Geographic

Brush up your cartography skills

In September, the Society of Cartographers is going to be holding their 45th annual Summer School event in Southampton.

It's interesting looking through the programme to see just how much of the event is about data, and much of it coming from sources that didn't exist just a few years ago, from OpenStreetMap, the new UKMap and of course the various Ordnance Survey datasets that are available to organisations who can afford to pay for them.

I wonder how the content of this annual summer school has changed over the years since it started, as more and more data sources have become available for cartographers to use?

If you're in the UK and are interested in making maps, the event (7-9 September) looks like it will be a good place to see where cartography is heading, get some hands on experience in the workshops and also network with others in the industry.

iPhone street maps for the Isle of Man

Isle of Man street maps on the iPhoneI was looking recently to see what applications were available for the iPhone (or iPod touch) relating to the Isle of Man, and was pleasantly surprised to see that a mapping application had been released.

The application, simply called 'Isle of Man', gives users a map of the Island for use on their iPhone while they are visiting. In addition to the map, it lets users find amenities and streetnames that have been added into the OpenStreetMap database. I decided this morning to pay the 59p to download the app and try it out, but beyond the initial excitement of seeing OpenStreetMap data being used for mobile maps of the Isle of Man, I haven't been so impressed with the execution of the idea for a number of reasons...

The Mobile-Streetmaps.com website promotes this app and hundreds of other similar ones from around the world, each just a download of OpenStreetMap data packaged into an application, for which they charge 59p. While it's not a large amount to pay, the company producing the applications is profiting off the generosity of the OpenStreetMap community (and in the case of the Isle of Man, Cloud Made as well, thanks to their donation of data) with little attribution, and no mention within the app itself of the license under which the data is available.

Hopefully the company will fix the attribution issue soon, by adding a mention to the pages in the iPhone app store that the data is from OpenStreetMap, and also by adding information about the license to at least the about page of each app, and to the side bar of the pages on their website.

The app itself could be quite useful if you're visiting the Island, but it has quite a few usability issues that hamper its use:

  • Zooming in to the map, you are not shown beyond a certain level, leaving many streets in the center of towns and villages left without names.
  • Navigation within the app could really be improved... there's not even a back button to get back to the map from various other screens.
  • After searching for items, you're taken to the map, but you are left looking at the place you were looking at before, with no obvious indication that pins have been added to the map outside of your current view.
  • There is no way of clearing the pins from previous searches from the map, leading to possible confusion when searching for other things.
  • Clicking on the pins for search results doesn't give any more information to the user. It would be nice to be able to get contact details where available, what the nearest street is, etc.

If you would like to access maps offline for more than just a single place, and be able to take advantage of recent updates to the maps, you will probably be better off downloading the OffMaps app which I have yet to try, but costs just a little more at £1.19 and lets you choose the area and level of detail you wish to download, and lets you do it for as many places as you wish.

While free and open geodata from OpenStreetMap gives a great boost to these applications, it also has its downfalls in that it's likely not (yet) complete for any given area. To give an example, searching for 'cafe' amenities in the Isle of Man resulted in just the Silverdale cafe being shown on the map, where in reality there are many more cafes that aren't (yet) listed.

To help improve the amount of data in the Isle of Man that's represented in OpenStreetmap, in particular relating to points of interest (POIs), I'm planning to hold another mapping party on Saturday 1st August. I'll post more information about this soon, but put the date in your diary if you're interested in helping put some of these amenities on the map. If you'd like more information in the mean time, please get in touch.

Update: having contacted the author of the apps, he's already been working with the OpenStreetMap community and has agreed to improve on the attribution, which is good. I also tried out OffMaps and liked it, but one thing it doesn't give you that the individual place-based apps do, is the access to find the location of POIs and streets while you're offline (though it does work when online).

Drupal participation month

It is looking like June is going to be quite an interesting month for participation, with a couple of projects being set up to focus on certain parts of Drupal for the month.

Last week, Advantage Labs announced Geo June, a month of focused development on the geo module. The geo module has a lot of potential to become the basis of the GeoCMS that Drupal should be (as long as the module stays generic enough), and Advantage Labs are keen to get more people interested and involved to help make that happen. During the month there are a number of physical events, but you're also encouraged to share your use cases and join in day to day with the IRC chat in #drupal-geo.

The Drupal User Experience Project also yesterday announced the launch of Microprojects to encourage user experience (UX) professionals to get involved in small bounded problems, working with a Drupal developer to implement their designs and suggestions for improvement. This seems like a great idea, not only because it's breaking down some quite large problems into bite-size manageable chunks, but also to get some outside experts - who may not have previously used Drupal - involved in the community.

If you're interested in either of these areas (or any of the other sprints which are happening), why not jump in and get involved. Having not spent much time on the Geo project yet, I'm looking to spend some time getting to know it in June and hopefully help to push it forwards, as well as starting the rewrite of the KML module to simplify it as a views display type instead of a bundle of custom code.

Location services integration for Activity Stream

I was working the other night to create an integration module that would tie the existing Activity Stream module for Drupal into the Brightkite location-based social network.

The idea is that users can check in at their current location using Brightkite and have their Drupal site update their location within the site based on their last known location - handy if you want a little map that shows where you are, for example, but you could do whatever you wanted with those locations, and even use them to extend a social network you might be building up in Drupal.

While I was fighting with the SimplePie feed parsing library to work out why it didn't like the feeds from Brightkite, John McKerrell suggested that some integration for his new Mapme.at service would be nice too.

So, the first two services to be supported by the new Activity Stream location services project are Brightkite and Mapme.at. I'd also like to extend this to other services like Yahoo's Fire Eagle and Google Latitude at some point, but neither of them are quite so simple to integrate with, the former because it has no public location feeds for users and requires authentication, and the latter because it doesn't share any of its data at all (boo!).

In their most basic form, the modules pull in the updates from these services and they get included in your activity stream along with your Twitter updates and the like, but also if you have Location module installed and the user locations module enabled (plus a patch for Activity Stream for now), your user will be updated with the latest coordinates from the location service you use.

British snow mapped on Twitter

British snowfall mapped via TwitterThe south of Britain has today seen its first proper snow fall in quite some time.

While London is experiencing its fair share of it, we - along with the rest of the UK - are having the snowfall mapped out courtesy of Twitter users and the short weather reports they are tweeting.

This is a good example of Twitter being used in situations where an idea has grown organically into a way of collecting structured data from the masses, and where someone has taken the idea and run with it to map the data out. It's the kind of thing that I think would really help in disaster relief situations, if enough people had access to Twitter still, and in fact the attacks on Mumbai showed that Twitter was used widely to spread eyewitness news of what was happening.

Check out Paul Clarke's writeup for a great rundown on how all this progressed (more than the passing comment this post gives). Great to see there are smart people at the heart of the UK government's web strategy - Paul is working on making Directgov a better place.

(map courtesy of Google Maps and the #uksnow mashup)

Ballavayre Cottages site launched

Ballavayre CottagesThe new website for Ballavayre Cottages went live recently to give a new online presence to this 5 star self-catering accommodation in their 200 year old cottage in Colby, Isle of Man.

The site, built on Drupal, allows the cottage owner to change content as and when they wish, and also to update their availability calendar to let visitors know when the cottages are available.

To help visitors see at a glance where the cottages are located, and to give directions from the sea terminal and airport, we included a series of custom built maps, designed (with some very helpful tips from Steve Chilton) using OpenStreetMap data.

Directions to Ballavayre Cottages

It is always great to help promote the Isle of Man as a tourist destination, even in a small way, by giving accommodation providers a chance to promote their services to a wider market.

Geospatial sessions at DrupalCon DC 2009

Following on from my post yesterday about our company's sponsorship and presentations, I thought it was worth a post to highlight the sessions other people in the Drupal community have proposed that relate to the building of a geospatial web with the help of Drupal - the main reason I got involved in Drupal in the first place.

Jeff Miccolis (Development Seed) and Andrew Turner (High Earth Orbit) will present a session on Drupal and the Geospatial Web:

"This presentation will include an overview of the emerging Geospatial web, and the technologies, standards and communities that are driving it. We'll look at how Google Maps fall short and how to go beyond its basic approach to mapping on the web. We'll cover where Drupal fits in, ways to incorporate other mapping tools and data into your projects. Specifically, what modules extend Drupal, enable it to leverage existing tools and how to use these to do new and interesting things."

Jeff has been doing all sorts of interesting work recently with Drupal and RDF for storing geodata, and Andrew is the heavily involved in GeoCommons and Mapufacture, empowering users to share their geographic information.

Eric Gundersen (Development Seed) will be presenting a session titled Communicating Data Online: When Data Visualization and Workflow Matter:

"You have access to tons of information, Eric Gundersen of the online strategy shop Development Seed will talk about how interactive maps, data visualizations, and other online tools can quickly show you the bigger picture around large scale international issues. Eric will demo the new Pandemic Preparedness Mapping site built for InterAction to prevent the spread of a catastrophic disease like bird flu."

Eric, and Development Seed in general, have done a lot over recent years to build cool sites that are often centred around geospatial information. The Pandemic Preparedness Mapping site uses maps care of the Nice Map module and also a modified version of the KML module that allows people to access all the data in the site through Google Earth and many other systems that can read KML.

Rebecca White and other members of the Chicago Technology Cooperative will be presenting Drupal as a GeoCMS:

"This session will move from GIS concepts to Drupal GIS practice. We will talk about the principles of storing, organizing, and searching geodata, the practical usage of geodata in Drupal applications, and how geographic functionalities are implemented by existing Drupal modules."

Brandon Bergren, primary maintainer of the location module, GMap module and geo module will also be one of the presenters.

Frank Febbraro will be talking about Using Intelligent Web Services for Semantic Drupal Sites:

"Leveraging semantic web services such as Thompson Reuter's Calais within Drupal enables you to do amazing things that will be part of the semantic revolution. This session will cover some incredibly powerful things you can do to augment content and create powerful features once you have the semantic context and metadata of the information driving a site."

Another example of the intersection between the semantic web, Drupal and geospatial information, this talk will demo the Calais Geo service for geo-tagging and mashing up content.

Bevan Rudge will be using some of Drupal's geographic modules to build Google Maps Mashups In and a number of other presentations such as Karen Stevenson's CCK Mashup -- Oh The Things You Can Do! also relate to mapping.

There will no doubt be some BOF (birds of a feather) sessions around the growing area of geographic information in Drupal as well, but it already sounds like a great mix of presentations. If you're going, remember to vote for the sessions to make sure they all get the chance to present!

Co-ordinated marketing

Co-ordinates on the back of a Fuller's Discovery promotional t-shirtA little while back I was having a pint or two with my brother in a local pub when he spotted the offer of a promotional t-shirt for customers who were drinking the Fullers Discovery Blonde Beer. By the end of the night, they kindly gave us two of the t-shirts to take home (we got the impression they had quite a few left to give away).

The t-shirts had marketing for the Discovery beer on the front and, in the spirit of the name, also had a compass on the back with a pair of geographic coordinates within it. Recognising them as coordinates in the London area, I didn't think too much more about it, presuming they were the coordinates of the pub that was selling the beer, or of the Fullers Brewery that produced it, but it wasn't until the other day that I actually tapped the coordinates (51º29'15.24"N, 0º14'56.96"W) into Google Maps and - after switching to the satellite imagery view - discovered that this was all a part of the brewery's larger marketing strategy.

Aerial view of Fuller's Brewery, London

Presumably not too far off the flight path for Heathrow airport, and always under the attentive gaze of the electronic eyes in the sky, the Fuller's Brewery had used the prime marketing real estate of their roof to advertise themselves to the world. Of course this isn't a new strategy, with many other companies and organisations doing the same thing around airport areas for year, but the coordinated (excuse the pun) approach did strike me as a nice way to market their product.

Having said that, unlike in the early days in the web when, purely out of curiosity, I'd visit any URL I saw advertised, I don't think I'd do the same with a pair or coordinates that I saw on the back of someone's t-shirt...

Note: Aerial imagery copyright Google

Old Ordnance Survey maps

The Godfrey Edition: old Ordnance Survey mapsWhen I was looking for old maps of the Isle of Man a couple of years ago, I came across a great source of old maps of towns across Britain and Ireland (as well as a couple of the Isle of Man and other places in Europe). I didn't mention them in the post (I perhaps hadn't found them at that point) but I've recently had a bit of an interest in the history of the area around where I'm living, so went back to this supplier to order some old maps of the Elephant and Castle area of London.

Alan Godfrey has been building up an impressive collection of reprints of old Ordnance Survey Maps from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. The maps, collectively known as The Godfrey Edition, are reproductions of original maps, often scaled down slightly, but printed in extraordinary quality considering the age of the originals.

As described on their website:

Most of the maps are highly detailed, taken from the 1/2500 plans and reprinted at about 14 inches to the mile. They cover towns in great detail, showing individual houses, railway tracks, factories, churches, mills, canals, tramways and even minutiae such as dockside cranes, fountains, signal posts, pathways, sheds, wells, etc.. Each map includes historical notes on the area concerned. Many also include extracts from contemporary directories. The maps are neatly folded, often with an early photograph on the cover. The maps are ideal for local historians, transport historians, and family historians, or simply those with an interest in the town they live in or have visited. The maps are very good value and cost just £2.25 each.

Whenever I've bought maps from them (their whole catalog is online in their map shop) I've found them to be very responsive, with the maps often arriving the next day. Alan Godfrey was also open to the use of names from old maps for the OpenStreetMap project (where they were still relevant, as they often were in Peel in the Isle of Man, where much of the historical street layout still exists).

So, if you're interested in the history of the area around you, I highly recommend these maps as a great start to learning more about how things used to be.

Making maps from OpenStreetMap geodata

Snaefell Mountain Course - Isle of Man TT outline mapI spent some time last year making some maps of the Snaefell Mountain Course (and other roads) on the Isle of Man so that I could add an overview map to the Wikipedia entry for the course.

Last night I was trying out some of the options in the OpenStreetMap 'export' tab, and since it can now export SVG (scalable vector graphics) files, I thought I'd have a try at redoing the maps from last year in a more re-usable and editable form using vector graphics instead of bitmaps.

To make the SVG map using data from OpenStreetMap (as shown in the preview), I just followed some relatively simple steps and a little trial and error while using the graphics editor.

I thought I'd share some of the steps below, in case anybody else was interested in making maps from the great data becoming available in the OpenStreetMap project.

So, what's needed to make your own custom maps?

  1. An area of OpenStreetMap that's got enough information in it to be useful for your purpose.
    If the data you want is not all there, or you want to add more, see the beginners' guide and the map making guide to get you started off adding or improving data in the project.
  2. An SVG image generated from OpenStreetMap using the export tab.
    To export your vector graphic file, zoom the main map into the area you want to export, click on the export tab, tweak the area you're interested in (if necessary), select 'Mapnik image' and 'SVG' from the options and click Export. Experiment with the scale to see what the results are, but initially the default scale will probably suffice.
  3. A vector graphics editor such as Adobe Illustrator or, even better, an open source editor such as Inkscape.
    Open the downloaded SVG file in your editor and you should see a nice pretty OpenStreetMap image there. To start to work on it, it's a good idea to 'ungroup' the items so that you can edit them individually (I had to do this twice to fully separate out all the objects). You'll notice that the map is made up of many objects, one for each node and way you'd normally see rendered on the maps at openstreetmap.org. You'll also notice that text annotations (names, road references, etc.) are all broken down to their constituent characters too.
  4. Some time to do some (at times quite fiddly) image editing and map making.
    You can get some results out in a relatively short timeframe, but you'll likely want to improve the map over time as you become more familiar with the data and tools available.

What steps were needed to create the TT map?

  1. Select all the items and fade them (I lowered the level of transparency, but there are probably better ways of doing it).
  2. Select the text items, group each the characters of each name together to make it easier to edit them, re-emphasise them, and change their size if desired.
  3. Select any other items that should be re-emphasised and do that (I did the sea and the land).
  4. Select each element of the subject that you'd like to highlight (for me, this was each way that makes up the course) and change the styling of it (I increased the size, and re-emphasised the original colours). I also combined them all into a single 'path' and joined the end of each one to the end of the next (using the 'Edit paths by nodes' ad 'Join selected end nodes' tools) to make it fill in the gaps that appear between them.

Hopefully this short tutorial (well, documentation of my first steps) was helpful for other budding neo-cartographers out there. If you've made your own maps from OpenStreetMap data and have any hints and tips that may be useful, please feel free to add a comment to this post.

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