Mutable Maps for Many Apps

May 10th, 2011

Rivers of Southeast Asia

Rivers of Southeast Asia

Maps present us limitless layers of different data–physical, cultural or ecological. In addition to aiding us with the everyday tasks such as getting ourselves from one place to another, maps help us understand our relationship to the physical earth as well as other humans, and our connection to a dizzying array of physical, cultural, political systems and networks. So it comes as no surprise that at some point in every designer’s career, one project or another relies heavily on maps.

Maps are so ubiquitous that we sometimes ignore the craft involved in clearly presenting this enormous quantity of information. To succeed, maps must clearly describe the data they are presenting, fit it into a surrounding design language, and be readable at a variety of different scales, sizes and presentation modes.

How is a designer to tackle these challenges? What follows is a rundown of a few tools that can make the task of designing, deploying or just visualizing a map a little bit easier.

World Happiness Index (source:Gallup World Poll)

World Happiness Index (source:Gallup World Poll)


TargetMap

Targetmaps allows you to create and share any kind of datasets in a global- or country-specific map. All you need is an excel spreadsheet with some kind of geo-coded data and the tool does the rest for you. While Targetmaps provides limited control over your map’s overall appearance (the underlying map data is google maps), the pleasure of this site comes from the easy-to-use tools for customizing your data ranges and presentation in order to communicate your data most effectively. In fact, using this tool, we were struck by how easy it is to ‘massage’ the appearance of data to tell a specific story, highlight or diminish a disparity or conceal poor data. We were pleasantly surprised to see that Targetmaps uses our favorite presentation tool prezi for its tutorials. Check out my map of Fixed Line Broadband Subscibers by country!

While the ability to easily put geo-coded data into a map format, it can also be useful to have the ability to customize the look and feel of a map. For this kind of task, two tools stand out.

Cloudmade Map Styles

Cloudmade Map Styles


CloudMade Map Editor

Cloudmade is a commercial product built on top of the open source openstreetmap project. They offer hosting, APIs and data sources for a fee to developers of locative apps who want to develop, deploy and run maps on devices and websites. If you’re building a commercial mapping app, definitely check them out. However, what drew me to cloudmade was their style editor, an easy-to-use tool that lets you customize the appearance of openstreetmap data hosted on Cloudmade. With it, you can create a low-contrast grayscale graphic map, a street-centric map for navigation, or a nighttime-style map. The editor is fun and easy to use, but unfortunately, unless you are a paying customer, there is no way to share, export, embed, or otherwise make use of the map styles you create with it. It is included here because it’s an interesting example of a commercial mapping tool built on an open source project, and it’s easy and fun to use.

If you find yourself needing more control over your map data, or if visual appearance and flexibility is an important factor, consider an alternative.

TileMill Editor

TileMill Editor

TileMill

Tilemill is an open source tool developed for use with MapBox, which describes itself as a system that “radically lowers the barrier to entry for making custom base maps and overlays.” They go on to echo our sentiments when they claim that “data analysts can become mapmakers without GIS expertise, and GIS experts can become cartographers without first mastering design.” Our kind of people indeed. Mapbox offers similar hosting services to cloudmade, but in contrast to the Cloudmade editor, I found Tilemill to be a much more useful tool for the map generalist or designer.

Tilemill takes some configuration to set up and run, and it helps to have some knowledge of GIS systems and data formatting to get the most out of it. However, after some initial configuration, you find yourself at the helm of a powerful map-creating and design tool. Not only can you import GIS datasets and overlay them on top of the variety of physical, political and cultural map data that comes bundled with the system, you have complete fine-grained control of the appearance of the maps at various scales, thanks to a CSS-like markup language called Carto.

The really great part about TileMill is that in addition to being able to host maps on Mapbox, you are given complete creative control over your work. You can export any map you make as a vector pdf, raster image or in the MBTiles format (for true GIS folks.) This kind of flexibility and openness could make TileMill a valuable addition to any designer’s toolbox. For a terrific example of the fusion of design and content that’s possible with MapBox, check out this extraordinary site that maps out US drone strikes in Pakistan.

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