Don't Panic: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Building a Map Server

There are a lot of great mapping applications out there that run on a server. They can be intimidating to install and configure so I thought I would document my steps so everything would be in one place. This a a guide for the absolute beginner so if you have some command-line experience, I promise I'm not being condescending. Future posts will cover how we're actually using these tools to build our maps.

This tutorial should take you from absolutely nothing to a fully-functional web server containing:

  • PostGIS: A PostgreSQL database optimize to store spatial information. It can easily import shapefiles and OSM data using command line tools as well as connect to mapping services like QGIS and Mapnik.
  • Mapnik: A very powerful tool for automatically generating maps from geographic data with lots of control over cartographic display and rendering.
  • TileStache: A simple way to efficiently serve geographic data to mapping applications. It can send tiled vector or raster data and will speed up any application that needs to load lots of data.
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indiemapper is free

With the start of 2012, we've decided to make indiemapper free to use. Since indiemapper launched in 2010, our business has grown and changed to where supporting and maintaining indiemapper is no longer a major part of what we do at Axis Maps every day. We're making indiemapper free so that it can continue to exist as a useful tool for map-makers while freeing us up to be as awesome as possible at our custom cartography business.

To allow us to give it away for free, we're scaling back what indiemapper does. We've removed all account-based online functionality including usernames / passwords, cloud storage, and map sharing. Everything else, we've left as is. The map-making process is still the same except you don't have to log in AND you need to export your map before you close your browser. We're also moving our support operations over to GetSatisfaction to let the community of indiemapper users share their knowledge amongst themselves.

We're really happy about this change and we hope you are too. If you have any questions about the new direction of indiemapper, please let us know in the comments.

Launch indiemapper

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"But hasn't everything already been mapped?"

In a recent post I remarked on the common reaction people have when I say that I'm a cartographer. In my experience people are usually mildly astounded and fascinated by this exotic profession (and just like that we are new best pals), and as the conversation progresses they ask if that means something like Google Maps. But sometimes it's the most dreaded, annoying question that every cartographer has heard: "hasn't everything already been mapped?"

There is of course a real answer to that question (perhaps it's something like, "everywhere, but not everything" or perhaps it's "there's actually this one spot in Idaho we haven't hit yet"), but it's more amusing to dwell on the things we cartographers hear from our new acquaintances than on what we say in reply. In that spirit, a week or two ago I posed the following on Twitter:

Survey time. Cartographers, fill in the blank based on your experience. Person: "What do you do?" You: "I'm a cartographer." Person: ______

It generated some excellent replies. If you're not a cartographer, when you meet one remember that these are things we've all heard. If you are a cartographer, please comment to share your experiences too!

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Web cartography... that's like Google Maps, right?

A few weeks ago I was graciously invited by Jeff Howarth to speak to cartography and geography students and faculty at Middlebury College, Dave's alma mater. I showed some of the work we do at Axis Maps, described our processes, and offered my perspective on what web cartography is all about. The topics were mostly aimed at undergraduate cartography students who may be considering a career path like ours. (While we're at it, check out some of the student maps.) This post is not at all verbatim but more or less sums up what I said.

The "what do you do?" exchange is always fun for me when meeting new people. When I tell people I'm a cartographer, two reactions usually occur. The first is something like "wow, that's so cool! I've never met a cartographer!" (Lesson: maps make you popular at parties.) Then follows something along the lines of "so what does that mean, like Google Maps?" I then attempt to explain succinctly that yes, sometimes it is kind of like that, but no, it really isn't.

It's a little amazing that it's only taken six or so years for the popular conception of a map—or at least a web map—to become so strongly tied to one type of map, and one exemplar at that. It's both a blessing and a curse for a practice like ours at Axis Maps, in ways that I hope will be evident as I summarize the way we approach interactive web cartography.

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New letterpress maps of San Francisco and Manhattan

San Francisco letterpress

Just a quick note to say that we've released several new limited edition letterpress prints in our typographic maps store. Check them out, and as always thanks to everyone for the feedback and encouragement in recent months!

San Francisco 2nd edition: This is a new design of the San Francisco letterpress map we made earlier this year, featuring waterlines for a new coastal style. Available in blue or black ink.

Manhattan: This is divided into two maps. A Lower and Midtown Manhattan shows the island from its southern end to 61st St, and Upper Manhattan features Central Park in an extent from 57th to 159th Street. Available in blue or black ink, and individually or paired together.


Representing 'No Data' on Interactive Maps

We spend a lot of time determining the best way to represent data given to us by our clients. Whether in the user interface or on the map itself, it's at the core of what we do. In contrast, I've been surprised recently by the amount of time we've spent thinking about how to best represent data we do NOT have. Here, I'm talking about places where data was either not collected or not reported. Needless to say, discovering empty cells in a spreadsheet is not at all uncommon, albeit frustrating at times. This is the nature of data collected in the real world. But what is the best way to represent "no data"? It only takes a single missing value to raise the question and present this rather unique design problem.

Below are a few of the ways we've chosen to represent 'no data' in recent projects when interpolation or other means of smoothing out and covering up missing values was not an option. We feel that instances of 'no data' are nothing to hide from or ignore. In fact, in some cases, I'd argue that representing 'no data' can be a good thing and actually help to tell a more complete and truthful story about a mapped phenomenon that wouldn't otherwise be seen.

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Cantabrigian Namesakes

Andy's made a great looking map of small-multiples showing the breakdown of how streets were named in Cambridge, MA. Those of you familiar with the area will have fun trying to recognize the highlighted streets. Everyone else can marvel at how useful the small-multiple technique is at making easy comparisons across a complex dataset.

Cantabrigian Namesakes


The Furniture District

Over on the Bostonography Blog, Andy is muses about the spatial arrangement of humorous retailers in Cambridge. It's inspired by The Simpsons and has some great looking maps (like the above) from GeoCommons.

The Furniture District


London Low Life

This week, we're happy to begin a 30-day preview of one of our most distinctive interactive mapping projects: The London Low Life Map. This map was produced for Adam Matthew Digital, a digital publishing company based in the UK. Adam Matthew produces digitized archives of historic primary source documents, collected around a central theme, for higher education institutions. This map was built as part of their London Low Life collection that explores the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. It examines the documents of sex, drinking, gambling, and the institutions that sprang up to combat those very vices. As the map is integrated into Adam Matthew's collection, we will only be able to grant access to our readers for 30-days. I encourage you to explore the map and enjoy Adam Matthew's fantastic collection of historic maps and images. Since we've pulled the map out of the collection, I wanted to give you some context on what is included.

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New typographic maps of Washington DC and New York

DC and NYC typographic maps

Earlier this month we launched our new store with two new typographic maps we had been working on since last autumn: Washington, DC and New York City (Manhattan). These 24x36 inch posters, along with the existing line of cities, are now done in super sharp detail as offset prints, and all are now found at the new store.

In addition to the new cities, we also released limited edition letterpress prints of San Francisco, which managed to sell out almost immediately. We're now looking into future letterpress editions of this and other cities.

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