GEOG 585
Open Web Mapping

Strategies for creating and serving map tiles


Map tiles often have a simple folder structure, which makes them easy to serve. However, they can become complex to manage due to their sheer size and number. There are several different ways people have devised to serve map tiles:

  • Put them in a folder structure on your web server, and let people pull them directly. In this approach, you just organize the tiles as individual image files under a folder structure representing the scale level, row, and column. Many mapping APIs can use tiles when presented with a URL structure with variables representing the consistent position of the level, row, and column. For example, when using a tiled layer in the Leaflet API, you must provide a URL in the form http://{s}{z}/{x}/{y}.png, where z is the zoom level and x and y are the column and row.
  • Make the tiles available through a web service. In this approach, the web service exposes parameters for you to request a tile based on a particular level, row, and column; however, the back-end infrastructure is a little more hidden. This approach has slightly more overhead (and therefore time lag) than exposing the tiles directly through a folder. A variation of the WMS specification called WMTS is designed for serving tiles and works in this manner. You can also see this pattern at work when you navigate around Google Maps using the network tool of your browser. The following tile URL for Google Maps reveals nothing about the back-end folder structure for the tiles, although you can see the level, row, and column variables at work if you look hard enough:

Strategies for creating tiles

At large (zoomed in) scales, the number of tiles to cache can be overwhelming, especially if you are covering a broad area such as a state or country. The irony is that at such large scales, many tiles will convey very little information. Zooming in to a neighborhood block scale at 1:2250 may show plenty of interesting features, but pan out into the desert or ocean at the same scale, and the tile may be completely blank. Do you want to spend the hours creating these tiles and gigabytes of disk space to store them?

In these situations, you may want to find software that can create tiles on demand, meaning at the time they are first visited by a user. The first person to navigate to a region will need to wait for the server to create the tiles, but subsequent visitors will enjoy the full benefits of created tiles. The most popular areas will fill up with tiles, but you won't spend resources creating and storing tiles that are never visited. Obviously, this approach varies in effectiveness based on how fast the server can actually draw the tiles on demand.

An alternative is to use a “Data not available” tile to denote areas where tiles have not been created. Web map administrators are sometimes loathe to do this, but it is often a common enough practice that lay users blame themselves when they see the tile (“Oops, I zoomed in too far!”) rather than the administrator (“Why didn't they make the map available at this scale?”).

The best approach may be to strategically create a subset of the most interesting tiles and leave the less interesting tiles to be created on demand (or returned using a “Data not available” tile). As a geographer, it may hurt your soul to call any place “less interesting,” but the bitter truth is that not all tiles of the map experience an equal number of views. Fisher (2007) showed how early visitors to Microsoft Virtual Earth (now Bing Maps) stuck mostly to the big cities, coastlines, and transportation corridors. Quinn and Gahegan (2010) built models taking into account these patterns, showing how the majority of map requests could likely be satisfied by creating a fraction of the full number of tiles that it would ordinarily take to cover the full rectangular extent of the map. Their models were cobbled together using datasets like buffered roads, coastlines, and points of interests, but more recent feeds from social media such as geotagged tweets and Flickr photos may prove even more accurate in revealing the most interesting regions of the map for the majority of users. Note that some types of specialized maps (for mineral exploration, or wilderness conservation) may have very different usage patterns than general-use basemaps.

The ability to selectively cache a subset of tiles like this depends on the tile creation software's flexibility in allowing the administrator to designate custom regions for caching. Most software just allows the submission of a rectangular bounding box for tile creation; however, interesting areas of the map such as cities and coastlines are usually not shaped like rectangles. If you identify an irregularly-shaped region where you want to create tiles, you may have to abstract it into a series of rectangles and run multiple tile creation jobs, using each rectangle as an input. If you are luckier, your tile creation software will accept a spatial dataset (such as a shapefile) as a bounding region.

Creating tiles with FOSS

Creating tiled web maps is a common task that has been addressed by various FOSS packages. The most accessible one for you at this point is GeoWebCache because it's integrated directly into GeoServer. Others include TileCache and TileStache.

The Mapnik library is a FOSS tile creation library that binds to Python and other languages. It allows a lot of advanced drawing options not found in your typical WMS layer. Working with Mapnik typically required some Linux knowledge and some trial and error; however, the for-profit company Mapbox released an open source program called TileMill that can run on Mac and Windows and puts a nice GUI around Mapnik. We have been using TileMill in this class for a long time, but a couple of years ago, Mapbox stopped developing it. TileMill has been continued as a community-driven project on GitHub, but the development has slowed and problems have become more frequent recently. At the same time, tile creation support has been integrated into QGIS, so at some point, we made the decision to use QGIS for this part of the class as well. In the second walkthrough in this lesson, you'll use QGIS to create a basemap of Philadelphia using some of the layers you processed earlier. 


  • Fisher, D. (2007). Hotmap: Looking at geographic attention. Visualization and Computer Graphics, IEEE Transactions on, 13(6), 1184-1191.
  • Quinn, S., & Gahegan, M. (2010). A predictive model for frequently viewed tiles in a web map. Transactions in GIS, 14(2), 193-216.