Category: Mapbox

Databases as file formats

The .mbtiles way

I’m building an interactive online map of all properties in Vancouver, and along the way there have been a few pleasant surprises. Most recently: the .MBTiles tileset format is surprisingly cool.


Mapbox is one of the biggest players in the open source mapping space (especially now that Mapzen and Carto have thrown in the towel – Mapzen is closing and Carto is now using Mapbox tech). One of the many nice things about Mapbox is that they developed an efficient open standard for vector map tiles, appropriately named Mapbox Vector Tiles (read this if you’re not sure why vector tiles are great).

Map tiles are often pre-computed for each zoom level, and once you’ve done that you need to store them somewhere. Enter the .MBTiles tileset format.

Poking around under the hood

My first encounter with this file format occurred when I used Eric Fischer’s excellent tippecanoe tool to simplify my data set at lower zoom levels. Tippecanoe generates .mbtiles files, which are easy to serve to clients either by uploading to Mapbox, using a third party tile server, or even by rolling your own server with something like the mbtiles Node.js package.

All great… but after setting up a server my Mapbox GL JS client refused to render the tiles. I tried a few things without much luck, and then as a last resort I decided to poke around in the .mbtiles file. I was expecting to need a hex editor or similar, but then I saw this beauty in the spec:

MBTiles is a specification for storing tiled map data in SQLite databases

The files themselves are just relational databases in a known schema – how cool is that? Emboldened, I grabbed a SQLite client and opened up my .mbtiles file:


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