Roll your own maps: Mapbox wants to become the Wikipedia of cartography

mapbox

Open-source software is not a new concept, but it remains a revolutionary one. We’ve seen it rise steadily over the years with programs like Mozilla Firefox and Wikipedia, built-on the backs of benevolent volunteers and patrons who seemingly desire nothing more than to share their relentless passion for creating new frontiers of knowledge and industry. Yet, despite all the fanfare associated with renowned open-source kings like the aforementioned Wikipedia and Firefox, other software is skirting in the mainstream market: open-source mapping.

MapBox has a simple, yet daunting, goal: to build a better map.

The open-source mapping movement is bigger than you might think, burgeoning with underground tenacity and drive that feeds the user-generated machine. Digital map publishers, like Washington, D.C.-based startup MapBox, offer a more customizable alternative to mainstays like Google or Bing Maps that primarily provide its users with professionally curated content and navigation. Not only is MapBox one of the crowd-sourcing pioneers working to build a better breed of map, it’s actually doing it right and making a difference in the open-source mapping space.

The small, 30-person MapBox team has been working out of a garage, building mapping software using a combination of privately-purchased satellite data and open data from NASA, as well as a free user-maintained world map called OpenStreetMap. The collaborative project works in a similar fashion to Wikipedia – it can essentially be edited by anyone free of charge – allowing the software to be altered, updated, and user fact-checked on the fly for greater speed, convenience, and customization. 

OSM Screenshot

OSM allows its users, which are over a million strong, to access the data in its raw form and alter it directly without restrictions. If Google Maps never included that winding dirt road that leads back to your house in the boonies for example, there’s a good chance it never will. However, if the road was left out in OSM, you could manually use the software to edit the map, easily outlining the contours of the road and adding details that would otherwise remain stagnant in other mapping software. Adding and outlining businesses, neighborhoods, and other notable points of interest works in a similar fashion.

MapBox has a simple, yet daunting, goal: to build a better map.

The company may be less than three years old, but MapBox is already designing and publishing custom maps based on open-source data, creating a ripple effect within the mapping community and powering some of the most widely-adopted apps and visual projects to date. Foursquare, the social networking-based mobile “check-in” app, and Evernote, the popular note-taking software suite, both utilize the MapBox platform.

map_box_foursquare
Foursquare uses MapBox Streets global street-level map, which is based on OpenStreetMap data.

Foursquare users know that when they’re using the service, be it via the Web or on a mobile device, they’re not looking at a Google Map. Foursquare’s map definitely has a distinct look to it, which can be attributed to MapBox’s custom work. Foursquare teamed up with MapBox to use MapBox Streets, a global block-level map powered by OSM. Evernote 5 for Mac also uses a customized version of MapBox Streets to display users’ geocoded notes in the app’s Atlas view.

NPR is another proud MapBox client. NPR’s Digital Media team uses TileMill, another open-source project created by MapBox, which acts a design studio that lets users create stunning interactive maps using custom data. In NPR’s case, it uses TileMill and U.S. Census data to create beautiful maps of population change down to the tract level.

NPR used MapBox's TileMill project to map population growth based on the 2010 U.S. Census data.
NPR used MapBox’s TileMill project to map population growth based on the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census data.

The list of top-name clients using MapBox instead of Google Maps goes on and includes Hipmunk, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Federal Communications Commission, and USA Today. The platform essentially provides a canvass for tinkering and tailoring maps to suite a particular company’s product and overall aesthetics without relying on the rigid structure of larger mapping players.

It’s a bold idea, relying on a sea of volunteer cartographers to build a comprehensive map, but it’s one that is starting to prove worthwhile as the mapping winds continue to shift. Not only did Foursquare ditch Google Maps last year, but so did Wikipedia and Apple (horrendously we might add), adopting aspects of OSM and incorporating open-source data directly into their native apps. Even Craigslist hopped on the open-source band wagon when it decided to begin optionally embedding maps into certain ad posts last summer.

One of the largest French papers, LeMonde, recently launched a slew of interactive French maps based on MapBox Streets.
One of the largest French papers, Le Monde, recently launched a slew of interactive French maps based on MapBox Streets.

Though these companies are all using MapBox’s services and products, which range from $5 to $499 a month, it’s also available to anyone to use for free. Albeit the free version only gives you 3,000 map views a month and 50MB of upload storage (the $499 Premium option gives you 1 million map views a month and 30+GB of upload storage, among other things), it’s still a way for anyone to create their own custom styled maps.

Despite major software improvements and infrastructure upgrades – MapBox is currently working on implementing a new OSM called iD Editor – co-founder and CEO Eric Gundersen sees the active user community as the most crucial aspect of open-source mapping. “Every day the map is growing, the world is huge,” said Gundersen. “The key thing about OSM is we are part of it. The most valuable aspect of it is not the map or the data – it’s the community that curates it.”

Health & Fitness

JLABS injects some tech into the medical industry

Innovating health care is expensive, risky, and complicated legally. One company is trying to remove these barriers with clever and altruistic approach.
Mobile

Samsung will reportedly announce its folding smartphone at MWC in February

Samsung has been showcasing bendable display tech for a few years and now a folding smartphone might finally arrive. The Galaxy X, or perhaps the Galaxy F, may be the company's first example. Here's everything we know about it.
Mobile

The 100 best Android apps turn your phone into a jack-of-all-trades

Choosing which apps to download is tricky, especially given how enormous and cluttered the Google Play Store has become. We rounded up 100 of the best Android apps and divided them neatly, with each suited for a different occasion.
Gaming

PlayStation Classic powered by open-source emulator made by fans

The PlayStation Classic will be powered by the open-source, fan-made PCSX ReARMed emulator. The move is an unexpected one for Sony, particularly because it has not entirely been friendly with the emulation community.
Computing

These Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts will update your OG Windows skills

Windows 10 has many new features, and they come flanked with useful new keyboard shortcuts. Check out some of the new Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts to improve your user experience.
Computing

Protecting your PDF with a password isn't difficult. Just follow these steps

If you need to learn how to password protect a PDF, you have come to the right place. This guide will walk you through the process of protecting your documents step-by-step, whether you're running a MacOS or Windows machine.
Apple

iPhone users are finding themselves randomly locked out of their Apple ID

According to posts on Reddit and Twitter, it looks like users on Reddit and Twitter having some issues with their Apple accounts. Specifically, it seems as though users are getting randomly locked out of their Apple IDs.
Computing

Don't know what to do with all your old DVDs? Here's how to convert them to MP4

Given today's rapid technological advancements, physical discs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Check out our guide on how to convert a DVD to MP4, so you can ditch discs for digital files.
Computing

Here’s how to install Windows on a Chromebook

If you want to push the functionality of your new Chromebook to another level, and Linux isn't really your deal, you can try installing Windows on a Chromebook. Here's how to do so, just in case you're looking to nab some Windows-only…
Photography

Edit portraits with A.I. and adjust focus in the new ON1 Photo RAW 2019 editor

ON1 Photo RAW 2019 now has a dedicated tab for portraits that automatically recognizes faces to help with retouching. The update also brings a new focus stacking tool, enhancements to layers, and improvements to local adjustments.
Computing

Your MacBook can live in the lap of luxury with this leather case

Though there are several cases which we think are best for covering up MacBooks, Twelve South's Journal case is one of the newest available, providing luxurious leather coverage for your Apple laptop.
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Computing

15-inch MacBook Pro gets more powerful with new AMD Vega GPUs

Confirming Apple's quiet October announcement, new configurations for the top-range 15-inch Apple MacBook laptop are now available, coming complete with AMD Pro Vega 16 or Pro Vega 20 graphics cards on board.
Emerging Tech

Intel’s new ‘neural network on a stick’ aims to unchain A.I. from the internet

To kick off its first developer conference in Beijing, Intel unveiled the second generation of its Neural Compute Stick -- a device that promises to democratize the development of computer vision A.I. applications.