Sunday, May 24, 2015

Civic Hacking: Web Mapping Overview

A recent comment on the DHMN mailing list about civic hacking with web maps prompted me to do research on the general topic of web mapping. This post will attempt to give a short overview of web mapping for those considering doing civic hacks with one or several of the available tools for this fascinating Internet technology.

If you're seriously interested in learning more about web mapping, check out the Web Mapping and Comparison of Web Map Services entries on Wikipedia. Those are a good source of basic knowledge and links about this topic. This post presents just a tiny bit of info from those two entries. The contributors on Wikipedia explain web mapping this way:
"Web mapping is the process of using maps delivered by geographical information systems (GIS). Since a web map on the World Wide Web is both served and consumed, web mapping is more than just web cartography, it is both a service activity and consumer activity...The advent of web mapping can be regarded as a major new trend in cartography. Until recently cartography was restricted to a few companies, institutes and mapping agencies, requiring relatively expensive and complex hardware and software as well as skilled cartographers and geomatics engineers. With the rise of web mapping, a range of data and technology was born - from free data generated by OpenStreetMap to proprietary datasets owned by Navteq, Google, Waze, and others. A range of free software to generate maps has also been conceived and implemented alongside proprietary tools like ArcGIS. As a result, the
barrier to entry for serving maps on the web has been lowered."
All the leading web maps appear to use a combination of source data, some proprietary, some government-based, and some from volunteered geographic information, public participation geographic information, and collaborative mapping, with those three GIS terms apparently meaning slightly different things. A knowledgeable cartographer would be able to more accurately or definitively draw us a map of the companies involved, but it seems that the most widely used web mapping source services include:
  1. Google Maps (MAPIT, TeleAtlas?, DigitalGlobe, MDA Federal)
  2. OpenStreetMap (OSM)
  3. Bing Maps (HERE, Intermap, Pictometry International, NASA, Blom, Ordnancy Survey, SK Planet)
  4. Yahoo Maps (HERE, TeleAtlas, i-cubed)
  5. Here Maps (Nokia/Navteq)
  6. Apple Maps (TomTom, OSM)
There are other web map services in addition to those above, and some people may prefer using the smaller or niche alternatives, or a proprietary GIS platform such as Esri. In addition to those smaller alternatives, there are specialized web mapping services like CartoDB and Mapbox.

Based on my research into Civic Hacking and GIS, CartoDB has been a pretty strong supporter of civic hacking events. This 2012 article explains that at that time, CartoDB was a data visualization company headquartered in New York that seeks to be the "Instagram service for maps." An NYT article talks about CartoDB's recent multi-million dollar VC funding round and some of the applications for its mapping service.

Mapbox is another service I've often seen mentioned with regards to civic hacks involving mapping. "Roam the World in (Almost) Real Time" says "It's always summer on Google Earth. But a landmark Mapbox project uses satellite imagery to show the planet as it is now." The post also talks about a mapping service involving drones that's cool but sort of scary.
"That's also the philosophy behind this other, truly astonishing experiment in cartography—a moving California coastline. "That's actually drone imagery," Loyd says nonchalantly of the video that's layered on the satellite image map. Five years from now, real-time maps might be as ubiquitous as YouTube videos—but for now, they feel as futuristic as movies might have to Victorians."
If you want to start doing some online mapping customization, "Survey of the Best Online Mapping Tools: The Roadmap to Roadmaps" is a good post to read. It doesn't cover all the bases, such as the OSM native editor, but it does compare the options the post author (a Croatian software engineer with a passion for GIS and mapping) thinks are top quality.

If you decide to use CartoDB, consider looking at the CartoDB Map Academy course, "Online Mapping for Beginners", which covers basic concepts of online mapping. I'm sure there are online tutorials, classes and videos for every online mapping service, but the CartoDB Map Academy showed up first on one of my Google searches, so I included it in this post.
"The Map Academy is an open source project, which serves as a resource for people creating maps on the web. Being open source means that the content that is here, will be free for everyone to access and build upon. Although is an initiative of CartoDB, it is not only a guide to this specific software. While we do think that CartoDB is a great tool to start learning online mapping, it is only one part of a growing network of mapping tools. It is our hope that as the program expands, you will find more and more content that is not related directly with CartoDB, and that will allow you to build your skills as a mapper. This means that at the Map Academy we will start to teach you skills you can use in other technologies such as ESRI, Google Maps, or Mapbox."
Because the primary (only?) Appleton open data sets are Esri GIS data sets, I'm also including this link for Esri Story Maps, which may be of interest to civic hackers who want to do something interesting with Appleton open data. There may be other free Esri data tools for civic hackers to use. I tried to contact Esri to invite them to participate in the June 6 "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015," but my emails to them kept bouncing, so they apparently didn't care for my email address or the content in the emails.

Lack of participation from Esri isn't a showstopper for mapping civic hacks, though, because we have a city of Appleton GIS Wizard who is experienced with Esri data and is participating in the June 6 hackathon. We also have lots of free and open source web mapping options, as described above.

Additionally, we may get some mapping help from the Wisconsin State Cartographer's Office. AJ Wortley, a senior outreach specialist, said he'll connect us with some mapping ninjas who might participate in our civic hackathon.

Bottom line for civic hackers interested in web mapping:
  1. There is a lot of cool free web mapping technology you can work with at the June 6 civic hackathon.
  2. If we get a few people at the hackathon who are interested in future mapping events or workshops in northeast Wisconsin, I'll be happy to help organize at least one follow-up activity and will plan it when we can get participation from a GIS / mapping organization.
Bottom line for all potential civic hackers in northeast Wisconsin (and any interested people from outside the region):

  • If you haven't yet gone to Eventbrite to sign up for the free June 6 hackfest in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA,

[This blog also has previous posts about GIS (geographic information system) and web maps; "The GIS and Civic Hacking Interconnection," "GIS Guide for Honolulu / Appleton Civic Hackers," "Esri: GIS, Civic Hacking & Open Data Initiative," "Part 1: OpenStreetMap And Civic Hacking" and "Part 2: OpenStreetMap and Civic Hacking."]


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