Mapping Open Data with CartoDB @ Madrid/New York, Spain/USA

logos_full_cartodb_lightIf you have been following Open Steps, you know that a great part of the project consists on running a workshop on Open Data visualisation in the different cities visited. In these sessions, after going through some theory, we get hands on and teach how geo-referenced datasets can be represented on a map. We wanted to teach an easy but powerful tool that could be used by everyone, so we chose CartoDB. And it was a good choice!

Greatly based on Open Source software, this online platform has been conceived to serve journalists, designers, scientists and a large etcetera in the task of creating beautiful and informative interactive maps. The developers behind the tool had Open Data in mind since the first days and fact is that importing and visualizing datasets couldn’t be easier and faster. In addition, great features such as dynamic visualizations, support for your favourite Open Data formats and the endless possibilities of its Javascript API allow beginners but also big organisations (NASA, The Guardian, National Geographic among others) to tell stories with numbers.

Andrew Hill, member of the team, took some time and answered our questions about the creation and philosophy of the tool, its Open Source core and the importance of Open Data for educational, scientific and social development. We invite you to find out more about CartoDB here:

1) Hi Andrew, can you introduce yourself briefly and explain us what CartoDB is?

Hi, I’m the senior scientist at Vizzuality and CartoDB. CartoDB is our online mapping platform that we built to let people make beautiful interactive maps easily.

2) Your company, Vizzuality, is based between Madrid and New York. What is the story behind its creation? Besides CartoDB, are you working on other products or have other activities?

Vizzuality was created by our co founders, Sergio Alvarez and Javier de la Torre, both from Madrid. Our first office was in Madrid where we started to grow the company. It wasn’t until a couple years later that Javier and I moved to New York to start the office here. The idea was just to grow and explore new collaborations.

Right now, our biggest focus by far is CartoDB. There is a lot of innovation around maps on the web right now and we are really enjoying contributing to it. CartoDB has become more than we could ever have imagined and now we can see so many ways to keep making it more incredible, so I’m sure we’re going to be focused on it for some time to come.

3) Let’s focus on CartoDB, since it is the tool we are teaching on our workshop. Who is currently using it? Journalists, designers, developers? Can you point us to remarkable projects making use of all the possibilities the tool has to offer?

Yeah, all of those people, plus students, governments, city planners, nonprofits, you name it 🙂

Sure, I think one of the best places to find recent examples is our blog or on Twitter. Some highlights include:

http://illustreets.co.uk/

http://clearstreets.org/

http://here.com/livingcities/

Twitter has been using us for a lot of quick visualizations

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2013/syrias-refugees/index.html

http://sweeten.com/maps

and many more…

4) CartoDB, as the rest of your products, is based on open source software and its code is released to the public domain. What is your motivation behind this decision? For your company and the development of your products, what is the impact of choosing an Open Source license?

We have always been committed open source. Largely it has to do with our background as a scientific company, working with and interacting with scientific research it seemed obvious to us that science benefits greatly from open source. Not only does it benefit from it, it almost seems irresponsible to do anything else.

With the importance of maps in society, I feel it also seems irresponsible to rely on black boxes for mapping. CartoDB doesn’t hide anything from you, it is there for you to criticize, improve or change as you need.

5) As we know, Open Source does not necessary exclude commercial products. What is the business-model for your products?

We offer a lot of incentives on top of our hosted service. Including our caching, backups, uptime, maintenance, upgrades, etc. With paid hosting plans you also get dedicated support and access to the foremost experts of CartoDB to help you become a better mapper, data visualization expert, or GIS expert on our platform. So there is a lot of benefits that using our hosted platform can bring to businesses and individuals and we are seeing already that businesses are being built around that, it feels great.

6) Let’s talk about the community around CartoDB. Do you receive feedback from users or from developers to improve the tool? How important is for an Open Source-based product to count with such contributions?

We have received a lot of feedback from our users including feature requests. We also do our best to contribute to the open source libraries that are used by CartoDB, so it is very much a community effort and that community is what makes it all possible for sure.

7) On our workshop, we teach how to import and visualise Open Data with CartoDB. Is the tool specially thought to be used with Open Data? In your opinion, why does Open Data and its visualisation matter?

We think about open data when developing CartoDB all the time. I wouldn’t say that is the sole target of our tool development, a lot of private companies are using CartoDB to analyse and map data that is part of a business offering, so not open. However, we think that visualizing open data can be a very powerful method of educating and demonstrating it’s contents and importance. The title of a recent article about some maps I created shows that I’m not alone in thinking that.

8) We recently saw that you have released great new features (dynamic visualisation, live data feeds,…). How do you set the priorities of the features you are developing? What are the next features you are working on? And in general, how does the future for CartoDB look like?

I’d say we balance three things as best we can when going for new features in CartoDB: what users express they want or need, what we see as improvements that can be made in performance, simplicity or design, and functionality that we see as innovations that we hope users will love 🙂

Thanks Andrew!

 

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Open Steps

Open Steps is an independent blog aggregating worldwide information around Open Cultures in form of articles, videos and other resources. Its aim is to document Open Knowledge (OK) related projects and organisations either using Open Data, promoting Open Source technologies, launching Open Government initiatives, following the principles behind Open Science, supporting the release of information or practising Data Journalism. In this way, this site seeks to continue, this time virtually, the globetrotter project realised between July 2013 to July 2014 and discover further OK projects all around the world. Subscribe to our newsletter to be part of this amazing journey!

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