Using custom Mapbox baselayers in QGIS

Next Tuesday, 5th May, I will be in Edinburgh at the 3rd Scottish UK QGIS User Group meeting. For this event, organiser Ross has opened up a track to include other FOSS4G and I will be running a workshop called ‘Making Beautiful Maps with Mapbox Studio’. We will be learning lots in the 90 minutes; finding out about the new OS OpenData products, getting an overview of the Mapbox stack and of course we will be getting hands on with Mapbox Studio, CartoCSS and looking at some advanced cartographic techniques.

I will be showing how I use QGIS to prepare the open data so it’s ready to load into Mapbox Studio and turn into vector tiles, ready for styling. This got me thinking about other ways that QGIS and Mapbox Studio work together or can be used to compliment one another. One obvious use case is to bring your custom basemaps (from Studio) into your desktop GIS (QGIS) to give context to other datasets. This is made easy by a neat little plugin called TileLayer.  We won’t have time to cover this in any great detail during the workshop so I thought instead I would share it on my blog – here’s how:

1. Open QGIS and install the TileLayer plugin. To install a plugin go to ‘Plugins’  > ‘Manage and Install Plugins’ and then search for the plugin by it’s name and install it.

2. Using a text editor, make a Tabbed Separated Values (*.tsv) file and add this line to it:

Mapbox    Mapbox{}/{z}/{x}/{y}.png?access_token={your-access-token}

Replace {} with your account name and Map ID and replace {your-access-token} with your access token which you can get by logging into Make sure that the gaps are tabs.

Save the (*.tsv) file locally.

3. Now, go back into QGIS:

Click on ‘Layer’ > ‘Add Layer’ > ‘Add Tile Layer…’ (You may find the plugin under the ‘Web’ menu instead of ‘Layer’)

Click ‘Settings’ and browse to the location of your (*.tsv) file, then click ‘Select Folder’ > ‘OK’

Your new tile layer should appear in the list. Select it and click ‘Add’ to map.

Awesome!! You now have your beautiful Mapbox baselayer in QGIS:

Custom Mapbox layer in QGIS

The UK’s 1st #Maptime chapter

I have been organising #Maptime Southampton (@MaptimeSOTON) since November 2014. It is the first in the UK and I am extremely proud of our group and the 5 excellent meetups that we’ve had so far. We have learned about OpenStreetMap, Mapbox Studio, Leaflet, QGIS Plugins and recently had our first Show & Tell where 10 peeps presented on a really diverse range of topics from Fledermaus to zombies!

Rather than write a brand new post about Maptime and my experiences in organising a local chapter, I will instead share the copy from an article that I wrote for the April edition of xyHt:

“I first found out about Maptime in the Summer of 2014 and was immediately inspired by their ethos, intentions and approach. I have for a long time thought that the barriers of entry into the world of geo are too high and training can be either hard to find or very expensive. With the abundance of open software and open data – this should no longer be the case. Maptime is one of the current movements looking to reset the balance and make learning accessible to all. It’s been well documented that the making of maps has become democratised, let’s democratise the learning too. The Maptime website states:

“Our mission is to open the doors of cartographic possibility to anyone interested by creating a time and space for collaborative learning, exploration, and map creation using mapping tools and technologies.”

I initially discovered Maptime through Twitter and was directed to I knew that it started in the US but after looking at the Chapters map and panning across The Atlantic I was very surprised to discover that there were no chapters in the UK. I work for Ordnance Survey, the Great British National Mapping Agency so I’m very fortunate to be closely connected to the industry and know that there is a fantastic, innovative group of map-makers here on our shores.

Where better to start a chapter than Southampton – a city with a rich history (Titanic, Spitfire) and home to the Ordnance Survey and a University with a fantastic Geography department. I reached out to Maptime HQ and they were super supportive in helping me get my chapter off the ground – they supplied useful documentation and pointed me in the direction of all the available resources.

I set about looking for a venue and a sponsor (just to cover the venue cost) as I was very keen to keep the meetups free to attend. It didn’t take me long to find a fantastic venue that fits the bill perfectly – The Art House is in the city centre and it’s ethos aligns with that of Maptime really well. It is fabulously informal, run by volunteers and harnesses and supports local communities.

After reaching out to the guys at the Open Source Geospatial Laboratory they very kindly agreed to sponsor the inaugural meetup in November 2014 and so Maptime Southampton was born!

I must admit that I was heading into the unknown and quite nervous – not knowing if anyone would show up at all. Thankfully 14 excellently-enthusiastic people turned up for our inaugural meetup we had a really good brainstorm session. As a group we discussed all the aspects of what we wanted this new community to become and the many things that we wanted to learn together. I was so pleased to come away from that first evening with a really long list of ideas and subjects to cover in future events, and I was really excited for the future of Maptime Southampton.

Since that initial meetup we have had two more and they have been great successes with 20 people at each. We have covered OpenStreetMap, Mapbox Studio and Leaflet and have already started planning a QGIS workshop for our next monthly meetup. I am also lucky enough to now have four offers of sponsor – a great sign that there is real interest in what we’re doing.

Other chapters have been springing up around Europe and there is now another UK chapter, Maptime West London (@MaptimeWLON). There will be a regional Maptime meetup at the forthcoming FOSS4G-Europe in Como, Italy and it would be great to see more activities like this at other events and conferences.

Maptime is a very effective way to learn new skills, brush up on others and also teach other people. Teaching can be really rewarding and there is a great sense of pride in passing on knowledge to others. There is a growing range of lessons and resources and Maptime HQ have some really exciting ideas for the future.

I would encourage anyone in the mapping/geo industries to start a local chapter – it’s a great place to learn a tonne of new stuff, share knowledge and socialise with like-minded people. Organising a Maptime chapter has been fun and rewarding and I am so excited to learn more at our future events alongside a really great group of people. I have got loads of ideas about different formats for our meetups and also plan to have social outings.

If you’re interested in starting up a chapter then visit for more information. The whole Maptime community is really supportive and it’s a great thing to be part of!”

You can read the article on xyHT here and read about regular Maptimer Nicholas Duggan’s experiences here.

GitHub for cartographers

“GitHub is a web-based hosting service for software development projects that use the Git revision control system. GitHub offers both paid plans for private repositories, and free accounts for open source projects.” – Wikipedia

So, I’ve only recently discovered the potential for cartographers to use GitHub.

On the face of it, GitHub is a platform for sharing source code and collaborating with others on projects – seemingly an exclusive club for coders – but I have discovered that this is simply not the case – there is much more to it and anyone can use it to share almost anything online.

Some cartographers have been using it for years now to share map-making resources; from symbols to software source code. As examples, the OpenStreetMap community are very active on GitHub and the UK QGIS User Group use it to share and collaborate.

My own experiences

When I first started looking into using GitHub myself, I came across this great article by Lauren Orsini on readwrite. The title ‘Don’t get scared, get started’ appealed to me as it summed up my sentiments at the time, and a line in the opening paragraph really jumped out to me; “Because it’s a social network that has completely changed the way we work.” Now social networks are something I’m familiar with – like most people nowadays, I use them regularly. This made GitHub seem immediately more approachable to me and I began thinking about it in a new light.

Once you start using it, you can see how the concept is similar to Facebook –  if you just replace ‘posts/photos’ with ‘files’ and ‘friends’ with ‘fellow geeks’. You can follow others and even star (Like) other peoples ‘files’. GitHub can be used to share all types of files, from PNG icons to geoJSON and CSV. It will store binary files (not text) happily alongside any code so you can share things like ESRI Shapefiles (.shp), True Type Fonts (.ttf), Bitmaps (.bmp) etc.

So, I have recently used it to share cartographic stylesheets, both at work (lots more to come) and personally. I am also currently working on some QGIS stylesheets (QML) for use with OSM Shapefiles from Geofabrik.

I use GitHub for Windows which makes it really easy to get files online straight from your desktop. The version control is really good and fully automatic. It maintains a snapshot of all your commits so you can always access previous versions of your work.

Some cool stuff…

Another awesome feature of GitHub is that it renders GeoJSON automatically on to a nice, interactive MapBox map and these are now diffable and customisable. This is really powerful for open geodata.

Here are some more examples of how GitHub is being used to share cartogarphic stylesheets:

Ross McDonald’s QGIS stylesheets (QML)

A CartoCSS template for OSM from MapBox

Standard OSM style re-implemented in CartoCSS

Carto Hack Camp

Ordnance Survey are running a hack day event for cartography!!

This unique event is on the 20th February 2014 and the winner will be offered a 6 to 9 week paid internship – a chance to work in the OS CartoDesign team!

See HERE for more details and sign up HERE

If you have any questions about the event then please email:

Carto Hack Camp
Carto Hack Camp

The art of cartography

Many definitions of cartography refer to it as a mix of science and art. This post will focus on the art element.

The artistic side of cartography is what attracted me to it as a career path – it is a method of visual communication through which you can exercise your creativity. It is the creative process that I really enjoy – taking something from an idea right through to completion.

There is no such thing as right or wrong with regard to maps – they are an interpretation of geographic phenomena which can be either accurate or pure fantasy. There are strong links between the worlds of art and cartography and some of my favourite map designs sit in this space.

This article has some great examples of ‘creative cartography’ from 15 artists

Here are some examples of artistic maps that I have enjoyed recently:

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Yarr, Pirate Maps

Stamen Maps – Watercolour

Below The Boat

You can also find more examples on my pin board

2/8/2013Just found this article with some awesome examples of map art

Small data

‘Big data’ is a current technology trend. It is a new industry in itself and concerns the capture, storage,search, sharing, transfer, analysis,and visualisation of large and complex datasets.

“90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” – IBM

One of the challenges with big data is visualisation – how do you visualise such vast amounts of data and make it legible and useful? The geospatial industry has an obvious role to play here and lots of companies have been set up to answer such questions with CartoDB being one good example.

Maps showing large datasets are getting a lot of publicity (I have posted quite a few in previous posts) so I wanted to just showcase a few great maps which depict either a single theme or  a small amount of data…

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You can see more maps that I pin here

Maptember is fast approaching

Maptember is fast approaching…

Consisting of 15 map-related events, September is crammed full of great geo and carto events all taking place in Great Britain. Geo professionals from every corner of the globe will converge to our shores to share knowledge about many map related topics.

I’ll be missing it all as baby Glynn number 2 is imminent but my CartoDesign colleagues are participating in 3 of the events, including 2 of the ‘headliners’  – AGI Geocommunity ’13, FOSS4G 2013 and the British Cartographic Society’s Annual Symposium.

We have entered a few maps of our own into the various galleries and awards. Here are a few of mine:

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If you are attending any of the Maptember events then I hope you have a fantastic time. It’s a really exciting time to be involved with mapping!

MapBox: Carto awesomeness

MapBox is awesome!

Since being founded in 2010 the company has quickly become a poster-boy for online mapping, especially where OpenStreetMap is concerned. With their tagline ‘Fast and beautiful maps’ and their dedication to using and developing open source software and open data, MapBox is now one of the most talked-about brands in the mapping industry.

I believe that a big reason for this rapid rise to awesomeness is their commitment to design. High quality design is at the forefront of everything they do – from their great website and slick, intuitive UX to their beautifully crafted maps including MapBox Streets as used by Foursquare.

All tools developed by MapBox fit their brand identity and are easy-to-use, including TileMill, their open source map design studio. TileMill is somewhat revolutionary in its approach to map-making and sharing. Although its styling language, CartoCSS, is not the first of its kind it, it is certainly the finest example of CSS-based cartography and makes creating cool maps relatively simple, allowing Photoshop-like effects.

Map-making was, for many many years a specialist craft, largely dominated by National Mapping Agencies and other large cartography houses. With the recent boom of open source geo tools and open geodata, mapping has become democratised to the point where anyone with a computer and internet access can now make maps and carry out basic analytics.

MapBox have really embraced these recent developments and are continually pushing the boundaries. As a cartographer it is great to see a company that values cartographic design as a core asset. (It amazes me that so much GIS and web mapping software ignores quality design!)

I will continue to follow MapBox keenly and also use and recommend their mapping tools to fellow mapmakers.

Dark maps trending

Have you noticed the amount of maps with black or dark backgrounds that you see online these days!? It is a common trend to use light-on-dark to create a striking visual hierarchy and most of the maps that go viral tend to have adopted this style. I’m sure that has something to do with the aesthetic appeal and the initial impact of these maps. Using a dark background leaves room for many light colours which can create great contrast for any overlays that immediately become the maps focal feature as they often appear to glow.

Here are some examples:

The majority of traditional maps use white (or similar) as the background colour and this can be largely attributed to the distribution mechanism which would usually be paper. The majority of paper is white and it also brings cost savings with regard to ink usage – it wouldn’t be wise to smother a sheet of white paper with dark ink!

With modern mapping technologies and the internet as the main method for sharing maps, any print concerns that restricted design decisions in the past are no longer an issue. Many maps these days will never be printed, just pored over on PC screens and mobile devices.

There is something cool, aesthetically pleasing and eye-catching about dark maps.

It may just be that this bold technique portrays a certain element of rebellion – a refreshing break from tradition.