Who else could make Tokyo look more like a stained glass window? Of course it's a gorgeous new open-source mapping tool created by the San Francisco-based firm Stamen. In June, you'll remember that Stamen won a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, for another, not-yet-released project named City Tracking. Until that comes out, we have something else to entertain ourselves with: Prettymaps.
Granted, this will slow your browser down to a crawl, but that's part of the point: This app is at the very edge of what's capable today on the web, and augurs some truly remarkably rich applications to come.
Prettymaps draws from three major data sets: Flickr shapefiles, which determine a geographic area based on the number of tagged photos within it; Natural Earth, a massive vector-based cartography resource that can visualize a range of geologic and geographic features from population to ocean depths; and Open Street Map, a free, community-edited road and street map of the world that Stamen often uses in its projects. The maps are created using TileStache and Polymaps, two open-source tools built by Stamen that help prioritize and re-arrange mapping data sets.
If you're zoomed far out all that information on top of itself doesn't seem to amount to much, except you can easily see which regions of the world have the highest rate of tagged Flickr photos, roadways and population. (Also, note the clever use of Grover and one of his most famous Sesame Street skits). But as you zoom in, the map starts to reveal some truly fascinating detail—all of which you can interact with.
The plan is to release these tools to developers and designers who can help take this information and create some highly-detailed, completely-dynamic, seriously-pretty local maps of regions around the word. So far, only the Bay Area has been mapped in the most zoomed-in, street-level setting.
Interestingly, Stamen has named this version of Prettymaps after famed Marimekko textile designer Maija Isola. Come to think of it, these do look a lot like something she would have designed. Now go make some maps that would make her proud.