Custom, Portable Maps — Via App!

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series December 2016

Software company Avenza has evolved its map products into an app that lets people upload their own map—or download a map of their choice—to their mobile devices, and customize it.

Whether for fighting a wildland fire, delivering packages, or exploring tourist sites, using a map should be easy and quick. Well, especially when you’re fighting a fire that’s moving at seven miles an hour!


The Avenza Maps mobile app is used extensively by fire fighters. Credit: Avenza and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The transition from static, analog paper maps (that are already obsolete the moment they leave the print shop) to digital, interactive maps on our mobile devices has dramatically increased maps’ usefulness. However, global maps for general use–such as Google Maps, Bing maps, Apple Maps, and OpenStreetMap–do not display many of the features displayed by maps produced for specific uses, such as topographic maps for hikers, bathymetric charts for mariners, or cadastral maps for surveyors, city planners, and tax collectors.

Avenza Maps, a mobile application by Avenza Systems, makes it easy for users to display on a mobile device the most appropriate map for their particular application while also taking advantage of the device’s GPS receiver to mark their position on the map. Users can download maps from Avenza’s very large map library or create their own and open them in the application.

It Began with MAPublisher

Until recently, Avenza produced only cartography and map-publishing software for desktop computers. Its products dealt with “all the creative aspects of mapping,” says Ted Florence, the company’s president, an engineer who has been involved in mapping and GIS for 20 years.

In the 1990s, people who used such GIS products as MapInfo and ArcView 3.2 would then switch to graphic software to produce their maps. This is because GIS programs worked well as analysis and data-management tools but were inefficient and unreliable when it came to actually creating maps.

“People would use ArcView to make a map based on some analysis,” Florence recalls, “then output it as a JPEG, open it in a product such as Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, or Macromedia Freehand, and then trace it in order to re-vectorize it so that they could then use the graphics tools that they were using to actually make a good map that they could print, publish, reproduce, etc.”

To improve this process, Avenza created its flagship product, MAPublisher. It allowed users to import GIS data–such as shapefiles, MapInfo files, e00, and DXF, with all their vertices, typologies, attributes, etc.–into a graphics environment, such as Adobe or Macromedia, thereby eliminating the need to trace and re-draw a map.

“That led us to have a great customer base,” says Florence, “like National Geographic, the New York Times, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Defense.”

MAPublisher evolved into Avenza’s Photoshop product that enabled users to import raster files–especially satellite and aerial photography–into Adobe Photoshop and manipulate them in an image-editing environment.

Over the years, Avenza added features and tools to both products and eventually began to support web-based maps in addition to printed ones. It added the ability to create Flash files and HTML 5. In 2010, after Adobe had introduced the geospatial specification for PDF files, Avenza announced that it would support the ability to export geospatial PDF documents from any supported spatial image source or scanned map document.

Transitioning to Mobile Platforms

“Eventually,” says Florence, “we started to realize that mobile was a viable platform and that the way that maps were being used was transitioning from paper to web to mobile.” The company developed an app that allowed geospatial PDF files to be used on a mobile platform. It started out as an experiment, because the iPhone and the iPad were relatively new.

“Up to that point,” Florence recalls, “you could create a geospatial PDF–in ArcMap, in FME, and in Illustrator or Photoshop–if you had our geospatial plug-in, but your use of those geospatial PDFs was limited to a desktop or a laptop computer.” People doing work out in the field, however, were not always willing or able to lug around a laptop. So, the first step for Avenza was to make it possible to render and use geospatial PDFs on mobile platforms and to make them location-aware.

Next, Florence thought, what about average people who don’t produce their own maps but might want one for their next activity, whether it’s hiking in a national park or traveling to Europe? That was the origin of the PDF Maps Library, a repository of free maps, mostly from government sites but some created by Avenza, that users of the mobile application could download and use.

One day, Florence realized that the mapping business was changing, much like the music business and the book business already had. Most people now, when they want to purchase music, download it from iTunes to their phone and use it on that device. Likewise, many people download digital books. In the 21st century, he thought, maps would be the next commodity to go this route.

“If you look at the history of billion-dollar companies that have been put out of business by advances in technology, many of them failed to keep up with changes in the business models in their industry and in the consumers’ use patterns,” he says. “In the mapping business, if you are somebody like National Geographic or Rand McNally, and you are seeing Garmin, TomTom, Google Maps, Apple Maps, and all the in-car navigation systems and all these other ways that people are consuming and using maps, you’d have to be worried.”

So, Avenza explained to the traditional mapping companies what it was doing, and “they jumped on it,” says Florence. Before long, the company had built an application for mobile platforms that allowed users to import their own maps from geospatial PDF or geoTIFF, had a connected map store, and allowed publishers to upload and sell their maps with pricing, descriptions, pictures, key words, etc.

“Just like music had to repurpose from LP records to eight-track tapes to cassette tapes to DVDs to mp3s, now the map business is migrating from paper to web to mobile delivery for consumption of the map.”

Today, Florence says, a few thousand publishers offer their maps on Avenza’s app store, which contains half a million maps available for people to purchase or download for free.

“We have approaching three-million users around the world. We are in every country except North Korea, and it is growing like crazy. Our goal really is to become the iTunes of maps.”

Use by Large Organizations

In addition to the consumer market, Avenza is being used increasingly by large organizations–such as the U.S. Forest Service; the military; and oil and gas, mining, and forestry companies–that are producing maps using GIS.

How I Made My Map

To generate the map shown below, I
  1. downloaded the MyTrails app to my Nexus 5 and installed it,
  2. used it to track a short hike in the Columbia River Gorge,
  3. saved the track in the cloud,
  4. downloaded Avenza’s app to my phone and installed it,
  5. via Avenza, downloaded a beautiful map of the Gorge, and
  6. in Avenza’s app, downloaded my track and layered it on the map.

“Most of the time, up until now, they have been printing them on paper, which is becoming less and less desirable and expensive,” Florence points out.

“You have to physically ship the maps to people who could be half-way around the world, which is not green, and the paper map does not know where you are.”

These organizations have started to figure out that they can produce these maps as they always have, save them as a geoTIFF or a geospatial PDF, and deliver them electronically by several methods to their end users, who can then take them out in the field on their mobile devices. Once downloaded to a mobile device, the maps don’t require an internet connection. The app shows users their position and allows them to collect data, measure distances and areas, and add photos and notes.

“We are finding tremendous uptake in forestry, military, conservation, oil and gas, mining, that kind of stuff,” says Florence.

“There will be more. Telstra, one of the biggest cell phone companies in Australia, has hundreds of licenses and uses the app for some aspects of their outdoor work. The British Antarctic Survey is using it for mapping and data collection. We have tourism companies that are using it to provide their tourists with maps of wherever they are going.”

The younger generation, Florence points out, wants to see everything, including maps, on their computers, tablets, or phones.

“It never occurred to my daughter, when she spent a year overseas, to get a paper map anywhere she went. She did everything with her phone. That is what the future of map use is.”

Supported Formats

Unlike many of the other mobile mapping apps–such as those from Esri and Terrago–Avenza’s system is generic and can import maps that are produced anywhere, says Florence.

“We don’t care whether you make the map using our products or Esri or open source. All we care about is that it is in a supported format, such as a geospatial PDF or a geoTIFF, which are both rather generic open formats.”

Avenza began by providing software and technology to map producers, so it understands their needs as well those of map users, says Florence.

“We understand how invested they are in their workflows. We just wanted to make it really easy for them to supply those finished products to the mobile platform.”

Furthermore, Florence points out, Avenza does not require the use of a specific coordinate system, such as Web Mercator.

“We don’t care if you are in South Africa and are using a Kruger projection or are in North America and are using a Lambert projection. We support all the EPSG codes.”

App use examples

U.S. Bureau of Land Management

BLM uses Avenza’s mobile app mainly for fighting fires. “I am here in the office and I prepare maps,” says Julie Osterkamp, Fire and Fuels GIS Specialist for BLM’s West Desert District, which covers about 3,000,000 acres. “The end users are the fuels techs in the field and the firefighters. Five years ago, we used to print out the maps and send them out in the field. Now we simply export them.”

Osterkamp uses ArcGIS to make maps that show such features as fire perimeters, helicopter landing spots, and drop points. She exports them to georeferenced PDFs, then delivers them via e-mail or Google Drive to people in the field who download them to their mobile devices and use them to see their position in relation to a fire, past fuel treatments, monitoring points, and so on. Some people in the field also use the application to collect data, such as changing fire perimeters or progress being made on treating fuels, then export that data as a KMZ file and send it to Osterkamp to incorporate into new maps.

Even prior to adopting Avenza, Osterkamp recalls, it has always been standard operating procedure at BLM to export maps to a PDF. A few years ago, firefighters started utilizing Avenza on larger, more complex fire events, where they are supported by incident management teams, which include GIS specialists. “Avenza is so simple to download and does not create any additional workload for us. The first ones who began to use it were the air ops folks, who had their iPads and were on the forefront of becoming mobile. We started supporting them by sending them the PDFs.”

Now, BLM’s law enforcement officers also use Avenza. “I created an atlas consisting of about 50 individual PDFs that covers the whole district,” says Osterkamp. “We have them on Google Drive and we have an index. It is just for reference. Our law enforcement uses it mostly to see where they are, who owns that land, and whether they are near a recreation area or a trail.”

U.S. Forest Service

USFS manages about 193 million acres of land and natural resources, fisheries and wildlife, timber harvesting, recreation and wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and energy production. “We have many, many trails and more roads, I think, than any other agency in the country,” says Carl Zulick, the agency’s Geospatial Information Officer. About half of the agency’s budget goes to managing wild land fires, which includes fire fighting, prescribed burning, thinning, and timber management. Increasingly, developments in suburban areas are bordering national forests, on areas called the wildland-urban interface. “It is a high risk zone where it is very difficult to manage fire,” says Zulick. “Fire fighters need to know where they are, their escape routes, where their colleagues are, where the nearest fire line or safe zone is, where the camps are, where their water sources might be, and so on. Avenza helps save lives. It also helps our helicopter pilots know where they can land and our skydivers, the folks that parachute into wilderness areas, where they are and where it is safe for them to be. When we fight fires, we often work with other agencies and the app allows us to pass maps back and forth to each other. This improves communications and safety.”

Everything that USFS does—from managing recreational users, to its money, infrastructure, and wildlife—ties to points on the ground. “Therefore, mapping is a very big responsibility for us,” says Zulick. “Avenza enables us to take the maps that we generate—for land use plans, recreation, property ownership, and so forth—and put them into the Avenza map library. The most useful part of that is that it shows us where we are on the ground.”

“Our law enforcement rangers, our foresters, our wild land biologists, and our archaeologists need to know where they are, too, and how to get back home safely,” Zulick adds. “So, that’s where Avenza comes in really handy for us.”

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

The West Virginia DEP’s Technical Applications and GIS Group deals with mobile technology and anything GIS-related for the entire agency. Traditionally, it has worked mostly with the agency’s mining group, but now it works also with its water, air, and other groups. “We use PDF maps,” says GIS technician Kelli Williams. “I’ve been through many different apps out on the market and for simplicity and ease of use Avenza’s has been the best one we’ve found so far. We don’t have to do a whole lot of training on it or set up big geodatabases. Inspectors use it to take care of all kinds of inspections. The Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation uses it for spot inspections of both active and abandoned mines.”

Recently, she explains, her agency gave its field staff iPhones with all 494 quads for West Virginia. “We went in through ArcMAP and created the mining polygons on those maps. The inspectors download them for their areas, take them out in the field and they know where they are and which way they are facing. They can take pictures and collect data. When they get back to the office, they can send themselves a KML file and have everything they need.”

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The organization has been using Avenza PDF Maps for about six years, says Mike McKnight, its Information Systems Manager. “We were looking for something free that our balloon pilots could use to navigate. Other software and formats that we tried were costly. The pilots would have to buy a GPS receiver and then we would have to take care of the administrative end. This was much easier because I was already making maps in ArcView. I just upload a map to Avenza’s site, they make it real pretty and at very high resolution, and the pilots can use their mobile devices to access it via the app.”

Navigation is particularly important for balloon pilots in New Mexico, where there is a lot of restricted airspace due to military sites and activities. “There are certain areas where they are not allowed to land and other areas where they have to be at a certain altitude above the ground,” says McKnight. “There are areas from which they are not allowed to take off and other areas where, if they come close to an airport, they have to be at a certain altitude. The map tells them where they need to be. Also, if they come within a certain distance of an airport, they are required to call that tower. The app tells them when they are at that point.”


Avenue Maps is used for a wide range of applications, such as inventorying plant species, surveying surface mines, and mapping recreational trails. Credit: Metro, WV, Dept. of Environmental Protections, and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 15.36.03New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

Jeremy Apgar, the organization’s cartographer, makes the trail maps that it provides for the public, as well as a wide range of other maps, including maps for land conservation. “We create new trails, so we need maps for scouting and planning trails, to track changes to trail systems,” he says.

About ten years ago, when Apgar started working there, the organization had just started using the MAPublisher plug-in for Adobe Illustrator. “Around 2011,” he recalls, “we heard that Avenza was working on an app to get these maps onto mobile devices. We signed on soon after it was released and we have been one of the top map vendors through that app.” The organization’s volunteers and partners use GPS receivers to collect tracks for trails and waypoints of certain features. Apgar imports the data into ArcGIS, organizes it, then uses the Avenza MAPublisher plug-in to bring the files into Adobe Illustrator, where he applies the organization’s standard line style, fonts, and other graphical elements. The organization then makes the map available both in print—in a waterproof, tear-resistant Tyvek—and in digital form via Avenza’s app.

“One of the great things about the app is that you only need a connection to download the map itself,” Apgar points out. “Once it is on your device, as long as you have a GPS signal, you are able to see your location. Even if you lose GPS signal, the map is still interactive. The number one feature that people want to see is a little blue dot that shows their exact location, overlaid on our map—rather than, say, a Google Maps background, which is not the full map itself. We update our maps every two to three years, so we have a reputation for showing trails on our maps pretty close to how they are at that time in the real world. The other key features are things like being able to track your route and take waypoints, for example to see how far you’ve hiked on a certain day.”


Metro, which serves the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area, is the only directly elected regional government and metropolitan planning organization in the United States. It is responsible for managing the region’s solid waste system, coordinating the growth of its cities, managing its system of parks and natural areas, and overseeing its zoo, convention center, arts centers, and expo center. Metro’s Parks and Nature department has been using Avenza’s app for about five years and has 25 licenses, which enables staff from various groups to access its regional and site maps or customize their own maps and bring them out into the field on their mobile devices.

“PDF maps have been a great complement to our both our ESRI desktop software as well as Google Earth,” says Tommy Albo, the department’s GIS Coordinator. “When Avenza’s PDF maps came around a few years ago, it was great to be able to take a paper map which you’ve created in ArcGIS out into the field to help validate information, measure distances or areas, capture point information, capture your tracks, or locate monitoring points.”

Tasks for which Metro staff use Avenza include documenting invasive species in natural areas, gridding properties more efficiently, documenting native wildflowers of interest, and navigating boundaries while walking a site. “PDF maps allow for easier on-the-ground navigation with the ability to utilize updated and custom aerial imagery maps,” says Ariel Whitacre, a Metro Natural Resources Technician. “They make sharing and accessing map information easy. I like that the app enables you to take pictures and embed them in the map with lat/long coordinates. This is especially helpful for trying to re-locate hard to find plants.” Elaine Stewart, a Metro Senior Natural Resources Scientist, uses the app to navigate to her vegetation monitoring points. “It is simple to use and the navigation is a snap,” she says. According to Albo, Metro uses the Avenza app because it works on multiple devices and it is easy to deploy and use. “Feedback from the users has been great,” he says. “It is much simpler than loading base data onto our GPS receivers.”


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