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GIS Company Mapzen to Shut Down, but Users Can Still Grab the Open-Source Code and Data

Mapzen's API and services will stop running on Feb. 1.

Mapzen, a mapping platform company lauded among developers and civic hackers for its open-source approach, is shutting down.

For fans of the company, there’s a bright spot: because its data and code is open, users will still be able to run the projects they built using Mapzen tools, as well as some of the company’s tools, on their own. They have until Feb. 1 — the day the company will shut down its APIs, services and support — to grab what they need.

Count Michael Schnuerle, chief data officer of Louisville, Ky., among those fans. Upon hearing the news that Mapzen was shutting down, Schnuerle grabbed a “snapshot” of data for his city from OpenStreetMap using Mapzen’s exporter tool, which he said is among the easiest free tools available. Then he posted it on Louisville’s open data portal.

The extraction contains a wealth of GIS data to help civic hackers, data analysts, citizens and other users create maps, do research and learn about cities. Schnuerle said he thinks other cities should do the same and grab OpenStreetMap data using Mapzen and put it up on their data portals.

“If you have to go to one of the export tools and download it, I’d say it would take maybe an hour to do the first time,” he said.

Schnuerle has been using Mapzen for years, since before he signed on as Louisville’s CDO. He recalled using Mapzen while working with the local Code for America brigade in Louisville to export the footprint data for every building in the city — around half a million — and then using Mapzen’s functionality in the brigade’s projects.

“It was really valuable to be able to see the results and filter the results … to check your work, basically,” he said.

Randy Meech, chief executive officer of the company, noted that he’s heard a lot of positivity around what the company has done since the announcement about its closure hit the Internet on Jan. 2. On Twitter, leaders from other companies started imploring Mapzen employees to consider applying to their own firms.

“A lot of people will be working on similar stuff but at different places,” he said.

There will likely be a lot of work in the next month as Mapzen prepares for closure. The company had tens of thousands of users, Meech said, and many will be looking to clone what they can before Feb. 1. He said it’s tough to say how much of the company’s user base was in government, but he knows there were many in public service, law enforcement and health care using Mapzen.

One recent example is the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, or TriMet, using Mapzen’s geocoder as part of a project to help citizens identify multiple ways of making a trip.

The reasons for Mapzen’s closure aren’t clear, and Meech declined to comment on why the company is wrapping up its business. It belonged under the umbrella of Samsung Next, which provided funding, and in its privacy policy Mapzen described itself as a division of Samsung Research America.

As it closes, one piece of Mapzen’s legacy will be its efforts in improving access to elevation data. Though the U.S. Geological Survey already offered the data, Mapzen took it and aggregated it along with local data, creating ready-to-use elevation map tiles that Schnuerle said looked better than anyone else’s.

The elevation data fed into Mapzen’s routing engine, which meant that routes could take elevation into consideration — something particularly important for bicyclists, pedestrians and people with disabilities.

“That data is much more accessible as a result of us and the work we’ve done,” Meech said.

That, said Schnuerle, is a big reason why he admired the company: Mapzen helped people use maps.

“They took stuff that was complicated and made it easy to do,” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.