Author Archive for ‘Gary’

Another Piece Of Bloggage By Gary

A self-professed map addict, Gary has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. Gary is co-founder of Malstow Geospatial, which provides handmade, professional geospatial consulting. A Fellow of the RGS, he tweets about maps, writes about them and even makes them.

Forget Neo-geographers, We’re Now Geo-hipsters

I don’t grow my own organic vertices. Nor do I use gluten-free technology. At least not that I’m aware. But I have been known to geocode by hand, in small batches and I do follow the @geohipster Twitter account. According to a new map put together by Ralph Straumann, that’s enough to make me a #geohipster.

Who am I to argue with a map?

It’s a simple and neat affair. All followers of the @geohipster Twitter account with a location in their profile have that location geocoded and then shown on a map.

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Of course, not everyone has a location that can be successfully geocoded. Either that or a lot of people really do live on Null Island. These seems to be the only way to explain the cluster of people allegedly located somewhere off of the coast of North West Africa, South of Ghana and West of Equatorial Guinea, which just so happens to coincide with where you’ll find latitude 0 and longitude 0.

Thankfully, whatever geocoder Ralph is using works properly and places me in the Teddington that’s a suburb of South West London and not the Teddington that’s near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

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Which makes me happy and also seems to makes me a Geo-hipster. Nothing in the vaguely defined and nebulous industry that is the geo industry should surprise me anymore.

Written and posted from WhereCamp Berlin, Beuth Hochschule für Technik, Berlin (52.54510, 13.35188)

Of Geocoders, Open Cages, Mapping APIs and Going It Alone

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts, in fact it’s been almost a year. A lot has happened since December of 2013, when I wrote “Who knows precisely where 2014 will take me?“. To be more precise, this is where 2014 took me …

Firstly if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that my blogging and tweeting frequencies have dropped right off. Put it this way, someone’s been paying attention.

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Emerging from the embrace of the large corporate mapping organisation that used to be Ovi Maps, dallied briefly with the name Nokia Maps and ended up calling itself HERE Maps, I found myself in the complete antithesis of a corporate. I joined Ed and Javier at Lokku, in the trendy part of London known as Clerkenwell, with possibly the best job title I’ve ever had; I was Lokku’s Geotechnologist in Residence. I’ve known Ed and Javier for a good number of years and have watched them grow Nestoria and reinvigorate and rejuvenate London’s #geomob meetup. I knew this was going to be a very different experience.

On my first day in the Lokku office, Ed thrust a piece of paper into my hand, saying “here’s your email login credentials, the wifi password and how to access the wiki; your induction is now complete” … and it was. So what does a resident geotechnologist actually do? The first and foremost task was to sort out Lokku’s lack of an espresso machine and to run a tech talk, briefing the rest of the team on how to make the hot, caffienated beverage that the geo industry relies on. See? I told you this wasn’t going to be your everyday corporate existence.

Armed with a fresh, hot espresso I took a look at the technology that Lokku and Nestoria had put in place. My hunch was that to make Nestoria work well across the countries they served, the Lokku crew had solved one of industry’s key puzzles, namely how to geocode address listings well in countries that don’t really take the need for unique addresses that seriously. My hunch was good and I came up with a series of recommendations to the Lokku board on what they should do next, this included the concept of what Ed later termed as a meta-geocoder.

A meta-geocoder does the same as the geocoders that the larger geo companies have; a single geocoding interface with multiple geocoders hidden behind, each one doing what it does well, be that country specific geocoding, or language specific geocoding or some other speciality. With the help of the incredibly smart Marc Tobias Metten, one of the few people I know who can get a global Nominatim instance up and running, we built what’s now become the OpenCage Geocoder.

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When you’re in a small organisation you have to roll your sleeves up and be prepared to get your hands dirty. Need a website? You end up writing it yourself. Need code samples and scripting language wrapper? Write them yourself too. Need to launch a product? You end up writing a talk, getting yourself to an applicable conference, in this case State of the Map EU, and launch it yourself.

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In the six months I spent at Lokku, Ed, myself and MTM brought an entire geocoding API from the roughest of concept notes to something that’s up and running and is, to paraphrase Aaron Straup Cope, a real thing and it’s a thing that I’m very proud of. I also became one of the select group known as the Lokku Alumni, and that meant I got another map to add to the collection.

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My stint at Lokku ended in July of this year and overnight I transformed myself from being a resident geotechnologist to being an uncivil servant and taking on the role of Head of APIs for the oldest mapping agency in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey. In doing so, I also struck out into the murky waters of consulting and, together with Alison, founded Malstow Geospatial. The story of how Malstow got its name is the subject for another blog post entirely.

So for now, I’ve swapped getting on a plane to Berlin on a weekly basis and taking the train and Tube to Clerkenwell on a daily basis and instead joined the daily diaspora out of London and down the Southampton, where the Ministry of Maps makes its home.

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I’ve spent the last 4 months working out best how to bring the Ordnance Survey’s maps to the internet and the internet to the OS. Much is happening and I’ve found myself an amazing team of geotechnologists and cartographers. As soon as there’s something to show for our endeavours, you’ll probably read about it here first.

Who knows where 2014 will take me?” It’s been one heck of a ride and a whole lot of fun and hard work combined. Now let’s see what happens in 2015 …

Written and posted from Case Rondelli, Doglio, Umbria, Italy (42.80831, 12.30623)

Welcome to B2* … The New Reality Of The Mapping Industry

Not all Geographic Information conferences are created equal. A great proof point for this is IRLOGI, the Irish Association for Geographic Information. Today I’ve been in Dublin at their annual GIS Ireland 2014 conference, which is in its 19th year. I’d been invited to give one of the opening keynotes; who could resist such an invitation?

Held in the hidden conference centre that nestles unassumingly under the Chartered Accountants of Ireland’s offices, GIS Ireland ticked all the boxes. The conference team had obviously worked hard to ensure that there was a wide range of topics being discussed and managed to avoid the “same people, same talks, same topics” trap that some conferences fall into. The coffee was hot and plentiful and the wifi (almost) stayed up and running all the time.

The starting point for the talk I have was an article called Today’s Mapping Industry Really Does Need To Please All People, All The Time, which I’d written for GPS Business News in September. As there was an article length limit, I couldn’t go into the detail I think this topic merited, but a conference talk is a different beast. This is what that article morphed into. This is B2*.

Read On…

OpenCage At State Of The Map Europe 2014; Geocoding – The Missing Link For OSM?

Last weekend, myself and the rest of the OpenCage team were in Karlsruhe in Germany for the second annual OpenStreetMap State of the Map Europe conference. It was probably one of the best run and most diverse OSM conferences I’ve been to.

For a start the key essential elements for a conference were there; there was plentiful coffee and the wifi was both fast and more importantly, it didn’t die horribly during the conference.

I’d submitted a talk called Geocoding – The Missing Link For OSM? and had been asked to actually give that talk. That was my reason for being at SOTM-EU. But we were also going to soft launch OpenCage Data’s latest offering, a geocoding API that’s powered by OSM and other Open Data and which is built using open source commodity components. That’s the reason Ed and Marc Tobias were also in Karlsruhe.

The first day of the conference was spent in the lobby, drinking lots of the aforementioned coffee and using lots of the aforementioned wifi, while we made last minute tweaks to the API and the accompanying website. By the end of the afternoon, the API was ready, the website worked and my slide deck was finished.

Of all which meant I could enjoy the second day of the conference and actually listen to the talks until 4.30 in the afternoon when I took to the stage and gave this talk, which was filmed and put up on YouTube.

If you prefer to read an account of the talk and the launch of the OpenCage Geocoder, you’ll find my slides and commentary below.

Read On…

The State Of The Mapping API

This week the GeoBusiness conference took place in London and as far as geo-themed conferences go it was a broad themed and mixed bag of an event. GIS was heavily represented as was the BIM element of this geo-discipline. The collection of raw data was a prevailing theme on the exhibition booths with drones aplenty and LIDAR cars out in the car park of the Business Design Centre. Thankfully the data and web driven part of the industry was also represented and I played my part by giving a talk.

I decided to talk about the current state of the wide range of web maps APIs we have in our toolkit and with tongue placed slightly in cheek I called the talk The State Of The Mapping API. A personal homage to OSM’s State Of The Map conference if you will.

Read On…

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.

Read On…

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)