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Maps aren’t just for directions!

There’s a good chance that you looked at a map recently. Maybe it was the GPS in your car or on your phone. Or it may have been on an app to help you find a place to eat or fuel up at a gas station. Every time you use one of these maps you are utilizing a Geographic Information System. Until about 5 years ago, if someone said ‘GIS’ they were probably talking about ESRI’s ArcMap. Today, the term GIS is more ambiguous and can be applied to a lot of different solutions that involve a map. There are plenty of apps that utilize a web mapping service to help find your way home or tell you that traffic is terrible (Waze, Inrix, GPS Essentials, MapFactor, SigAlert, Google Maps...) but these representations of a GIS are just one form of an ever evolving method of relating data to space.

There is a growing market for web-based mapping applications that allow the user to visualize data in ways that make a much stronger impact than traditional graphs and charts.

Imagine for a moment you are a senator running for office. It would benefit you to have a deep understanding of your constituents; their culture, their way of life, their heritage. You send a staffer out to collect data and report back with something that represents your potential supporters. Would you rather see your data represented in the traditional spreadsheet format or perhaps something more pleasing to the eye and easily digestible?










The data in either case would be valid and relevant, but the impression that is left on you might not have the same impact. Displaying data in this fashion tacks on a sense of place and makes for a more compelling argument. These mapping applications are being used by corporations for business solutions such as gaining insight into brick and mortar locations’ surrounding demographics, or by municipalities that need to get a better perspective on graffiti occurrences within their city boundaries. But these are some of the more common applications of what a GIS can be. Ultimately, if data can be referenced using location, whether it be as granular as geospatial coordinates or as course as state or nation, a GIS can be created from that data.

So why would the average developer care about web mapping and GIS? An obvious reason is that data and content are perhaps the most important underlying pieces of an app or website and users demand striking visualizations that cannot be matched by conventional spreadsheets, charts and graphs. Another reason is the same reason a developer would devote time learning one of the MV* frameworks, or bootstrap or responsive design. The point is to stay relevant. If you don’t believe me, go look at the most downloaded apps and see how many of them have some kind of mapping component. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying web mapping will be a cornerstone in your development foundation, but it is something that you might need to employ at one time or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have another tool in your development tool belt? Additionally, from a business standpoint, there is money to be made developing mapping applications through licensing these apps to companies who want to understand their customer base better and increase revenue.

If you are interested in learning to do this on your own, there are plenty of JavaScript libraries to choose from that can get you started including Google Maps, Open Street Map and Bing Maps. I have been using Leafletjs for a while and it is hands down my favorite. Lightweight and easy to use, it plays nicely with other popular development must-haves like Bootstrap and jQuery. Implementation of maps is very straight-forward. Below is a snippet of how to create a leafletjs map that can be set up in minutes. If that’s not enough, here is a Plnkr to play around with.

// create a map in the "map" div, set the view to a given place and zoom
var map = L.map('map').setView([51.505, -0.09], 13);

// add an OpenStreetMap tile layer
L.tileLayer('http://{s}.tile.osm.org/{z}/{x}/{y}.png', {
   attribution: '&copy; <a href="http://osm.org/copyright">OpenStreetMap</a> contributors'

// add a marker in the given location, attach some popup content to it and open the popup
L.marker([51.5, -0.09]).addTo(map)
   .bindPopup('A pretty CSS3 popup. <br> Easily customizable.')

Below are some links that will give a better understanding of what GIS and web mapping can do:

MapBox is a platform built on leafletjs that allows developers to create web maps with built in tools. https://www.mapbox.com/design/

USGS National Data viewer, one of my favorites and a must have for geospatial data mining, the USGS spatial data library is massive. http://viewer.nationalmap.gov/viewer/

If you’re interested in visualizing your data in a more meaningful way, we’re here to help.

Thanks for reading!  Christopher Diaz

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