coding knowledge necessary--makes it extremely powerful, and CARTO is largely free of charge. However, it's use comes with tradeoffs that scholars must be aware of.
 
Because CARTO is browser-based, any data uploaded to the site for use in a map must be stored on a remote server owned by CARTO. Thus, a researcher no longer has sole ownership and control over his or her data. As many scholars and non-academics alike raise concerns over the increasing collection of personal data, researchers must also be aware of how their own professional data may be stored and even used by third-party organizations.
 
Perhaps more significantly, any researcher using the site for free does not in fact have the privilege of private maps. All maps made by users with a free account are publicly viewable, as are any uploaded datasets. To keep maps and data private, a researcher must purchase an account subscription (and to receive additional benefits). Making research data or images publicly available prior to the publication of an article or monograph can conflict with publisher requirements. Researchers must be additionally careful if their work involves living subjects, to prevent the risk of disclosure of private information.
 
Ceding partial control over material to outside organizations further carries a risk of total data loss. Like any organization, it can only provide a service as long as it exists; if CARTO closes, all maps and data will no longer be sustained.
 
All of this, of course, need not completely dissuade digital humanists from using third-party tools; they can provide very useful, enriching services. However, it is still necessary for humanist scholars to be fully aware of the tools they use, and how they may affect a scholar's relationship and control over his or her own research material.
 
So where does that leave a scholar where CARTO is concerned? Users with a free account could find it very helpful for maps to accompany blog posts, conference talks, on personal research sites, or as part of a data- and materials-sharing plan without too much concern. However, long-term projects in which scholars wish to protect their data, or in which a map must be widely available for a long period period of time, may be better served by other technologies.