GEOG 865
Cloud and Server GIS

Mapbox services and vector tiles


Headquartered in Washington, DC, Mapbox is a company that provides location and mapping services such as online basemap hosting, geocoding, routing, image processing, and web mapping APIs. Mapbox is a young company, but it has made waves in the geospatial software industry by offering a unique blend of cloud technologies, map delivery and styling innovations, and open source utilities.

Mapbox markets itself as “a mapping platform for developers”. It does not offer desktop-based GIS software; rather, its services seem to be aimed at journalists, full time web and mobile app developers, and organizations looking for an alternative to other cloud-based GIS products. Some of these might not have the equipment, funding, personnel, or business need to implement a full onsite GIS.

The vector data in Mapbox maps comes largely from OpenStreetMap, a free geographic database open to editing by anyone on the Internet. Mapbox did not invent OpenStreetMap, but it is one of the first companies to aggressively build a business model around the project. Using OpenStreetMap lowers the price point for Mapbox maps and increases the flexibility of the map (because you theoretically have some control over OpenStreetMap quality and content in your area of interest.) Because unintentional errors and vandalism do occur in OpenStreetMap, Mapbox uses employees and software tools to monitor incoming OpenStreetMap edits and improve the map. This investment offers benefits to both Mapbox and OpenStreetMap, although its effect on the community dynamics of the OpenStreetMap project is still beginning to be understood.

Mapbox mapping services rely heavily on a vector tile approach wherein packets of vector coordinates are sent to client devices to be drawn. The tiles use a pyramid motif similar to what you saw with the rasterized tiles you created with ArcGIS Server, but they contain vector coordinate information rather than images. An advantage of this approach is that vector tiles can be restyled quickly without having to re-make all the tiles, since the data is decoupled from the drawing rules. Vectors also facilitate visual effects for map rotation and zooming.

One disadvantage of vector tiles is that more computing logic is needed to display vector tiles than rasterized ones (since displaying an image is one of the most basic tasks a computer can do). Also, the symbol set and visual effects available with vector tiles may be more limited compared to what can be drawn with rasterized tiles. Finally, although it seems obvious, vector tiles can only display vectors; satellite imagery, shaded relief, and some field-based phenomena must still be drawn with rasterized tiles.

Mapbox has offered several cartographic products for designing map styles and making tiles. Their legacy TileMill tool created rasterized tiles with the aim of hosting them on Mapbox servers, although utilities existed for unpacking the tiles and hosting them on your own website (see this exercise in Geog 585: Open Web Mapping). Their current tools are aimed toward creating vector tiles to be hosted on Mapbox servers.

Unlike ArcGIS Online, Mapbox does not offer web services for performing vector spatial operations such as buffering, intersections, etc.; instead, Mapbox created a free and open source JavaScript library called turf.js that developers can use to perform these operations on the client side. As with many of Mapbox’s services, using turf.js requires some programming ability; but it comes with the benefit of not having to pay for a cloud service to perform these operations. Some kinds of batch operations, complex calculations, multi-step models, or large datasets may still be better suited for sending to a server.

Mapbox offers a light amount of usage for free, allowing us to experiment with their services. On the Mapbox website, click Pricing and look over the plans. Then go ahead and sign up for a user name and move on to the next section of the lesson.