Posts Tagged ‘cartography’

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.


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.


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)

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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 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)

Making Maps The Hard Way – From Memory

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.


Maps courtesy of BuzzFeed.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Push Pins, Dots, Customisation, Brands And Services; The Three Waves Of Making Digital Maps

The year 2013 has been a great year for maps and a greater year for maps in the United Kingdom, culminating in events that huddled together under the Maptember banner; OpenStreetMap’s State Of The Map, the AGI’s GeoCommunity and FOSS4G. But there was another event in 2013 that was map related and that was the 50th. anniversary of the British Cartographic Society’s Cartographic Journal.

First published in 1964 and edited under the watchful eye of fellow map geek and cartography nerd Ken Field, the Cartographic Journal has been around for longer than I have. Just. This is something that makes me feel slightly less old than I usually do. In February of this year, Ken got in touch with me and asked me if I’d be willing to contribute an article to the 50th anniversary edition of the journal by writing something that attempts to answer the question what does cartography mean to you? Naturally I had to think long and hard about this and after some 30 seconds emailed Ken back saying I’d be privileged and delighted to. So I started writing. As is so often the way, what finally transpired and was published in May, bore little resemblance to my initial thoughts, but thanks to a permissive licensing approach on the part of the publishers, I’m able to reproduce the article below.



This is not the article that I set out to write. The working title for that article was going to be something along the lines of cartography is subjective; my favourite map probably isn’t your favourite map. But every blog post, article or conference talk I write has to start somewhere and armed with this working title I set about trying to find my favourite map.

I was spoilt for choice as I had a vast array of sources to choose from. On Flickr there’s the photostream of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library with over 3,000 maps to choose from. Also on Flickr are all the maps I’ve come across and and have favourited. Then there are my tagged social bookmarks on Delicious plus a plethora of mapping and cartography related articles that sit within my browser’s bookmarks. That’s a lot of maps and that’s not even counting those that are offline in my reasonably large collection of map books.

Figure 1

I soon found out that reviewing all of these maps was by no means as simple a task as I’d first thought. I’d expected a favourite to leap out of the browser’s window or book’s page at me. Maps were certainly getting my attention but for the wrong reasons. I was able to discount maps I didn’t like or maps I was ambivalent about, but even getting the beginnings of a short list of favourites was proving a thankless task. There were just too many good maps. Time was passing and I wasn’t anywhere near finding a favourite map, let alone writing an article about it.

But as I continued browsing maps I noticed there was something else on my laptop’s screen that was vying for my attention. Actually there were two other things. One was a terminal window that was open and logged into a remote server somewhere on the Internet where I keep a large stash of geographic and mapping data. The other was the icon for the TextMate text editor, sitting in the dock of my MacBook Pro, which I use for coding things, usually maps related code. Realisation slowly dawned on me that my favourite map was yet to come into being; it was the next one that I would make, and the one after that and so on. What I would use to make my next map is what this article should be about.

Despite working with geographical data for almost 30 years, it was not until 2007 that I made the first map for myself. Now I’m not a cartographer or a professional map-maker; if I had to describe myself as anything I’d term myself as a hybrid of a geotechnologist, in the literal sense of someone who works with geography and technology, and a neogeographer.

The combination of geotechnology, of neogeography and more traditional cartographical disciplines has given us repeated phases of acceleration and disruption. In my opinion the uses of digital maps are in the tail end of the second wave of innovation and we’re starting to see the beginnings of a third wave. Each wave overlaps, there’s no clear border or delineation between them, but each wave has distinct characteristics.

When talking about making and using digital maps, the focus is on the way in which consumers, developers and the web use resources to create map based experiences, rather than the process of gathering the spatial data that underpins a digital map.

The first wave of digital maps was the combination of a various factors slowly coming together.

Critical Mass; The First Wave Precursor

If you look back to before 2005, digital maps were complex and costly to produce. If you worked in this field, you probably had specialist knowledge on how to manipulate geographic and spatial data sets. Part of the cost of early digital maps was the length of time it took to produce them. Large amounts of CPU cycles were needed to convert the map data vectors into the raster images to the Web needed. Another limiting factor was the cost of the disk storage that mapping data sets demanded. In 2000 a Gigabyte of disk space would cost you around $15, compared to the $9000 10 years earlier, but the days of cheap and affordable storage in multiples of Terabytes hadn’t yet arrived.

It was as difficult to use early digital maps, as it was to produce them. Availability and adoption of always-on broadband, was yet to arrive. The dominant form of Internet and web access was via dial-up modems, which were pitifully slow by today’s standards. The early digital map services were characterised by small maps to save on download times. These services were also functional maps with an emphasis on making conventional paper maps available online. There was little time or motivation in making interesting maps that were easy to use.

The First Wave; Mash Ups, Push Pins and Brands

The combination of fast CPUs, more bandwidth and cheaper larger storage came together in 2005 and the first wave of making digital maps started. It was in 2005 that Google launched their Maps API, followed in quick succession by similar offerings from Yahoo and from Microsoft. This was the wave of the web map mashup and it then that I made my first map. It was nothing special and nothing now remains of it, not even a screen shot. It was made using the Yahoo! Maps API and put push pins onto the Yahoo! Maps canvas. But it was the first map I made and I was proud of it at the time.

The first wave was also a branding wave. Whenever you made a web mashup you weren’t only creating a map customisation that worked with your data and for your intent. You were also helping the companies that produced web map APIs by giving them free advertising on your web site with their brand. The old adage about no such thing as a free lunch was very much in evidence and looking at the maps you find on today’s web, it’s still the case. With a few exceptions, a large web mapping corporate organisation powers almost every store finder or local product or service finder and their brand sits, sometimes uneasily, with the brand behind the web site.

This trade off between ease of use and availability of web maps and their branding and styling of was the stimulus behind the second wave of digital maps.

The Second Wave; Customisation And The Absence Of Brand

The second wave was the wave of customisable maps as well as of ‘open’ maps. The growth of the crowd sourced OpenStreetMap and the relatively open availability of being able to do interesting things with this data started to produce maps in all shapes, forms and most importantly, styles. OpenStreetMap itself was responsible for some of these styles, but companies such as CloudMade, founded in 2008 and San Francisco’s Stamen Design, founded in 2001, started to make digital map tiles that were not only wildly different to the stock corporate theme of the original set of mapping APIs but in some cases were works of art in their own right as well as being maps.

Figure 2

Hand in hand with the proliferation of map styles came mapping APIs which were in marked contrast to the APIs of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! The functionality available through all of the mapping APIs were roughly on a par. You created a basic HTML document and pointed an API at an element of that document which the API filled with a map on your behalf. The map is what we now term a slippy map; one that you can drag, pan and zoom around with a mouse or your finger. The map appears to slip around on the screen and is a viewport onto the larger one that appears to be hidden behind your web page. You can add controls to the map, you can add custom overlays onto it and in most cases you can even add other map tiles from a different source. But the starting point is always the originating company’s branded map and even if you can change the tile source to customise the map, not that many people will choose to do so. This is in much the same way as the web browser that comes preinstalled onto your computer is the one that most people tend to use. Even if you provide a way to customise something, only a small percentage of people will generally take advantage of that facility.

The second wave has also been a wave of opposites; of the brand-less map and of the return of the vector map.

With open sourced APIs such as OpenLayers and more recently the Cloudmade originated Leaflet, there was no branded map to start with. You had to make a choice and select a digital map tile provider in order to make your map. In contrast to the brand-less maps APIs, toolkits such as Mapstraction allowed you to abstract away the specifics of an individual mapping API. With this approach you can preserve your investment by using a single API. You can also move to another provider by changing as little as a single line of JavaScript code.

Digital maps have almost always been vector maps at heart, but this has historically been a back end function in the map-making process. Rendering vectors in a browser or mobile app took processing power that just wasn’t available to the early digital maps, even if vector data is traditionally smaller and more compact than the bitmap images which power the traditional slippy map. But hand in hand with the use of vectors in mobile clients such as Google’s Maps app and Nokia’s HERE Maps app there’s also been a resurgence of the use of vectors in the browser.

Most of today’s modern browsers support both of the two competing implementations for vector graphics; the World Wide Web Consortium’s SVG and most recently, HTML5’s Canvas. As JavaScript APIs and toolkits spring up to take advantage of vector graphics, vector maps have started to appear. The New York Time’s Mike Bostock maintains D3.js and Adobe’s Dmitry Baranovskiy maintains Raphaël. Both of these are JavaScript libraries which allow you to visualise vector data and both of which support some form of maps.

Figure 3

Of course, in order to visualise vector data, you need vector data to work with in the first place and free and open sources of this are increasing rapidly from 2005’s GeoCommons (now owned by ESRI) to 2009’s Natural Earth in addition to proprietary vector data from the mapping corporates.

The Third Wave; Maps As A Service

We’re now at the tail end of the second wave and beginning to see the emergence of a third wave. This is the wave of maps as a service or MAAS, a specialisation of software as a service, commonly known by its SAAS acronym.

Maps as a service takes away the bother of having to write JavaScript code to exercise a mapping API and instead allows you to simply upload your raw data and the MAAS of your choice will do the heavy lifting for you. An early exemplar of MAAS was Stamen’s Dotspotting, which whilst a simplistic ‘dots on maps’ implementation, allows a relatively sophisticated map visualisation to be produced with virtually no prior experience of working with geographical data sets or with maps. More recently CartoDB has taken the Dotspotting approach several steps further allowing extremely sophisticated mapping visualisations to be created, enabling these maps to be embedded in other web site and allowing access via an API. The latest entrant to making visualisation more accessible is Google Map Engine Lite, which builds on the heritage of Dotspotting and CartoDB.

Figure 4

Maps as a service means more than just simply making the process of creating digital maps easier and more accessible. It also incorporates the process of creating map tiles and vectors and making them accessible to everyone. From open source projects such as TileDrawer to the growth and success of MapBox, you can now control and manage the entire production of a digital map, from raw data, through mapping API to final user experience.

The digital maps waves commenced with an initial critical mass. Fast broadband Internet pipes offer ever-increasing bandwidth. The processing speed of CPUs continues to prove Moore’s Law. The ever-decreasing price of mass storage is now levels that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. Digital maps have proliferated across our desktop and laptop computers, our mobile phones and tablets, across almost anything that is connected to the Internet.

Despite industry commentators predicting the death of the map, the digital map still remains one of the best ways of visualising geographic, spatial and local information. Even if you were never taught to read a map, a map is inherently comforting and familiar and we automatically orientate ourselves to one.

Looking Forwards; Repetition And The Unexpected

We’re now in the early stages of the third wave of making and sharing digital maps, be they bitmap based slippy maps, vector maps or 3D maps. Each wave has built on the success of the previous, usually accompanied by challenging the existing status quo. There is much irony here, when one considers that the origin of a wave is often said to be a disturbance in the surrounding medium.

Wherever the third wave takes the map and in whatever shape or form the inevitable fourth wave takes is unclear but the continuing development and innovation around the map is one of the key things that keeps making maps so compelling and such an interesting space to work in. As the return to vector maps shows, the waves of digital maps are a unique intersection between revisiting and learning from past technologies and innovation and disruption. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw slightly history repeats itself and the unexpected always happens.

This article originally appeared in Volume 50 of the Cartographic Journal in May 2013.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Men Pointing At Maps? Hell, Yeah. But Where Are The Women?

Despite having a lot of NSFW content, estimated at between 2% to 4% by the site’s founder, Tumblr is also the microblogging site that some maps and cartography aficionados call home. The scope and range of these is simply staggering. But now there’s a new, albeit tenuously, related maps Tumblr in town.

For general maps enthusiasm, there’s Fuck Yes Maps!, run by a boy and two girls who blog about maps because they’re awesome. No disagreement from me on that point.

Slightly more cartographically centred but similarly named is Fuck Yeah Cartography! that sets out to explore interesting representations of space. Apparently. There’s also Fuck Yeah Maps, not to be confused with the Yes variant mentioned earlier.

If maps and globals are more your thing, the aptly named Maps and Globes might appeal, which is curated by Emily who’s addicted to planar surfaces.

Tumblr also seems to be populated by blogs about people … doing … stuff. Think Stormtroopers Doing Things if you will. So it’s probably a logical extension to this that there’s now Men Pointing At Maps. No, really.


All of which is good for showing just how many carto-nerds and map-geeks there are out there on today’s Interwebs. But it does beg a question. Where are the women pointing at maps? Surely maps and pointing aren’t a purely patriachal occupation. Someone should start a rival about women pointing at maps. Someone probably will …

Written and posted from Starbucks, St. Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, London; where the coffee is poor but the wifi is fast (51.510509, -0.127062)

Bad Cartography – Stansted, Essex (Airport) vs. Stansted, Kent (Not An Airport)

If there’s one thing that stands out more than a map that says “you are here”, it’s a map that says “you are here” and seems to get the map wrong.

It has to be said, short haul European flights are a bit on the boring side. Once you’ve read the day’s newspaper, had a drink and a snack and read a few chapters of a book there’s not much else to do. Most airlines that hop between European destinations don’t have inflight wifi yet and there’s no inflight entertainment to be had, except to watch your progress towards your destination on the map that appears on the screen over your head.

So it was with this map, which was snapped on a flight a few days ago from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to London’s Heathrow was coming to a close. But there’s something wrong with this map.


London has three major airports, of which Heathrow is the only one that’s anywhere near Central London. The other two, Gatwick and Stansted, are out in the so called Home Counties, in Sussex and in Essex respectively. But that’s not what the inflight map seems to show. Or does it? The map seems to show that we were flying directly over Stansted but that somehow London’s third airport had mysteriously been moved from the north east of London to south of the River Thames, somewhere south of Gravesend.

My gut reaction was that the inflight map was just wrong. But the clue to this in all in the name Stansted (and not Stanstead as it’s commonly misspelt). There is indeed a Stansted (a small village notable for a lack of airport) in Kent as well as a Stansted (and an airport) in Essex.

All of which makes me wonder just what the map’s cartographers were thinking when they thought to put the village of Stansted, with a population of around 200, on an inflight map and with seemingly equal billing with some of the UK’s major cities and manage to confuse it with a major UK airport. This isn’t a recent map slip up either, as Wikipedia reports that this has been in place since 2007.

In early 2007, British Airways mistakenly used inflight ‘skymaps’ that relocated Stanstead Airport, Essex to Stansted in Kent. Skymaps show passengers their location, but the mistake was luckily not replicated on the pilots’ navigation system. BA blamed outside contractors hired to make the map. “It was the mistake of the independent company that produced the software,” said a spokeswoman. “The cartographer appears to have confused the vast Essex airport, which handles 25 million passengers a year, with this tiny Kent village, also called Stansted, which has a population of around 200″.

Time for a refresh of British Airway’s inflight maps I think.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

After The Missing Manual For OpenStreetMap, Here’s The Google Map Maker Version

The growth and uptake of today’s internet and web allows us to do a lot of things that were previously the preserve of the professional. You can see this in the rise of words which now have citizen prepended to them. We don’t just write blog posts, we’re citizen journalists. We don’t just take photographs, we’re citizen photographers. To this list, we can now add citizen cartographer as well.

With the help of OpenStreetMap, HERE’s Map Creator (which I work on) and Google’s Map Maker, anyone with a modern web browser and an internet connection can now help to make maps where previously there were none and to improve and keep maps up to date, which still remains one of the biggest challenges to map making.

There’s already been a book about OpenStreetMap, which I wrote about in April of 2011. As far as I know, no-one’s written about HERE’s Map Creator but for Google’s Map Maker there’s Limoke Oscar’s Instant Google Map Maker Starter.

When I wrote about OpenStreetMap; Using and Enhancing the Free Map of the World, one of the reasons I liked reading about making maps with OSM in a book was because …

OpenStreetMap is easy to use, graphical (on the website), comes with multiple discussion and documentation sites and well supported mailing lists; you can always find the answer to your question. But sometimes you don’t know what the question is. Sometimes you just want to read a book.

The same can be said of Instant Google Map Maker Starter. The e-book edition I’ve just finished reading doesn’t appear to have the physical weight and depth of the OSM tome, but that’s only to be expected of a book that clearly sets out to be a starter.

Instant Google Map Maker Starter

As a starter, the book describes itself on the cover as short, fast, focused and on all these counts it succeeds admirably. Making, creating and editing a digital map is now massively easier than it was 5 years ago, but it’s still not simplicity itself.

When you’re setting out, you need to have explained what the difference is between what’s in the map, the spatial data of the map itself, and what’s on the map, the places or points of interest. You need to know how to use your software tool of choice, be it OpenStreetMap, Map Creator or Map Maker. You need to be shown the shortcuts and how to avoid the inevitable pitfalls.

Limoke obviously knows how to use Google Map Maker and it shows in the clear, concise prose, which educates from the ground up and doesn’t once stray into making the reader feel patronised or being lectured.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt with the depth and coverage of this book’s OpenStreetMap counterpart and even though the book is clearly labelled and pitched as a high level starter guide, it left me wanting more. But that’s not the fault of the author. Most of what I wanted more of is information that only Google would be able to provide; about why Google Map Maker is open for editing in some countries and about why you have to ask Google to get the data you put in back out. But I would have liked to have seen the author touching on the why of map making as much as the how, which he’s admirably written about. Why do people make maps and what motivates them?

Maybe there’s a book to be written about this; maybe one day I might even do that.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

2013 – The Year Of The Tangible Map And Return Of The Map As Art

Looking back at the conference talks I gave and the posts I wrote in 2012, two themes are evident.

The first theme is that while there’s some utterly gorgeous digital maps being produced these days, such as Stamen’s Watercolor, the vast majority of digital maps can’t really be classified as art. Despite the ability to style our own maps with relative ease, such as with Carto and MapBox’s TileMill, today’s maps tend towards the data rich, factual end of the map spectrum. Compare and contrast a regular digital map, on your phone, on your tablet or on a web site in your laptop’s browser with a map such as Hemispheriu[m] ab aequinoctiali linea, ad circulu[m] Poli Arctici and you’ll see what I mean (and if you don’t browse the Norman. B. Leventhal Map Center’s Flickr stream you really should).

Hemispheriu[m] ab aequinoctiali linea, ad circulu[m] Poli Arctici

The second theme is that despite the abundance of maps that surround us these days, a digital map is almost by definition an intangible thing. It’s a view port, hand crafted by a digital cartographer, on a mass of hidden, underlying spatial data. It’s ephemeral. Switch off your phone, your tablet, your sat nav or your computer and the map … vanishes. Until the next time you hit the “on” button, the electrons flow again and the map re-appears. But it’s still intangible, despite the irony that a lot of maps these days are interacted with via a touch interface; we tap, poke, prod and swipe our maps, but they’re not really there.

But maybe 2013 will be both the year of the tangible map and the year of the map as art. It might be if the closing days of 2012 are anything to go by.

On December 8th, 2012, David Overton’s SplashMaps made their funding total on Kickstarter. A SplashMap is a real outdoor map, derived from (digital) open data, but rendered on a light and weatherproof fabric. It’s a tangible map in the truest sense of the word; one you can fold up or even crumple up and stick in your pocket, safe in the knowledge that it won’t fade away. There’s no “off” switch for this map. As one of the SplashMap funders, I’ll have a chance to get my hands on one in the literal sense of the word in a couple of months, once they hit production. So more about this map in a future post.

The other map that is both 100% tangible and 100% art is the awesomely talented Anna Butler’s Grand Map Of London. A modern day map of the UK’s capital city, digital in origin, lovingly hand drawn in the style of the 1800s and printed, yes, printed on canvas. It’s a map worthy of the phrase “the map as art” and when I first saw one and handled one in late November of 2012 I wanted one, right there and then.

Grand Map Of London

And then, on Saturday, December 29th 2012, Mark Iliffe and I met Anna for a coffee in the Espresso Bar of the British Library on London’s Euston Road and out of the blue, Anna handed over a long cardboard tube containing my own, my very own, Grand Map Of London. People nearby looked on, slightly non-plussed as I crowed like a happy baby, promptly unrolled the map over the table and just looked and touched. The next half an hour or so pretty much vanished as I pored over and luxuriated in the map, lost in the details and revelling in the map under my hands. Truly this is a tangible map which is itself art.

I’ve often said, half in truth, half in jest, that I’d love a big, as big as I can get, map of London on my wall, probably one of Stamen’s Watercolor maps. But Anna’s Grand Map Of London will be getting a suitable frame and sitting on my wall, just as soon as my local framing shop opens after the New Year break.

Grand Map Of London

Two maps to wrap up 2012. Both tangible, both digital in origin, both made for looking, touching and feeling. One clever, innovative and utterly practical and one a map you can keep coming back to and which reveals more artistic cleverness each time you look at it.

2013 is shaping up to be a “year of the map” in ways I’d never had hoped for at the start of 2012.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Making PostgreSQL, PostGIS And A Mac Play Nicely Together

Most things in life are a journey and the destination of this particular journey was to try and create a custom map style that represented the unique features and challenges of Tandale.

Which meant I needed to download and install TileMill, an interactive map design tool.

Which meant I needed to learn Carto, the CSS-like language for map styling.

Which meant I looked for a template project so I didn’t have to start from scratch.

Which meant I found OSM Bright.

Which meant I needed to start small and find a map extract of Tanzania to work with.

Which meant I needed to install and configure PostgreSQL and PostGIS on my Mac.

Which brings me to the starting point of the journey and the reason for this post in the first place.

When I normally need to install UNIX-y command line and server tools I turn to Homebrew, the tool set that “installs the stuff you need that Apple didn’t”. Homebrew supports installing both PostgreSQL and PostGIS but a bit of background research showed that installing these on Lion and on Mountain Lion could be problematic. A bit of further research soon turned up, which claims to be “the easiest way to run PostgreSQL on the Mac”. is a single shot installer which wraps PostgreSQL and PostGIS into an easy to install and run self contained environment.

I’m a big fan of this approach to a software development environment. All of the stuff I’ve put up on GitHub and on has been written using MAMP, the single shot installer which wraps up Apache, MySQL and PHP on the Mac so gave instant appeal to me. So, download, install, start.

Next I found an OSM map extract of Tanzania courtesy of GeoFabrik, which I also downloaded. Now to load the map into PostgreSQL. I made sure my shell’s PATH pointed to the command line tools provided by by prepending /Applications/ to the PATH defined in my .bash_profile, ran psql and created a database called tanzania. So far so good.

$ psql
psql (9.2.2)
Type "help" for help.

gary=# CREATE DATABASE tanzania;
gary=# \q

To load the map into the database I had a choice of two command line tools; Imposm or osm2pgsql. The latter of the two seemed to work out of the box according to the documentation so I used Homebrew to install this tool.

$ brew install osm2pgsql

Now to load the map …

$ osm2pgsql -c -G -U gary -d tanzania ~/Projects/maps/data/tanzania.osm.pbf 
osm2pgsql SVN version 0.81.0 (64bit id space)

Using projection SRS 900913 (Spherical Mercator)
Setting up table: planet_osm_point
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_point" does not exist, skipping
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_point_tmp" does not exist, skipping
SELECT AddGeometryColumn('planet_osm_point', 'way', 900913, 'POINT', 2 );
 failed: ERROR:  function addgeometrycolumn(unknown, unknown, integer, unknown, integer) does not exist
LINE 1: SELECT AddGeometryColumn('planet_osm_point', 'way', 900913, ...
HINT:  No function matches the given name and argument types. You might need to add explicit type casts.

Error occurred, cleaning up

The lack of the AddGeometryColumn function was the clue here. Whilst may come with PostGIS, my custom database was lacking all the PostGIS functionality. So I deleted my initial database and tried to recreate it with the template_postgis template, which also failed.

$ psql
psql (9.2.2)
Type "help" for help.

gary=# DROP DATABASE tanzania;
gary=# CREATE DATABASE tanzania TEMPLATE=template_postgis;
ERROR:  template database "template_postgis" does not exist
gary=# \q

Updated 24.12.12

As Regina correctly pointed out in the comments, I didn’t really need to go through the manual process of loading the PostGIS template, the create extension postgis command in psql would have done this for me much quicker and elegantly, reducing the commands to setup my database to just two statements …

$ psql
psql (9.2.2)
Type "help" for help.

gary=# CREATE DATABASE tanzania;
gary=# \connect tanzania;
You are now connected to database "tanzania" as user "gary".
tanzania=# CREATE EXTENSION postgis;
gary=# \q

… simple when you know how.

So I needed to create the template_postgis database from scratch, loading in the postgis.sql and spatial_ref_sys.sql SQL files and then recreate my custom database, based on the template contained in the template_postgis database. The PostGIS SQL files are supplied as part of, if you know where to look for them; you’ll find them inside the app’s container in /Applications/

$ createdb template_postgis
$ createlang plpgsql template_postgis
createlang: language "plpgsql" is already installed in database "template_postgis"
$ psql -d template_postgis -f /Applications/ 

$ psql -d template_postgis -f /Applications/ 

$ psql
psql (9.2.2)
Type "help" for help.

gary=# CREATE DATABASE tanzania TEMPLATE=template_postgis;
gary=# \q

Now, at last, I was able to load my Tanzanian map.

$ osm2pgsql -c -G -U gary -d tanzania ~/Projects/maps/data/tanzania.osm.pbf
osm2pgsql SVN version 0.81.0 (64bit id space)

Using projection SRS 900913 (Spherical Mercator)
Setting up table: planet_osm_point
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_point" does not exist, skipping
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_point_tmp" does not exist, skipping
Setting up table: planet_osm_line
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_line" does not exist, skipping
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_line_tmp" does not exist, skipping
Setting up table: planet_osm_polygon
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_polygon" does not exist, skipping
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_polygon_tmp" does not exist, skipping
Setting up table: planet_osm_roads
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_roads" does not exist, skipping
NOTICE:  table "planet_osm_roads_tmp" does not exist, skipping
Allocating memory for dense node cache
Allocating dense node cache in one big chunk
Allocating memory for sparse node cache
Sharing dense sparse
Node-cache: cache=800MB, maxblocks=102401*8192, allocation method=3
Mid: Ram, scale=100

Reading in file: /Users/gary/Projects/maps/data/tanzania.osm.pbf
Processing: Node(6820k 682.0k/s) Way(980k 16.90k/s) Relation(23580 1122.86/s)  parse time: 89s

Node stats: total(6820388), max(1910954191) in 10s
Way stats: total(980191), max(180648305) in 58s
Relation stats: total(23580), max(2409445) in 21s
Committing transaction for planet_osm_point
Committing transaction for planet_osm_line
Committing transaction for planet_osm_polygon
Committing transaction for planet_osm_roads

Writing way (980k)
Committing transaction for planet_osm_point
Committing transaction for planet_osm_line
Committing transaction for planet_osm_polygon
Committing transaction for planet_osm_roads

Writing relation (23569)
Sorting data and creating indexes for planet_osm_point
Sorting data and creating indexes for planet_osm_line
Sorting data and creating indexes for planet_osm_polygon
node cache: stored: 6820388(100.00%), storage efficiency: 50.68% (dense blocks: 637, sparse nodes: 6403164), hit rate: 99.45%
Sorting data and creating indexes for planet_osm_roads
Analyzing planet_osm_point finished
Analyzing planet_osm_polygon finished
Analyzing planet_osm_roads finished
Analyzing planet_osm_line finished
Copying planet_osm_point to cluster by geometry finished
Copying planet_osm_roads to cluster by geometry finished
Creating indexes on  planet_osm_roads finished
All indexes on  planet_osm_roads created  in 12s
Completed planet_osm_roads
Copying planet_osm_polygon to cluster by geometry finished
Copying planet_osm_line to cluster by geometry finished
Creating indexes on  planet_osm_point finished
All indexes on  planet_osm_point created  in 21s
Completed planet_osm_point
Creating indexes on  planet_osm_polygon finished
All indexes on  planet_osm_polygon created  in 28s
Completed planet_osm_polygon
Creating indexes on  planet_osm_line finished
All indexes on  planet_osm_line created  in 30s
Completed planet_osm_line

Osm2pgsql took 218s overall

One final gotcha awaited though. Restarting later that day made psql fail with an error.

$ psql
psql: could not connect to server: No such file or directory
	Is the server running locally and accepting
	connections on Unix domain socket "/tmp/.s.PGSQL.5432"?

Although was running, it looked like the server wasn’t. Checking the system error logs via showed me that my newly populated database was running out of shared memory.

22/12/2012 11:05:44.319 com.heroku.postgres-service: FATAL:  could not create shared memory segment: Cannot allocate memory
22/12/2012 11:05:44.319 com.heroku.postgres-service: DETAIL:  Failed system call was shmget(key=5432001, size=3809280, 03600).
22/12/2012 11:05:44.319 com.heroku.postgres-service: HINT:  This error usually means that PostgreSQL's request for a shared memory segment exceeded available memory or swap space, or exceeded your kernel's SHMALL parameter.  You can either reduce the request size or reconfigure the kernel with larger SHMALL.  To reduce the request size (currently 3809280 bytes), reduce PostgreSQL's shared memory usage, perhaps by reducing shared_buffers or max_connections.
22/12/2012 11:05:44.319 com.heroku.postgres-service: 	The PostgreSQL documentation contains more information about shared memory configuration.
22/12/2012 11:20:40.584 com.heroku.postgres-service: server starting

Thankfully this is a known problem; PostgreSQL is really a server application, not a laptop application. The default Mac configuration isn’t enough to support a medium sized PostgreSQL database, but adding the following configuration settings to /etc/sysctl.conf, creating it via sudo if it doesn’t already exist and rebooting solved that final problem.


TileMill - Tanzania

I now have a working PostgreSQL and PostGIS install, with a map loaded, which TileMill can access. Now all I need to do is learn Carto and actually make the map I originally set out to do … another learning journey has started.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Maps, Maps And MOAR Maps At The Society Of Cartographers And Expedia

Updated September 13th. 2012 with embedded YouTube video.

Wednesday September 5th. 2012 was a day of maps. To be precise, it was a day of maps, maps and MOAR maps. Two events, two talks, back to back. Packed choc-a-bloc full of maps. I also cheated slightly.

Firstly there was the International Cartographical Association’s first session of the newly formed Commission on Neocartography. Cartography, neocartography, maps; what is there not to like? I’d previously spoken at the UK’s Society of Cartographer’s annual conference so it was great to be asked by Steve Chilton, SoC and Neocartography chair, to speak at the Neocartography Commission.

For a change, the talk title and abstract I gave Steve didn’t vary during the usual researching and writing of the talk.

Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Mime-Version: 1.0 (Apple Message framework v1278)
Subject: Re: Neocartography workshop
X-Universally-Unique-Identifier: d1c70302-eaba-4132-80fb-f74eb1de2347
From: Gary Gale
Date: Fri, 20 Jul 2012 14:13:39 +0100
Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable
To: Steve Chilton

Actually, I'm going to change the title ... what I'd really like to see up on the web site is this ...

Title: History Repeats Itself And So Does The Map
Abstract: Steve Chilton says this just MIGHT be interesting; you'll have to take his word for this

... but that might not work. So try this for size instead

Title: History Repeats Itself And So Does The Map
Abstract: History has a habit of repeating itself and so does the map. From primitive scratchings, through ever more sumptuous pieces of art, through to authoritative geographical representations, the map changes throughout history. Maps speak of the hopes, dreams and prejudices of their creators and audience alike, and with the advent of neogeography and neocartography, maps are again as much art as they are geographical information.

... will that do?


But then, no sooner had I got one event for that Wednesday when fellow Yahoo! alumni and now Expedia developer and chief evangelist Steve Marshall asked me to team up with ex-Doppleran and ex-Nokian Matt Biddulph at Expedia’s EAN World of Data event which was cunningly masquerading as a BBQ that very Wednesday evening. So I cheated. One day. Loads of maps. Two events. But one talk. Only time will tell whether I got away with it or not.

Rob de Feo: Natural Language Processing & Gary Gale: Maps @ EAN Developer Network

My talk at the Neocartography workshop was filmed and you can watch it below, if you like that sort of thing. Personally I hate seeing myself on video, it’s even more excrutiating than hearing myself on audio.

As usual, the slide deck, plus notes are embedded below, also if you like that sort of thing.

Read On…