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April 01 2011


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."

October 29 2010


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.

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