Geographic

Drupal as a WFS

Recently I have been looking into the specifications for the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Web Feature Services (WFS) that provide a standard interface between geographic information systems (GIS) for the transfer of geodata.

I've been starting to think about it in terms of using the Drupal web framework as a geodata store that can be used by any standards compliant GIS. Drupal can already be considered a Geospatial Content Management System (GeoCMS) so this seems like a natural extension to allow other systems to talk to it.

In GIS, the term 'layer' is usually used to group together geographic information relating to the same kind of feature, e.g. forests, places or roads. These are often stored in different files or different tables in a database. In Drupal the equivalent concept is a little more flexible and fine-grained. All of the information is stored in one place (with the ability to extend a basic piece of information with extra attributes) and can be filtered by any number of 'tags' that may be assigned to different pieces of information.

Using a WFS server as an interface to data held in Drupal would mean that systems would have access to any number of geographic datasets simply by combining tags to retrieve the data that they need.

I'm looking forward to putting more work into building up a spec for a WFS Server module for Drupal, and hopefully one day geographic information systems will be able to query Drupal for dynamic geodata, and even create, update and delete it as well.

Weekend mapping projects

I've been thinking for a month or so now about OpenStreetMap and things that I can do to help out the project - besides the data collection and mapping I've been doing since the start of the year.

It all began when I was wondering what the difference in cost would be to an organisation (Futuresonic in this case) between licensing Ordnance Survey data and actually going out and mapping an area themselves.

I wouldn't say the two data sources are directly comparable, but both could meet a given need for an organisation. Often the detail of the OS data would be overkill for orangisations wanting simple maps for context, and potentially very expensive depending on how it's used. OpenStreetMap data, on the other hand, may not have as good coverage - though with time and energy it can be easily extended - but it would be available without the cost.

So, one of the ideas that I've come up with recently is for weekend mapping projects. The basic idea of a weekend mapping project is that I would offer organisations, groups or individuals a weekend of my time to map as much of an area as I could feasibly do in a whole weekend (with extra time afterwards to convert the GPS traces and any annotations such as road names into usable map data).

I think it would be fair to ask for those people to pay for low cost flights from my base to their location, bike rental or something for the actual GPS track collection, and a small amount to cover some cheap accommodation and food for the time I'm there. In return they get free map data onto which they should be able to build, adding their own information and styling to make the maps unique to their own needs.

Why would I offer my limited free time to do this though? Well, quite simply, I really enjoy travelling and seeing new places. I'm also really interested in the idea of open, reusable, community-created content, especially in the form of OpenStreetMap for geographic data, but also Wikipedia for general reference information. So, if I can travel to new places and map them out to help expand the OpenStreetMap dataset, it's hitting on both of those desires in one go.

If anybody is interested, please do get in touch and we can talk through the details.

Updated 15 July with link to page on OSM wiki. Some other community members are interested too, and the more the better as that means sponsors would have a better chance of finding someone close to them, and so have lower travel costs.

Isle of Man mentioned at Where 2.0

The Isle of Man got another mention at a conference today (this time it was Where 2.0, last time, a presentation at reboot 8) relating to the mapping work that a number of us from/on the Isle of Man have been working on for the OpenStreetMap project.

The OpenStreetMap project actually has a broad coverage of the island, admittedly with large chunks still missing, but it's a great start. Compare that with Google who seem to have decided against buying the Manx road network for their Google Maps site, despite their coverage of most of the rest of Europe. Ask maps on the other hand do have data for the Isle of Man, as well as some great high resolution imagery of the towns.

For businesses, organisations and individuals, buying data from the likes of Navteq and Ordnance Survey would allow some use of maps, though they would be heavily restricted with what they could do with them. Whilst they are pretty much guaranteed to be of a certain standard, they must pay a high price for that privelage: one which is not easily afforded by small businesses, organisations and individuals who just want to be creative with maps.

Building up our own open source dataset means that people will be able to use road information for many different purposes, with credit to the project, and hopefully at the same time give a little input back into the project as well.

Much of the work I've been doing with regard to the project of late has not been actual mapping - it's difficult when such a long way from the place - but instead research into meta data for the tracks that I've already created on the island. It turns out that the Isle of Man Government site is a treasure trove of information about road closures, which proves a great source for road numbers and names as well as starting and end points. Add in a dash of local knowledge and I can begin to build up a database of roads on the Isle of Man with which I can tag the streets I previously had no metadata recorded for.

Geo goodies announced by Google

A number of Where 2.0 attendees were invited to the Googleplex yesterday for a Geo Developer Day and to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of Google Maps. There were a number of new features announced, including

  • a new version of Google Earth
    (which I've only had a chance to try on my PC at work so far, and it has crashed every time I try to zoom into something)
  • the ability to pull display KML feeds in Google Maps
    (The feeds didn't refresh based on the area of map you're viewing though, as they would in Google Earth. Also, I wonder if they'll support GeoRSS anytime soon? The ability to pull geocoded RSS feeds into Google Maps would be great)
  • geocoding support for the US, Canada and a number of other places - including Germany
    (but not including the UK, presumably because of the tight rein the Royal Mail have over postcode data)

It's been a year since Google Maps was introduced and look at what's been done with them. I'm really looking forward to what's in store at the Where 2.0 conference this year - if only from the other side of the Atlantic.

Linking to OpenStreetMap from Google

Google seems to be opening up more and more of late. They've been offering APIs for their search and maps for a while, but they've mostly allowed information to be pulled from Google to be used elsewhere. Until relatively recently, that is.

I'm thinking through a number of possibilities for the Subscribed Links API that lets you feed your own information into the Google search results of people who have subscribed to your information.

The thing I'd really like to implement with this would be an OpenStreetMap searchlet that gives you a link into the relevant place in OpenStreetMap whenever somebody searches for 'Maps of [Place]' or '[Place] maps'. It would only work for people who have actively chosen to include the links in their Google search results, but I still think it would be a useful thing to do for those that wanted it.

Google even provide a database of cities for people to plug into wihtout having to supply the data themselves, but unfortunately it only works with US cities and only returns a zipcode. It'd be nice if it worked worldwide and returned geographic coordinates as well, then it would be really simple to link into a map from OpenStreetMap.

Smokers turn to geography

camel_advert.jpgIt's interesting to see at the moment that cigarette companies seem to be turning to geography to help market their products in Germany.

Camel is using advertising it's brand on Bus stops (see left, ignore reflections) using a tactic reminiscent of Multimap's advertising in the UK a few years back which made street patterns in London into shopping trolleys, computer mice, etc. In this case Camel have made a camel shape out of the streets and pen annotations on the map.

Meanwhile, Marlboro are advertising the chance of winning some cool looking new GPS navigation devices. Shame I don't smoke, it'd be nice to have one of those things.

I wonder what the sudden attraction to geography is for the tobacco companies? Is it things like Google Earth that have made their customers more aware and more receptive to maps and location?

OSM Incentives

In the past few days I've spent at least four hours out walking around the city trying to map as many streets as possible in the area in live in - Stuttgart West. It's great to get out there - even if it does start raining - and explore the area around me. Once the spring and summer arrive, I'll start cycling around with my GPS and my camera as well. Exploration, photography, geography and keeping fit, all in one.

If you've not yet tried OpenStreetMap, what are you waiting for? Why not get out and explore your surroundings. Careful though, it's addictive!

Getting back to open source mapping

OpenStreetMap logoSince my initial contributions to the OpenStreetMap project back in January I haven't added much more data to the system. Having no access to a car at the moment, I've not been able to get out and about exploring the area around Stuttgart and take tracklogs as I go. That, and when I was using the OSM site back in January, it had become incredibly slow as the size of the project grew so quickly.

Despite that, a number things have happened recently that have really energised me and encouraged me to get back into the community to create geodata:

  • Last week I recieved an email from someone planning on doing a Masters dissertation on the OpenStreetMap project. What's more, he's from the Isle of Man, and doing the same course that I did last year.
  • A little while ago, I managed to get another person from the Isle of Man involved in the project. He's now going out with his GPS, cycling around Port St Mary and then adding his tracks to OSM.
  • There's a workshop being planned on the Isle of Wight in May at which there's a group of people (who I will join, if I can get there for the weekend) that have a goal of mapping the whole of the island on OpenStreetMap.
  • This last weekend, one of the OpenStreetMappers gave me the incentive to classify the data I'm inputting and have already input. He came up with a XSL stylesheet that transforms the raw geodata from the OSM API into an attractive SVG image (sorry to use so many TLAs) that can then be manipulated in other applications. It's the first time I've seen my data visualised in any sort of flexible way, and most importantly the first time it's hit me just how important it is to tag the data (with road names, types, etc) as you put it into the system. Without seeing the effect of your tags, there's no incentive to tag it.
  • I tried out the desktop based JOSM editor that lets me edit everything locally and upload any changes - including the ability to tag everything. It's a shame I can only use it on a PC though, so I can only use it after work before going home to my iBook.
  • The site itself is now running at an acceptable speed again, so there's not too much delay when adding data.
  • Right now there is a very important discussion going on in the mailing lists about the type of license that OpenStreetMap data should be released under, what people should be allowed to do with it, and how they should be able to use it. It's great to read so many people's opinions on the topic, especially as none of the existing open source licences really cater for the needs of open geodata. It also demonstrates just how active and involved the community is.

All of this, along with a bout of nicer weather here in Stuttgart (until yesterday) has made me get my GPS out again and start mapping some of the streets of Stuttgart. I'm thinking small streets that I can walk through and explore instead of roads that, in order to map, I'd need to drive along.

Geo bits at CeBIT

A few days have passed since returning from my weekend visit to Hannover and CeBIT, and I'm nearing recovery from the night-travel induced sleep deprivation over the two days. It was a good trip, if only to learn how not to spend the day at large fairs - and that a day probably isn't long enough.

I was visiting the fair with a colleague, who, like me, was hoping to see all the new gadgets that had been hyped in the run up the event. What we didn't realise is that visiting a fair requires some planning before the event to make sure you can fit in the things you want to see as well as a good selection of the other stands. We missed out on a big chunk of the stuff we wanted to see having lingered for too long in the other sections. Seeing everything on display is not an easy task in an area that's almost half a million square metres in size, and it's unbelievably easy to get sucked in to the stands as you go along.

Personally, I was amazed at the amount of geo-related goods and services that were being exhibited - from data providers such as Navteq and Teleatlas, through handheld GPS, mobile phone integrated GPS navigation systems, in-car navigation systems like TomTom (this was probably the biggest share of goods, including many models from China hoping to take a chunk of the market) and a variety of other things. There was also a lot of information from government entities, from both regional and national mapping authorities in Germany and from other European countries. At some point I will attempt to wade through the German literature and find out what's going on in the geospatial world here in Germany.

Perhaps I'll write more about some of the exhibits as and when I get a chance, but for now, check out some of the CeBIT photos from PocketGPSWorld.com.

Jeeves Mapped Europe for Ask.com

Before Jeeves was given the boot retired after ten years of service, it seems he was given the task of travelling Europe for Ask.com's next big offering, Ask.com Maps and Directions.

Despite the default view of Ask.com Maps being the typical America-centric view of the world, they appear to be the first new AJAX-y style mapping provider to cover Europe in any detail. They give road maps for all of the European Union countries, plus a few others, including Moscow. In addition, they give much higher resolution aerial photos for Stuttgart and probably for other cities as well, though I must admit I didn't check. They even have road data for the Isle of Man, but sadly no higher resolution aerial imagery of the area.

It's all much better than Microsoft's poor geodata offering and Google's lack of European data outside of the UK and the Torino area of Italy.

One area that definately needs work in the new Ask.com Maps service is the search, which seems patchy at best when looking for places outside of the US.

Oh, and it's not the fastest of services either, but for now I'm happy to put up with that in return for the vast improvement they have in geodata over the other providers. If the ability to link in to the service was simplified, I'd be happier too. And I'd be bowled over if they produced an API for their service.

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