Announcing EveryBlock’s new maps

Aug032012

Today we’ve got a geeky but exciting-to-us announcement: we’ve changed EveryBlock’s maps to use a new map provider.

(Fair warning: this is pretty geeky stuff, and I suspect most EveryBlock users won’t really care or notice anything different. But if you’re interested in technical details, keep reading.)

Maps have always been a key part of EveryBlock. We started in 2005 as chicagocrime.org, one of the original Google Maps mashups, back in the day when dynamic, draggable Web maps were a new and exciting thing. (How quaint!)

When we launched EveryBlock in 2008, we designed our own maps, rather than going with a third-party provider like Google. We did that for a number of reasons, as outlined in this 2008 blog post, my Where 2.0 keynote and this technical article EveryBlock cofounder Paul Smith wrote for A List Apart.

The main reason was control over design. At the time, using a third-party provider such as Google meant that your maps would use Google’s default color scheme and design elements. We thought that, as nice as Google’s maps were, they weren’t great for data visualization. We also wanted to show the world that there was life beyond Google Maps. So we made our own.

Fast forward four years, and the map landscape has changed. Google made it possible to change design of their maps. Companies like Foursquare and Apple have started using their own map designs rather than relying on Google. Open-source mapping projects such as Mapnik got much more mature and easier to use. The OpenStreetMap project steadily improved.

At the same time, we realized making and maintaining our own maps was becoming less and less of a priority for our team. We’d much rather be building user-facing features like full-text search than maintaining our own maps. It not only required us to do a lot of upfront work for each new EveryBlock city, it put us on the hook for updating the maps whenever streets were added or changed in our 16 cities. (We rarely if ever updated our maps, which meant they went out of date in various pockets of cities — which is another good reason to offload map creation.)

So today, we’ve started using maps generated by MapBox, based on street data from OpenStreetMap. MapBox offers a slick product that lets you customize maps in many ways. We managed to get the MapBox maps to look similar to our old, custom-made ones. Plus, the new maps should be faster, and their underlying street data should be more accurate. I wish MapBox existed back in 2007 when we started building EveryBlock!

Give the new maps a shot and let us know what you think.

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