File Under: Location, Visual Design

Beautiful Websites: Stamen’s Pretty Maps

We’ve seen some colorful map mashups in the past, like Hypercities and HeatMap, but few are as abstract and beautiful to look at as Stamen Design’s Pretty Maps.

The aptly-named app pulls sets of geodata from various freely available open mapping projects and plots them atop one another. Pretty Maps grabs street-level data from OpenStreetMap (the “Wikipedia of maps”), land formation data from Natural Earth and place-name and place-shape data from Flickr shapefiles — Flickr’s outlines generated by the tags people have attached to photos taken in that place. So all the data is from crowdsourced databases and either public domain or licensed through the Creative Commons. The maps are generated using TileStache and PolyMaps, two open source tools developed in-house at Stamen.

The result is a map that’s not so much usable for navigation as it is pretty to look at. Cities degrade into abstract and unique blobs, with pastel colors overlaying one another. The shapes are alien looking in texture and density, but instantly recognizable if you’re already familiar with the terrain.

Stamen Design is a small, San Francisco-based data visualization firm best known in its early days for its work with Digg. Stamen specializes in abstract, trippy geo-spatial data visualizations like Trace and Cabspotting. The firm was also awarded a Knight News Grant in June to visualize publicly-available civic data.

Pretty Maps is both pretty and pretty slow. The tiles take about ten seconds to render at the lower zoom levels. This is because the Stamen team hasn’t really optimized Pretty Maps for performance. The multiple data sets get pulled in separately and are layered inside your browser using JavaScript instead of being combined first and served as one, a conscious design choice: “We wanted to leave all the plumbing exposed so that people could look at it and learn from it and, hopefully, build something new,” Stamen says on its website.

So, there’s your invitation to View Source and start digging around. We can only hope the little Grover “Near, Far” zoom controls are part of the package.

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