Watercolor in the Wild

One of the most common enquiries we’re reading about Watercolor maps is about how to make prints. Given such demand, we’re thinking about a new tool to help you select an print an area of a map. Stay tuned for news about that.

I answered a bug report from Michael in Switzerland, who’d found the “underwater” bug in an area of the map he wanted to use on a poster about OpenStreetMap for a conference called GEOSummit, to be held in Bern June 19-21. As you can see below, he worked around the bug by blending Watercolor with the default OpenStreetMap tiles, and the fabulous OpenCycleMap, including a view on the Transport layer, by Andy Allan.

If only I was in Switzerland!

maps.stamen: Some Known Bugs, What’s To Do

Thanks to our handy bug reporting form, and perhaps spending a little too much time surfing around the world in watercolor at the studio, we’ve isolated a couple of bugs which we’d like to update you on.

The background is, even though the watercolor map has been online for some weeks now, viewers haven’t yet looked at every place at every zoom level. Since it would take aaaages to make all the map tiles for all the zoom levels available, we’ve been creating new tile areas based on people’s viewing activity, and then working to cache tiles for popular areas. (See Jeff’s Log Maps post on content.stamen.com for more information about this.)

This means there are parts of the world haven’t had their watercolor map made. What we’re finding too, is that some of the tiles that have already been made have been generated incorrectly, and will have to be re-made.

As you click around watercolor world, you might come across maps that look like this:

We’ve been calling this the “Underwater” bug. It seems like it happens in the tile-making process if the machine that constructs the tiles is running too hot. It freaks out at coastlines, and ends up literally flooding the land area with the water texture.

You may also have seen a preponderance of grey while you browse around too, like:

Thanks to our superstar efficiency buddy, Aaron Huslage, we think we’ve tracked down the overall issue to machine I/O, the servers’ ability to process inputs, and issue outputs. If the I/O is flooded, the software to generate tiles on the fly baulks, and gets more and more underwater. So, to try to reduce that chance of flooding, we need to reduce and simplify the inputs we’re sending through to create new tiles. Step 1 is to try to “simplify the world.”

The theory is that we’re sending a more complicated Make request than we need to. CTO, Mike Migurski likens this to killing a whole chicken in order to make a McNuggetTM. We’re experimenting with ways to reduce the size of OpenStreetMap data ahead of time, for the whole world, because Watercolor in particular is such simplified cartography that is doesn’t need the whole chicken. If we just give Cascadenik only what it needs (instead of the whole chicken), that might reduce the machine I/O. Then, we’ll see what happens next…

We’ll post an update to let you know if that worked, or not. Any advice that springs to mind, feel free to post a comment!

A Month of maps.stamen.com

Well, it’s been about a month since we announced maps.stamen.com, and what a month it’s been! The whole team has had tremendous fun listening and watching people enjoying the new maps: Watercolor, Toner and Terrain. Here’s a few snippets of reporting in the news, and a sample of fantastic re-use of the new maps…

In The News

“A new Creative Commons tile set adds a human, organic touch to cold digital maps. Now if only there were more projects like this.”

“Beautiful visualisation tool transforms maps into works of art”

“…a re-imagined view of cities…”

Experiments, Playing

“Playing with polymaps.org & maps.stamen.com (watercolor) for fun. Contemplating the possibilities…”

And we were super excited to spot this little tweet from @pajbam in Paris:

It was the “Maybe time to contribute?” question that got us excited; that these maps are tempting enough for people to try using them in whatever site they’re building. Like Bobby at Visually BS, who combined Terrain and Cloudmade’s JavaScript library, Leaflet, to make a map that shows San Francisco residents vantage points around the city from which to watch America’s Cup 2013.

Go, Gamers Go

Duncan integrated Watercolor into MapsTD (Maps Tower Defense) game he built on top of the Google Maps API. Looks pretty great as I defend the Taj Mahal…

Anton Westholm, in Malmö, wrote a utility to combine Watercolor with Inkscape to create a hex boardgame for an arbitrary area.

New Tools

Toner popped up on the fabulous WordPress plugin, Vérité Timeline, which lets you insert gorgeous timelines into your WordPress site, using data from a Google spreadsheet, or a JSON file. Great to see some interplay between Knight News funding recipients. (More please!)

Jonas Häggqvist built osm.rasher.dk, a site that shows data visualization and QA for Danish OpenStreetMap edits over Toner (as one of a few map style options). In this screenshot, I turned on a few different overlays: Power, Named Places, Traces (on OSM), and Street Centers.

It’s really important and exciting to see these maps help to build out tools in the same ecosystem. To use maps generated on top of OSM data to see OSM data more clearly must be some sort of VIRTUOUS CIRCLE, surely!

Pins, Pins, Pins

Many of the team here are heavy Pinterest users, so it wasn’t a big leap to look there for activity around the new maps.

Interesting how many people look to their home town or where they live when they first use a new map… these various pins expose places on the map that we might never have looked for at the studio.

Paul Mison discovered a nice easter egg on Pinterest when you try to pin a map – you see all the composite tiles shuffled about a bit. (I feel a game coming on!)

As I’ve spent the last while getting up to speed on the whole Citytracking environs, something Eric about the project wrote way back before the Data & Cities conference has really stuck with me, and should probably be on a t-shirt:

The project is: Here’s some work, grab the code, the license is cool, don’t worry about it, use it, go ahead and publish your stuff.

To see that actually coming true — even on cupcakes — and also to see people using the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license correctly is huge! We’re actively collecting examples of our maps in the wild, so if you’re using them, please either leave us a comment here, or tweet @stamen with a link!

Talking Maps

April 2-4, 2012 saw the Where 2.0 Conference come to San Francisco. Most of the studio went to at least one morning or afternoon, to watch many of our friends present on what they’re up to, and of course, to watch Eric talk about maps.stamen.com, and all the different parts we worked out to get the system launch-ready. Here are Eric’s slides (13MB PDF):

It’s been absolutely brilliant to watch the web’s response to the new maps – I’ll post more on that later, including links and examples of the maps being used and reused in other sites, one of the key goals for CityTracking.

We also prepared a surprise to accompany Eric’s talk on Wednesday: newspapers from Newspaper Club that contained watercolor maps of 20 cities around the world (Thank you, thank you, to Anne, Russell, Ben and Tom from Newspaper Club for helping us get the papers ready in time!)


Nathaniel is in Washington, DC at the moment, and also presented about how we created the Watercolor maps to a super-smart geo-tech audience today at Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) North America“Reminiscent of hand drawn maps, Stamen’s new watercolor tiles apply area washes and organic edges over a paper texture to add warm pop to any map. We’ve added more Photoshop-style raster effects to TileStache to render OSM tiles like you’ve never seen them before.”

In case you missed them, we posted a week-long series of blog posts to accompany the launch of maps.stamen.com from various people at Stamen:

If only I’d gotten this blog online in time (!!!).


“This is map-making gone riot.”

Mike & Eric at Code for America in January

Watch two presentations that Mike, then Eric gave in January this year: Big Data For Public Good, hosted by Code for America.

I happened to be in the audience, and was thrilled to hear a gasp or two when Eric revealed our work on the Watercolor maps in public for the first time, about 15 minutes in to his presentation. That was a couple of months before we launched them on March 22, 2012.

As a provocation, Rodenbeck closed with the statement that “there’s no such thing as raw data”—it is always scrubbed, filtered, and interpreted. The challenge—and great opportunity—is to analyze and interpret the data in service of the public good, and to communicate these insights to mass audiences in accessible ways that resonate and inspire action.


Dotspotting was the first project Stamen released as part of CityTracking, launched on June 17, 2011. Here’s how we describe what Dotspotting is for:

The first part of this project is to start from scratch, in a ‘clean room’ environment. We’ve started from a baseline that’s really straightforward, tackling the simplest part: getting dots on maps, without legacy code or any baggage. Just that, to start. Dots on maps.

dots on maps

Since the project launched, around 400 maps-with-dots-on have been created using the site. We’ve also often used the system internally at Stamen to get a lightning fast visual of data we work with for clients; to see its shape and spread. It’s incredibly simple. All you have to do is upload a CSV that contains latitude/longitude information for each row, in addition to whatever other fields you’re using to describe things. Super handy!

The Dotspotting site also contains a bunch of somewhat hidden but awesome features, like being able to set up an embeddable map that shows different types of dots on a map, in a colour scheme to your liking (a la Crimespotting). We’re working on exposing those sorts of features more clearly and explicitly, perhaps even as separate modules that can be accessed independently of the website.

The code for Dotspotting is available for download on Github, and licensed for used under the GNU General Public License.

Hello World!

Welcome to the CityTracking blog, from Stamen Design. There’s so much going on under the CityTracking banner we thought it was worth creating a new blog to keep track of it all.

Stay tuned for blog posts about new initiatives, examples of fabulous reuse of our CC-licensed map tiles, presentations & articles by Stamen staff about the project, and innovative related projects.

One other main feature of this website will be the development of a curated collection of tools for developers to use to construct various map-related features elsewhere on the web. We plan to build a “workshop” to visit to learn which components and tools are available to help you create mappish things. For example, you should be able to teach yourself how to print a wall-sized map, or how to create a map from a CSV file that contains a bunch of geo-coordinates.

We’ve also done a ton of work on CityTracking since we were awarded the Knight News Challenge, so we’ll be collecting all those bits and pieces, like Eric’s post about the project that he wrote for PBS back in November, 2010, to form something of an archive.

More soon!