Public Lab Research note

Mapknitter Annotations (GSOC)

by mathew | March 14, 2014 19:18 14 Mar 19:18 | #10181 | #10181

What I want to do

There is no single page to find all the work we've done thinking about map annotations. I want to summarize the map annotation needs of our community, work thus far, and provide examples.

Work to Date

Public Lab has invested some development and discussion time in map annotation. Here is our 2013 Winter Camp brainstorming session. And a 2012 brainstorm..

Work progressed on a Leaflet-based annotation system that is not currently running in Mapknitter. It can do polygons and Google-style pins. The server code for the Annotation Controller is here. and the client-side Javascript is here.. Issues with that system are discussed in Github here.

Examples of Annotation

Currently, annotated maps using online interfaces are kind of crumby. It is easy to do something like this:

Google Maps being stupid

but lots of pins and labels turn into a completely unreadable mess. Historically, people have written text at a variety of angles, at scale:


BERLIN, F.A. Brockhaus´ Geographisch-artistische Anstalt, Leipzig 1895, Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, there is no way to place text on a map and lock it to a specific location, rotation, and scale, even though that is the most obvious and intuitive way to present information on a map. So most Public Lab community members add text either in a pro GIS program, Adobe Suite, or, most likely, in Powerpoint. Powerpoint is actually awesome at this.

Eustatic's example From Eustatic's note on annotations:

  • Note that the text is not in bubbles, but generally a yellow, red, or orange color to contrast with the browns and greys of the forested landscape.

  • Note the use of arrows and dots.

  • Note the white underneath the text that is unclear.

  • Whether or not this map was drawn in microsoft paint (or equiv. apple software) it is something that can be drawn in these widely available formats.

  • This aesthetic of "text directly on image" is something that has been done since photography began.

Eymund does a lot of Paint/Powerpont annotations as well: [Cracks in pavement

Also take a look at Hagit Kaysar's work using Adobe tools and wonderful writeup and Gina Wirth's work in ArcGIS. While using more complicated tools, these are beautiful, well thought out, and aesthetic examples.

Here is a non-public lab example using powerpoint, from Andrew Millison (video link) Andrew uses lots of arrows and text to explain the motion of water. These are the sorts of annotations we want to encourage.


Questions and next steps

As a sort of minimal feature set it would be wonderful to add arrows, dots, and text in different colors and angles, locked to the map scale, like this:


A mock-up made by Liz

embedding images or video, or linking to notes would also be very useful. This would help people situate maps within a narrative.

Why I'm interested

In the Public Lab Archive it is hard to see why a map is being made, and to collaboratively embed observations into maps. These sorts of annotations are how Grassroots Mapping maps are usually presented in public, but these low-res, powerpoint modified maps rarely make it back to the Public Lab community. I would like to see this process simplified and built around sharing.


This would be great! I am also interested in adding map annotations to a mapknitter project BEFORE uploading any imagery. This is useful as a basic "community asset mapping" exercise for locals to point out, highlight and share what they already know about their location before planning field work. That is why i posted this github issue:

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This looks good. I especially like the idea of adding arrows and pointers.

How can we solve the problem of organizing a lot of annotations into a particular area of a map.

It would be e good to have an organized structure of show/hide for different categories of annotations, like places, directions etc. which the user will be able to specify. This way users viewing the map can also opt out from viewing certain annotations.


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While Gina Wirth's ArcGIS work looks excellent, that software is very expensive. A bit more in line with PublicLab's accessible and open community model might be QGIS (, a free and open source alternative for a robust GIS suite. I use both ArcGIS and QGIS and prefer the latter for most things. While it does have pro capabilities, you can ignore a lot of the advanced analysis tools and do things like georeferencing, overlays, image manipulation, mapping with annotation, and so on to produce some great maps without too terribly steep a learning curve (some examples on Flickr here: Historically its map composition and annotation engines have been a bit weak, but with recent releases are getting a lot better and easier to use. Some folks use Inkscape as a free alternative to Adobe tools to polish up maps. And last on the little FOSS mapping plug: QGIS also plays well with OpenStreetMap, OpenLayers, Google Maps Engine, and others.

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Liz-- Definitely! Starting annotations BEFORE stitching is a super feature. especially when kite/balloon mapping, I like making records of obstacles and stuff.

xvidun-- Turning annotations, or maybe doing multiple layers of on/off annotations is a great idea. I'm not sure organizing a lot of annotations into a particular area of the map is a huge problem-- people can just zoom in and put in smaller text-- It prevents the overloaded pinpoint/popup problem, and forces users to think about what they're really trying to communicate and at what scale.

Aduma-- I mentioned Gina and Hagit's work for stylistic reasons and because they've thought a lot about information presentation. We're looking for a dead simple web tool though. For those who want pro geospatial capabilities, I highly recommend the OS Geo Live disk.

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