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Get To Grips with Slippy Maps

Online mapping has definitely hit mainstream. Google Maps made ‘slippy maps’ popular and made it easy for any developer to quickly add a dynamic map to his or her website. You can now find maps for store locations, friends nearby, upcoming events, and embedded in blogs.

In this tutorial we’ll show you how to easily add a map to your site using the Mapstraction mapping library. There are many map providers available to choose from, each with slightly different functionality, design, and terms of service. Mapstraction makes deciding which provider to use easy by allowing you to write your mapping code once, and then easily switch providers.

Assemble the pieces

Utilizing any of the mapping library typically consists of similar overall steps:

  1. Create an HTML div to hold the map
  2. Include the Javascript libraries
  3. Create the Javascript Map element
  4. Set the initial map center and zoom level
  5. Add markers, lines, overlays and more

Create the Map Div

The HTML div is where the map will actually show up on your page. It needs to have a unique id, because we’ll refer to that later to actually put the map here. This also lets you have multiple maps on a page, by creating individual divs and Javascript map elements. The size of the div also sets the height and width of the map. You set the size using CSS, either inline with the element, or via a CSS reference to the element id or class. For this example, we’ll use inline styling.

<div id="map" style="width: 400px; height: 400px;"></div>

Include Javascript libraries

A mapping library is like any Javascript library. You need to include the library in your page before you use the methods of that library. For our tutorial, we’ll need to include at least two libraries: Mapstraction, and the mapping API(s) we want to display. Our first example we’ll use the ubiquitous Google Maps library. However, you can just as easily include Yahoo, MapQuest, or any of the other supported libraries.

Another important aspect of the mapping libraries is that many of them require an API key. You will need to agree to the terms of service, and get an API key these.

<script src="" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

Create the Map

Great, we’ve now put in all the pieces we need to start actually creating our map. This is as simple as creating a new Mapstraction object with the id of the HTML div we created earlier, and the name of the mapping provider we want to use for this map.

With several of the mapping libraries you will need to set the map center and zoom level before the map will appear. The map centering actually triggers the initialization of the map.

var mapstraction = new Mapstraction('map','google');
var myPoint = new LatLonPoint(37.404,-122.008);
mapstraction.setCenterAndZoom(myPoint, 10);

A note about zoom levels. The setCenterAndZoom function takes two parameters, the center as a LatLonPoint, and a zoom level that has been defined by mapping libraries. The current usage is for zoom level 1 to be “zoomed out”, or view the entire earth – and increasing the zoom level as you zoom in. Typically 17 is the maximum zoom, which is about the size of a house.

Different mapping providers have different quality of zoomed in maps over different parts of the world. This is a perfect reason why using a library like Mapstraction is very useful, because you can quickly change mapping providers to accommodate users in areas that have bad coverage with some maps.

To switch providers, you just need to include the Javascript library, and then change the second parameter in the Mapstraction creation. Or, you can call the switch method to dynamically switch the provider.

So for Yahoo Maps (demo):

var mapstraction = new Mapstraction('map','yahoo');

or Microsoft Maps (demo):

var mapstraction = new Mapstraction('map','microsoft');

want a 3D globe in your browser? try FreeEarth (demo):

var mapstraction = new Mapstraction('map','freeearth');

or even OpenStreetMap (free your data!) (demo):

var mapstraction = new Mapstraction('map','openstreetmap');

Visit the Mapstraction multiple map demo page for an example of how easy it is to have many maps on your page, each with a different provider.

Adding Markers

While adding your first map is fun, and you can probably spend hours just sliding around, the point of adding a map to your site is usually to show the location of something. So now you want to add some markers. There are a couple of ways to add to your map.

The simplest is directly creating markers. You could either hard code this into a rather static page, or dynamically generate these using whatever tools your site is built on.

var marker = new Marker( new LatLonPoint(37.404,-122.008) );
marker.setInfoBubble("It's easy to add maps to your site");
mapstraction.addMarker( marker );

There is a lot more you can do with markers, including changing the icon, adding timestamps, automatically opening the bubble, or making them draggable.

While it is straight-forward to create markers one by one, there is a much easier way to create a large set of markers. And chances are, you can make it very easy by extending some data you already are sharing: RSS.

Specifically, using GeoRSS you can easily add a large set of markers directly to a map. GeoRSS is a community built standard (like Microformats) that added geographic markup to RSS and Atom entries. It’s as simple as adding <georss:point>42 -83</georss:point> to your feeds to share items via GeoRSS. Once you’ve done that, you can add that feed as an ‘overlay’ to your map using the function:


Mapstraction also supports KML for many of the mapping providers. So it’s easy to add various data sources together with your own data. Check out Mapufacture for a growing index of available GeoRSS feeds and KML documents.

Play with your new toys

Mapstraction offers a lot more functionality you can utilize for demonstrating a lot of geographic data on your website. It also includes geocoding and routing abstraction layers for making sure your users know where to go. You can see more on the Mapstraction website:

About the author

Andrew Turner is a neogeographer and co-founder of Mapufacture, a personalizable geospatial search and aggregation company. He helps expand the GeoWeb by advocating open standards and developing tools such as GeoPress to make it easy to add location to your blog or CMS. Andrew also wrote O’Reilly’s Introduction to Neogeography.

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