Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
You probably didn't even know that watercolor comes in 3D.
Late last year, Nokia asked the San Francisco-based design and technology studio Stamen to help the company think about how to engage web developers in using its colossal cache of mapping data. It's a portfolio that includes, among other things, driving directions and LIDAR surveys revealing the 3D shape of buildings for cities all over the world.
"Rather than delivering some fancy power-point presentation to get folded up into somebody else’s power-point presentation at a corporate meeting," says Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen's CEO and creative director, "we thought, 'let’s build something and make it public.'"
You may have seen the results bounding around the Internet for the last few days. They're pretty spellbinding, recasting the cities of London, San Francisco, Berlin, and New York (seen above), as if in three dimensions of photo realism, watercolor painting, or wire models. And the trippiest part? Navigate around – and change the perspective – on London's Tower Bridge here:
You've likely seen some earlier generation of three-dimensional city maps before.
"3D maps is not that big of a deal," Rodenbeck says. "3D maps in a browser set up in such a way that the developer community can layer in their own datasets, can use it in their own applications, stuff like that – that's trickier."
Here, for instance, is San Francisco, using Nokia's data but also public details on building footprints provided by the city government. In the resulting map, buildings are shown almost as blueprints and colored by height:
"That’s the main point of the exercise," Rodenbeck says, "to take data that’s in a format that’s a bit weird and strange and not really accessible to the rest of the universe, and bring it into a format and a structure that the rest of the world can talk to."
These are, in short, illustrations of what's possible, not necessarily final products. Stamen's variations, available for your embedding and developing purposes here, have come from what Rodenbeck calls a "practice of spelunking" – diving into the data and playing around with what the studio could make.
Here is New York City, if you could see through the buildings' interiors from above (or if they were all built out of matchsticks?):
And here is Berlin in watercolor:
Maybe each of these maps can't argue for its own business case, for Nokia or anyone else.
"But we don’t necessarily need for every conversation to be about how useful everything is," Rodenbeck says. "We’re trying to have a conversation about maps and location that's about more than just how to get from A to B, that's more about using maps as a way to explore the world."