Posts Tagged ‘data’

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…

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…

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.

3WxNK

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.

flood-1

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

flood-2

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.

flood-3

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.

flood-4

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.

flood-5

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.

flood-7

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)

Open Data Yields Tangible Results – And Tangible Maps

In January of this year I made a hopeful prediction that 2013 would be the year of the tangible map.

This hope was prompted by the maps I saw at one of London’s geomob meetups in November of 2012, where I saw and, importantly for a tangible map, touched Anna Butler’s London wall map and a prototype of David Overton’s SplashMap.

The hopeful prediction was made as a result of literally getting my hands on one of Anna’s London maps and it’s a treasured possession, though still sadly needing a suitable frame before it can take pride of place on a wall at home.

But what of SplashMaps? In November 2012 the project was on Kickstarter and I was one of the investors in this most tangible of maps. In December 2012 Splashmaps met their funding targets and went into production and today, through the letterbox came my own, tangible, foldable, scrunchable and almost indestructible SplashMap of my local neighbourhood.

IMG_1190

Now all if this could be taken to be simply my crowing with delight over maps. But there’s a deeper context to all of these tangible maps. Both the London Wall Map and SplashMaps have come about due to one single thing … open data. The case has often been made, though equally as often misunderstood, that open data is an economic stimulus. As many people ask why should we give something away for free as ask for data to opened up to the public.

IMG_1189

Both of these maps wouldn’t have been financially possible without access to open data; the pre-open data era licensing costs and restrictions alone would have put paid to any startup opportunities an aspiring entrepreneur came up with. But in these maps, the proof of what open data can do has become very real, indeed very tangible.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Map Push Pins vs. Dots? Google Map Engine vs. Dotspotting?

Yesterday, Google launched their Maps Engine Lite beta; a way of quickly and easily visualising small scale geographic data sets on (unsurprisingly) a Google map. The service allows you to upload a CSV file containing geographic information and style the resulting map with the data added to it. I thought I’d give it a try.

I turned to my tried and trusted data set for things like this; a data set I derived from a Flickr set of geotagged photos I’d taken of the London Elephant Parade in 2010. It’s a known data source and I know what the results of this data set will give me; it lets me do a reasonably meaningful visual comparison of how a particular product or service interprets and displays the data.

Google Maps Engine

Reading up on Map Engine Lite, I noted that I could only upload a maximum of 100 data points into a layer on the map, which wasn’t a problem as my data set is localised to London and contains only 10 pieces of information, one for each photo I’d taken. Once I’d uploaded the data I could style the colours of the push pins and the background style of the map. It looks pretty good, even if you are limited to 100 points per layer and it’s for strictly personal and non commercial use only.

But I was sure I’d seen this sort of thing before and I had, in the form of Stamen’s Dotspotting. I already had an account with Dotspotting and, even though I’d forgotten about it, I’d previously made a map from my London Elephants data set.

DotSpotting

The parallels are many. Both Map Engine and Dotspotting allow you to upload data in CSV format. Both services try to work out coordinates from the data, if there’s no lat/long coordinates already. Both services allow you to style the resultant map.

There are differences. Dotspotting allows you to download your data; it doesn’t appear that Google does. Map Engine allows you to style the map markers; it doesn’t seem that Dotspotting allows this. Dotspotting supports Excel spreadsheets, CSV files, Flickr and Google My Maps feeds; Map Engine only supports CSV files.

There’s also one other key difference; Map Engine was launched yesterday, whilst Dotspotting was launched 2 years ago.

But there’s an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Mapping Meteor Strikes; There’s A Lot More Than You’d Think

Last week’s 10,00 ton and 55 feet’s worth of meteor that exploded over and hit the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals made several thoughts go through my mind. In this order.

  1. I feel for the 1200 people who were hurt and injured
  2. Thank goodness it didn’t happen where I live
  3. With all the asteroids and smaller pieces of rock zooming over our head, this has got to have happened before, hasn’t it?

On the subject of the last thought, it turns out this has happened before. A few times. Actually close to 35,000 times. The Meteoritical Society has a data set detailing these. It would make a great map. Which is exactly what Javier de la Torre, co-founder of CartoDB has done.

Meteor Map - Global

A map of impact points would be effective enough, but Javier’s use of a heatmap not only shows the global spread of the debris which has been raining down on our planet since 2,300 BC but also shows the density of strikes, which makes the map simultaneously more effective and accessible.

Meteor Map - UK

There’s also been far more strikes in the United Kingdom than I would have either thought or feel vaguely comfortable about, if you can ever be comfortable with things falling from the sky with horrifying effect.

Definitely a map to file under the I wish I’d done that category.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

GeoPlanet Data Resurfaces For Download; On The Internet Archive

Although I can’t find the originator of the saying that there’s no delete button for the internet, it’s a saying that’s very true. If you put something up on a web site, be it a photo, some text or perhaps a file of geographic data there’s a very good chance that someone else has a copy, even if you subsequently take the original down. It’s a sort of digital whack-a-mole.

This is all too apparent in the story of Yahoo’s GeoPlanet Data download. When I was part of the Yahoo! Geo Technologies team, we released a public download of the Yahoo! WOEID data set, under the CC BY 3.0 license, in 2009 at Where 2.0. More about that license in a moment.

As Yahoo! continues to undergo change under the leadership of Marissa Meyer, the current data file and all earlier versions were taken offline. Visit the GeoPlanet Data page on Yahoo’s Developer Network site and instead of a set of download links, you see “We are currently making the data non-downloadable while we determine a better way to surface the data as a part of the service.“.

YDN

But the digital mole that is the WOEID data has resurfaced, and versions 7.4 through 7.10 of GeoPlanet Data can now be found on the Internet Archive.

But Yahoo! has taken down the downloads, so how can this happen? That’s where the CC BY 3.0 license comes into play. The Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, to give CC BY 3.0 its full name, gives anyone the right to share the data, in other words to copy, to distribute or to transmit the data, providing users of the data attribute it back to Yahoo! Once issued under such a license, it can’t be revoked; you may choose to issue a new version under a different license scheme or stop issuing new versions entirely, but the earlier versions remain under the original license.

Internet Archive

I’ve always had a soft spot for the WOEID and for the GeoPlanet API and data download. Maybe this new availability of the data set will stimulate new usage of WOEIDs. Who knows, the data may even be forked and added to?

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The Problem With Location Based Mobile Services

There’s a problem with today’s crop of location based mobile services, commonly referred to as LBMS; those little apps which sit on our smartphones and allow us to geotag status updates or photos, find relevant local place information or check-in at a place.

The problem isn’t one of privacy or tracking. Nor is the problem one of an LBMS dying and going away. The problem isn’t whether I can get a good location fix or whether the results I get are accurate or not. The problem isn’t even of the value of the data we, the customer, put into a service and whether we can get it back again.

The Internet Connection Appears To Be Offline

No, the problem is whether we can actually use the service from our smartphone at all.

It’s 2013 and I live in the suburbs of the capital of the United Kingdom and this happens all the time. Not in the uncharted wilds of the UK. Not in obscure regions of the world. But in my local neighbourhood and in the heart of London. And it’s not just a problem with Vodafone, my current cellular provider. Over the last few years I’ve been on T-Mobile, on Orange and on O2 and all the cellular carriers seem to have exactly the same problem; one which makes a mockery of their coverage maps. According to Vodafone’s map, I should be getting high or at least variable 3G data coverage where I live, but instead I get variable or no coverage at all when walking in my local neighbourhoods.

3G data coverage that drops in and out; that’s the problem with today’s location based mobile services.

I’m getting off of my soapbox now …

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)