Author Archive for ‘Gary’

Another Piece Of Bloggage By Gary

Self professed ”geek with a life”, geo-blogger, geo-talker and geo-tweeter, Gary works in London and Berlin as Director of Global Community Programs for Nokia’s HERE Maps; he’s a co-founder of WhereCamp EU, the chair of w3gconf and sits on the W3C POI Working Group and the UK Location User Group. A contributor to the Mapstraction mapping API, Gary speaks and presents at a wide range of conferences and events including Where 2.0, State of the Map, AGI GeoCommunity, Geo-Loco, Social-Loco, GeoMob, the BCS GeoSpatial SG and LocBiz. Writing as regularly as possible on location, place, maps and other facets of geography, Gary blogs at www.vicchi.org and tweets as @vicchi.

The Challenge Of Open

One of the great things about the combination of maps, geo, location and London is that roughly once a month there’s some kind of meetup happening in the city on these themes. One of the longer running players in this space is the Geospatial Specialist Group of the British Computer Society which is being relaunched and reinvigorated as the Location Information SG. Earlier this week I gave a talk, but what to talk about?

It didn’t take too long to come up with a suitable theme. In my current day job, consulting with open data specialists Lokku, I come across the benefits and the challenges in using open data on almost a daily basis. One of the earliest lessons is that nothing is simple and nothing is straightforwards when you bring licensing into a field and open data is no exception.

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So, hello, I’m Gary and I’m from the Internet. I’m a self-confessed map addict, a geo-technologist and a geographer. I’m Geotechnologist in Residence for Lokku in London. I used to be Director of Global Community Programs for Nokia’s HERE maps and before that I led Yahoo’s Geotechnologies group in the United Kingdom. I’m a founder of the Location Forum, a co-founder of WhereCamp EU, I sit on the Council for the AGI, the UK’s Association for Geographic Information, I’m the chair of the W3G conference and I’m also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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There’s a lot of URLs in the slides to follow and rather than try to frantically jot them down, this is the only URL you really need to know about. If you go there right now, this link will 404 on you but sometime tomorrow this where my slides and all my talk notes will appear here.

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I’ve been in this “industry” for almost 25 years. I’m not quite sure what actually comprises this “industry” though; I think of it as a loose collection of software, data, geo, maps and location. Thinking back, maybe life was easier when everything was proprietary and locked up? You knew the boundaries, you knew what you could and couldn’t do with software and data. You didn’t need to be a part time lawyer.

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But this isn’t 25 years ago, like it or not we’re in the future.

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And the future is very much open.

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Whether it’s the open source software that runs your laptop or desktop or the open source software that runs the vast majority of the internet and the web …

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Or whether it’s open data, such as OpenStreetMap or open government data, the concept of open is very much of the now and that means we need to be able to deal with both the benefits this brings as well as some of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the unwary

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One of those pitfalls is the license, that usually vast amount of frankly impenetrable legalese that is difficult to understand and seems to have been written for lawyers and not for mere mortals.

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This isn’t a new thing. Think back to the days before we downloaded software in a blinking of an eye. Remember shrink wrapped software? Remember the catch 22 of breaking the seal meaning you accepted the EULA that was underneath the shrink wrap?

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No one read the EULA, we just wanted to get our hands on those brand new floppy disks and then patiently feed them, one by one, to our computer to get at our new purchase.

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Even in the days of the web, where downloads have supplanted floppies, CD and DVD ROMs, we just want to get to the “good stuff”. We instinctively look for the button that says “accept” or “agree” and just … click.

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We don’t read the EULA, or the terms of service, or the terms of use, or the license. In essence we’re blind to what we’re agreeing to and sometimes what we do agree to can be surprising.

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If you use iTunes on your phone, tablet or computer you’ll have agreed to the iTunes terms of service and in doing so, scuppered your plans for taking over the world by use of anything nuclear, chemical or biological.

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If you’re using Apple’s Safari browser on a Windows machine, you’ll also be in breach of the license which you’ve accepted and which clearly states that you won’t run Safari for Windows on a Windows machine.

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But you may be missing out on an unexpected treat. In 2005, the makers of PC Pitstop included a clause that promised a financial reward for reading the EULA and contacting the company. Five months after release and 3,000 sales later one person did read the EULA and was rewarded with a cheque for $1000

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But I am not a lawyer. I have no legal training whatsoever. With the proliferation of open source and open data it now feels that I have to be able to read the small print. If you don’t read your open licenses then I would strongly recommend that you do.

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In doing so, you’ll probably feel as I first did; that you’re walking into a veritable minefield of clauses, exclusions and prohibitions.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that if you’re fortunate enough to be dealing with purely open licensing, with not even a whiff of anything proprietary, that everything is clear, it’s all black and white.

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You’ll start to become familiar with the GPL.

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With Creative Commons, with or without attribution and with or without non-commercial use clauses.

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And if you’re using OpenStreetMap data, with the ODbL.

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You’d probably be forgiven to thinking that it’s all cut and dried and no one can make any mistakes, especially not the big players in the industry, those with large amounts of cash and an equally large team of in house lawyers who specialise in this sort of thing.

You be forgiven, but it’s not black and white nor is it clear cut. Let me give you an example of this.

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This example hinges around TechCrunch, the sometimes scathing tech blog started by Michael Arrington in 2005.

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One of the by products of TechCrunch is CrunchBase, which is a freely editable database of companies, people and investors in the tech industry.

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It will probably come as no surprise that in 2007 the CrunchBase API was launched, providing access to the whole of the database under a CC-BY license.

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It’s worth looking at the human readable version of the CC-BY license.

You can share – in any way, in any form
You can adapt – remix the data, build a derived work, transform it
You can make money – this is for any purpose, even commercial endeavours

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Then in 2010, TechCrunch plus CrunchBase was acquired by AOL for an undisclosed but estimated figure of $25M.

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In July of 2013 an app called People+ launched using the CrunchBase data set to “know who you’re doing business with”.

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4 months later this comes to the attention of CrunchBase’s new owner who promptly send a serious of cease and desists for all the wrong reasons, displaying a stunning lack of how open licenses work and what they mean.

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The first cease and desist makes the following assertions. All of which are true. Yes, People+ replicates what CrunchBase does, after all it’s based on CrunchBase. Yes, People+ exposes the CrunchBase data in a way that’s far more intuitive and valuable than CrunchBase’s own (web based) search.

All of this is true. Except that none of this is in breach of the CC-BY license that AOL clearly doesn’t understand. AOL may not like that fact that someone is making a better job of their own data than AOL is having hurt feelings is irrelevant in the context of whether a cease & desist is valid and this one is clearly not

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The second cease and desist makes AOL’s hurt feelings clear. The second clause here is completely wrong. AOL can decide to forbid someone from using the API if they feel it violates their terms, but they cannot “terminate” the license to use the content. The content is free to use under the license, and there’s nothing AOL can legally do about it.

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As an interesting footnote to this tale, if you look at the CrunchBase terms now, you’ll note that AOL have, as of December 2013, reissued the CrunchBase data under CC-BY-NC, but they also seemed to have learned a valuable lesson, noting that any data that was created before this date remains under CC-BY.

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So even the big players can and do get open licensing wrong. That example was just over a single data set, covered under a single license and one where the license contains both the full legal terms as well as a human readable form, for those of us who aren’t lawyers.

Things get much more fun when you start to try and mix open data licenses, to produce a derived or co-mingled work.

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Actually this is where the fun stops. Whilst there are co-mingled works out there on the interwebs, they are few and far between. Finding the correct path to take when attempting to rationalise two open licensing schemes is incredibly difficult. Most legal advice is to just say no.

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To take a slightly contentious view, this may be one of the reasons why none of the big players have never produced a derived work that contains OpenStreetMap and this may also be one of the biggest single barriers to adoption of OSM. From speaking to various lawyers, all of whom actually specialise in IP and in data licenses, the main stumbling point is the “viral” nature of the share alike clause in most open data licenses. Large companies, who have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in making their proprietary data, are unwilling to add in a data source which effectively means they have to share the derived work with the public … and their competitors.

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Another stumbling block, admittedly one which is more down to the creators of an open data set rather than the license, is that of provenance. If you take a data set, can you really be certain where all of the data came from. Did some of the data come from another source? Do you know what that source is? Do you know what license that other source is under? Do you know if the licenses are compatible?

The answer to most of these questions is usually “no”. It’s a truism of some members of the tech community that an approach of “sue first, ask questions later” is often used. Taking all of this into consideration it get easier to see why the default legal answer to “can we use this open data set” is often “no”.

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If there was a concerted effort on the part of the organisations behind open licenses to make their licenses compatible, to set aside or work together on differences, then maybe we’d see more widespread adoption of open data outside of the existing open data community.

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For open source licenses things are a little clearer; lots of work has been done to rationalise between GPL, lGPL, BSD, MIT, X11, Apache and all the other open licenses that are focused on code and on software.

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But for open data licenses, the picture is anything but clear. Yes, there’s loads of commentary on how to approach open data compatibility but nothing that’s clearly and humanly readable.

Nowhere is this more apparent in the admission from Creative Commons that the number of other licenses that are compatible with CC licensing is … none

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Maybe to bring agreement between the differing parties and factions where open data licensing is concerned we need to put disagreements behind us, maybe the way forward is a new open licensing scheme, where attribution is maintained but with the viral element softened or removed.

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Maybe, but that day has’t yet come, though there have been some attempts to do this, but strangely they’ve yet to see widespread adoption

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Finally, a shameless plug …

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If you like the topics of maps, of geo, of location and all points inbetween, then you’ll probably like #geomob, the roughly quarterly meetup of like minds. The next event is on 13th. of May at the UCL Campus.

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Written and posted from Lokku, Clerkenwell Road, London (51.522553, -0.102549)

Welcome To The Republic Of Null Island

In English, null means nothing, nil, empty or void. In computing, null is a special value for nothing, an empty value. In geography, null tends to be what you get when you’ve been unable to geocode a place or an address and haven’t checked the geocoder’s response. What you end up with is a pair of coordinates of 0 degrees longitude and 0 degrees latitude, a point somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana and west of Gabon. It’s here that you’ll also find Null Island, if you look hard enough.

The website for the Republic of Null Island (like no place on earth) says this about the island’s location …

The Republic of Null Island is one of the smallest and least-visited nations on Earth. Situated where the Prime Meridian crosses the Equator, Null Island sits 1600 kilometres off the western coast of Africa.

… but Null Island is an in joke created by Nate Kelso and Tom Patterson as part of the Natural Earth data set in January 2011.

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It’s totally fictitious and is designed as a gentle poke in the ribs for people who don’t check the return value from their geocoder and end up putting a pin on a web map in the middle of the ocean. As Natural Earth’s release notes mention …

WARNING: A troubleshooting country has been added with an Indeterminate sovereignty class called Null Island. It is a fictional, 1 meter square island located off Africa where the equator and prime meridian cross. Being centered at 0,0 (zero latitude, zero longitude) it is useful for flagging geocode failures which are routed to 0,0 by most mapping services. Aside: “Null Islands” exist for all local coordinate reference systems besides WGS84 like State Plane (and global if not using modern Greenwich prime meridian). Null Island in Natural Earth is scaleRank 100, indicating it should never be shown in mapping.

Look carefully enough, especially on web sites that handle large amounts of data from third parties and which helpfully supply a map for some additional context, such as property sites, who should really know better and Null Island may just appear before your eyes.

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Take Whathouse.com for example, who have a 3 bedroom property near Enfield in North East London for sale, yours for just £995,000. Whathouse helpfully provide a map tab on their property listings to that if you’re not familiar with where the N9 postal district of London is, you can find out.

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This is in London, the capital of the United Kingdom, which as far as I know hasn’t suffered massive continental drift to end up in the middle of the ocean.

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Zoom the map out and you can see why this unique property seems to be alone in the middle of the ocean; it’s really on Null Island. Either that or someone hasn’t been checking their geocoding results properly. A bad geocoding result is almost probably definitely the reason for this little geographic faux pas, but a part of me likes to think that Null Island really does exist and you really can spend close to a million pounds securing a 3 bedroom apartment on one of geography’s most tongue in cheek places.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Cartography, The Musical

I like maps. Even if you’ve never read posts on this site, the name “Mostly Maps” should probably be a giveaway. What you may not know is that I don’t really like musicals. Now granted I’ve seen Rent and Spamalot, but that’s because Alison and I were in New York and the former was recommended by one of my best friends and for the latter I’m a massive Python fan. Maps and musicals aren’t something that go together. But that may be about to change.

Cast your mind back to the dawn of history, before mobile phones were smart and when GPS was just an Australian rugby club, which is sometime in the very early 2000′s. If you lived in London, your essential navigation guide wasn’t a maps app, but a copy of the A-Z as the Geographer’s A-Z Street Atlas was better known. This was the map you carried around London rather than a mapping app on your phone. I still have several editions on the bookshelf at home, each one being bought when its predecessor got so dog eared as to be unusable or just started falling apart.

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The probably apocryphal backstory is that the A-Z’s founder, Phyllis Pearsall got lost in 1935 following a 1919 Ordnance Survey map on the way to a party and decided to make her own map. To do this she got up at 5.00 AM and spent 18 hours a day walking the 3,000 odd miles of London’s 23,00 or so streets. This tale is disputed, with Peter Barber, the British Library’s Head Of Maps, being quoted as saying “The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish, there is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to“. Given that Pearsall’s father was a map maker who produced and sold maps of London, he’s got a point.

But regardless of the accuracy of the legend around Phyllis Pearsal, it’s a great story, especially for those of us who used the A-Z each and every day around London. But is it a musical story? Neil Marcus, Diane Samuels and Gwyneth Herbert seem to think so and they’re the team behind The A-Z Of Mrs. P, a musical about London’s iconic street atlas and its founder that’s currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse. Reviews have been mixed, but anything that throws some attention on the A-Z is welcome in my book, even if it is a musical.

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You may have noticed that at the foot of each post I always try to provide source and attribution for photos or images that I use. I think I’m going to have to expand this to include the inspiration for each post. In this particular case, credit is due to Alison. If it’s not a sign of true love when your wife texts you to tell you about something map related she’s seen, then I don’t know what is. I guess you don’t spend nearly 15 years being married to a self professed map nerd without knowing a good map related story when you see one.

The A-Z Of Mrs. P poster by Su Blackwell.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

In India Just Because You Can Map Something, Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, to think that everyone thinks and feels the same way you do about a subject. But sometimes you need to get away and visit another country and another culture to find out that maybe there’s more than one way of looking at a subject. For me that subject is, unsurprisingly, maps and the other country was India.

Some countries are easier to map than others. Up to the end of the Cold War, it was commonplace for the UK’s Ordnance Survey to not show prohibited places, although this practice has been effectively stopped due to the widespread availability of satellite imagery. Further afield, there’s contested borders and territorial disputes which makes mapping some administrative boundaries something of a challenge; a proof of the old adage about pleasing some people some of the time but not all people all of the time.

It’s easy to think that not mapping an area is a thing of the past. That we can and should map everywhere. That mapping is simply the combination of human effort, a bit of technology and a lot of data. Indeed OpenStreetMap’s beginner’s guide states upfront that the data you add improves the free world map for everyone. But as I found out, in India, there’s a lot more subtlety and nuance behind this admirable creed.

Firstly there’s the act of mapping itself. As with pre-Cold War Britain (and to be fair, some parts of Britain today), India has placed restrictions on what can and cannot appear on a map. When working for Nokia’s HERE Maps, I ran a program to use crowd mapping to improve the company’s maps in India and came across these restrictions first hand. My point here is not to agree or disagree with a government’s stance on mapping restrictions but merely to point out that they exist.

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But it’s not just the government who would prefer you not to map places, it’s the people as well in some cases. According to recent figures, India has a population of around 1.27 billion people; of these, over 65 million live in slums. Sadly this wasn’t a shock; I’d been well prepared for slums from my visit to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at the end of 2012.

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In Dar es Salaam, you map slums to help the occupants find vital facilities; fresh water, sanitation, health care and so on. You use the map to bring the slum to the authorities attention so they do something about it. Making a map is vital. But not necessarily so in India. Indian slums are hidden in plain sight. Everyone knows they’re there, but they don’t always bring attention to themselves. Putting a slum on the map runs the risk of bringing some potential prime real estate land to the attention of an unscrupulous property developer; some of whom have been known to raze a slum to the ground overnight and displacing the residents through the judicious use of bulldozers.

Another subtlety that doesn’t apply in the United Kingdom are the locations of the Cheel Ghar in Indian cities, which translates to Tower of Silence in English. These are the circular raised structures where Parsi followers of the Zoroastrian faith leave their dead and let exposure to the sun and birds of prey reduce the body to bare bones. Originally these towers were outside the boundaries of the city, but the rapid growth of India’s metropolitan areas have engulfed the Cheel Ghar, leaving them as small forested oases inside the urban sprawl. Even if you know where they are, and I walked past one without knowing it until it was pointed out to me, putting these sacred places on a map would not be deemed acceptable by adherents of that faith. Just because you can map something, doesn’t always mean you should.

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But even if you make an accurate and detailed map, how do you cope with the vagaries and eccentricities of the Indian addressing system? I asked someone at the GeoMob meets GeoBLR meetup we ran in Bangalore how they’d geocode (turn addresses into longitude and latitude) a batch of a thousand or so addresses. The answer was blunt and succinct … “Geocode that many addresses? We wouldn’t”. There’s a long running joke in India to effect that the country does has GPS, but it doesn’t stand for Global Positioning System, instead it stands for General Populace System. You look at an address, get to the nearest spot and then ask someone, repeating the process until you reach your destination.

Given how visual and landmark based Indian addresses are, this approach makes a lot of sense. In India I stayed at 3 different hotels in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In Delhi, the address was Ring Road, New Delhi; in Mumbai it was Western Express Highway, Santacruz East and in Bangalore Swami Vivekananda Road, Off M.G. Road, Ulsoor. Standing outside each hotel and looking around, the addresses made a lot of sense, in Bangalore I was just off the M.G Road, named after Mahatma Gandhi; there’s a lot of M.G. Roads in India, the equivalent of High Street in Britain. Other addresses include location clues such as near, opposite and by. If you really, really need to geocode an address you look it up on a digital map and make a note of the coordinates; a very manual and not at all scalable way of dealing with the problem.

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Reading all of the above back to myself before I click on Publish makes me realise that in hindsight it’s blindingly obvious that each country will have its own set of edge cases. India is no exception. A massive amount of credit for what I learned in India should go to Sajjad, Sumandro and Kaustubh, the team behind Bangalore’s GeoBLR geo themed meetup. Thank you all, you taught me a massive amount and expanded my horizons considerably.

Tower of Silence (for Parsi Sky Burial): Mumbai by James Oleson on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The London Underground Strike Map

If you’re trying to get out and about in London today you’ve probably noticed that the Tube is on strike. Again. You could read the list of closed stations that are on Transport for London’s website and try and work out quite how, if at all, you’re going to get to where you want to be. Or you could look at a map.

This map. Now why didn’t TfL think of doing this?

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Strike map by Ian Visits on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

A More Accurate And Realistic Map Of The Northern Line

Running between Edgware, Mill Hill East and High Barnet to the North of London to Morden to the South, the London Underground’s Northern Line stretches for 36 miles and takes in 50 stations. The line, marked in black on the Tube map, is a familiar sight to London commuters. But is the map of the line accurate? Does it reflect reality?

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A geographic map of the line looks something like this. The Northern spurs of the line merge at Camden Town and then split into two branches, one via Charing Cross and the other via Bank, before merging again at Kennington and heading towards the Southern terminus at Morden.

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But anyone who’s travelled on the Northern Line will probably also be familiar with the line being colloquially referred to as The Misery Line. The line is old with the first stations opening in 1867; signal failures and delays are constant companions, despite TfL’s program of upgrades and modernisation. Splitting the line into two sections, with Charing Cross trains terminating at Kennington and Bank trans running through to Morden doesn’t seem to help much. Maybe it’s time for a new map of the Northern Line that reflects the reality of commuting on this line? Maybe that map might look something like this?

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Northern Line route map by Martin Deutsch. Northern Line map by Wikipedia. Realistic Northern Line map via Buzzfeed.
Written and posted from the Hyatt Regency Hotel, New Delhi, India (28.56897, 77.18515)

All Of Today’s Maps Are Wrong; We Live On A Giant Chicken

Up until the 6th. Century BC, it was commonly held that the world we live on was flat. Then Pythagorus came along and started to prove that the world is in fact a sphere. We now know that he was almost right and our planet is really an oblate spheroid, looking not dissimilar to a slightly squashed beach ball.

Today’s Internet brings us many wonderful things. Some of those are maps. Today’s map shows that with a little bit of cartographical cut-and-paste and a flagrant disregard for the theory of plate tectonics, the world we live on is actually a chicken. A giant chicken.

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If this doesn’t make you grateful for the Internet then I don’t know what does.

Written and posted from Lokku, Clerkenwell Road, London (51.522553, -0.102549)

Gazing Into The Geo Crystal Ball For 2014

In the closing days of 2013, Atanas Entchev, who together with Glenn Letham are the duo behind the intriguing GeoHipster, got in touch to ask me to do some crystal ball gazing and predict what’s in store for the geo industry in 2014.

You can and should read all of the 10 other predictions as part of what will be HOT in geo in 2014 — predictions from the GeoHipster crowd, but here’s what the geo crystal ball divulged to my gazing …

Predictions are easy to get right. After all, look at DEC’s Ken Olsen when he said in 1977 that “there’s no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”.

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No. Wait. Predictions are hard. But throwing caution and any shred of professional integrity I have to the wind, here’s my predictions for the geo industry in 2014.

Raster web map tiles aren’t going to go anywhere in 2014, but expect to see much more use of vector maps, both in consumer front ends, in open data sources and in development toolkits. The winning combination of Leaflet and D3 is but the beginning.

Due to ever increasing licensing costs for base map data and corresponding reduced terms of use, at least one major maps destination site will either throw in the towel or go for a white labelled map platform deal; MapQuest I’m looking at you here.

We’re already seeing the stratification of the geo industry. We already have data-as-a-service (think Open Cage Data – [disclaimer; I'm an advisor to Open Cage Data] and GeoFabrik) and maps-as-a-service (hello MapBox). Next up will be imagery-as-a-service as companies such as Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging disrupt Digital Globe’s imaging hegemony.

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More people will end up doing web-based GIS without actually knowing they’re doing web-based GIS. Think less of Esri’s ArcGIS Online and MapInfo’s Web GIS and much more of CartoDB.

Web based map re-workings of Harry Beck’s iconic London Underground map will die out and Ken Field will be a happy man.

Finally, this is less of a prediction and more of a plea. Will someone please please bring to market a low powered, always on GPS unit that I can fit in my pocket and that has sufficient onboard storage to carry at least a day’s worth of GPS traces. It can’t be that difficult can it?

Ken Olsen picture courtesy of the Boston Globe, Crystal Ball image by Scott Kublin.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Farewell Ovi, Nokia And HERE; It’s Time To Open The Next Door

This may be a personal foible but when I join a new company I mentally set myself two targets. The first is what I want to achieve with that company. The second is how long it will take to achieve this. If you reach the first target then the second is a moot point. But if the first target doesn’t get reached and your self allocated timescale is close to coming to an end, then it’s time to take stock.

Sometimes you can extend that timescale; when reaching your achievement target is so so close and you can be happy to stretch those timescales a little. Sometimes though this just doesn’t work, not necessarily for any reason of your own making. Large companies are strange beasts and a strategic move which is right for the company may not align with your own targets and ideals.

In 2010, I left the Geo Technologies group at Yahoo! and departed from a very Californian large company to take up a new role with a very Finnish large company called Nokia. Though Nokia started life as the merger between a paper mill operation, a rubber company and a cable company in the mid 1800′s, by the time I joined Nokia it was best known for mobile and smart phone handsets and the software that makes these ubiquitous black mirrors work.

In addition to mobile data connectivity, apps and GPS, one of the things that defines a smartphone is a maps app and the suite of back-end platforms that drive that app as well as all of the other APIs that enable today’s smartphone location based services. Just as TomTom acquired digital map maker Tele Atlas in 2008, Nokia had acquired rival maps provider NAVTEQ in 2007, putting in place the foundations for Nokia’s maps and turn-by-turn navigation products, part of the company’s Ovi brand of internet services.

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I spent the first 18 months of my time with Nokia commuting weekly from London to Berlin, where the company’s maps division was based. The pros of this weekly commute of almost 600 miles each way was rapid progression through British Airway’s frequent flyer program, getting to know the city of Berlin really well and developing deep and lasting friendships with my team, who were behind the Ovi Places Registry, but more about them in a moment. The cons were living out of hotels on a weekly basis and the strain it placed on my family back in London.

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In 2011, Nokia pivoted its strategy as a result of new CEO Stephen Elop’s infamous Burning Platform memo. The company’s NAVTEQ division finally started to be integrated into Nokia, resulting in the rebranding of Ovi Maps to HERE Maps, by way of a brief spell as Nokia Maps and just before we were ready to ship the next major revision of the Places Registry, effectively powering all the data you see on a map which isn’t part of the base map itself, the project was shelved in favour of NAVTEQ based places platform. This was probably the right thing to do from the perspective of the company, but it had a devastating effect on my Berlin based team who had laboured long and hard. The team was disbanded; some found new roles within the company, some didn’t and were laid off and after spending several months tearing down what I’d spent so long helping to create, an agonising process in itself even though it was the right thing to do, I moved to help found the company crowd mapping group, driving the strategy behind the HERE Map Creator product. Think of a strategy not dissimilar to OpenStreetMap or Google Map Maker, only with a robust navigation grade map behind it.

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All of which is merely a prelude to the fact that after almost 4 years with Nokia I’ve been taking stock and it’s time to move on. The door marked Nokia, Ovi and HERE is now closed and it’s time to look to the next adventure in what could loosely be termed my career. The metaphor of doors opening and closing seems fitting as Ovi just happens to be the Finnish word for door.

There’s been a lot of high points over the past 4 or so years. Launching Nokia’s maps and location platform at the final Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Negotiating the places section of Nokia’s first strategic deal with Microsoft in a meeting room set against the amazing backdrop of Reykjavik in the depths of an Icelandic winter. Judging the World Bank’s Sanitation Hackathon in Dar es Salaam.

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But most of the high points have been people.

Someone who leads a team is only as good as the team and in the original Ovi Places Registry team and the subsequent Nokia Places team I found an amazing group of individuals, who made a roving Englishman feel very much at home in Berlin.

There’s also been a lot of lows over the past 4 years, but I don’t want to go into them here.

Instead, I want to close the door on the Nokia chapter with a brief mention to five people who made my time in Berlin so rich and rewarding. There’s Aaron Rincover, HERE’s UX lead, who taught me so much about the user experience in a relatively short period of time. There’s also four members of the Places Registry team, Enda Farrell, Jennifer Allen, Mark MacMahon and Jilles Van Gurp, who made me welcome in a new city, who it was an absolute pleasure to work with and who will, I hope, remain close friends. Enda and Jennifer are still both at HERE as Senior Technical Architect and Product Manager and a damn fine ones at that. Mark and Jilles were amongst those who moved on when the Places team was disbanded and are now the founders of LocalStream. Thank you all of you.

So where next? My last two companies have been large multinational affairs, but to open 2014 I’m looking to keep things a lot smaller and more agile. I’m going to take some time to do some freelance consulting, still in the maps, location and geo space of course; this industry continues to grow and innovate at an astounding rate, why would I want to work anywhere else?

For the first quarter of 2014 I’m going to be joining London’s Lokku, consulting for them as their Geotechnologist in Residence. Since 2006, Lokku have built up an impressive portfolio of geospatial and geotechnology assets under the lead of Ed Freyfogle and Javier Etxebeste, both alumni of Yahoo! like myself. Through the success of their Nestoria and Open Cage Data brands and the #geomob meetup, Lokku are in a great position to take their expertise in open geospatial data, OpenStreetMap data and open geospatial platforms to the next level. My role with Lokku will be to help them identify where that next level will be and what it will look like. It’s going to be a refreshing change to move from the world of a large corporate, with staff ID badges and ID numbers to a world where everyone fits into the same, albeit large, room and where everyone literally knows everyone else. So say I’m excited by this challenge would be a massive understatement. If you want to know more about Lokku, check out their blog, Twitter feed or come and say hello.

As for the rest of 2014 and beyond, it’s time to follow up on all those conversations that you tend to have about the next great thing in maps and location. Who knows precisely where 2014 will take me, but no matter where, it’s going to be geotastic and I can’t wait.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The Quest For The London Flood Map

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.

Some background context is probably in order. On December 5th. the UK’s Met Office issued severe weather warnings for the East Coast of England. A combination of a storm in the Atlantic to the north of Scotland, low atmospheric pressure and high tides were all combining to push a massive swell of water through the narrows of English Channel, in effect squeezing the water through the Dover Strait. As the North Sea and English Channel are relatively shallow, the sea would back up and had the potential to flood large areas of the East Coast of England as well as the areas surrounding the tidal stretch of the River Thames and that means London and possibly even where I live in Teddington, which marks the upper limit of the tidal Thames. Thankfully for those of us who live West of Woolwich, the Thames Barrier exists to protect London from such flooding, though I’m sure this is less of a comfort to those people who live to the East of the barrier.

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But back to that map. It’s a nice overlay of flood levels on the Docklands area of London based on satellite imagery. The cartography is simple and pleasing; light blue for the River Thames and Bow Creek, darker blue for the banks of the rivers and a washed out aquamarine for areas that would be flooded. But it’s a static image. I can’t pan and scroll it. The Tweet from the Environment Agency and the image itself contained no context as to where it came from or how it was made. So I browsed over to the Environment Agency’s website in search of enlightenment.

The Environment Agency is a governmental body and that’s very much apparent from the website. It simply screams corporate website produced by a large contractor. But no matter, I’m not here to critique website design; I’m here looking for a map. So I looked. I searched. If that map is on that website it’s not wanting to be found. It’s the map equivalent of the planning application for the demolition of Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and is on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard. But what I did find was this map … the Risk Of Flooding From Rivers And Seas map. With this map I could finally find out what risk there was of flooding to my local area. Eventually.

Now it’s only fair to state upfront that the original version of this post, from this point onwards, was less a critique of a map and much more of a scathing flaying alive of a map. But thankfully before I posted this, I’d also taken the time to read Gretchen Peterson’s Getting Along: The Objective And The Subjective In Mapping. After rereading my original post, it was only too evident that calling it a critique was unfair as it was far far too subjective. So I rewrote it, trying to adhere to being objective wherever I could be.

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So let’s start … this map has some significant flaws. The questions are why and what could be done to rectify those flaws?

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The map starts zoomed out to encompass the entirety of England, with no apparent flood information at all. There’s a prompt to “enter a postcode or place name”, but I know where I live so I try to zoom in by double clicking. The map’s click event is trapped as I’m told to “zoom in query the map” which I work out to mean I have to use the map’s zoom slider control. But if you take the time to write some code to trap the act of clicking on a map, why not go one step further and use the double click paradigm for map navigation which is by now almost universal? But this is also a flood map, so why not use my web browser’s built in geolocation facility to automatically zoom the map to where I am right now, or at least present the map in a form where there’s some flood information available. Why make the user do all of this additional work? With a few simple lines of Javascript code, the map could be made so much more immediate and easily usable.

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So I started to zoom in, using the pan control. The next zoom level was less than visually pleasing. Jagged, blocky and pixellated place labels are scattered across the map. It’s almost as if the map’s tiles were hand rolled, but more about that in a minute.

When zooming, the map’s centre had changed and after my initial double click zooming attempts were rebuffed, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to pan the map without recourse to the pan controls. Indeed my first attempt at panning looked more as if I was trying to drag the map image out of the browser window. But then a few seconds later the map redrew itself. This was less a slippy map and much more a slow-py map.

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After zooming in a further 3 times, the pixellation on the place labels had cleared up but the map itself was washed out and faded, almost as if there was a semi transparent overlay on top of the underlying base map, which itself looked like the Ordnance Survey map style. It also looked, to be frank, a bit of a mess. Given that I was trying to find out flooding information there was far too much information being displayed in front of me and apart from the map’s legend, helpfully marked legend, none of it was flood related. Yet.

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One further zoom level in and I finally found what I was looking for. A visualisation of what looked like an overflowing River Thames. At first sight this explained the washed out nature of the map I’d seen earlier. Surely this was due to an overlay containing the flooded areas but rather than overlay just the flooded area, the entirety of the map was overlaid, with the non-flooded areas being made translucent to allow the underlying map to bleed through.

The great thing about Javascript web maps is that, if you know how, you can actually break apart the layers of the map and see how it’s constructed. Doing just this led me to discover that the flood data I was seeing wasn’t an overlay. With the exception of the map’s pan and zoom controls, the map is a single layer. Whoever was behind that map has made their own tile set with the flood data an intrinsic part of the map. All of which is extremely laudable but at higher zoom levels the tile set just doesn’t work and the choice of underlying base map leaves quite a bit to be desired.

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Finally, after several more pan and zoom operations I could see my local area. But it had taken 7 attempts at zooming in and almost as many panning operations to keep the map centred on where I wanted to see. Now it’s true that entering my postal code would have taken me there immediately but one of the habits we’ve developed when viewing digital maps is to be able to dive in and get where we want to go by interacting with the map itself and not neccessarily with the map’s controls.

Even when I’d found the information I want, the flood data seems placed on top of the base map almost as an afterthought, despite the two data sets being baked together into a single map layer. I can appreciate the cartographical choice of using shades of blue for the two flood zones, but the pink chosen to show existing flood defences is a questionable, albeit subjective, choice. The flood data just doesn’t sit well on top of the underlying Ordnance Survey map, whose map style just clashes with the flood data’s style. Finally and probably worst of all, the map is slow, almost to the point of being unusable. All of which makes me wonder how many people have come across this map and just simply given up trying to find the information they’re looking for. If only the map looked as good as the original graphic that started me on this map quest (pun intended). Surely someone could do better?

Maybe someone will. The flood zones are available via WMS from the UK’s data.gov.uk site, though that very same site warns you that registration is required and they’re not under an open license. Even taking a simpler base map approach and overlaying the tiles from the WMS would make the map far more accessible and easier to comprehend. Some of the data itself looks like it could be available from Environment Agency’s DataShare site, though it’s only fair to say that this site and data.gov.uk does suffer from the same lack of discoverability and ease of use that the flood map suffers from.

For geospatial information such as flood data, there’s no better way to make it easily comprehensible and visible than on a map. The mere fact that there is such a map is to be applauded. It just could be so much better and this would take a trivial amount of technical acumen from anyone who’s used to making even simplistic digital maps. This map could be amazing and shine so brightly but as it currently stands, it can only receive the same score as I saw too many times on my school report cards. “B-. Could try harder.

Image Credits: Environment Agency.
Written and posted from Augie’s Coffeehouse, 113 N 5th Street, Redlands CA (34.05693, -117.18151)