At The New Builders, we’re always excited to see tools that give developers a chunk of new functionality and present it in a way that’s easy to interact with.

Mapbox is one such technology, because it unlocks the sophisticated mapping capabilities that so many of today’s applications need, and makes them available on a huge range of platforms (web, iOS and Android) and languages (JavaScript, Python and the command line), as well as a comprehensive set of simple REST APIs.

In our latest episode, we spoke to Mapbox’s Ryan Baumann (@RyanBaumann) about some of the unique advantages of Mapbox, the coolest things developers are building with it and the industries and use cases where he thinks mapping technology will really take off in 2017.

The Value of Real-time Mapping

Today’s mapping technologies must offer more than just overlays of data points on a static map, as Ryan points out during our interview. In a data-hungry world, it’s not enough to just produce a map once a year, or only update it when something major changes. The real value of mapping tools comes when you start to update maps in real time, or combine static and dynamic data to unlock new possibilities.

The reason apps like Google Maps and Citymapper are so popular isn’t just that they give you accurate maps, but that they leverage your smartphone’s location services with, for example, real-time public transport data to help you get around your city faster and with less stress.

If you want to build responsive apps yourself and add real-time mapping capabilities, it’s important to have a lot of power and flexibility at both the front end (which is where Mapbox comes in) and the back-end, where your data is coming from.

Imagine your organization operates across a large work-site with vehicles moving around it – an airport, a quarry, or a city with a fleet of garbage trucks. You might want to map and analyze the routes of these vehicles in real time to help the drivers coordinate their work and make better decisions. Yet a query that seems relatively intuitive for a human – such as “which of my vehicles are in the repair depot at the moment?” – requires a lot of complex logic for an application to understand, and for a database to process.

Traditionally, this kind of functionality – for example, drawing complex polygons and returning any records whose latitude and longitude coordinates fall within those polygons – was only provided by complex, expensive Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

A New Generation of Geospatially Enabled Apps

Today, developers have access to tools that achieve advanced GIS capabilities with much greater simplicity and ease of use. IBM Cloudant, for example, offers optimized geospatial queries as standard. By storing geospatial data in GeoJSON format and using sophisticated algorithms to index it automatically, Cloudant makes it easy to develop mapping features that can work at the scale and speed required by today’s web, mobile and IoT apps.

Moreover, because Cloudant’s advanced data replication and syncing is designed for offline first app development, it’s relatively simple to provide geospatial functionality even while the user is offline. If your users are field engineers working on asset maintenance in remote areas, you can provide offline mapping capabilities that help them keep their bearings even when they don’t have a data connection.

With tools like Cloudant and Mapbox, developers can integrate highly sophisticated maps into their applications, and present the data to users in a host of innovative ways, all without the pains of traditional GIS solutions.

In fact, IBM has even embedded Mapbox in Cloudant’s web management dashboard, so you can build queries interactively and simply copy-and-paste the resulting API call into your app’s code. As a result, you can cut development time dramatically, even for highly complex geospatial analyses.


A crime data visualization app utilizing Cloudant and Mapbox. To learn more, visit: http://crimedemos.mybluemix.net/

A crime data visualization app utilizing Cloudant and Mapbox. To learn more, visit: http://crimedemos.mybluemix.net/

Taking Mapping into New Industries

Ryan made the point that mapping isn’t just for born-on-the-web companies or industries where location-based analysis is already commonplace, such as retail, advertising and utilities. In fact, the biggest opportunities could be in more traditional sectors, such as government, agriculture and heavy industries. Imagine a world where farmers round up their sheep by tracking them with a smartphone app, or garbage trucks can reroute themselves in real time based on live traffic patterns.

As Ryan says, these organizations often have all the data they need already – they’ve already done the hard work of building systems that collect geospatial data, taking aerial photos of their sites, and so on. The challenge is to help them realize that they can use this data in much more exciting ways than ever before.

With Mapbox and Cloudant, the tools are available, affordable, and easy to use.

To gain insight into Ryan’s vision for the future of mapping technologies – and find out why “extrusion” is a lot less painful than it sounds – listen to the full podcast. For more on Ryan himself, visit ryanbaumann.com, or to learn more about Mapbox and Cloudant, check out mapbox.com and the Cloudant Geo webpage.

For more stories from The New Builders podcast, find us on IBM developerWorks TV, SoundCloud, iTunes and Google Play. Please send your thoughts, feedback and guest ideas in the comments.

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