MapBox: Straightforward Beautiful Map-Making

The independent cartographer’s future business options are looking a little shaky at present. There’s only one platform most of us use for visualizing addresses and researching locations, and it just happens to be attached to the world’s most popular search engine.

I am, of course, referring to Google Maps — a service which, due to its general-use popularity, seems to provide about nine out of every ten maps you see embedded around the web. There’s nothing terribly surprising about this, even when the restrictive nature of map-building with Google is taken into consideration — convenience, after all, is king. What is surprising is that no competitor has produced a similarly easy-to-use platform that also offers greater freedom. But things are changing.

A startup named MapBox, three years in the making, is out to corner the online cartographic marketplace. Its original breakthrough came in the shape of TileMill, an open source native mapping app. Now, however, MapBox has its own online platform — but can it snatch Google’s crown?

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The Service

A key advantage MapBox has over Google and other competitors is its laser-like focus on map creation. Mapping platforms attached to services such as Bing and Google, first and foremost, have to act as geographical points of reference, and adjuncts to the search engine. Of course, MapBox has none of these restraints, and it shows.

Map Making

The map-making interface is beautifully designed, both in terms of its modern styling, and in terms of its practicality.

MapBox's interface – clean and uncluttered.

MapBox’s interface – clean and uncluttered.

As you start to build a new map, the first choice you need to make is about design. If you don’t need anything fancy, you can just stick with the default style that comes with each type of mapping — street, terrain, and satellite (requires upgrade). The mapping, provided by OpenStreetMap is accurate and detailed, although it lacks many of the points of interest to be found on Google. In MapBox’s favour, though, is the satellite imagery it provides, which is crystal clear.

The satellite imagery is simply superb.

The satellite imagery is simply superb.

However, you can be extremely creative. As a starting point, 28 preset colour palettes are on offer. These range from subtle, alternate shades to crazy looks, with pink land and purple sea.

Some of the preset styles are seriously whacky.

Some of the preset styles are seriously whacky.

There is even a black and neon blue combination to replicate the kind of view a Call of Duty-style spy satellite might produce.

Customization

This is only the start of MapBox’s style adjustability. Under the Customization tab, you can toggle elements such as streets, buildings and terrain; the colour, lightness, saturation and opacity of each of them can be adjusted, too.

You can fine-tune the look of every element in your map.

You can fine-tune the look of every element in your map.

In addition, MapBox will allow you to upload your own TileMill-created layers, meaning that pretty much any type of data can be included.

Owners of high-end hardware will also approve of the retina optimization here, which doubles as print optimization.

Markers

The next tab, labelled Markers, offers the opportunity to add points of interest to your map, one by one. It’s a tedious, if unavoidable way of doing things, although that is why MapBox users are encouraged to add data using TileMill-created layers.

MapBox makes adding markers as quick as it can be.

MapBox makes adding markers as quick as it can be, given the one-by-one input.

Unremarkable style options like size and colour can be modified, and you can place an indicator either with your mouse or by manually entering lat’ and long’.

These icons look beautiful at any resolution.

These icons look beautiful at any resolution.

However, most notable here is the beautiful array of icons on offer. This selection is based on Maki, another open source creation of MapBox. Maki provides responsive map-related icons, and it is used to good effect in MapBox’s online platform.

Settings

The Settings tab offers a few useful options.

The Settings tab offers a few useful options.

Once your cartographic work is done, you can move on to the details. Via the Settings tab, you can give your map a name and a description, but you can also change its visibility (as to whether folks need to know your map’s URL to view it), choose where in the world a visitor should see first, and select the controls which MapBox should include. Zoom buttons, scroll-based zooming, sharing links, a legend and a geocoder can all be switched on and off. Not that you’ll be switching them off for aesthetic purposes — once again, MapBox’s presentation is beautiful.

Publishing

The easy way to publish your map on MapBox is simply to share the URL. This method provides visitors with a classy, window-filling view of your chosen geography, as hosted on MapBox’s site.

But most of us will be wanting to create a map to use on a site or in an app. The most unsophisticated way of achieving this is by embedding your creation (or a static image of your map instead), a process MapBox assists with by providing entry points for custom dimensions.

Map publishing can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

Map publishing can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

However, for something a little cleverer, MapBox also provides a Javascript API (along with an accompanying HTML template) and easy mobile integration.

Statistics for all of these avenues may be monitored from within MapBox, although this isn’t an exhaustive dashboard – only basic visitor numbers are on offer, split by method of visiting.

But overall, MapBox matches Google stride-for-stride in terms of publishing.

Plans

MapBox is a freemium service, so most of the above comes without the need for a credit card. Free accounts come with a decent 50MB upload storage limit, and all accounts are provided with SSL security.

Satellite imagery requires an upgrade (to any account level), but MapBox’s subscription structure is, essentially, based around the number of views your maps receive, and the size of the data uploads you want to store. Free accounts are allocated with a generous 3,000 views per month, and Basic accounts, at $5/month, are assigned 10,000 views and 250MB per month. Standard ($49/month) offers 100,000 views and 3GB of storage, and Plus ($149/month) expands the limit to 300,000 views and 10GB per month. Even bigger allowances are available.

It is also worth noting that all paid-for accounts above Basic allow for the removal of MapBox branding – potentially useful for high-end web developers.

Verdict

By some distance, MapBox is the best map-building platform I’ve encountered. It’s a simple system to get to grips with, yet the styling options make unique mapping a possibility. The maps present with speed and smoothness, the satellite imagery is of high quality, and the publishing options are as good as you’ll find. The plans offered are well priced for a range of customer types, too.

In terms of areas for improvement, there’s little to fault. The only notable, slight issue is with the mapping itself; the open source nature of OpenStreetMap makes a platform like MapBox possible, but it doesn’t quite have the wealth of information to be found in Google’s mapping, mostly due to a lack of user-added content. You can, of course, add extra information by uploading layers, but if you want businesses and minor amenities to be marked, you’re probably going to need to do it yourself. That said, if you simply want to illustrate the whereabouts of an address, you should be fine.

For the most part, however, MapBox performs brilliantly, balancing simplicity with function, and quality with value. Next time you need a map, I suggest you give it a try.


Summary

Elegant mapping, with the minimum of fuss, at a freemium price.

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