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April 30 2012

14:00

How to Contribute to OpenStreetMap and Grow the Open Geodata Set

Hundreds of delegates from government, civil society, and business gathered in Brasilia recently for the first Open Government Partnership meetings since the inception of this initiative. Transparency, accountability, and open data as fundamental building blocks of a new, open form of government were the main issues debated. With the advent of these meetings, we took the opportunity to expand an open data set by adding street names to OpenStreetMap.

Getting ready to survey the Cruzeiro neighborhood in Brasilia.

OpenStreetMap, sometimes dubbed the "Wikipedia of maps," is an open geospatial database. Anyone can go to openstreetmap.org, create an account, and add to the world map. The accessibility of this form of contribution, paired with the openness of its common data repository, holds a powerful promise of commoditized geographic data.

As this data repository evolves, along with corresponding tools, many more people gain access to geospatial analysis and publishing -- which previously was limited to a select few.

When Steve Coast founded OpenStreetMap in 2004, the proposition to go out and crowdsource a map of the world must have sounded ludicrous to most. After pivotal growth in 2008 and the widely publicized rallying around mapping Haiti in 2010, the OpenStreetMap community has proven how incredibly powerful a free-floating network of contributors can be. There are more than 500,000 OpenStreetMap contributors today. About 3 percent (that's still a whopping 15,000 people) contribute a majority of the data, with roughly 1,300 contributors joining each week. Around the time when Foursquare switched to OpenStreetMap and Apple began using OpenStreetMap data in iPhoto, new contributors jumped to about 2,300 per month.

As the OpenGovernment Partnership meetings took place, we wanted to show people how easy it is to contribute to OpenStreetMap. So two days before the meetings kicked off, we invited attendees to join us for a mapping party, where we walked and drove around neighborhoods surveying street names and points of interest. This is just one technique for contributing to OpenStreetMap, one that is quite simple and fun.

Here's a rundown of the most common ways people add data to OpenStreetMap.

Getting started

It takes two minutes to get started with contributing to OpenStreetMap. First, create a user account on openstreetmap.org. You can then immediately zoom to your neighborhood, hit the edit button, and get to work. We recommend that you also download the JOSM editor, which is needed for more in-depth editing.

Once you start JOSM, you can download an area of OpenStreetMap data, edit it, and then upload it. Whatever you do, it's crucial to add a descriptive commit message when uploading -- this is very helpful for other contributors to out figure the intent and context of an edit. Common first edits are adding street names to unnamed roads, fixing typos, and adding points of interest like a hospital or a gas station. Keep in mind that any information you add to OpenStreetMap must be observed fact or taken from data in the public domain -- so, for instance, copying street names from Google is a big no-no.

Satellite tracing and GPS data

JOSM allows for quick tracing of satellite images. You can simply turn on a satellite layer and start drawing the outlines of features that can be found there such as streets, building foot prints, rivers, and forests. Using satellite imagery is a great way to create coverage fast. We've blogged before about how to do this. Here's a look at our progress tracing Brasilia in preparation for the OGP meetings:

Brasilia progress

OpenStreetMap contributions in Brasilia between April 5 and April 12.

In places where good satellite imagery isn't available, a GPS tracker goes a long way. OpenStreetMap offers a good comparison of GPS units. Whichever device you use, the basics are the same -- you track an area by driving or walking around and later load the data into JOSM, where you can clean it up, classify it, and upload it into OpenStreetMap.

Synchronizing your camera with your tracker

Synchronizing your camera with the GPS unit.

Walking papers

For our survey in Brasilia, we used walking papers, which are simple printouts of OpenStreetMap that let you jot down notes on paper. This is a great tool for on-the-ground surveys to gather street names and points of interest. It's as simple as you'd imagine. You walk or drive around a neighborhood and write up information that you see that's missing in OpenStreetMap. Check out our report of our efforts doing this in Brasilia on our blog.

Walking papers for Brasilia.

Further reading

For more details on how to contribute to OpenStreetMap, check out Learn OSM -- it's a great resource with step-by-step guides for the most common OpenStreetMap tasks. Also feel free to send us questions directly via @mapbox.

January 20 2012

15:20

How to Create a Minimalist Map Design With OpenStreetMap

Mapping can be as much about choosing what data not to include as to include, so you can best focus your audience on the story you are telling. Oftentimes with data visualization projects, the story isn't about the streets or businesses or parks, but rather about the data you're trying to layer on the map.

To help people visualize data like this, I've started to design a new minimal base map for OpenStreetMap. What's great about OpenStreetMap is that the data is all open. This means I can take the data and design a totally custom experience. Once finished, the map will serve as another option to the traditional OpenStreetMap baselayer.

I'm designing the new map in the open-source map design studio TileMill, which Development Seed has written before about here. The map can be used as a light, very subtle background to add data on top of for use either with our MapBox hosting platform's map builder or on its own. It still provides the necessary geographic context for a map, but moves the focus to the data added on top of the map -- and not details that are irrelevant to its story.

Here's an early look at the features and design aspects I've been working on for the map.

A look at Portland, Ore., on the new OpenStreetMap Mininal basemap Portland, Ore., on the new OpenStreetMap minimal base map.

Behind the design decisions

I used the open-source OSM Bright template that you can load into TileMill as a starting point for the design and removed all color, choosing to limit the palette to light grays. For simplicity, most land use and land cover area types have been dropped. However, wooded areas and parks remain, indicated with subtle textures instead of color. The fact that OpenStreetMap's data is open gives me full control of choosing exactly what I want to show up on the map.

The style now includes more types of roads. Tracks have been added, as have pedestrian routes, bike paths, and bridleways, which are shown as dotted lines. Roads without general public access (for example, private roads) are shown faded out. The rendering of overlaying tunnels, streets and bridges has also greatly improved, with most overlapping lines separated and stacked in the proper order.

Example Boston bridges
Overlapping bridges in Boston.

Coming soon: OSM Bright

Many of the adjustments that I've made for this minimal style are things that can be pulled back into the OSM Bright template project. I'll be working on doing this in the near future as I wrap up work on the minimal design. Keep an eye on GitHub for these improvements as well as our blog for information about when the minimal design will become available for use.

MapBox for design

If you're interested in making your own custom maps, try using TileMill to style your data and pull in extracts from OpenStreetMap. Documentation is available on MapBox.com/Help. We are close to launching TileMill on Windows, so that in the coming weeks anyone using Windows, Mac or Ubuntu operating systems will be able to easily design custom web maps. You can see a preview and sign up for updates on MapBox.com/Windows, and we'll post details here on Idea Lab once it's available.

For more information on these tools and on hosting plans to share them online, check out MapBox.

December 08 2011

18:30

Mapping the Story of Climate Change

For this week's climate meetings in Durban, the World Bank released a series of maps showing the predicted impact of climate change on the world between now and 2100.

The data is dismal. If climate change continues unmitigated as it has for the past century, temperatures around the world will increase 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 -- the equivalent increase between today's climate and the last ice age. This change won't impact the world equally, with local changes varying from almost none to more than 10 degrees Celsius, depending on scenario, location and season.

All of these maps were designed using Development Seed's TileMill, an easy-to-use open-source map design tool that we've written about here before, and hosted on MapBox Hosting. TileMill is free to download and has loads of documentation to help people get started making maps. For design tips on map making, check out a blog post from Development Seed's AJ Ashton on the thinking behind the design of these maps.

Preparing for climate change

These maps tell the story of the anticipated impact of climate change, from the basics of where we'll see the biggest increase in temperature and fluctuation in precipitation levels to larger societal impacts on food security, countries' economies, and people's vulnerability to natural disasters. With these maps, the World Bank aims to not only show the urgency in preparing for climate changes, but also to target efforts to the countries and regions that will be most affected.

This map shows the expected worldwide temperature increases, assuming that global population continues to increase and regionally oriented economic growth is slower than in other scenarios.

Agriculture is expected to be one of the most affected industries, impacting countries' economies -- and only more so for ones whose GDP (gross domestic product) is made up largely of agriculture-related business. For example, agriculture is 61.3 percent of Liberia's GDP and 47.68 percent of Ethiopia's, while it's just 1.24 percent of the U.S. GDP.

Low-lying coastal areas will likely be more vulnerable to increased flooding, with countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and India at highest risk due to the huge populations that live there.

More details on the maps are available in this blog post by Development Seed's Alex Barth.

The data powering the maps is all publicly available from the World Bank, as part of its larger open data push with data.worldbank.org. This and other related climate data is all housed in its Open Data Resources for Climate Change. The World Bank is encouraging people to use this data and is hosting an Apps for Climate challenge to promote and reward this use. Check out the details, and be sure to submit your app by March 16.

July 11 2011

16:02

How TileMill Improved Ushahidi Maps to Protect Children in Africa

In May I worked with Plan Benin to improve its Violence Against Children (VAC) reporting system. The system uses FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to collect and visualize reports of violence against children. Ushahidi develops open-source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. While in Benin, I was frustrated by the lack of local data available through Google Maps, Yahoo, and even OpenStreetMap -- the three mapping applications Ushahidi allows administrators to use without customization.

While these mapping services are great for places rich in geographic data, many places -- like Benin and other countries in the developing world -- are poorly represented by the major mapping services. Making matters worse is the fact that even when good data is available, slow and unreliable Internet access turns geolocating incidents and browsing the map into a frustrating, time-consuming challenge for staff and site visitors in-country.

In an effort to create a custom map with more local data, I tested out TileMill, Development Seed's open-source map design studio, with successful results.

An area of northwest Benin shown with Google Maps (left) and a custom map built with TileMill (right). Note the number of towns and villages that appear in the map at right.

With little hands-on experience with map design or GIS (geographic information systems), I was happy to find TileMill's Carto-based code intuitive and easy to use.

Because of the lack of data on Benin available through the major mapping services, I thought it would be interesting to visualize the VAC Benin data on a custom map using geographic data obtained by Plan Benin through CENATEL, the National Centre of Remote Sensing and Forest Cover Observation in Benin. I exported reports of violence from Ushahidi into a CSV file using Ushahidi's built-in export functionality. From there, I used Quantum GIS -- an open-source GIS tool -- to convert the data into GeoJSON, an open standard for data interchange that works very well with TileMill.

I then used TileMill to create a map that includes only the data relevant to Plan Benin's activities on this particular project, which helps users focus on the information they need. The map includes geographic data for Atacora and Couffo, the two "Program Units" where Plan Benin operates. (These are highlighted in light blue on the map.)

I also included labels for the important cities in both Program Units and, if you zoom in several levels, village names in Atacora. The red dots indicate reports of violence, and if you mouse over or click on a dot, you can see a summary of the incident. The reports were geolocated by hand using information sent via text message. The map also incorporates MapBox's open-source World Bright base-layer map, adding country borders, custom labels, population centers (in light yellow/brown tones), and other information to the map.

The Tip of the Iceberg

This is really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what TileMill can do. It would also be possible to add as many cities and villages as there are in the dataset, include multimedia-rich interactivity, use a choropleth scheme to indicate hotspots of violence, cluster reports, and so on.

With just a few design choices, this custom map dramatically improves the experience of interacting with data collected through Ushahidi. Highlighting the Program Units draws the eye to the important areas; using deep datasets and custom map labels solves the problem of missing local data; and the built-in interactivity means that visitors don't need to browse to multiple pages (a killer in low-bandwidth environments) to view information on individual reports.

Compositing, which was just rolled out on TileStream Hosting, helps the map load quickly, even in low-bandwidth environments (the maps are now faster than Google Maps), and this map can also be used offline via either the MapBox Appliance or the MapBox iPad app. Finally, TileStream Hosting makes it easy to host the map and generates embed code so the map can be widely shared.

Take a look at the map below and feel free to click over to the VAC Benin Ushahidi site to see the difference for yourself.

VAC Benin data collected with Ushahidi and visualized with TileMill:

Paul Goodman is a master's student at the UC-Berkeley School of Information and is spending the summer working with Development Seed.

May 13 2011

14:45

Mapping the Japan Earthquake to Help Recovery Efforts

In the days following the earthquake in Japan, members of the Business Civic Leadership Center pledged more than $240 million to aid response and recovery efforts. Their challenge was to figure out how to dispense that money to the projects and people who needed it most. To help them visualize the scope of the disaster and identify the areas that were most affected, we developed an interactive map of the aftershocks felt at more than magnitude 5.0 in the days after the initial 9.0 quake.


Interactive maps like this are great for communicating a lot of information quickly and putting information in context -- in this case, the impact of an earthquake that happened halfway around the world. With the increasing availability of open data sets and new mapping technologies, it's now much easier -- and cheaper -- to build maps like this.

We built this map using the open-source map design studio TileMill, a free tool that we've written about before that allows you to create custom maps using your own data, and open data released by the United States Geological Survey.

Below is a walk-through of how we built this map and details on how you can build your own interactive map using open data and TileMill.


Finding the Data

The U.S. Geological Survey publishes data feeds of recent earthquake readings in a variety of formats. The feeds are geocoded so you can plot the epicenters of each report using longitude and latitude coordinates. For this map, we converted the RSS feed of 5.0-plus magnitude earthquakes over seven days to a shapefile and used TileMill to style the data and add interactivity. You could also download the KML feeds and load them into TileMill directly.

In addition to the point-based epicenter data, we used shapefile data of the Shakemap from the initial earthquake, which shows the ground movement and intensity of shaking caused by a seismic event. This layer provides greater context to the impact felt around the epicenter points.


Building the Map

We used TileMill to design the map and apply an interactive "hover" layer, which allows you to show information when you mouse over a point on the map -- in this case, the epicenter of an aftershock. Below is a look at the editing interface in TileMill. For more on how interactivity works in TileMill, check out this blog post from Bonnie.

We then rendered the map to MBTiles, which is an open-file format for storing lots of map tiles and interactivity information in one file. MBTiles can be hosted on the web or displayed offline on mobile devices like the iPad. For this map, we used TileStream Hosting to host the map online. It has an embed feature that let us embed the map on an otherwise static HTML page. The embed code is also publicly available, so others can embed your map on their own site. Check out this article on O'Reilly Radar for an example of this in action. You can make your own embed of this map by clicking on "embed" here.


Adding Advanced Interactivity

By default, the interactivity in TileMill lets you select to have a "hover" or "click" style for interactivity. When you embed your map on a webpage, you can override this default behavior with some client-side code. For this site, we added some CSS styles and used JavaScript to build a timeline based on the dates in the overlays of each interactive point.

Now when you hover over a point on the embedded map, instead of the usual popup, the corresponding element in the timeline expands. This lets users see the relationship between time, space and magnitude an in intuitive way. All the code to make this work is available in the page -- just "view source" to check it out.

You can download TileMill for free here and find more documentation on how to use it at support.mapbox.com.

April 22 2011

12:49

How to Design Fast, Interactive Maps Without Flash

Until recently if you wanted to create a fast interactive map to use on your website you had two main options - design it in Flash, or use Google. With the prevalence of mobile devices, for many users Flash isn't an option, leaving Google and a few competitors (like Bing). But we are developing open source technologies in this space that provide viable alternatives for serving fast interactive maps online - ones that often give users more control over map design and the data displayed on it.

TileMill, our open source map design studio, now provides interactivity in the latest head version on github. Once you design a map with TileMill, you can enable certain data in the shapefile to be interactive.

Map interactivity in the latest version of TileMill

When you export a map into MBTiles, a file format that makes it easy to manage and share map tiles and which you can easily export any map made in TileMill to, all the interaction is stored within the MBTiles file. This allows us to host interactive maps that are completely custom designed - including the look and feel and the data points - that are as fast as Google Maps.

An example of an interactive map using TileMill is the map in NPR's I Heart NPR Facebook App, an app that asks users to choose and map their favorite member station.

NPR Using TileMill

Yesterday, Tom MacWright gave a talk about designing fast maps and other emerging open source interactive mapping technologies, and specifically comparing them to Google, at the Where 2.0 Conference, a leading annual geo conference. If you're interested in learning more about this and weren't at the conference, check out his slides, which are posted on our blog.

April 01 2011

16:59

Map Mashup Shows Broadband Speeds for Schools in U.S.

The Department of Education (DOE) recently launched Maps.ed.gov/Broadband an interactive map that shows schools and their proximity to broadband Internet access speeds across the country. This is an important story for DOE, an agency that has a stated goal that all students and teachers have access to a sufficient infrastructure for learning -- which nowadays includes a fast Internet connection. The map is based on open data released last month by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As you can see below, the result is a custom map that shows a unique story -- how schools' Internet access compares across the country.

In addition to being an example of an open data mashup, this map also serves as an example of what can be built with emerging open-source mapping tools. We worked with DOE to process and merge the two data sets, and then generated the new map tiles using Mapnik, an open-source toolkit for rendering map tiles. Then we created the custom overlay of schools and universities using TileMill, our open-source map design studio. Finally, a TileMill layer was added on top of the broadband data.

The Feds' Open-Source Leadership

It is great to see both the DOE and FCC able to leverage open data to make smarter policy decisions. Karen Cator, the director of the office of educational technology at DOE has an awesome blog post about why this mashup matters:

"The Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan sets a goal that all students and teachers will have access to a comprehensive infrastructure for learning, when and where they need it," Cator writes. "Broadband access is a critical part of that infrastructure. This map shows the best data to date and efforts will continue to gather better data and continually refresh the maps."

January 21 2011

15:23

Turning the iPad into an Open, Offline Mapping Platform

We've talked here before about TileMill, an open source tool for creating your own custom map tiles (the individual pieces that make up a full map of a city, country, and so on). But what sorts of things can you do with these map tiles? One area we wanted to explore was using them on Apple's latest touch-based device, the iPad. Providing a touch interface for maps is a serious usability win and the long battery life, huge available storage, and opportunistic network connectivity combine to make a really attractive mobile mapping platform.

The result? The MapBox iPad app. This app allows you to use custom maps on the iPad (and in an open format), as well as use OpenStreetMap (OSM) map tiles, overlay custom data in Google Earth's popular KML format as well as GeoRSS, save and share map snapshots, and much more.

To create the app the first thing we had to figure out was an alternative to Apple's standard MapKit toolset, which only uses online Google Maps. This was accomplished with the open source route-me library. Once this was decided, we created a file format called MBTiles to easily exchange potentially millions of tile images so they could be used offline.

We then layered on data visualizations, creating an open source library called Simple KML in order to parse and display the KML and KMZ file formats, something that hasn't really been done much on the iPhone or iPad outside of Google's own app.

MapBox for iPad

To round out the initial release, we added the ability to save the current view -- coordinates, zoom level, and data overlays -- as a document for later, as well as the ability to email a picture of the current map straight from the app.

As a whole, we've been really happy with the iPad as an open mapping platform. We've used some tools, made some new ones available, and combined them all in new ways.

Do you have any ideas for open mapping on the iPad? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter, where you can follow our progress at @MapBox.

November 23 2010

14:00

How the FCC is Creating Better Open Data

In the context of our TileMill project, we’ve been talking about our goal to help make open data from governments more actionable by making it easier to turn GIS data into custom maps. We’re focused on building better tools so people can turn data into custom maps to tell better stories online, but another important part of this process is getting good access to quality data in the first place. What does it look like to open up data effectively, so that it’s not just available but useful to the public?

FCC Setting a Good Example

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is providing one good example by demonstrating how an iterative approach to releasing data leads to better quality. Where a lot of government agencies and other organizations with large volumes of data have taken a path of just posting everything they have and letting developers figure out the rest, the FCC has taken a different approach. They have been building applications with their own data, creating APIs based on their own needs as they build, and releasing these APIs to the public to help further vet the usefulness of the APIs and the data. This iterative process where they’re actually “eating their own dogfood” and using the data and APIs they have created is giving the data they have released a sharper edge. Instead of just posting files, the FCC is taking the time to understand how their data is used so that others can leverage it more effectively.

We’re big supporters of this approach. After working on data visualization projects with open data sets, one of the most practical things we’ve discovered is how often there are holes in data quality or completeness until someone tries to visualize the data. The sooner data providers can figure out where these holes are, the sooner they’ll see their data leveraged by others to create greater impact. There’s no better way to discover (and then improve) data issues like this than actually working with the data.

Video

As part of their process to engage the developer community to provide feedback on their API releases, the FCC recently hosted an “Open Developer Day”. After the event, my colleague Eric Gundersen talked about the FCC’s “dogfooding” with Alex Howard from O’Reilly Media. Check out the video below or read Alex’s blog post for more details.

October 29 2010

14:55

Mapnik: The Coolest Mapping Software You've Never Heard Of

On the MapBox website we describe TileMill — the project we’re working on with our 2010 Knight News Challenge grant — as “a toolkit for rendering map tiles”. To be more specific, it’s essentially a “glue layer.” TileMill is built on top of a cocktail of other open source mapping software projects, and its biggest value is streamlining other more complex tools into a clean and easier workflow. For users to take advantage of TileMill, it can be useful to understand some of the underlying parts. Perhaps the most important part of that cocktail is a lesser known open source project called Mapnik. In this post I’ll talk a little about what Mapnik is and the important role it plays in helping users style their maps, as well as how it relates to TileMill.

The goal of the TileMill project is to make it easy for anyone with some basic web design familiarity to design their own custom maps. In past posts on this site we’ve introduced readers to the general reasons why we think custom online maps are valuable and have shared a couple examples for when custom maps have been particularly helpful on websites. Mapnik makes all this possible by providing the core technology to apply styles to GIS data and then render maps based on those styles.

Here’s the basic idea with styling maps: raw GIS data in the form of shapefiles contains information about various “features” — for instance, place names, points (e.g. center of a city), lines (e.g. roads), or polygons (e.g. state or country borders). If you have the data in its raw form, you’re only part of the way toward turning it into a map. Next you need to decide how to style each element.

Mapnik in action, styling maps of Kabul, Afghanistan Mapnik in action, styling maps of Kabul, Afghanistan

The style of each feature (or lack thereof) is why maps of the same location might look different from others. At a simple level, you might want your primary roads to be red versus orange. Compare MapQuest to OpenStreetMap for instance, at the exact same zoom level — note the difference in the styles for the same features.

Boulder, CO on MapQuest Screenshot of Boulder, CO on MapQuest

Boulder, CO on OpenStreetMap Screenshot of Boulder, CO on OpenStreetMap

Setting aside conversations about which features you decide to show on a map and assuming your data is accurate (both are huge factors), how you choose to style certain features might be the next most important part of map design. Getting styling right is essential for your users and is central to map design. If you over style or under style features, it has a direct impact on the readability and effectiveness of your maps.

This is where Mapnik comes in — it provides the framework for styling map data and then rendering new maps based on those styles. Mapnik is an open source project that is heavily used by the team at Cloudmade, who are involved in styling OpenStreetMap, and it’s been used by MapQuest, who have even released their Mapnik map style files for the public. Our team uses it heavily too, and AJ Ashton and Tom MacWright from the MapBox team were recently in London at Cloudmade’s offices with a group of core contributors, including Mapnik’s creator Artem Pavlenko, for the first ever Mapnik code sprint.

But where professional mappers are able to leverage Mapnik in complex ways, it has its downsides for the average would-be map designer. For starters, it’s not easy for noobs to even install it, before anyone worries about using it. This is part of why we’re working on TileMill — we want to make it easier for people to take advantage of these powerful tools. TileMill puts a wrapper around Mapnik that makes it simple to set up and leverage the powerful map styling capacity that it provides.

If you’re interested in more details about Mapnik, check out the Mapnik website or a recent Q&A with Mapnik developer Dane Springmeyer about Mapnik performance on Development Seed’s blog.

October 20 2010

16:16

OpenStreetMap's Audacious Goal: Free, Open Map of the World

In our previous posts on TileMill, we’ve focused on how open data can be used to create custom mapsand tell unique stories. One question we run into a lot is, “Where does open data come from?”

One exciting source is a global mapping project called OpenStreetMap (OSM). Founded in 2004 with the goal of creating a free and open map of the world, OSM now boasts over 300,000 contributors and has comparable or better data for many countries than the popular proprietary or closed datasets. The premise is simple and powerful: Anyone can use the data, and anyone can help improve it.

OSM-based map of Port au Prince made with TileMill

With this huge amount of data, activity, and adoption, we’re excited about how TileMill is going to give more people ways to leverage OSM data to make their own maps. Users will be able to mash up OSM data on their own using TileMill and turn it into their very own custom map.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

To get a sense of the practicality of OSM, just look at the role it played in the response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. Reliable maps are critical to disaster response efforts and there simply wasn’t much data available for the affected areas. Within hours of the quake, the OSM community mobilized and hundreds of volunteers from all over the world began tracing available satellite imagery, importing available datasets, and coordinating with relief workers on the ground to ensure that new data was being created and distributed in ways that would best support their work.

Using OpenStreetMap as a platform and leveraging the existing, engaged community paid off — within days, volunteers had created the best available maps of Port au Prince and nearby cities. OSM data quickly appeared on the GPS devices of search and rescue teams, and in the planning tools of the international response community.

Members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), of which I’m a member, have continued to support the use of OSM in Haiti through trainings with local NGOs, the Haitian government, and international responders. In November, I’ll be part of the fifth deployment of HOT team members to Haiti to support the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in their work to map the camps for people displaced by the earthquake, using OSM as a platform.

Through this effort by the OSM community, anyone looking to make a map of Haiti has a great database of roads, hospitals, and even collapsed buildings that they can use in their work. We see this kind of data sharing as important capacity-building to help people make useful custom maps. With TileMill, we’re working to create a practical toolset for working with this data.

Beyond Haiti

Moving beyond Haiti and thinking about maps of other places, what’s exciting about OpenStreetMap is the hundreds of community groups around the world getting together and using OSM to map their own cities and neighborhoods. If a map data doesn’t exist yet, there’s a chance that it could through the efforts of the OSM community. For instance, the image below is a picture of work the local OSM community did in Washington, DC, to make a very detailed map of the National Zoo.

Mapping the National Zoo in Washington, DC by ajturner

If you’re looking for open map data for your next project, a great place to start would be to reach out to the local OSM community in your area — there’s a good chance they can help you figure out how to get it.

September 16 2010

18:12

Open Data + Custom Maps = Better Afghan Election Monitoring

If your organization is working on an open data release and your goal is to maximize the reach and impact of your data, sometimes just releasing the data and tools isn’t enough to accomplish your goal. Derivative products — like custom maps that visualize key data — extend the reach of data even further and help reach people who will never use complex tools or know how to meaningfully manipulate raw data.

That’s why this week when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched an open data site for election monitors in Afghanistan, they also released 14 sets of custom map tiles created using our TileMill project to make the data more useful to end users.

afghanistanelectiondata.org/open

The rest of the site is designed to help users combine different datasets from the past three national elections in Afghanistan into helpful visualizations that give greater insight into the election processes. For instance, the site lets users see fraud incidence overlaid on a map of security issues from the 2009 presidential election, which can help them better understand correlations between violence and fraud. Many of the datasets don’t provide obvious insights on their own, but correlations become more apparent when the datasets are combined. These visualizations are one of NDI’s key value additions to the election process that are made possible by the site.

More Than Just Data

Our team worked with NDI to create the new open data section (following the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative namespace protocol), which makes much of the source data visualized elsewhere on the site available for download. Like other open data releases, the major goal of this section is to empower interested organizations and individuals to run their own analysis of the data and use it in their own applications. Making the data available to others extends its reach and impact, improving transparency and creating greater efficiency among the wide group of election monitoring organizations. This is the theory with most open data projects, but in this case NDI decided to release more than just data — they also released maps and documentation to go with the data.

Why not just release raw data and let others figure out how to use it? Most of the election data on the site has a geographic component, and some of the data includes geo-specific KML files that are designed to be viewed overlaid on a map. The intent of the open data site is to make source data available for others to visualize on their own maps, but there was a major problem with this in practice.

As we worked with the Afghanistan team at NDI to plan for this project and talked with many of the organizations most likely to use the data — both on the ground in Kabul and back in Washington, D.C. — we realized that many of them didn’t have GIS capacity (either time or skills) to create complex maps online. Releasing the raw data without the maps would have made the data impractical for many of the target audience to leverage in their work. Because NDI also wanted to make the data useful for the average interested user, it became clear that we should use the open site to share some of the same custom maps we had created for NDI’s use.

Publishing custom maps with the most up to date province and district boundary lines puts end users of the data in a position to quickly build their own visualizations and applications using the core datasets that were released. To make map distribution as easy as possible, we agreed to host the maps on MapBox.com and provide them free to use with our standard SLA. To further maximize the use of the maps, we also made the tiles available for download in our new “.mbtiles” format, which combines the tiles into a single SQLite database so they can be used offline or in other applications, including offline with our Maps on a Stick tool that is being used by NGOs in the field. The work to create this new file format and make tiles practical to download and use in other applications is something we’ve been able to do along with our work on the upcoming TileMill 2.0 release.

Focus on End Users

“Open data” has become a buzzword on the web — particularly in government and humanitarian tech circles — and with that status comes some issues. There’s a perception sometimes that an open data release means just checking the right boxes (XML, RDF, “apps” contest, etc.) to be successful. Many open data initiatives don’t get to the point of explicitly thinking about how to help end users. At the end of the day, the intent of most open data projects is to improve efficiency and the use of the data, which also means supporting users with tools and other resources.

We’re really excited about how the ability to create and distribute custom maps stands to help improve the success of open geo-data projects like NDI’s, and we’ll be working more on these tools in the coming months so that it’s even easier to share custom maps and free open source mapping tools in the future.

August 24 2010

17:05

Helping D.C. Drinkers and Bikers with Custom Maps

In my last post about TileMill, I outlined some of our general plans and the background for why we’re working on this project to help make it easier for people to design very custom maps online. One question that we get a lot from people who are new to the GIS space is, “When would I need this? How could I hope to improve on what (fill in the blank: Google/Bing/etc.) make available?”

The answer is that it’s all about the details of the specific communications goal you want to accomplish. In many cases, Google and Bing maps are great. In other situations, having additional control over map design is crucial to reach your goal (or at least improve your delivery). To get a sense of the kind of situations where custom designed maps really make a difference, I’ll share a story about some maps that we made for our hometown of Washington, D.C.

In 2008 the Washington, D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) released a large set of municipal datasets to the public to coincide with the original “Apps for __” contest, Apps for Democracy. Included in this data were ESRI shapefiles, a great format for GIS pros but hard to work with for anyone else. Using this same geodata, we created three very different custom maps, each for different use cases.

StumbleSafely

The first was for a website we called StumbleSafely. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek — the idea was that the site could help users see the latest crimes near their favorite bars so they could be aware of problem areas. Because we weren’t actually helping people map out navigation paths to get home, the real communications point we wanted to hit with the map was showing crime in proximity to bars and subway stations. Street names didn’t matter as much, and neither did highlighting any other kinds of businesses.

The D.C. police department was publishing crime data that we could scrape and add to the site to show crime locations, and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration was publishing liquor license data that we could use to visualize density points on a map that corresponded to areas with lots of bars. For the base map itself, though, we needed little else in the way of data to accomplish our purpose. We were able to take shapefiles for roads, parks, and river features in the city and do a very low key map design that fit the aesthetic of the site and contained no extraneous information. People familiar with the city could quickly look at it and see right away what the crime situation was like in their favorite areas, without any other distractions.

Stumble Safely

DC Bikes

Another example was a very similar map, but for a very different use case. DC Bikes was designed on the same platform as StumbleSafely to provide a resource to the D.C. cycling community. It showed bike thefts, bike lanes, and bike shops around the city.

For the map on that site, we again wanted to show crime data and were able to take the same basic approach to StumbleSafely for the base map design, but there was one additional feature we needed — bike lanes. These were made available as a shape file from the D.C. government as well, so we were able to quickly repurpose the map from Stumble Safely, tweak the colors to match a new design, and highlight the bike lanes in a new color so they stood out. For the cycling community, we were again able to show just the more relevant information on the map and omit any distractions.

DC Bikes

DC Nightvision

Finally, we wanted a much higher level of detail for a different project. Rather than omit details from our map in this case, we wanted to pack it full of details about public infrastructure. Not just buildings and roads, but even crosswalks, medians, and topography lines. The map we released for the public, “DC Nightvision,” includes all of these details, each of which are again published by the D.C. government as shapefiles.

DC Nightvision

With the increasing availability of shapefiles like the ones mentioned here, TileMill will make it easy for end users without a lot of GIS training to churn out custom maps that meet their unique communications needs. With the data in hand and user-friendly tools to work with it freely available, creativity will be the only limit for creating great custom maps.

17:05

Helping D.C. Drinkers and Bikers with Custom Maps

In my last post about TileMill, I outlined some of our general plans and the background for why we’re working on this project to help make it easier for people to design very custom maps online. One question that we get a lot from people who are new to the GIS space is, “When would I need this? How could I hope to improve on what (fill in the blank: Google/Bing/etc.) make available?”

The answer is that it’s all about the details of the specific communications goal you want to accomplish. In many cases, Google and Bing maps are great. In other situations, having additional control over map design is crucial to reach your goal (or at least improve your delivery). To get a sense of the kind of situations where custom designed maps really make a difference, I’ll share a story about some maps that we made for our hometown of Washington, D.C.

In 2008 the Washington, D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) released a large set of municipal datasets to the public to coincide with the original “Apps for __” contest, Apps for Democracy. Included in this data were ESRI shapefiles, a great format for GIS pros but hard to work with for anyone else. Using this same geodata, we created three very different custom maps, each for different use cases.

StumbleSafely

The first was for a website we called StumbleSafely. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek — the idea was that the site could help users see the latest crimes near their favorite bars so they could be aware of problem areas. Because we weren’t actually helping people map out navigation paths to get home, the real communications point we wanted to hit with the map was showing crime in proximity to bars and subway stations. Street names didn’t matter as much, and neither did highlighting any other kinds of businesses.

The D.C. police department was publishing crime data that we could scrape and add to the site to show crime locations, and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration was publishing liquor license data that we could use to visualize density points on a map that corresponded to areas with lots of bars. For the base map itself, though, we needed little else in the way of data to accomplish our purpose. We were able to take shapefiles for roads, parks, and river features in the city and do a very low key map design that fit the aesthetic of the site and contained no extraneous information. People familiar with the city could quickly look at it and see right away what the crime situation was like in their favorite areas, without any other distractions.

Stumble Safely

DC Bikes

Another example was a very similar map, but for a very different use case. DC Bikes was designed on the same platform as StumbleSafely to provide a resource to the D.C. cycling community. It showed bike thefts, bike lanes, and bike shops around the city.

For the map on that site, we again wanted to show crime data and were able to take the same basic approach to StumbleSafely for the base map design, but there was one additional feature we needed — bike lanes. These were made available as a shape file from the D.C. government as well, so we were able to quickly repurpose the map from Stumble Safely, tweak the colors to match a new design, and highlight the bike lanes in a new color so they stood out. For the cycling community, we were again able to show just the more relevant information on the map and omit any distractions.

DC Bikes

DC Nightvision

Finally, we wanted a much higher level of detail for a different project. Rather than omit details from our map in this case, we wanted to pack it full of details about public infrastructure. Not just buildings and roads, but even crosswalks, medians, and topography lines. The map we released for the public, “DC Nightvision,” includes all of these details, each of which are again published by the D.C. government as shapefiles.

DC Nightvision

With the increasing availability of shapefiles like the ones mentioned here, TileMill will make it easy for end users without a lot of GIS training to churn out custom maps that meet their unique communications needs. With the data in hand and user-friendly tools to work with it freely available, creativity will be the only limit for creating great custom maps.

August 05 2010

20:12

TileMill: Custom Maps to Help with Data Dumps, Hyper-Local

TileMill is an open source toolkit that helps you create beautiful custom maps in the cloud, built by Development Seed. We recently won a Knight News Challenge award (a.k.a. “Tilemapping”) to help us release a new version of TileMill that will make it even easier for people to design highly custom maps — using their own data or freely available public data — that they can then use anywhere online. Over the coming year, our team will be blogging on Idea Lab to share different pieces of our work and talk about our progress. In this post we want to introduce readers to what we’re up to and why.

Why TileMill

So why TileMill? There are a couple of trends happening right now that are leading civic and media organizations to want and need custom maps. One is the open data movement, which is leading to an onslaught of new data sets available for public use. As more data becomes open, access to information is no longer the barrier — you just need the tools to work with it.

There are plenty of simple-to-use and freely available tools for working with RSS or CSV files that are commonly released under open data initiatives, but this is not the case for GIS file formats. Even tech-savvy web users who run into these files on open data sites often don’t know how to use them. Just because data is freely available doesn’t mean it’s useful (yet). People also need the tools to work with the data.

Another relevant trend is the move toward “hyper-localism.” As the volume of information available to us continues to increase, one of the most certain factors to help people figure out which information is relevant to them is how much if effects their life in their local community. With everything from search engines to grocery stores touting their local relevance and credentials, there is a growing need for tools to show off highly detailed local information on maps.

People want and need to see details to make sense of local information, and large global map maintainers might not have any incentive to provide this data (classic example: poor road documentation by Google and Microsoft in Africa). Most organizations don’t have the resources to consider building custom maps to better highlight their local information.

We made TileMill to help solve these problems. If anyone can take available map data, highlight the details that matter to them, and generate their own custom maps without spending thousands of dollars, it will increase the quality of hyper-local content on websites and the value of many large public open data initiatives. Our hope is to dramatically reduce the barriers to making very custom maps online.

Making it Usable

At Development Seed, we’ve always been interested in building practical tools that help organizations nail the details surrounding their work. Over the past few years we’ve worked with international development organizations, domestic NGOs, media organizations, and government agencies who have all discovered a need for custom maps to help them better communicate the geographic details and context around their content or other key data. With so many groups wanting better maps, we started working on tools that would make map creation easier and more affordable. Last year we started work on a new suite of GIS tools at MapBox.com to provide accessible open source solutions to create custom maps, and TileMill is one of the projects that has come out of that initiative.

afghan election data.jpg

To get a sense of how TileMill works, users can bring their own GIS data or use publicly available data sets, add their own visual design styles to different map elements, and generate new maps to then load into a web browser and view online.

Instead of seeing generic publicly released maps like those from Google or OpenStreetMap, website visitors can see and browse custom maps that are designed to show off very specific geographic info or to match an organization’s branding and design aesthetic. This process has traditionally been very technical, involving a cocktail of different mapping software that can be hard to set up and that few people know how to use well. It’s also been expensive and resource intensive, often involving very large datasets that require considerable computing power to work with them well. TileMill makes this process simpler.

As for what we are up to next, we are really excited about the opportunities that will come from our Knight News Challenge award. This is key funding that will turn the current TileMill into totally revamped TileMill 2.0. Over the next few months we’ll be working to incorporate feedback and lessons we have learned from our first release into the 2.0 toolkit.

Our main focus will be on making TileMill more usable, reducing the learning curve so that users without development or mapping experience can get started. Our hope is that this work will make it possible for local bloggers, smaller NGOs, and other organizations without existing budgets for GIS teams to put very custom maps on their websites. We are ready to move fast with development. For full details on the improvements we’ll make, check out our plans in this blog post at developmentseed.org.

To see some examples of what kind of maps can be made with TileMill, check out the demos on MapBox.com and the custom maps we created for the Afghan presidential elections in 2009 in action at AfghanistanElectionData.org.

Have ideas for what would make mapping better in your world? We’d love to hear them in the comments, or on Twitter where you can follow our progress @mapbox.

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