[TileMill](http://mapbox.com/tools/tilemill) is an open source toolkit that helps you create beautiful custom maps in the cloud, built by [Development Seed](http://developmentseed.org). We recently won a Knight News Challenge award (a.k.a. [“Tilemapping”](http://www.newschallenge.org/winner/2010/tilemapping)) to help us release a new version of TileMill that will make it even easier for people to design highly custom maps — using their own data or freely available public data — that they can then use anywhere online. Over the coming year, our team will be blogging on Idea Lab to share different pieces of our work and talk about our progress. In this post we want to introduce readers to what we’re up to and why.

  1. Why TileMill

So why TileMill? There are a couple of trends happening right now that are leading civic and media organizations to want and need custom maps. One is the open data movement, which is leading to an onslaught of new data sets available for public use. As more data becomes open, access to information is no longer the barrier — you just need the tools to work with it.

There are plenty of simple-to-use and freely available tools for working with RSS or CSV files that are commonly released under open data initiatives, but this is not the case for GIS file formats. Even tech-savvy web users who run into these files on open data sites often don’t know how to use them. Just because data is freely available doesn’t mean it’s useful (yet). People also need the tools to work with the data.

Another relevant trend is the move toward “hyper-localism.” As the volume of information available to us continues to increase, one of the most certain factors to help people figure out which information is relevant to them is how much if effects their life in their local community. With everything from search engines to grocery stores touting their local relevance and credentials, there is a growing need for tools to show off highly detailed local information on maps.

People want and need to see details to make sense of local information, and large global map maintainers might not have any incentive to provide this data (classic example: [poor road documentation by Google and Microsoft in Africa](http://developmentseed.org/blog/2009/jan/15/developing-countries-mapped-good-detail-open-street-map)). Most organizations don’t have the resources to consider building custom maps to better highlight their local information.

We made TileMill to help solve these problems. If anyone can take available map data, highlight the details that matter to them, and generate their own custom maps without spending thousands of dollars, it will increase the quality of hyper-local content on websites and the value of many large public open data initiatives. Our hope is to dramatically reduce the barriers to making very custom maps online.

  1. Making it Usable

At Development Seed, we’ve always been interested in building practical tools that help organizations nail the details surrounding their work. Over the past few years we’ve worked with international development organizations, domestic NGOs, media organizations, and government agencies who have all discovered a need for custom maps to help them better communicate the geographic details and context around their content or other key data. With so many groups wanting better maps, we started working on tools that would make map creation easier and more affordable. Last year we started work on a new suite of GIS tools at [MapBox.com](http://mapbox.com) to provide accessible open source solutions to create custom maps, and TileMill is one of the projects that has come out of that initiative.

i-e1d7ab07cec7798d495ad38f6d11d23b-afghan election data.jpg
Afghan Election Data project using TileMill

To get a sense of how TileMill works, users can bring their own GIS data or use publicly available data sets, add their own visual design styles to different map elements, and generate new maps to then load into a web browser and view online.

Instead of seeing generic publicly released maps like those from Google or OpenStreetMap, website visitors can see and browse custom maps that are designed to show off very specific geographic info or to match an organization’s branding and design aesthetic. This process has traditionally been very technical, involving a cocktail of different mapping software that can be hard to set up and that few people know how to use well. It’s also been expensive and resource intensive, often involving very large datasets that require considerable computing power to work with them well. TileMill makes this process simpler.

As for what we are up to next, we are really excited about the opportunities that will come from our Knight News Challenge award. This is key funding that will turn the current TileMill into totally revamped TileMill 2.0. Over the next few months we’ll be working to incorporate feedback and lessons we have learned from our first release into the 2.0 toolkit.

Our main focus will be on making TileMill more usable, reducing the learning curve so that users without development or mapping experience can get started. Our hope is that this work will make it possible for local bloggers, smaller NGOs, and other organizations without existing budgets for GIS teams to put very custom maps on their websites. We are ready to move fast with development. For full details on the improvements we’ll make, [check out our plans in this blog post at developmentseed.org](http://developmentseed.org/blog/2010/apr/06/next-tilemill-open-source-toolset-make-map-making-easier).

To see some examples of what kind of maps can be made with TileMill, check out the [demos on MapBox.com](http://demo.mapbox.com/) and the custom maps we created for the Afghan presidential elections in 2009 in action at [AfghanistanElectionData.org](http://afghanistanelectiondata.org/data).

Have ideas for what would make mapping better in your world? We’d love to hear them in the comments, or on Twitter where you can follow our progress @mapbox.