This Software Could Change How the Maps in Your Apps Get Made
Geodata is blowing up like crazy. As of last year, more than 680,000 apps in the Apple store were using location services to pinpoint users and serve up site-specific directions or restaurant recommendations (just to name two obvious examples). Entities from city governments to human rights groups are uploading torrents of location data on everything from fruit trees to drone strikes. Wrangling all that geodata and turning into something useful is a huge challenge.
New web-based software from Mapbox aims to help. The DC and San Francisco-based company has been working for more than a year to overhaul its Mapbox Studio software. Its intended audience is developers and “super powerful high-end cartographers,” says CEO Eric Gundersen. But you don’t have to belong to some elite cartographic strike force to use it. It has a graphic interface that’s fairly easy to navigate, especially for people familiar with programs like Illustrator or Photoshop. The idea, Gundersen says, was to create a powerful mapmaking tool for the pros that’s also accessible for the mapmaking masses.
“Mapmaking has traditionally consisted of 80% getting ready to design a map, fussing with datasources, installing software, and then 20% design,” says Tom MacWright, one of the lead developers on the project. “A ton of work has gone into eliminating steps, removing grunt work, so people can actually be creative.”
That’s no small thing. In the past few years, mapmaking software has gotten way more accessible. But most of the offerings, including those from Mapbox, were either pretty limited in what they could do or required you to do some coding to customize your maps. If you wanted to change a font, say, or the size of an icon, you’d have to code it in a text editor window.
No coding is required to use the new version of Studio. It’s all online and the interface is point and click. Menus let you select a base map and add layers of data, mostly from open sources like Open Street Map and the US Geological Survey, or upload your own dataset. You can choose which features appear and disappear at different zoom levels, and slider bars allow you to customize colors, line widths, and the like. These are all important cartographic design considerations, and Studio was designed to nudge you toward good decisions. The goal was to create something equally useful for tech developers who have no idea how to design and designers who have no idea how to code, Gundersen says.
There’s also an interesting “x-ray mode” for exploring your data. In this mode, the map turns black and you can mouse over it to see the different kinds of data in a dataset so you can decide what to include and what to leave out of your final map (you might want to hide addresses so they don’t clutter your street map with a tangle of numbers, for example).
What does this mean for the future of maps? Studio should make it easier for developers to create more context-dependent maps, says Mapbox designer Saman Bemel-Benrud. That might mean a navigation app that highlights stairways if you’re looking for bike directions (because, you know, it’s hard to ride a bike on stairs), but not when you’re walking or driving. Or it could be a rideshare app that highlights building footprints when you’re standing in the middle of a busy city block so you know exactly where stand to wait for your car.
Unlike Google, which sells businesses access to their massive trove of maps, Mapbox sells businesses tools they can use to make their own maps (you can play around for free, but pricing scales up with the number of map views and mobile users). Their clients already include Foursquare, Pinterest, Evernote, and MapQuest (yes, they still exist!). If Studio catches on the way they hope, that could be just the beginning.