Open-source data mapping tool CartoDB provides customizable views

Visualizations, or maps, created in CartoDB can be displayed on any website

Vizzuality launched an open-source data-mapping tool CartoDB this week, promising an easy and customizable way for users to display their geospatial data.

CartoDB is being promoted as a more "flexible" alternative to Google's Fusion Tables. The tool had been in private beta for six months. It already boasts a client list that includes The Wall Street Journal, NASA and the United Nations Environment Programme.

The tool can produce maps of endangered species sightings, for example, or police activity. Developers can import and merge data sets in various formats, including .csv and KML, and layer them over a map from Google, Bing or OpenStreetMap.

Users can modify how much data is displayed and how it's displayed, seemingly simple functions which can be frustratingly difficult to achieve using visualization tools. A user can resize the data points or use different colors to indicate different categories of data. Endangered mammals could be shown in brown, for example, and endangered plants in green. SQL (Structured query language) handles CartoDB's database queries and CSS (cascading style sheets) controls how the data displays.

Visualizations, or maps, created in CartoDB can be displayed on any website. Whenever the database is updated, the map will be too. Map users can also select which parts of the data they want to see: plants or animals, or both.

In fact, CartoDB originated with an environmental problem.

Pointing to a map of biodiversity around the world, Vizzuality co-founder and CEO Javier de la Torre explained, "You have 300 million points [marking] where species have been. But most of the time what you want to have is not a map of all, what you want to have is a map of one particular bird."

Creating in advance an individual map for each of 1.2 million species a user might want to isolate verged on the impossible. So CartoDB looked to "dynamically create" the maps as users requested them. "That's why we really started creating CartoDB. Before, it used not to be possible to make dynamic maps out of queries," he said.

Users who leave their data open to the public can use the open-source CartoDB for free. Those who want to keep their data private or import more than 5MB of data must subscribe to a premium plan.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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