Steve Bennett blogs

…about maps, open data, Git, and other tech.

Tag Archives: gis

Web map projections: the bare minimum you need to know

TileMill wants to know: what projection is this data?

TileMill wants to know: what projection is this data?

If you’re making maps, you will probably need to know something about cartographic projections. Here’s the minimum.

  1. The globe is round, maps are flat. Each of the hundreds of different methods for converting from round to flat is a projection.
  2. When you have a latitude and longitude, you have unprojected coordinates. Anything you can do with these doesn’t require choosing a projection.
  3. Most consumer web maps use the Web Mercator projection, also known as the Google Web Map de facto standard, EPSG:900913 (“google” written with numbers), EPSG:3857, etc.
  4. Government agencies, desktop apps and other stuff often use the WGS84 projection, also known as EPSG:4326.
  5. It is technically straightforward to convert from unprojected coordinates to any projection, or between projections, using GIS packages or command line tools like GDAL. It can be slow to do this on the fly.
  6. Each projection is defined using a Spatial Reference System. An SRS can also define systems of unprojected coordinates, and even other planets.
  7. There are half a dozen common formats for describing the SRS, including:
    1. SRID, an identifier including the identifier scheme, like “EPSG:3857”, “ESRI:102113” or “SR-ORG:7483”.
    2. proj4, a short piece of text with lots of + and =, used by a tools like GDAL and TileMill. It looks like:
      +proj=longlat +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +no_defs 
    3. Well-known text (WKT), a verbose format that can also be used to define spatial data. For example:
  8. The tool you are working with (eg, TileMill) will only support certain projections. You need to:
    1. Find data that is in the right projection (Web Mercator is the safest), or convert it; and
    2. Tell the tool what projection it’s in, if it can’t guess. You will have to pick from a list, or use one of the formats above, that it supports.

Super lightweight map websites with Github

Github, the online version control repository host for Git, recently added support for GeoJSON files. Sounds boring, right? It actually lets you do something very cool: build your own “dots on a map” website with virtually zero code.

An example of GeoJSON on Github I whipped up.

An example of GeoJSON on Github I whipped up. Click it.

Here’s what you need to do.

  1. Get a Github repository if you don’t have one already. They’re free.
  2. Create a GeoJSON file. You can export to this format from various tools. One easy way to get started would be to upload a CSV file with locations to then download the GeoJSON from there. Or even easier, use to place dots, lines and polygons with a graphical tool. It can save directly to your GitHub.
  3. Here’s what my test file looks like:
     "type": "FeatureCollection",
     "features": [{ "type": "Feature",
     "geometry": {
     "type": "Point",
     "coordinates": [144.9,-37.8]
     "properties": {
     "title": "Scooter",
     "description": "Here's a dot",
     "marker-size": "medium",
     "marker-symbol": "scooter",
     "marker-color": "#a59",
     "stroke": "#555555",
     "stroke-opacity": 1.0,
     "stroke-width": 2,
     "fill": "#555555",
     "fill-opacity": 0.5
     { "type": "Feature",
     "geometry": {
     "type": "Point",
     "coordinates": [144.4,-37.5]
     "properties": {
     "title": "Cafe",
     "description": "Coffee and stuff",
     "marker-size": "medium",
     "marker-symbol": "cafe",
     "marker-color": "#f99",
     "stroke": "#555555",
     "stroke-opacity": 1.0,
     "stroke-width": 2,
     "fill": "#555555",
     "fill-opacity": 0.5

    It’s worth validating with GeoJSONLint.

  4. Commit this file, say test.geojson, to your Github repository. You can get a preview of it in Github:

    The test GeoJSON file, as seen on GitHub.

    The test GeoJSON file, as seen on GitHub.

  5. Now the really cool part. Embed the map into your own website. This is stupidly easy:
    <!DOCTYPE html>
    <script src=""></script>

    If you don’t have a website, site44 is an extremely easy way to get started. You place HTML files into your DropBox, and they get automagicked onto the web, with a subdomain:

Now what?

That’s it! What’s especially interesting about the hosting on GitHub is it’s a very easy way to have a lightweight shared geospatial database of points, lines or polygons. Here’s how you could add dots to my map:

  1. Fork my repository
  2. Add a few points, by modifying the GeoJSON file
  3. Commit your changes to your repository.
  4. Send me a pull request
  5. I accept the changes, and voila – now your points are shown with mine.

Using this method, we have a “review before publish” workflow, and a full version history of every change.


This is a nifty tool for prototyping social mapping applications, but it obviously won’t cut it for production purposes:

  • No support for different layers: all the dots are always shown
  • No support for different basemaps: always the same OpenStreetMap style
  • No authoring tools: you must use something else to generate the GeoJSON
  • Obligatory “rendered with (heart) by GitHub” footer.

Soon you’ll want to build a proper application, using tools like MapBox, CloudMade, CartoDB, Leaflet etc.

Terrain in TileMill: a walkthrough for non-GIS types

I created a basemap for with TileMill and OpenStreetMap. It looked…ok.


But it felt like there was something missing. Terrain. Elevation. Hills. Mountains. I’d put all that in the too hard basket, until a quick google turned up two blog posts from MapBox, the wonderful people who make TileMill. “Working with terrain data” and “Using TileMill’s raster-colorizer“. Putting these two together, plus a little OCD, led me to this:


Slight improvement! Now, I felt that the two blog posts skipped a couple of little steps, and were slightly confusing on the difference between the two approaches, so here’s my step by step. (MapBox, please feel free to reuse any of this content.)

My setup is an 8 core Ubuntu VM with 32GB RAM and lots of disk space. I have OpenStreetMap loaded into PostGIS.

1. Install the development version of TileMill

You need to do this if you want to use the raster-colorizer. You want this while developing your terrain style, if you want the “snow up high, green valleys below” look. Without it, you have to pre-render the elevation color effect, which is time consuming. If you want to tweak anything (say, to move the snow line slightly), you need to re-render all the tiles.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy.

  1. Get the “install-tilemill” gist (my version works slightly better)
  2. Probably uncomment the mapnik-from-source line (and comment out the other one). I don’t know whether you need the latest mapnik.
  3. Run it. Oh – it will uninstall your existing TileMill. Watch out for that.
  4. Reassemble stuff. The dev version puts projects in ~/Documents/<username/MapBox/project which is weird.

2. Get some terrain data.

The easiest place is the ubiquitous NASA SRTM DEM (digital elevation model) data. You get it from CGIAR. The user interface is awful. You can only download pieces that are 5 degrees by 5 degrees, so Victoria is 4 pieces.

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 10.46.00 PM

If you’re downloading more than about that many, you’ll probably want to automate the process. I wrote this quick script to get all the bits for Australia:

for x in {59..67}; do
for y in {14..21}; do
echo $x,$y
if [ ! -f srtm_${x}_${y}.zip ]; then
echo "Already got it."
unzip '*.zip'

3. Process SRTM .tifs with GDAL.

To have any fun with terrain mapping in TileMill, you need to produce separate layers from the terrain data:

  1. The heightmap itself, so you can colour high elevations differently from low ones.
  2. A “hillshading” layer, where southeast facing slopes are dark, and northwest ones are light. This is what produces the “terrain” illusion.
  3. A “slopeshading” layer, where steep slopes (regardless of aspect) are dark. I’m ambivalent about how useful this is, but you’ll want to play with it.
  4. Contours. These can make your map look AMAZING.
Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 10.53.41 PM

Contours – they’re the best.

In addition, you’ll need some extra processing:

  1. Merge all the .tif’s into one. (I made the mistake of keeping them separate, which makes a lot of extra layers in TileMill). Because they’re GeoTiffs, GDAL can magically merge them without further instruction.
  2. Re-project it (converting it from some random ESPG to Google Web Mercator – can you tell I’m not a real GIS person?)
  3. A bit of scaling here and there.
  4. Generating .tif “overviews”, which are basically smaller versions of the tifs stored inside the same file, so that TileMill doesn’t explode.

Hopefully you already have GDAL installed. It probably came with the development version of TileMill.

Here’s my script for doing all the processing:

echo -n "Merging files: " srtm_*.tif -o srtm.tif
echo -n "Re-projecting: "
gdalwarp -s_srs EPSG:4326 -t_srs EPSG:3785 -r bilinear $f.tif $f-3785.tif

echo -n "Generating hill shading: "
gdaldem hillshade -z 5 $f-3785.tif $f-3785-hs.tif
echo and overviews:

gdaladdo -r average $f-3785-hs.tif 2 4 8 16 32
echo -n "Generating slope files: "
gdaldem slope $f-3785.tif $f-3785-slope.tif
echo -n "Translating to 0-90..."
gdal_translate -ot Byte -scale 0 90 $f-3785-slope.tif $f-3785-slope-scale.tif
echo "and overviews."
gdaladdo -r average $f-3785-slope-scale.tif 2 4 8 16 32
echo -n Translating DEM...
gdal_translate -ot Byte -scale -10 2000 $f-3785.tif $f-3785-scale.tif
echo and overviews.
gdaladdo -r average $f-3785-scale.tif 2 4 8 16 32
#echo Creating contours
gdal_contour -a elev -i 20 $f-3785.tif $f-3785-contour.shp

Take my word for it that the above script does everything I promise. The options I’ve chosen are all pretty standard, except that:

  • I’m exaggerating the hillshading by a factor of 5 vertically (“-z 5”). For no particularly good reason.
  • Contours are generated at 20m intervals (“-i 20”).
  • Terrain is scaled in the range -10 to 2000m. Probably an even lower lower bound would be better (you’d be surprised how much terrain is below sea levels – especially coal mines.) Excessively low terrain results in holes that can’t be styled and turn up white.

4. Load terrain layers into TileMill

Now you have four useful files, so create layers for them. I’d suggest creating them as layers in this order (as seen in TileMill):

  1. srtm-3785-contour.shp – the shapefile containing all the contours.
  2. srtm-3785-hs.tif – the hillshading file.
  3. srtm-3785-slope-scale.tif – the scaled slope shading file.
  4. srtm-3785.tif – the height map itself. (I also generate srtm-3785-scale.tif. The latter is scaled to a 0-255 range, while the former is in metres. I find metres makes more sense.)

For each of these, you must set the projection to 900913 (that’s how you spell GOOGLE in numbers). For the three ‘tifs’, set band=1 in the “advanced” box. I gather that GeoTiffs can have multiple bands of data, and this is the band where TileMill expects to find numeric data to apply colour to.

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 11.06.39 PM

5. Style the layers

Mapbox’s blog posts go into detail about how to do this, so I’ll just copy/paste my styles. The key lessons here are:

  • Very slight differences in opacity when stacking terrain layers make a huge impact on the appearance of your map. Changing the colour of a road doesn’t make that much difference, but with raster data, a slight change can affect every single pixel.
  • There are lots of different raster-comp-ops to try out, but ‘multiply’ is a good default. (Remember, order matters).
  • Carefully work out each individual zoom level. It seems to work best to have hillshading transition to contours around zoom 12-13. The SRTM data isn’t detailed enough to really allow hillshading above zoom 13

My styles:

.hs[zoom <= 15] {
[zoom>=15] { raster-opacity: 0.1; }
[zoom>=13] { raster-opacity: 0.125; }
[zoom=12] { raster-opacity:0.15;}
[zoom<=11] { raster-opacity: 0.12; }
[zoom<=8] { raster-opacity: 0.3; }


// not really convinced about the value of slope shading
.slope[zoom <= 14][zoom >= 10] {
[zoom=14] { raster-opacity:0.05; }
[zoom=13] { raster-opacity:0.05; }
raster-colorizer-default-mode: linear;
raster-colorizer-default-color: transparent;

// this combo is ok
stop(0, white)
stop(5, white)
stop(80, black);


// colour-graded elevation model
.dem {
[zoom >= 10] { raster-opacity: 0.2; }
[zoom = 9] { raster-opacity: 0.225; }
[zoom = 8] { raster-opacity: 0.25; }
[zoom <= 7] { raster-opacity: 0.3; }
raster-colorizer-default-mode: linear;
raster-colorizer-default-color: hsl(60,50%,80%);
// hay, forest, rocks, snow

// if using the srtm-3785-scale.tif file, these stops should be in the range 0-255.
.contour[zoom >=13] {
[zoom = 13] {

[zoom >= 16],
[elev =~ “.*00”] {
l/text-face-name:’Roboto Condensed Light’;
[elev =~ “.*00”] { line-color:hsla(100,30%,50%,40%); }
[zoom >= 16] { l/text-size: 10; }

And finally a gratuitous shot of Mt Feathertop, showing the major approaches and the two huts: MUMC Hut to the north and Federation Hut further south. Terrain is awesome!

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 11.25.23 PM