Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mapnik - Maybe the best Python Mapping Platform Yet

The vast majority of geospatial libraries are written in either C or C++ for two reasons: 1) Speed and 2) Many of these libraries have began development when C/C++ were the languages du jour.

Over the years Python bindings have appeared for many of these libraries to make them more easier to use. These bindings are extremely helpful as so much of geospatial work involves one-off data conversions or quick map production. Over the last few years several Python libraries have emerged developed from the ground up for Python and these are downright fun!

One of the most notable examples is Mapnik started by Artem Pavlenko. Mapnik caught my eye when it first started because it promised to have a great Python API. Mapnik also had a sharp focus on attractive maps using anti-aliasing and some relatively new graphics libraries. When I checked in on Mapnik recently I was really impressed.

View Larger Map

Mapnik fills all the checkboxes for a great python tool and it's a great geospatial library as well. It has pre-compiled binaries for python 2.5 so there's no need to go back and forth to the mailing list just to get it to compile before you see if you like it or not. Most opensource libraries have troubles keeping documentation current with the rapid pace of development. Mapnik addresses this problem by heavy use of example/test scripts and a busy wiki with lots of examples from users and developers.

Another interesting feature of Mapnik is its straightforward xml dialiect for styling maps allowing you to cleanly separate map appearance from programming logic. And not to forget one of the core values of the library the rendering is truly great. There are several output options including svg and pdf using either the Agg or Cairo graphics libraries. The developers openly compare the rendering quality to GoogleMaps and rightfully so. Mapnik goes beyond antialiasing and rouned line joints to address even more interesting rendering challenges. One striking example of the rendering quality is the new "BuildingSymbolizer" which creates a nifty "pseudo 3D building effect" on polygons.

Mapnik was designed from the start for both web and desktop use. OpenStreetMap uses the library to render it's map. Go to and zoom into London to see it in action. From its trendy Django website and Trac Wiki to its slick rendering, xml map descriptors, and ready-to-run pythonic API Mapnik is a modern geospatial python library that will certainly add users to the geospatial python community.

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