Oakland and its parks.

The last few years have seen an explosion in photo editing. In a pre-digital era, changing the tone and feel of your photographs was for professionals. Photoshop made it easy, and Instagram brought those capabilities to the mainstream, for free.

When it comes to another kind of visual -- geographic data represented as maps -- there hasn't been a tool of similar power and simplicity. It has not been easy to make maps look cool.

Enter Stamen Design, perhaps the leading creator of cool-looking maps. And they've built a new tool they call MapStack to bring their methods to the masses. Building on OpenStreetMap, Stamen had already put out, which allowed people to create three types of interesting maps. But MapStack takes that idea to the next level. You can create beautiful, custom maps within minutes, drawing on Stamen's design expertise. 

"The idea is to make it radically simpler for people to design their own map styles, without having to know any code, install any software, or do any typing. We provide different parts of the map stack, like backgrounds, roads, labels, and satellite imagery, and straightforward controls for manipulating things like color, opacity, and masking," Stamen's CEO Eric Rodenbeck told me in an email. "So within five minutes you can have, say, a map of anywhere in the world with purple satellite buildings and orange roads, if that's your fancy."

I tested out the proposition that one could make a map "with purple satellite buildings and orange roads" in five minutes. I think the San Francisco map below took me three. It's a simple two layer map. On the bottom is a base layer of downtownish San Francisco in a Stamen-designed style called "Toner." (I also inverted its colors; normally it's black on white as in the top image.) Then, on top of it, I added a layer that's just the buildings and made them purple through the slider interface. I hit export and got a 1920x1020 image out. Voila. Below, you can see the two pieces of the map, as well as the finished product at the bottom.


It's not *quite* Instagram simple, but if you understand the basic principles of how layers work in Photoshop, you will be able to make beautiful maps.

"Basically we can do alot of the things that Photoshop and Instagram do with static images and let people do these to maps," Rodenbeck continued, "and [we] think those applications are good metaphors to apply to maps to push the field forward. We think there are some interesting possibilities for letting regular people and designers, not just developers, make the kinds of design decisions that are usually done by cartographers and programmers."

Rodenbeck will be talking about MapStack publicly for the first time today at an Open Street Map conference in San Francisco. Going forward, Stamen plays to launch more map layers, allowing you to single out more specific types of geodata (like the buildings above).

Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, pointed out on Twitter that other companies are working on map creation tools, too, like MapBox's TileMill