Themed maps bring me a lot of joy. They bring me so much joy that I experience periodic compulsions to make them myself. Though when I look to indulge these compulsions, Google Maps and the like leave me wanting, while ESRI license price tags leave me balking. It’s a pain to be both inquisitive and frugal in a world where good analytic tools don’t come for free.
But they do!Venture beyond the realm of proprietary software and you will be delighted.
Open source can be gritty, especially for those (like me) who lack knowledge of programming as well as the patience to learn it. Seeing code or realizing that I have to use it to accomplish something makes my toes curl. However, the often unpolished quality of open source software is also a marker of its beauty as an ongoing, virtual tech-fest. Open source licensing allows anyone to use, improve/adapt, and share the software for their own purposes. It is free for all. While knowing how to program is helpful, in most cases it is no longer necessary to get in on the action. And when you do come across a hurdle, there is a rich web of wikis and forums to help you leap over it.
I map using Quantum GIS (QGIS) which has a straightforward user interface and comes with most of the plugins a code-fearing mapper needs. You can download it here.
As with any new software, there is a learning curve involved, though the freedom to map as I please has been well worth it and I look forward to a productive era of exploratory cartography.