My morning's reading today has been dominated by a map image that the UK's Environment Agency released on December 6th that, to quote the Tweet, shows "the extent of potential flooding of London if the Thames Barrier wasn't in place". If you know London at all, it's certainly an arresting image but like so many times when I encounter a map, I want to interact with it, move it, see whether where I live in London would have been impacted. So I started investigating.
The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus was fond of saying “the only constant is change” (actually he said “nothing endures but change” but let’s not split hairs). He probably wasn’t talking about meetups and get-togethers in London but this still fits rather well. Events come and go as their themes either go mainstream or fade. But some remain and London’s #geomob is one of those.
Started in 2008 by fellow WhereCamp EU co-conspirator Chris Osborne, #geomob was conceived as London’s answer to Silicon Valley’s popular (and still running) WebMapSocial meetup group. After a brief hiatus in May 2010 when Chris hung up his hat and offered the event to anyone willing to spend the time and effort in running it, #geomob restarted in September of the same year, this time fed and watered by Ed Freyfogle and Vuk Trifkovic of Lokku, the people behind Nestoria and Open Cage Data. It’s been going strong ever since.
But what is #geomob? The name was originally a contraction of London Geo/Mobile Developer’s Meetup. Officially it’s a quaterly meetup for location based service developers. But the geo industry is still small and friendly and I prefer to think of #geomob in the most literal sense of the word, as a mob of geo enthusiasts.
Each meetup takes the same form; a couple of hours of people talking about geo, location and maps related stuff, sometimes with slide decks, sometimes not. The topics range from startups pitching the next big thing, from people who want to share their thoughts and views to topics which are just so out there you wouldn’t believe it (geolocation by subsonic sounds from industrial facilities anyone?). It has to be experienced to be believed. Afterwards, the time honoured tradition of retiring to a nearby pub and the ritual of geobeers is observed.
I’ve been fortunate enough to speak at #geomob not once, not twice but three times. This may be something of a record. The speaker list for the first #geomob of 2014 is already up and you can go and show your interest on Lanyrd too. Did I mention the whole thing is free?
If you live or work in or around London and you want to see what this city is thinking about when it comes to maps, geo or location, I can’t recommend it enough. Once experienced, you’ll never look at a social meetup quite the same again.
It’s the mid-1920′s and you’re in a plane trying to navigate your way across the vastness of the United States. GPS hasn’t been invented yet. VHF Omni Directional Radio Range, shortened to VOR, hasn’t been invented yet. LFR, or Low Frequency Radio Range, hasn’t been invented yet. How do you hope to stay on course?
As a pilot you’d have a compass, an altimeter and maybe a map of the railway system to help you navigate and this is just what pilots did from 1918 when the U.S. Postal Service introduced the U.S. Air Mail system. But you needed one critical thing to help you navigate, one thing that wasn’t available 24 hours a day. You needed daylight.
In 1921, an experimental night flight was successfully completed using the clever solution of following bonfires along the length of the route between Chicago and North Platte in Nebraska. The bonfires were lit and tended by Postal Service employees and the occasional helpful farmer.
Having proved that a regular, day and night, postal service was possible, starting in 1923 a system of beacons were built across the United States. Each beacon was a 51 foot tall tower, one every 10 miles, with a massive rotating lamp on top that could be seen up to 40 miles away. Additional lights of differing colours pointed the two directions of the route and another light flashed out the beacon’s identifier, in Morse code.
All of which was essential during the hours of darkness, but to help during daylight hours, each beacon was built on top of, or alongside, a massive concrete arrow, 70 feet in length, painted bright yellow, that pointed out the direction to the next beacon.
In their heyday, almost 1,500 beacons were built between 1923 and 1933. This navigation system continued despite the invention of Low Frequency Radio Range navigation in 1929. The last beacon was supposed to be shut down as late as 1973 but some are still in use in Western Montana.
While the beacon towers themselves are mostly long gone, many of the concrete arrows still remain and can be seen clearly from the satellite imagery that we now expect to accompany today’s GPS driven digital maps. The arrows may lack their trademark yellow paint as age and weathering take their toll and in a lot of cases the next beacon that they pointed to has vanished under a new development.
There’s an oddly pleasing sense of continuity that a navigation aid from the pre-GPS era is still visible in the maps we now take for granted.
Oh look. It’s another reworking of Harry Beck’s London Underground map. Ken Field probably won’t like it. This one is Doctor Who related. All the usual suspects are present. Each line representing one of the Doctors? Yes. Stations representing monsters and adversaries? Yes. Vague notions of interchanges between the lines? Oh yes.
Now I’ll freely admit I’ve been more than guilty of writing about re-workings of this particular map, at least 12 times. Doctor Who has been on, then off, then back on our TV screens for 50 years; longer than I’ve been around, but only by 2 years.
But I’ll also freely admit that Ken has a valid point. The tube map rework has been done to death. This is not to denigrate the amount of work that’s been put into such a map. Far from it. This is an obvious labour of love and many hours have been put in to make the map not only what it shows but how it shows it.
But it’s time to move on. Time to choose another way of representing interesting data. Time to move away from yet another map based around either the Underground map or some other, mass transit, map.
Though I often break them, my New Year’s Resolution for 2014 will be no more posts on variations of the London Underground map.
In his book A Zebra Is The Piano Of The Animal Kingdom, Jarod Kintz wrote “when you’re a cartographer, having to make maps sort of comes with the territory”. He’s right. When your business is making maps you should be able to do just that. But what if you’re not a cartographer? What if you had to draw a map of the country you live in? From memory? What would that map look like?
Maybe something like this perhaps? The shape of the United Kingdom and Ireland is vaguely right, though Cornwall and all of the Scottish islands bar the Shetlands seem to be lacking. Then again, the Isle Of Wight is on holiday off the North Coast of Wales. The Channel Islands have evicted the Isle Of Man, which is off sulking in the North Sea, probably annoying cross Channel ferries into the bargain. Also “Woo! Geography“.
Or maybe your lovingly hand drawn map would look like this one, which is my personal favourite for no other reason than the helpful arrow in the North East corner pointing to Iceland (Not The Shop). Readers of this blog who don’t live in the UK should know that in addition to being a Nordic island country that straddles the boundary between the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans, Iceland is also a chain of British stores that specialise in frozen food.
I’d like to think that I’d be able to do better than this final example from someone who has applied a significant amount of cartographical license and really, really needs someone to buy them an atlas. I’d like to think that. I might even try to do this myself, but in the interests of preserving what little reputation I have, I’d only post my attempt if it was any good.