Acetate Logo.png

I am excited to share we are releasing a new way to visualize your dynamic data geographically – by combining it with the map rather than just on top of the map. Acetate is a brand-new custom styled map that is designed for visualizing data and reintroduces the idea of a multi-layered basemap. Built into GeoIQ and GeoCommons, Acetate is immediately usable by everyone to easily build compelling maps, an also by developers to mix and share.

We took a moment to step back and reconsider how we combine our data with maps – how do we really focus on the data and information and not have it conflict with the basmap that is there to provide context. We partnered with the design minds like the team at Stamen and Justin O’Beirne at 41Latitude to peel apart and rebuild the map from the ground up. We toned down the base geography to provide a subtle background that can be optionally combined with hillshading to indicate terrain. We looked at labels, their placement, size, and colors in order that they can show up appropriately on top of visualized data, indicating the size and relative importance of cities so that readers can easily move between the information to the relative context of place and back to the data.

DC Unemployment by Ward at GeoIQ-1.pngBut we wanted to do more than just provide a simple basemap. Acetate actually peels apart the pieces of what has become the common basemap: geography, terrain, roads, and placename labels and provides them as seperate layers for your visualizations. By providing these independently, you can inject data in between these layers and then apply them back on top – and still keep your data dynamic, filterable and inspectable. Go ahead and check our our preview page or any of the example maps we’ve made:

Using Acetate, you can readily combine a base geographic map, then layer areal demographic data, then with roads and infrastructure, add your points of interest, and then finally add placename labels. We’ve buit it into GeoIQ and GeoCommons as one of our basemaps. So when you choose Acetate simple or Acetate Terrain, we automatically add in the Roads and Labels layers for you and put your data as a middle layer. You can then switch around the layers, adding or removing them to design the map as you want it to look. We’re also providing the layers as a tile service for developers to integrate into their own maps and applications. And lastly, very enterprising developers can download the openly licensed stylesheets and components to build their own Acetate servers from our repository.

Read on for why we designed Acetate…

Why we designed Acetate

In 1996, MapQuest brought maps to the web and then in 2005, Google changed the way we interact and use maps. The idea of the slippy map made it incredibly easy to pan and zoom through the entire world. Since then users and developers have been continually adding more information and data on top of the map to show directions, demographics information, points of interest and friends, weather, and more.

Gradually, the result has been the publication of digital maps that have a high volume of information, but we began to lose the actual context of place and infrastructure that we understand from the world we actually live in. Thematic data was draped over roads, highways and places to the point where the data is the only thing that is visible on the map. In addition, the maps we are using were designed for specific purposes – navigation by automobiles, maybe with some terrain data or more recently modal specific maps such as bike trails.

At FortiusOne, we wanted to rethink the basemap. We generally focus on the dynamic and quantitative data on the map, but we also want to ensure that users are creating visually compelling, readable, and most importantly, understandable maps. And we wanted to retain the ability for users to immediately design, explore, and share their maps.

Cartography has a long history in guiding proper design of maps so that data is interwoven with place – something that we’ve lost with our digital maps and numerous layers on top of generic and ubiquitous basemaps. Acetate is meant to address this by providing you with the tools to combine your data with muted but useful basemap information.

Acetate Layers.png

How Acetate Works

What that typically looks like is to put your area data such as census blocks, watersheds, commuter information and general polygon data above the terrain, but below the road and labels. You can then put on roads and then probably point thematic data like price per house, number of checkin’s, funding amount for a business, or points of interest such as metro stations. Lastly, the placename labels are put on top to easily identify states and regions, city names, neighborhoods and other locations. In list form:

  • Labels
  • Point Data
  • Roads
  • Area Data
  • Terrain (Optional)
  • Simple Basemap

Under the hood we’re using the best open data from OpenStreetMap, Natural Earth, and NASA SRTM. These are combined with Tilestache to provide the individual layers and composite editing.

Stay tuned for more information on the tools we used to build Acetate and send us your example Acetate maps!

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