The Evolution of OpusMap

When OpusMap was first created in 2003 it was designed as a basic set of tools with the simple aim of making it easier for us to build digital and online maps in-house but it soon evolved into a full-blown content management and map publishing system that could be used directly by our clients to create and manage mapping-based websites using their own data.

In recent years, the pace of Web development has increased to a point where there are new technologies emerging almost daily. It can seem at times a full-time job just keeping up with ongoing developments in software like JavaScript and Microsoft’s .Net platform. In parallel with developments in web technologies, OpusMap has gone through several iterations to become the system that it is today. It has made use of many of these emerging and cutting edge open source developments while still retaining its core premise: to make it simple for clients to create, publish and maintain online maps that are simple for users to navigate and interact with. We were consciously trying to make ‘back office’ GIS and map data accessible to ‘front office’ users and the wider public.

The Beginning

The first version of OpusMap didn’t even have a name. It wasn’t OpusMap as we know it today. No one outside of Blue Fox was using it as we’d created it entirely as an in-house system to help us publish and link maps and documents online in a more efficient manner. It didn’t have any of the features we have today, such as text editors or graphical map style designers, instead, it was based on simple spreadsheets for map configurations, and HTML typed directly into form fields. As far as user-friendly went—it wasn’t!

After a while of using it ourselves, we realised that with some changes we could open up OpusMap for our clients to use, giving them much more control over how their maps were put together and how the publication and management of maps were coordinated with their own staff, resources and project demands. It was going to take a lot of work—we needed to add WYSIWYG text editors, simple forms for creating the map styles, and most importantly the ability to upload map data without needing direct access to the server. We used what were then new open source components like SharpMap and OpenLayers to create what would become the first public version of OpusMap, which as the third iteration we named Opus3.


opus3 homepage

Opus3 saw us move away from traditional Web servers to cloud-based computing. This allowed us to set up a system that can respond to surges in server demand, adding or removing hardware resources on the fly, and added in hardware redundancy to aid against downtime. We used software such as GeoServer/MapServer to allow us to make efficient use of the vast amount of data that’s only available as raster images, such as aerial photography and historical mapping, and we were able to take advantage of Ordnance Survey’s OpenData initiative whereby more and more mapping data was being made available for free.

Opus3 was incredibly popular and still powers many of our websites today, but we didn’t stop development there. New developments in Web Mapping. Open source software and JavaScript in general, have brought around a whole new generation of front-end libraries that have helped to make better user interfaces and an improved user experience of mapping for websites.

Recent Developments & Opus4

Since we began developing the fourth version of OpusMap, we’ve switched to using Leaflet for our front-end map displays. This is much leaner software to what we had previously used, and when combined with our new map caching techniques, has resulted in a much faster experience for users browsing online maps. Layers and base maps can be switched on and off almost instantaneously with almost no time taken to re-render the display. This current version of OpusMap is written using Google’s AngularJS framework, which has allowed us to create a system that is more intuitive for users and scalable for our developers.

Scalability within OpusMap 4’s modular framework means that ongoing developments and improvements to OpusMap become a working reality much more quickly and efficiently. We’ve begun working on moving OpusMap from Microsoft’s full .Net Framework to the newer, faster .Net Core. This new cross-platform framework means that we can move parts of OpusMap from running on Windows servers to Linux or even Macs as well as running on new generation cloud-based systems such as Microsoft’s Azure platform.

We’ve also been rewriting the content management side of OpusMap using Facebook’s React library and MobX, which are JavaScript libraries that are quickly becoming the standard when it comes to building modern user interfaces. They have been adopted by all sizes of companies, even large multinational corporations.

Opus4 homepage

Recent developments have also seen us working increasingly with multiple clients on joint projects where there is a need for multiple users to work collaboratively in a virtual office/hub setting while still delivering a consistent and centralised ‘one stop shop’ user experience for the public. This has been challenging through the sheer amount of data that’s involved with multiple clients, often supplied from different GIS and databases. For example, using Ordnance Survey MasterMap data is a must when it comes to local government mapping—in fact in many applications it’s a legal requirement—but with more clients choosing to work together, this means that the amount of mapping data per client is increasing. A recent client saw us having to import nearly 3GB of MasterMap data, compared to around 500MB that would be the usual amount. We’ve written new tools to help us manage these needs, and have managed to reduce import times for data of this size from the best part of a day to under two hours. The net result is that new clients can be working individually or collaboratively in OpusMap 4 with a full suite of OS base mapping and their own map and address data within a working week.

Looking to the Future

These types of collaborative and multi-functional projects are rapidly becoming the norm as clients look to save money by sharing their data and IT resources. Many of our scheduled developments over the coming weeks and months will be aimed at improving our ability to handle larger and more complex datasets, as well as integrating with open source technologies such as QGIS to add brand new tools to future versions of an ever-evolving OpusMap.

While OpusMap continues to move with the times the core values still remain in defining its purpose: to make maps and data as user-friendly as possible to clients and their stakeholders by making OpusMap as accessible as possible to as many users as required within any organisation.

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