An Open-source World

Over the last few years we have seen the release of numerous mapping platforms/frameworks to allow the manipulation and representation of open-source mapping and other spatial data. This has been, and continues to be, a significant step-change in cartography, probably the most significant in decades. All of these new frameworks have enabled anyone to manipulate spatial data, present this data, style topographic maps, create custom maps, and much more. Mapbox’s Geotagger’s World Atlas from 2015 (shown above)—an interactive map that visualises 10 years’ worth of location data from photos uploaded to Flickr—is an example of this.

The open-source world is very important in (online) map-making. For me, the key frameworks/platforms below are of particular interest as tools to manage and manipulate data, find patterns and correlations, create new perspectives, render eye-catching (geo)visualisations and generate file formats that can be further enhanced, manipulated and re-purposed in Adobe applications. All this without mentioning best practice in data visualisation, as championed by Edward Tufte, or a proper understanding of data collection, significance and statistics—Garbage in garbage out (GIGO) to be discussed in a later article.

OpenStreetMap (OSM)

This is worth starting with first as it is the definitive open source mapping available online, and referenced by most of the frameworks listed below. To imagine this map database is the work of thousands of volunteers across the globe, ever-expanding and ever updating, is testament to the democratisation of mapping. There is a discipline and process that ensures that the accuracy is now good enough for an ever increasing number of professional and critical users and applications. In the early days, it was interesting, but not reliable enough for professional application. Today, it’s much improved, through still really only for smaller-scale products. Personally, it’s use at scales greater than 1:5,000 is questionable. At smaller scales, it is more impressive. It’s an ever improving and developing product so can only get better. I’ve often used it as a compilation source for work. The pedestrian wayfinding mapping for Bologna, Italy, used OSM.


Professionally, I feel this is the platform (as Mapbox describe their offer) that I will invest my time in mastering, though it can also be accessed by newbies! Essentially, it’s designed to integrate any location-based or spatially referenced data with OSM and high resolution satellite imagery, working with 2D and 3D data. It’s the platform that seems to have developed most and fastest these last few years. It’s being used by an ever-increasing number of both private and public organisations to generate applications that span numerous industries from agriculture to travel. Applications cover asset routing through to data visualisations. Interestingly, this is both a vector and raster-based platform.

As a cartographer, Mapbox provides a ‘Studio’ environment to allow the development of map products within the browser. It provides tools to import and manage data types and allows total control over styling and layout with tools grounded in existing web standards, such as CSS. This is a professional tool for designers. You can work with existing or custom data sets, creating cartographic visualisations that can be interacted with across numerous platforms including iOS, Android and the web. Excitingly, there has been integration with other visualisation tools like Unity and Tableau, that provides an extension in to 3D worlds, virtual realty (VR), data dashboards and more. In fact, Mapbox sum it perfectly themselves:

Build gorgeous maps to present data in new ways that help users discover [new] insights.


Presented as the leading open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps. Without apology, this is designed to provide the features you need in as simple and efficient package as possible, with performance in mind. That said, it is still a feature-rich framework that enables lots of interactivity types and the creation of specialist map types such as choropleth and heat maps. It also integrates other frameworks such as GeoJSON.


Another “simple and and lightweight framework for building interactive mapping applications without Google Maps or any other [served up] mapping service.” This has particular interest as it works with scalable vector graphics (SVG), a format that looks good across all screen-based devices. I’m unsure as to how Kartograph is developing, or will continue to develop; sometimes good ideas just fall away under the pressure of other competing frameworks. Kartograph provide a JavaScript and Python library to build interactive maps. There are some nice examples here, showing promising representational options. For me, as a ‘heavy’ Adobe Illustrator user, the interoperability with SVG makes this very interesting, as demonstrated by the East Coast example.


This is an interesting product, unfortunately not helped by the dated website. The initial perception is perhaps of an old technological approach. Originally, this was PC only—I’m a Mac-user—so whilst I felt it interesting, it was of no potential use to me. However, there does seem to be a Mac/Linux version available that runs on Mono. The website belies some serious and professional intent and applications. The discussion and examples looking at hill-shading and elevation colouring are particularly interesting and grounded in solid cartographic theory.


Another JavaScript library for manipulating and visualising data, but there are a lot of visualisation options, map-based as well and diagrammatic. Whilst complex data handling and visualisations are possible, the development of D3.js is grounded in a simpler and efficient code base, built upon existing web standards. There’s lots of fascinating techniques here that are accessible to all.

May, 2017

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An Open-source World

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