Elm Workshop based on the ISS Tracking Demo in the Intro To Elm presentation.
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Elm Workshop

In this short tutorial we will walk through the steps to build the demo from IntroToElm where we cover many of the topics that exist in real world applications: Commands, Subscriptions, Http calls, JSON decoding, interop with JavaScript through Ports.


Please have Elm installed prior to coming to the workshop. The simplest way is to install Node and then run npm install -g elm.

Also, it makes a world of difference to have your editor of choice configured with Elm packages for syntax highlighting, etc. Here are plugins for some of the most common editors:

If you want your Elm code auto-formatted (I recommend it), then you can install Elm-format and the plugin for your editor from here

Lesson 1: Getting Started

Go ahead and download branch 01_Start and follow along with the tutorial below.

git clone https://github.com/jenningstcj/Elm-Workshop.git -b 01_Start Elm-Workshop

Installing Dependencies

If you have installed Elm already, do so now with npm install -g elm. This will install Elm globally and allow the usage of elm-make, elm-reactor, elm-repl, and elm-package.

The 01_Start branch of this repo is barebones with only an HTML file. Navigate to the root of the Elm-Workshop directory in your terminal. The quickest way to start a new Elm project is to type


and hit Enter. This will create an elm-package.json file and install the Core and Html libraries for Elm. Then go ahead and install the Http library with the command:

elm-package install elm-lang/http -y

Now that we have a dependencies installed, create a src directory and update the elm-package.json line for source-directories to match the following:

"source-directories": [

This is where we will put all of our Elm code.

Setup the Elm Architecture

Then create a src/Main.elm file for your Elm application and set it up with the basic Elm Architecture for Html.program:

module Main exposing (..)

import Html exposing (Html, div, p, text)


main : Program Never Model Msg
main =
        { init = init
        , view = view
        , update = update
        , subscriptions = subscriptions

type alias Model =


init : ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init =
    ( Model, Cmd.none )


type Msg
    = Update

update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    ( model, Cmd.none )


view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div [] [
    h3 [] [text "Tracking the International Space Station"]


subscriptions : Model -> Sub Msg
subscriptions model =

This is a barebones Elm program. We have our init, view, update, and subscriptions functions. We have an empty Model. Our init function return an empty model, our update function returns the empty model, our view function returns a single Html Msg, and our subscriptions are set to none. This is a fully compilable, yet empty program. You can compile it with:

elm-make --warn src/Main.elm --output=main.js

Now if you open the index.html file in your browser you should see the Google Maps displayed and if you inspect the source code you will see the empty div returned by your Elm program.

This is the end of Lesson 1. Your code should match branch 02.

Lesson 2: Defining our Models and JS Interop

Setup Model

Next we will define our Model. Since part of our model will be used with Ports to facilitate JS interop, we will create that type alias in a separate file. Go ahead and make a src/SharedModels.elm file. We will share a type alias that contains a latitude and longitude to share with our Ports to also use in JavaScript with Google Maps. In the src/SharedModels.elm file, declare the module and add the following type alias:

module SharedModels exposing (..)

type alias GMPos =
  { lat : Float
  , lng : Float

Then in the src/Main.elm file, import the previously created type alias:

import SharedModels exposing (GMPos)

And fill our our Model type alias with position, altitude, and velocity fields:

type alias Model =
    { pos : GMPos
    , alt : Int
    , vel : Int

Then update the init function to initialize the new model. Optionally, we can initialize the position to a specific location like Knoxville:

init : ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init =
        knoxville =
            (GMPos 35.9335673 -84.016913)
        ( Model knoxville 0 0, Cmd.none )

Let's update our view to be able to see the values of our model:

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ h3 [] [text "Tracking the International Space Station"]
        , p [] [ text ("Latitude: " ++ toString model.pos.lat) ]
        , p [] [ text ("Longitude: " ++ toString model.pos.lng) ]
        , p [] [ text ("Altitude: " ++ toString model.alt ++ " miles") ]
        , p [] [ text ("Velocity: " ++ toString model.vel ++ " miles per hour") ]

If you build the application now with elm-make --warn src/Main.elm --output=main.js and open the index.html file in a browser, you will see our html markup from our Elm application displaying the Latitude and Longitude of Knoxville, and an empty Altitude and Velocity.

Setup Ports for JS Interop

Last step in this lesson will be to setup Ports to communicate with JavaScript to update Google Maps. Ports have to be declared in their own module so let's create a src/GMaps.elm file and inside of it let's create two ports. One for sending values from Elm to JavaScript and one to receive values in Elm from JavaScript:

port module GMaps exposing (..)

import SharedModels exposing (GMPos)


port moveMap : GMPos -> Cmd msg


port mapMoved : (GMPos -> msg) -> Sub msg

Specifically, we are sending a latitude/longitude object to JavaScript to update our map and receiving new values in Elm when the map is moved independently. An outgoing port takes a Model and executes a Cmd msg. An incoming port takes a Model and a command and outputs a Subscription msg.

Let's use our new ports in src/Main.elm:

import GMaps exposing (moveMap, mapMoved)

Then let's update our init function to update our Google Maps position to our Knoxville coordinates upong program initialization. In place of the Cmd.none, we will call our moveMap port and give it our Knoxville GMPos model.

init : ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init =
        knoxville =
            (GMPos 35.9335673 -84.016913)
        ( Model knoxville 0 0, moveMap knoxville )

Next, in our subscriptions function we will replace Sub.none with aSub.batch, which takes a list of Subscription Msgs. Specifically we will add our mapMoved port and give it a new Msg type to describe and Update action - MapMovedUpdate.

subscriptions : Model -> Sub Msg
subscriptions model =
        [ mapMoved MapMovedUpdate ]

Now we need to create our MapMovedUpdate Msg type. So replace the unused Update Msg type with MapMovedUpdate GMPos. Remember our mapMoved port takes a GMPos model and output a Subscription. Then add a case statement to our update function that takes the incoming GMPos and updates our internal model.

type Msg
    = MapMovedUpdate GMPos
update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        MapMovedUpdate newPos ->
            ( { model | pos = newPos }, Cmd.none )

Right now if we build our application we won't see anything different. Our Elm application is trying to sent data out to update the map and it is listening for data coming in, but there isn't anything outside of our application that is receiving or sending data. We need to update the JavaScript in our index.html to communicate with the Ports we just created. Beneath the JavaScript initalizing our Google Maps instance, add the following:

 instance.ports.moveMap.subscribe(function(gmPos) {
      console.log("received", gmPos);
      var myLatlng = new google.maps.LatLng(gmPos);

  gmap.addListener('drag', function() {
    var newPos = {
      lat: gmap.getCenter().lat(),
      lng: gmap.getCenter().lng()

First we use our port moveMap to subscribe to data coming from Elm into JavaScript. We log the value to the console, create a new Google Maps Latitude/Longitude object, and then set the center of our map to the new position and update are marker as well. Secondly, we add a drag event to our map so that whenever the map is manually moved we calculate the new center position and send the value into Elm through our mapMoved port. It is two pub/sub relationships to handle two-way communication between JavaScript and our Elm application.

If you compile your application now with elm-make --warn src/Main.elm --output=main.js you should have a working application that initializes and centers the map to Knoxville. If you drag the map around, you should see the Latitude and Longitude values update as well.

Now your code should match branch 03.

Lesson 3: HTTP

Retrieve Data from HTTP

In preparation to make our HTTP call to retrieve live data about the International Space Station we need to add a couple dependencies:

import Http
import Json.Decode exposing (..)

Next, let's model our data we want to retrieve. The JSON object we will receive many items, but we only want four. If you want to see the full JSON object, open https://api.wheretheiss.at/v1/satellites/25544 in your browser. We only want to use the latitude, longitude, altitude, and velocity. Create a type alias for these items:

type alias ISS_JSON =
    { latitude : Float
    , longitude : Float
    , altitude : Float
    , velocity : Float

HTTP calls in Elm consist of three main parts: the function that performs the HTTP command, the Decoder to interpret and map the JSON to a type alias, and the Update Msg's to handle success and failures. To perform an HTTP command, you need to structure the Http.get call and provide the url and JSON decoder. The HTTP call does not actually initiate communication until we tell Elm to execute the command with Http.send. We will create a new -- Http section in our application to group our Http stuff. Then create a function called 'getLocation' to retrieve up-to-date information about the Space Station:

-- Http

getLocation : Cmd Msg
getLocation =
        url =
        request =
            Http.get url decodeISSPosition
       Http.send LoadData request

Perhaps one of the biggest difference in Elm that catches newcomers to the language off guard is the fact that you must parse/decode your JSON responses. This is because the strictness of the language does not allow variability in data or data types. The decoder for our ISS_JSON object is pretty simple and can use a built in decoder called 'map4' to decode our small object and then a 'float' decoder to parse each field to the correct type:

decodeISSPosition : Decoder ISS_JSON
decodeISSPosition =
    map4 ISS_JSON
        (field "latitude" float)
        (field "longitude" float)
        (field "altitude" float)
        (field "velocity" float)

There are other ways to decode JSON data, including options for handling dynamic data. In the case of dynamic data you'd want to use the oneOf function and provide a list of decoders. The compiler would then try each decoder in the list until one succeeded.

The last step in this lesson is to add in our LoadData update message type to handle the response of our Http getLocation function. An Http call returns a Result type with an error option and a value option. This let's us use one update function for handling both successes and failures.

type Msg
    = MapMoved GMPos
    | LoadData (Result Http.Error ISS_JSON)

Now we can pattern match on whether the LoadData contains an Ok type or an Err type. The Ok type will contain our decoded data and the Err type will contain the error message. An Err type will be returned whenever there is an error executing the Http call or whenever there is a problem decoding the JSON. In this example we won't act upon the Err state, but in real applications you may log it or handle it in some way. Our Ok branch updates the GMPos field on our model along with the velocity and altitude. Since the data returned is in Kilometers per hour, we are making a quick conversion with a helper function you will see next.

LoadData (Ok newISSPos) ->
         newPos =
             GMPos newISSPos.latitude newISSPos.longitude

         velocity =
             kilometersToMiles newISSPos.velocity

         altitude =
             kilometersToMiles newISSPos.altitude
         ( { model
             | pos = newPos
             , vel = velocity
             , alt = altitude
         , moveMap newPos

LoadData (Err _) ->
     ( model, Cmd.none )

One thing you may notice right at the start. Our JSON is returning Float values, however, our altitude and velocity values on our Model are of type Int. Therefore we have to write a little helper function - 'kilometersToMiles' - to use in our update function. Lastly, our FetchFail will just swallow any errors for now and return the previous model.

The kilomtersToMiles conversion function is some simple math and a round down to the nearest integer:

kilometersToMiles : Float -> Int
kilometersToMiles km =
        * 0.62137
        |> round

Now if you compile this with elm-make --warn src/Main.elm --output=main.js you should have a successful compile, but if you open the index.html in a browser you may not see any difference yet because nothing is triggering the HTTP call to actually happen. Your code should match branch 04.

Lesson 4: Subscriptions

Subscribe to New Data

We have one last minor step to finish our appliction. We need to setup a subscription to subscribe to an interval to poll for new data. To do this, we will import Time, add a new subscription to our batch, and add an Update Msg type to handle our command.

import Time exposing (..)


        [ mapMoved MapMoved
        , Time.every (5 * second) FetchPosition

Our Sub.batch is merely a list of subscriptions. We already had the mapMoved subscription, now we had an interval with the Elm runtime will subscribe to. To create an interval, we use Time.every and then a time amount. Values such as second, minute, etc already exist so we build off that and use 5 * second to create 5 seconds. Then call a new Msg type, FetchPosition. Since FetchPosition is being called by the Time module, it needs to take Time as a parameter.

type Msg =
   | FetchPosition Time

Our update function for FetchPosition will return our previous model and then issue the command for getLocation.

FetchPosition time ->
    ( model, getLocation )

Now you should be able to compile and run your application and have a full working web app that tracks the International Space Station. Congratulations!

elm-make --warn src/Main.elm --output=main.js

Your code should now match branch 05.