rui lopes notebook

From zero to a blank world map

When you need to show a web map you normally end up using something like:

var map ='map').setView([38.736946, -9.142685], 3);

But what does it take to show that map? What software stack lays behind the curtains? And how can you customize the map? Lets find out!

We start from a vanilla Linux Virtual Machine and end up showing a humble web map – a blank world – the hello world of maps.

Be warned that I barely describe the terms used in the GIS world. Be sure to read the referenced material for more information.

So, lets get cooking!



Install Xubuntu

Install Xubuntu 14.10 (Utopic Unicorn) from torrent on a VirtualBox VM.

Make sure you give it some respectful resources. I gave mine:

  • 60GB of disk
  • 4GB of memory
  • 2 CPUs
  • 64MB of video memory

After install, bring it up to date. Open a Terminal Emulator and type:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get clean
sudo reboot

Install the VirtualBox Guest Additions. On the VM VirtualBox UI select Devices, Insert Guest Additions CD Image.... Xubuntu should automatically mount the CD. Open a terminal and type:

sudo apt-get install dkms
cd /media/$USER/VBOX*
sudo ./
sudo reboot

In order to copy the commands from this article into the VM you should enable the shared clipboard. On the VM VirtualBox UI select the Devices, Shared Clipboard, Bidirectional.

Mapbox Studio

Studio is used to quickly style maps.

Install it with:

sudo apt-add-repository ppa:chris-lea/node.js
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install nodejs

sudo apt-get install git
git clone
cd mapbox-studio
npm install

NB I’ve got revision 953ecc.

Start Studio:

npm start

On the Terminal, Right-Click the http://localhost:3000 text and select Open Link. Or open the Firefox Web Browser from the Xfce menu. Or in a second Terminal type:

exo-open http://localhost:3000

Follow the application steps to create a free Mapbox account. After that, you are ready to use Studio.

Coastline data

The Coastline is the line where the land meets the sea. We’ll use it to draw the world outline on our map.

The Coastline data is maintained by the OpenStreetMap contributors. Its periodically extracted from OpenStreetMap and made available at the OpenStreetMap Data site as a Shapefile – created by the OSMCoastline application.

This data is available in two different projections (aka SRS):

NB You should prefer EPSG:3857 because its the one normally used in web maps – no re-projection will be needed.

NB Be sure to known your coordinates projection – otherwise confusion will surely arise!

Download the Coastline water polygons Shapefile (~390MB) – EPSG:3857 projection:

sudo apt-get install curl
curl -O

And index it:

~/mapbox-studio/node_modules/mapnik/lib/binding/node-v11-linux-*/shapeindex water-polygons-split-3857/water_polygons.shp


To show any data in Studio we need to have a Source.

NB A Studio Source handles both of the projections mentioned before. But if you use EPSG:3857 no re-projection will be needed.

To create one, go to Studio, and:

  1. Click the Projects icon (bottom-left corner).
  2. Click the New Project icon.
  3. Click the Blank source icon (right column).

Create a new layer for the data:

  1. Click the New Layer icon (top-right).
  2. Click the Browse button and select the water-polygons-split-3857/water_polygons.shp file.
  3. Click the rename link and rename the layer to coastalarea. You will later use it in a stylesheet selector as #coastalarea.
  4. Click the Done button.

Change the project settings:

  1. Click the Settings button (left toolbar).
  2. Change the Maxzoom value to 22.
  3. Click the Save as button (left toolbar).
  4. Save the Source project as blank-world.

You should now have on your disk a blank-world.tm2source directory. It contains all the Source project files.

You are now ready to create a Style project.


Maps are styled with CartoCSS – a language similar to CSS.

Lets use it to style the map.

Go to Studio and create a new Style project:

  1. Click the Projects icon (bottom-left corner).
  2. Click the New Project icon.
  3. Click the Basic style icon (left column).

You should now see a basic map; but we want to use our own Source, so:

  1. Click the Layers icon.
  2. Click the Change source icon.
  3. Toggle the Sources to Local.
  4. Select the blank-world.tm2source Source that we’ve created before.
  5. Click the Save as button (left toolbar). And save the project as blank-world.

On your disk, you should now have a blank-world.tm2 directory. It contains all the Style project files.

You should also notice a Style pane on the right hand side of the window. It contains the stylesheet that is used to style the map. Replace the text with:

@land: #f8f4f0;
@water: #a0c8f0;

Map {
  background-color: @land;

#coastalarea {
  line-color: @water;
  polygon-fill: @water;

Save the Project (press Ctrl+S).

After a bit, you should see a map!

Tile server

To display a map on a web page we need:

  1. A server that returns the map as Tile images.
  2. A HTML widget that displays them.

We’ll use the tessera server. Install it with:

mkdir blank-world && cd blank-world

  "name": "blank-world",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "private": true,
  "dependencies": {}

npm install tessera --save
npm install tilelive-tmsource --save
npm install tilelive-tmstyle --save

See the resulting dependencies and versions:

cat package.json

I got:

"tessera": "^0.5.1",
"tilelive": "^5.4.1",
"tilelive-tmsource": "^0.1.2",
"tilelive-tmstyle": "^0.3.0",
"tilelive-vector": "^2.3.1"

Start tessera:

./node_modules/.bin/tessera tmstyle://$HOME/blank-world.tm2

It should now be running at http://localhost:8080.

In another Terminal, get the TileJSON document that describes the map:

sudo apt-get install httpie
http get http://localhost:8080/index.json

You should see something like:

    "attribution": "...", 
    "bounds": [
    "center": [ ... ], 
    "format": "png8:m=h", 
    "maxzoom": 22, 
    "minzoom": 0, 
    "name": "Untitled", 
    "scale": "1", 
    "source": "tmsource:///home/rgl/blank-world.tm2source", 
    "tilejson": "2.0.0", 
    "tiles": [

You can also get a Tile image, e.g. the south of Portugal:

curl -O http://localhost:8080/6/30/24.png
exo-open 24.png

Tiles are normally PNG images with 256x256 pixels.

You are almost done! Off to showing the web map…

Web map

To show the map we’ll use the Mapbox.js library.

Create the web page:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<meta charset='utf-8' />
<title>blank world</title>
<meta name='viewport' content='initial-scale=1,maximum-scale=1,user-scalable=no' />
<script src=''></script>
<link href='' rel='stylesheet' />
  body { margin:0; padding:0; }
  #map { position:absolute; top:0; bottom:0; width:100%; }
<div id='map'></div>
var map ='map', 'http://localhost:8080/index.json')
    .setView([38.736946, -9.142685], 3);

Open it:

exo-open map.html

You should now see the blank world map!

And there you have it! Let me known how it worked for you.

In a future article I’ll show you how to import the water areas from OpenStreetMap.

More information

This article mentioned a lot of pieces that you might not be familiar with. To get more insight you should read the following references:

Map Styles:

Map projections (aka SRS):


As an alternative software stack, you should look at:

And finally, feel free to contact me!