The Open GeoWeb

Web standards are often contentious. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? The idea that an externally defined standard could dictate the investment required for your company to participate in an activity would actually drive many company executives to the antacid bottle daily. Yet, in many ways that’s exactly how Web standards are negotiated. Browser vendors contend not over server API but over details of the document format that will be used to present and allow billions (or trillions?) of Web pages. I feel for them.

So, what does that have to do with the “GeoWeb”? Maps have a long history on the Web, but despite that, and despite the fact that maps are everywhere on the Web, we still do not have a simple declarative element for showing or interacting with maps. Instead, you use any number of JavaScript libraries, nowadays most commonly (the excellent) Leaflet or (similarly excellent) OpenLayers. The <map> element, defined in early versions of HTML, and which remains substantially unchanged in the HTML standard today, does not respond to the community’s need for declarative Web maps. Even mapping libraries don’t use the <map> element, and it would seem that Web standards evolution has bypassed that element altogether.

What about SVG?

SVG doesn’t directly meet Web mapping needs. SVG is held out by some in both the Web community and spatial data community as appropriate for Web mapping, yet its explicit use in Web mapping is today uncommon. More commonly, in the application of modern mapping libraries, SVG (or canvas, or VML, depending on the browser) is employed ‘under the hood’ to present and style geographic features. As long as it is under the hood, who cares? It’s the map and feature semantics that are important when creating and otherwise interacting with maps. If the application remembers that an SVG path it creates is actually a feature with a point geometry, it can process the feature at need with point semantics. Using SVG for map creation directly, on the other hand, would be like writing a document in PostScript: really really inefficient for most people. Ridiculous, right? We don’t author documents in PostScript, we let a translation layer create PostScript for us when appropriate, and usually, it’s a one-way trip. Similarly, a more efficient solution would be to apply a layered approach to mapping graphics, whereby the content author “speaks map” (or even better “speaks HTML that includes mapping words”) and the user agent “translates to graphics” on the fly. Whether that translation goes via SVG or not is up to the implementation. I suspect there might be a more efficient path to the graphics device subsystem than one mediated by SVG.

I am being a little bit hard on SVG; the fact that SVG exists at all does give us a chance to bootstrap map features across compliant browsers, thanks to Leaflet and OpenLayers.

Web mapping in the real world: map tiles + JavaScript + CSS +…

The core of what Leaflet, OpenLayers and other libraries offer, is access (by HTML/script authors) to responsive Web maps built mostly on tiled image caches. Tile caches are the (sometimes enormous) collections of standard images, of regular size and scale that can be composited to represent a window onto a map. The fact that these caches can be composed to represent maps on the client is based on defacto but obscure, and domain-specific, standards. This is accomplished through an effective “REST API”, in the brain-dead sense of the term. Such APIs will never become integral to the Web platform, because they are domain- or even server-specific.

The domain knowledge required to interpret these and other server spatial resources is currently built into the aforementioned JavaScript libraries. In effect, the (JavaScript) client understands a diversity of server URL patterns, and file formats, and spatial semantics built into those things. Of course each JavaScript library has its own API, and associated learning curve.

That Web maps should be available through JavaScript alone is a testament to the incredible adaptability and strength of the Web platform and its standards, not to mention the amazing performance of modern JavaScript engines. That maps can only be available through JavaScript also shows that the mapping community has so far missed the opportunity to scale their craft to Web scale. This situation obviously isn’t good for the mapping community, but it is also a weakness of the Web community, for the simple reason that the brilliant people and strong organizations who bring you the libraries, technology, and standards of Web maps are not fully engaged in building the Web platform.

The Missing Map

The Web platform’s missing ingredient is an HTML element upon which the mapping and Web communities could agree, and which would provide an API-level entry point for mapping applications into the Web platform. HTML authors would be able to enhance their maps as their skill increases, through the application of script and libraries. But, they should not have to start with libraries. Map making should be accessible to every skill level of HTML author, from novice to expert.

Is such an element desirable? The answer depends on your perspective. If you’re one of the aforementioned browser executives with heartburn, maybe not. To begin with, it is a non-starter to suggest that domain-specific standards be incorporated into the Web platform. The Web is simply too big, and such additions would soon sink it with complexity.

If (some) Web mapping standards could be re-cast into a simple format that could be readily used by a native element, it might make such a change more possible. Similar change has occurred in the past.

Back to the <map>

There is some discussion today about the need to upgrade the <map> element, in order to make it responsive. I support that idea, but in addition to making the <map> element responsive, I suggest extending it to include web mapping. Today’s <map> element seems to have two types of application: site navigation from non-map images and site navigation from images of maps.

Admittedly, at least part of the attraction of extending the <map> element is the name of the element and its common meaning, despite years of benign neglect in HTML. A less attractive option is an altogether new element, for example “webmap”, which would have a bit of a marketing challenge in addition to the technical challenge, and which would not be progressively enhanceable, except (perhaps) through use of an img and associated <map> element as a fallback mechanism. If we’re going there, why not start and finish with a <map> element?

So, where is this GeoWeb of which you speak?

Change, of any form, but more particularly in the form of a new format, might not at first be appealing to Web mappers, either. When you think about it though, there isn’t much of a “Web” in today’s “GeoWeb”. Today, there are a few large map providers, serving maps essentially in one projection. They are more like information silos than a Web.

What can a new format do that existing formats can’t? We’ve had KML, and “Earth Browsers” for a long time now. More recently, GeoJSON is all the rage. Why are those formats, or others not sufficient for Web mapping? The answer is that they weren’t designed for this purpose and consequently don’t have the appropriate features. They’re constrained by their histories and philosophies, leaving them without the necessary characteristics, and no way to add them in, even if one wanted to.

A new, purpose-built format is required with features including: (a) URL recipes should be passed over in favour of URLs, (b) mapping and map concepts / semantics incorporated into document semantics, and (c) links which enable content federation, just like the HTML Web. These are the proverbial “cow paths”, that can be paved. But, in the words of Erik Wilde: “if your paved cow path is kind of a detour, kindly explain to the cows why, and maybe also explain why the detour is actually better”.

Well OK. The cow paths in this little allegory include not only the server URL patterns, like those used by tile caches, WMS, WFS, etc., but also the projections and data models for features and geometries. The destination of those cow paths is the Web. The detour on our paved cow path, would be to package all those patterns into a textual spatial format + media type, analagous to HTML, also including mechanisms similar to HTML’s engine of application state. OK, you say, but how is that in fact not a detour? To the extent that such a format would be a new layer of processing in Web maps, it is indeed a detour, albeit one of a type shared by the Web at large. What the GeoWeb borrows today in designed-by-domain convenience, it pays back with compound interest in the form of unnecessarily restricted access to mapping.

What the GeoWeb needs to compete with today’s silos of map content is to actually be a Web of maps. Map content providers should be able to link their content together at the scales and locations appropriate to them. Map content providers should be able to link into the GeoWeb as easily as an HTML author can link into today’s Web of content. HTML authors should be able to link into the GeoWeb (a.k.a. add a map to their site) as easily as they link to Web content in their own or others’ sites today. Web users should be able to browse from map content site to map content site with as little friction as they encounter navigating linked content in today’s Web.

Conclusion

What the Web platform needs to compete / exist with other platforms today is more developers contributing to its fabric. A real GeoWeb would enhance the Web platform, to the extent that it was compatible with Web architecture, as well as because of the quality of engineering talent that exists in spatial software and standards. Unfortunately, existing Geo-standards don’t enhance the Web platform to any great degree, which is why they mostly remain on the outside looking in.

In the spirit of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the Maps for HTML Community Group has built a prototype Custom HTML Element, designed on top of a simple spatial format. Give it a test drive and let us know what you think, or vote with your feet.