Mamata Akella: The toolbox to build and design maps for the web is ever-changing

Mamata has been a professional web cartographer for over a decade building maps and technology for Esri, National Park Service, CARTO, Stamen, Facebook, and now Felt. She loves pushing the limits of cartography on the web and working on cross-functional teams to build cartographic thinking into products used by both technical and non-technical users. This Interview was done by Jonah Adkins

You’ve worked at a ton of interesting places, what is a highlight of your career?

I’m still living the highlight! For me, it’s working at organizations and on projects that are pushing the limits of mapping. This work has connected me with so many talented teammates, and I look back on the impact of our work with great pride. The toolbox to build and design maps for the web is ever-changing and I am really grateful to have built a career that evolves with it. I am also extremely grateful to be part of the strong cartographic community that is NACIS.

How did you end up at Felt?

Felt reached out to me to build their first basemap. Felt was in “stealth mode” so the description was very vague (you can still see it using the Wayback Machine).

I showed them my portfolio of work, they showed me their vision and there was no question we were going to work together. I choose jobs based on how innovative they are, and one of the things that stood out the most was how the team had designed drawing tools that could be used on a web map. Even after all of these years working in the web mapping space, when Sam (Felt’s CEO) took the marker tool and drew with it there was something so unique and futuristic about it. I officially joined the Felt team in September 2021, and am consistently blown away by the team’s ability to design an intuitive to use mapping tool in the browser, ultimately building a completely new way to make and share maps on the internet.

Now that you’re there, what makes Felt a great place to work?

It’s a wonderful place to work. Felt’s focus is taking traditionally complex mapping workflows, rearchitecting and redesigning them into a platform that is modern and intuitive to use. We work every day with this ethos and vision — it’s the DNA of the company and its founders. As a result, Felt has quickly become the best place to make maps on the internet, allowing everyone to achieve powerful results, regardless of expertise. Felt is also the first user-friendly tool that helps individuals and teams collaborate on maps. In short, Felt is enabling a whole new generation of mapmaking, which is something that I find especially exciting.

I also really love how we support and leverage a variety of open source projects to usher in this new generation. Some examples include bringing Erica Fischer and her transformative work with Tippecanoe in-house, using the open-source map renderer MapLibre to being the first Flagship Sustaining Member of QGIS. Not only are we enabling powerful collaboration within our product, we’re also building long-lasting collaborative relationships within the mapping community.

That’s super intriguing — can you share a bit more about this next generation of modern map-making you’re working on?

Absolutely, so there are two overarching themes with Felt’s approach that make it new to me: 1) Collaboration and 2) Design.

What makes Felt fundamentally modern is that it’s entirely in the browser. This enables Felt to provide collaborative functionality — such as editing permissioning, sharing with a link, and making a team — that is offered by the likes of Figma, Google Sheets, and Notion. Just as Google made sharing and providing feedback on sheets 10x easier than it was, Felt is doing the same with maps (and the data that is accessed by teams making maps).

Collaborative features provide undeniable time-savings. That’s why, in addition to enabling teammates to edit your map directly, we just launched a new commenting feature. As a cartographer who spends my days working with maps and data, I am so thrilled to finally have a workflow that has the same rapid and smooth feedback cycle that I have come to expect when working on any other modern browser based tool.

The second way we are modernizing map making is by preserving the power of GIS but making it more intuitive by design. This is exciting to me because so many more people can self-serve and make their own maps. It’s honestly astonishing how intuitive it is when you start using the platform — things like copy/paste, command+K and undo all work! Of course I love being able to do powerful GIS/cartographic design work with a UI that is akin to Figma or Google Slides, but I get most excited watching novices pick up the tool and be successful in minutes. It’s so affirming!

It’s pretty crazy how you can upload all kinds of data (rasters, spreadsheets) now. What do you like about working with data in Felt.

Yes! We take the guesswork out of data uploads with a smart and powerful pipeline. There are three things the team has done that I think are super time savers:

  • Breadth of formats: Felt enables teams to ‘Upload Anything’ — all vector, raster, and tabular data formats you’d expect (and even the ones you wouldn’t!). If you just want to view a file, pop it in Felt.
  • Automatic Projection: We project your files automatically, so your map data always appears as expected and novices have no issues getting started.
  • Geomatching: spatial joins may be easy for you and me, but they are still annoying. Felt automatically matches tabular data to geographic information, taking the grunt work out of it for us, but more powerfully helping beginners self-serve.

All of that pipeline work gets me to the fun part faster–styling!

What are some of the projects you’re most proud of working on recently?

I spend most of my time on the visualization side of Felt. My focus is how to make styling faster and result in more professional looking maps. Felt’s Friendly Editor is a point-and-click UI for creating a variety of visualizations (all with great cartographic defaults, of course). I bring this up, because this is one of the things I’m most proud of, as well as working with my colleague Isaac Besora on developing the Felt Style Language (our intuitive styling grammar) that anyone can use to create more advanced styling. It’s incredibly powerful and simple, all at the same time, and that’s not easy to pull off.

Another thing I’m proud of is the maps I’ve made to highlight new features and launches. This is always a fun creative process. Recently, when we launched raster it was so eye-opening for me because for the first time, I could choose from such an array of data sources — sources like David Rumsey map collection , or Shaded Relief Archive, or Landsat imagery — and overlay vector sources and annotations to tell a story. You can see a bunch of my maps in our Map Gallery

I’m proud of this map entirely made from elements. No data at all. As I mentioned earlier, in the story of how I joined Felt, I am still floored by how delightful it is to simply draw on a map. I love Felt’s concept of elements — these pieces or data that live in the foreground of the map — they serve both a cartographic purpose as well as are literally exportable data. It’s wild.

What are some features in Felt that make the cartographic design process more collaborative?

Since day one, we designed Felt with collaboration in mind, and over the past year, we have introduced a variety of ways to enable individuals and organizations to build, share and collaborate on complex maps more quickly and easily. As cartographers, we tend to work cross-functionally and iteratively for the majority of our work. Even in this hyper-digital age, collaborating on maps hasn’t been easy! But I’m telling you it is with Felt. If you’re a cartographer reading this, I promise you, you’re going to love it (here’s a quick guide on setting up your team so you can get the most out of the platform).

What does the next year at Felt look like?

If the pace of our production is any indication – you’ll be able to do 10x as much as you can do today! By signing up for an account (it’s free!) you’ll receive our newsletter which provides you with a direct list of launched features. Also, you can meet the team (and our CEO) in-person if you’re headed to Esri UC. Register for our Happy Hour here!

Are you still listening to your favorite map making songs from 2016?

Haha! Anyone who has hung out with me since 2016 knows that Players Holiday is still one of my favorite jams 😉