Book review: Mapping Hacks by <i>Schuyler Erle, Rich Gibson &amp; Jo Walsh</i>

Maps! I grew up with a love for maps. As a young child, I could spend hours finding new routes between cities—cities I’d never been to, but could find on a map. As a teenager, a summer job depended on my ability to read maps in order to find the next job site. Now I spend hours pouring over maps to find interesting roads for my motorcycle adventures. Maps mean something different to each of us. For some they plan an escape route, for others they show the way home. Maps can also give you perspective of the world around you. Mapping Hacks can show us how to use some really interesting, freely available, data and generate maps that are unique to our own purpose. The authors, Schuyler Erle, Rich Gibson and Jo Walsh, founded a company around free software GIS and mapping applications. They’re qualifications are excellent for this subject matter. As with many O’Reilly “Hack” series books, there are also a number of contributors. You will receive a wide range of instruction from people who approach the subject from different angles. This is what makes these “Hack” books so good.

The book’s cover

This was a much thicker book than I expected. The physical quality of O’Reilly publishing continues to impress me. The quantity of these mapping hacks makes me realize how much more information is available and how many wonderfully cool maps are just waiting to be generated. I’ll be spending quite a bit of time with this book. The hacks just look like a lot of fun.

“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”—Mark Twain

The contents

At 546 pages, it is a healthy book measuring over an inch thick. The other dimensions are typical of the “Hacks” series at 6” x 9” (or 3cm x 15cm x 23cm for my metric friends). The expected one hundred hacks are broken up into nine chapters. With titles like Mapping Your Life, Mapping Your World, Mapping with Gadgets, and Building the Geospatial Web, you know there is something in here that will pique your interest. If you are familiar with other “Hacks” books, the layout will be just as expected. If you have never purchased a “Hacks” book before, but have an interest in creating maps, you will just love the short tutorial format that focuses on solutions to specific problems. Many of the hacks are really cool tricks you might never have even thought of. There are extensive resources referenced in the book: web sites, perl scripts, JavaScripts, GPS instructions. As mentioned, this is a healthy book.

Who’s this book for?

You don’t need to be working an active project to enjoy this book. But be warned, you will have plenty of project ideas once you start reading through these hacks! Some understanding of mapping terms would be helpful though I never felt lost while reading through them. (I have no background in cartography) I could easily see where a web master or designer would find ideas to improve their content with some of these hacks. Someone who loves to travel will definitely find useful information inside these covers. In the United States, you can even create maps of how your neighbors support the various political candidates. While many of the example hacks reference the US, there are examples and samples listed that cover other countries as well. Hack #78, “What to do if your government is hoarding geographic data”, lists websites to use for finding additional information specific to those countries listed.

Relevance to free software

For me, this book is incredibly relevant to free software. We can do something new with the data available to us, not just depend on what has already been done for us. There are many free (as in freedom) tools referenced in the book along with many free (as in cost) sources of data. The book gives us the knowledge to create and that defines “freedom” for me. These hacks show how to create good, useful, and interesting maps. It is up to us to use them, now that we “own the press”.

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”—A. J. Liebling


The information age is a wonderful time and there are many popular map sites on the internet. Places where you can type in an address or name and generate a very nice overview of where you are going. However, you will now have the ability to generate maps using data that is especially relevant to you. It is the blending of data that makes a map truly unique and personal for us. This book can not only show you the route to get somewhere, it can also teach you how to find many fascinating things about the areas along the way.


Different countries have different types and amounts of data available. Your ability to use some of these hacks may be limited.

Title Mapping Hacks
Author Schuyler Erle, Rich Gibson & Jo Walsh
Publisher O’Reilly
ISBN 0596007035
Year 2005
Pages 564
CD included No
FS Oriented 9
Over all score 9

In short


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.