The Google Maps update announced at this week's Google I/O Conference integrates the satellite view of Google Earth. It's 3D! It looks great! Of course, if you look closely, Google Maps' images will still have plenty of imperfections. At the street view level, photos are often blurry or awkwardly stitched together. That's the price we pay for total coverage, and the good news is that quality is constantly improving.
Making smarter maps, with more usable data, is Google's primary goal. The mission of another mapping service, named MapBox, is something very different. MapBox wants to make their maps gorgeous. The best looking on the web. And they're doing a pretty damn good job.
Wired recently wrote a behind-the-scenes look at MapBox, a small team of about 30 using open mapping data to build a prettier, if not better, map. Their service is currently used on Foursquare and Evernote, and they've had other partners in the past. While MapBox isn't as big as Google Maps or Nokia Maps, they're gaining a foothold, and their use of totally open data allows for a lot of flexibility. The best part of the story is how they're getting that data, and what they're doing with it, which is where MapBox really differs from Google Maps.
MapBox's satellite imagery comes from NASA's LANCE-MODIS system, which is public domain. Here's challenge one, as Wired explains:
“ 'For the new release we’re processing two years of imagery, captured from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2012,' says [MapBox's Charlie] Loyd, 'this amounts to over 339,000 16-megapixel+ satellite images, totaling more than 5,687,476,224,000 pixels. We boil these down to a mere 5 billion or so.'
"The first problem is even getting the data. It’s all available in the public domain, but just transferring it over to MapBox’s servers was a major task because of the volume. To do this render, they needed to download two thirds of a terabyte of compressed data. 'We’ve got 30 to 40 servers pulling down data from NASA,' says [data analyst] Herwig. 'We called them up and said, ‘hey we’re going to hit you hard, what’s the best way we can do it for you?' "
Dealing with a mere five billion pixels sounds like a huge challenge, but of course that's nothing new to companies that have mapped the entire Earth. Typically, the satellite imagery would be scanned, and the brightest, least-cloudy images would be chosen because they give the clearest view of a region. There's an obvious issue with this technique: images won't match up. Two locations side-by-side could be represented by photographs taken months or seasons apart.
MapBox wants a seamless, beautiful map. That takes a different approach.