Messrs. TileMill, MapBox & MapBox.js

Last week was an incredibly busy week at the Fielsdschool. The first half was dedicated to planning our final project as a group; while the second half shifted to working in teams (Tech, Design and Content) to start building. By Friday, the tech team had managed to successfully generate, wrangle and clean a formidable bucket of data, and were moving quickly onto constructing visualisations. It’s not too much of a giveaway to say that one of the visualisation toolkits we’re using is a TileMill, Mapbox and Mapbox.js combination. These 3 tools provide the best way for us to build beautiful map tiles and map layers offline (TileMill), host them online (Mapbox) and carefully customise their functionality (Mabox.js). So far, I am finding a lot to reflect on and/or value in these tools:

The ‘return on investment’: The objects you can create using TileMill are disproportionately delightful (there’s no other word for it) to the amount of work it takes to gain and apply the skills needed to use the application. On Friday morning, we built two test maps that meet our purpose, look distinctive and contain great features like image pop-ups. To do this on top of TileMill’s most basic functionality required some targeted Googling and roughly half an hour. For me, this makes TileMill very valuable: while it isn’t necessarily easy-to-use straight ‘out of the box’ without some existing knowledge (i.e. how digital maps are put together and basic HTML + CSS), the reward for learning those basic skills and applying what feels like only slightly more effort is  incredibly significant.

Learning in context: Working with these tools for the final project has reinforced crucial skills in a context that means these skills are more likely to stick. This can be contrasted against Codecademy’s one flaw that another Fieldschooler pointed out earlier: learning skills in a vacuum can undermine effectively deploying those skills outside of that vacuum. So, while I may know how to call a JavaScript function, I might not have a complete picture of when or why I do that. Happily, though, using TileMIll +  MapBox for a distinct purpose means that I am gaining, for example, a more holistic idea of problem solving; and has meant that I know where the rest of the machinery fits in (i.e. how to test your hosted map before you upload it permanently).

(Always) more to learn: Tuesday’s plan is to leap boots n’ all into MapBox.js. It will be interesting to see how this experience shapes my reflections on this set of tools since, generally speaking, I have found MapBox.js significantly harder to use than TileMill or MapBox. Watch this space for an update on how using a JS Library challenges my delight.


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