The Greenwich Village Digital Archive created in tandem with this blog features an impressive interactive map that links to individual objects in the archive. The map feature of our Omeka-run site enables us to visualize the objects in space, allowing for new understandings of their relations to Greenwich Village and each other to become apparent. That map is created in Google Maps, which provides extremely detailed GIS data and great functionality. But one detriment to Google Maps is the inability to easily edit the aesthetic of your digital map.
A new platform, Mapbox, has emerged as an alternative way to create “fast and beautiful” interactive digital maps for your online project. Mapbox makes designing and publishing maps possible for those of us who have a limited understanding of API and coding. Google Maps have an extremely distinctive and recognizable color scheme and style, which is beneficial for Google as a company that needs to promote a consistent brand. But the primary palette may not necessarily look good with the color schemes and designs that are very carefully and thoughtfully chosen for individual websites. Mapbox’s online software allows users to sign up for free accounts (or accounts with low monthly rates for additional capabilities) and design maps to match any web project that also have rich GIS data provided by OpenStreetMap.
From the Mapbox online interface, you can create maps with unique coloring and markers. First, you select the area that will be the starting point for your map by adjusting the location and zoom-level. You can also provide a name and description and turn on or off technical aspects of your map (such as, choosing whether viewers of your map will be able to zoom with the scroller on their mouse or trackpad). Next, you customize the layers and color palette for your map. For each layer (streets, areas, water, land) you use hue, saturation, and levels controllers to determine colors. Initially, these controllers can be hard to work with, since they are very sensitive and require some understanding of those attributes of color, but I found a helpful guide that lists a wide range of colors and their HSL (Hue, Saturation, Light) values. Finally, you add markers to the places you choose to highlight on your map. You can title each marker and include additional descriptive text, and customize their size, shape, and color. And once you’ve perfected your map, you can easily grab the embed code and add it to a webpage.
Though, as with any new software, it may take some time to get used to the Mapbox interface, the learning curve is not steep and Mapbox provides plenty of help in the form of documentation and a discussion board. As a free and open source service it is available to every institution and individual, allowing even small groups to create beautiful custom maps to enhance their online project.