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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.

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.

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20:51

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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