Geographic

Visit to Ordnance Survey

Our visit to the offices of Ordnance Survey in Southampton yesterday was fascinating, with a chance to get an idea for the breadth of stuff they do and learn a little more about some of their work. For those of you who may not know who the OS are, they are the National Mapping Agency for Britain.

The tour of their headquarters started off with an introduction to some of the new research projects they are working on at the moment such as innovative ways of visualising the geographic information they hold about houses, allowing them to be depicted as a 3D object, for example. Next up was a refresher on some of the details of OS MasterMap, the 'definitive digital map of Great Britain', and an overview of some of the potential applications that it could be used for.

After lunch we were taken around a number of departments within the organisation, from cartographic generalisation to their printing services and finally their photogrammetry department.

The guys who showed us the generalisation were basically demonstrating the sort of work they need to do to remove/select/alter clutter such as text from their vast database of geographic information so that they can produce useful 1:10,000 scale maps. They were completing the work that their automated generalisation algorithm started but that requires that human input at present.

The print floor was really interesting to see as we were guided from the order processing stage right through design, making of printing plates, to the actual print presses, guillotines, folding machines and finally to despatch.

The final visit of the day was to see the photogrammetry and aerial photo department who plan the flights that take photos during the summer months and then process all of the information that comes back for inclusion in a number of their products - the most obvious of which is the OS MasterMap Imagery Layer that will provide aerial photo coverage of the whole of Great Britain. They've recently invested in digital technology to simplify the process slightly, and apparently the images returned are of an even higher quality than the optical imagery they are using currently.

A sad day for London

Today has been a very sad day for London, the antithesis of the celebrations which were due yesterday for winning the 2012 Olympic bid. This morning unfolded as one of the worst days in London's recent history as terrorists attacked first the London Underground and then a bus near Russell Square.

I managed to avoid the attacks - although apparently by quite a close margin - though I know many others were not so lucky. My heart goes out to those who had this cowardly act inflicted upon them for no reason, their familes, their friends, their loved ones.

My department had today arranged a trip for the people on our course to pay a visit to the Ordnance Survey in Southampton. We had left London by about 9.20, unaware of any of the events which had happened on the Underground in the preceeding half an hour. Garbled reports of power surges and then terrorist attacks started to filter through to the radio on the coach but it wasn't until later that we realised the extent of what had happened so close to the place we had left from.

Map of my morningThe whole day has left me a little shaken. To show you some of the reasons why, I have created a map (partly to learn more about programming using the Google Maps API) that plots the events of this morning. You can scroll around and click on markers to find out more.

It is frightening how close these events were to affecting me and the people I was with this morning, my friends and so many other innocent people in London. The London I came back to this afternoon is a different London, a London I never wanted to experience.

Learning about AJAX

Mapping my photosIn order to improve the interactivity of my photo map, I have been learning about different ways of linking the information that comes from my database of photos and the mapping data which comes from the Google Maps API to what the user is doing.

Using a mixture of technologies that are commonly known as AJAX (or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), I have allowed the list of nearby locations - which shows to the right of the map - to update itself whenever the user moves the map around the screen. It will show a list of 5 places closest to the centre of the map and also the distance they are from the centre.

One next stage of development will be to allow the user to click on one of these name and automatically zoom the map to the right area, along with other features including improving what is actually shown on the map for each place.

Some of these new mapping features will probably require broadband to be able to enjoy them properly because they can be quite data intensive.

Mapping my photos

Mapping my photosDespite the fact that somebody seems to have hacked into my server this evening and deleted all of my photos, I have been working on a way of mapping all of the photos I've uploaded to the website over the past few years.

I had the idea of mapping them a while back but didn't progress further than showing roughly in the world a place is located. Recently, however, online mapping services have improved in leaps and bounds. As part of this, Google has just opened up their system for anyone to add their own data to as well. Tonight, this is what I have begun to do.

Each of the towns and cities in my gallery has been 'geocoded' to a specific location and is now pinpointed on a map of the globe which you can click, drag and zoom to your hearts content.

I am still experimenting with the opportunities here, but features you can expect from the site soon will hopefully include photos in the popup bubbles and maps on each town and city page to show nearest neighbours. Mapping travels would be something I'm interested in trying out as well.

Maps, maps and more maps

I've known for a long time that I have an element of geekiness to me (who doesn't?) but it really struck me today whilst visiting Stanfords map shop in Covent Garden, exactly how geeky I am when it comes to maps and things like that.

I was in there recently to buy a map of the area surrounding Salzburg but only really got to see the ground floor of the shop. Walking nearby today with a friend, I thought I'd drag him in for a quick look around. After a bit of a wander around the ground floor (and a thumb through some fascinating books about Metro Maps of the World and other such things) I descended into the basement to find my friend trying to locate himself on a map of London that spanned the whole basement floor. There's an equivalent aerial photo of the same sort of size in the lower ground floor of the London City Hall, known in the Greater London Authority as the London Photomat.

Before long my friend was trying to prise me away from a whole 'nother floor of books. I'll have to go back and spend a whole afternoon in there at some point I think!

BBC Backstage to be geo friendly

The BBC launched a website today called BBC Backstage which encourages people to find novel ways of reusing the content and services that are paid for using the licence fee that we all have to pay (although I don't because I don't have a television with me this year).

Among the latest prototypes which have been submitted by developers are better integration of the BBC News site with Wikipedia, tagging of stories using del.icio.us and an improved search for archived recordings of the Today programme. The data to do these things with is all provided in XML format, though some of the applications simply 'scrape' the site and make their own alterations where they want to. Something which would have been frowned upon until lately is now actively being encouraged in order to nurture creativity and innovation.

One of the most intriguing parts of this scheme is the plan to create a Postcoder API - a programming interface to postcode data held by the BBC. They haven't published the exact details of it but I suspect it will allow people to enter a postcode and have all relevant stories returned to the user. I doubt they will be able to return the actual co-ordinates of postcodes as that would undercut commercial services already in place and would almost certainly break any contract they have with the Royal Mail to supply the data.

A quick Google search on posctcode APIs from the BBC has just brought up a suggestion of this postcoding ability from October last year. Place name data from the BBC gazeteer data would be nice.

(via Boing Boing)

Google Maps for the UK

Well, it wasn't long ago that I was trying to find a backdoor into Google's maps of places other than the US. I couldn't find it at the time (probably because there wasn't one) but on Monday Google announced that they were expanding their mapping service, Google Maps, and also their Google Local service, to cover the UK as well. Google Maps UK centres the view on the UK, although for some reason they choose to cut off the northern tip of Scotland. There are limitations though, as Gary Turner points out in his blog. For example, you get pointed to the wrong place when you search for some places in the UK that are called the same thing as places in North America. Or when you search for a Manx postcode such as IM1 2RF - the sea terminal in Douglas - it sends you to somewhere a long way away from the Isle of Man. Also, as Chris Heathcote illustrates, Google has a rather strange view of the world which makes it seem like the US and UK are the only places in existence. An overview map of the world would be a nice feature to have, even if you can't zoom in and get more detail everywhere.

Open Geodata Forum

I read earlier in the week about a discussion on open geodata occuring in London this week. Being interested in what they had to say I thought I might as well pop along and listen to the presentations. Open geodata, for those of you who may not know, is any kind of data which has some kind of geographic reference (such as a postcode, a place name or anything else which references a place on earth). In the US, much of this is freely available to the public because just about everything produced by government agencies can be used without any restrictions. In the UK however, there is a Crown Copyright placed on just about all of the geographic data produced.

The first presentation this evening was basically talking about ways of creating new geodatasets which could then be reused, by sending people out on the roads with GPS receivers, tracing roads off satellite or other aerial photography or using maps on which the copyright had already expired (dating back to the 1950s). Steve Coast, the guy presenting, had begun to develop OpenStreetMap and was actually another UCL student, although on a different course to the one that I am on.

The second was by Gesche Schmid, a local government manager of ICT at Medway Council who highlighted the uses of geographic data in local government using a couple of different examples from across the board. It was interesting to hear, although hardly suprising, that 75% of data within local government is considered geographic. Medway are one of the councils that has their own online GIS system, Medway Map Service, from which they apparently had to pull their electoral ward boundary data because of inaccuracies. A point which Chris Lightfoot of MySociety later mentioned as well, having worked closely with election data over recent years as a key part of a number of their projects.

Giles Lane of Urban Tapestries, a geo annotation tool, then talked about location based services and their potential social uses without the expense of embedding expensive GPS chips in every mobile device.

By this point in the presentations I'd started to get a nasty headache from looking at the projection screen so I wasn't able to concentrate as much as I wanted.

Jo Walsh was next on stage. An open source developer and co-author of the Mapping Hacks book, she talked for a short time about the ways she'd like to see the open geodata movement progress before introducing Roger Longhorn, a geodata policy expert who was heavily involved in Euopean Union geodata policy for 7 years.

Chris Lightfoot of MySociety then gave a short talk about electoral data and its quirks, pointing out just how difficult a task it is to ensure the data is all accurate and up to date. Nick Whitelegg then gave a quick introduction to his countryside mapping project, Free-Map.

All in all I'm glad I attended. It was good to hear a range of different perspectives - including a director of the Ordnance Survey in the audience answering some of the questions people had about government funding of the OS. I just wish my head wasn't hurting quite so much by the end.

Mapping the news

Screenshot from buzztrackerToday I came across buzztracker, a website which maps the connections between different places based on news items which have been published that day. It's fascinating to see where the 'hotspots' are and how they change from day to day.

The site reminds me of a couple of others I've come across over recent years which also set out to map the news.

Global Attention Profiles were the first to spring to mind, where each country is coloured according to the percentage of news coverage it's had that day based on a number of different news organisations' feeds. The does it slightly differently by adding headlines of stories mentioning specific countries to the countries themselves. It doesn't cover many headlines so it isn't particularly useful but it's an interesting stepping stone to something which in theory could be so much more advanced. The Today's Front Pages interactive map takes a different approach still, showing the front page of the day's newspapers as you move your mouse over the city it's published in. on the other hand doesn't map the news geographically but does map it visually according to how popular stories are judged to be.

Google's headquarters: a field?

Now that I'm back in London I've been able to have a bit of a play around with the new Google satellite service I keep mentioning on here. It certainly is fun to play with, although it's not so much use to me as it would be to people in the US with the satellite images over the UK currently showing at a pretty low resolution. It is great to see they do have a global coverage though, and further to my comment the other week, you can now scroll around the whole globe and get back to where you started. Fantastic!

Before Google at 1600 Amphitheatre ParkwayWhilst 'travelling' around the US I came across this satellite photo of Google's headquarters: 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, California. Only thing is, it seems Google's headquarters didn't exist when the image was taken, so it looks as though they're working out of a field. Or perhaps they're playing with us, taking a leaf out of the Whitehouse's book and altering the images - in their case to protect security.

Surreal colourful landscapeThinking about security I thought I'd take a look for Area 51 in the Nevada desert, just to see what it looked like from the air.

Before I even got to it though, I spotted this surreal landscape in San Francisco Bay, which it turns out others have pointed out too. It seems these beautiful (although abstract) looking features are actually salt pools full of algae.

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