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January 21 2011


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.

October 20 2010


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.

October 09 2010

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