Making Maps with Tilemill

TileMill is a piece of map-making software for rendering beautiful maps. You can export the maps to MapBox, for a Google Maps feel or combine with a tool like D3.js for interactive infographics. There are a surprising number of data sources: weather, earthquake locations, crime statistics, and ship and plane locations. A lot of this is from federal and municipal agencies (e.g. OpenDataPhilly).

I like old pen and ink drawings, this first render uses thin, dark blue lines, like pen ink. I’m working on tracking down good sea monster images and the right typography for this image. This render would work well zoomed in on Philly, if I marked historical sites.

For the background I scanned a piece of paper I made out of cattails, a prolific swamp-dwelling plant. In so doing I discovered that the paper must be very flat – scanners offer high resolution but at expense of a short focal length and over-exposing the image, leading to blurry or bright patches.


I added neighborhood lines (thanks Philadelphia Police!) although I had some difficulty getting them to line up with the county lines. When playing with this software, you quickly discover how many adjustments have been made to map coordinates over the year – this makes dealing with dates and times look like a piece of cake.


What I really want to add to this map is real-time ship locations, which you can get from, but I’m waiting to hear back on my application. For now, I have to be satisfied with ports and wind speeds, which is still pretty cool. This shows arrows from measuring stations in South America (as of yesterday). Ideally I want this to resemble the weather report, but I haven’t mastered that aspect of the software yet.


I also scanned a large piece of copper I happened to have around for engraving, and while the maps are nearly unintelligible, they are spectacular, texturally.

This shows mountains in the Western United States:


And this shows how the copper interacts with the water –