Geographic

Geo bits at CeBIT

A few days have passed since returning from my weekend visit to Hannover and CeBIT, and I'm nearing recovery from the night-travel induced sleep deprivation over the two days. It was a good trip, if only to learn how not to spend the day at large fairs - and that a day probably isn't long enough.

I was visiting the fair with a colleague, who, like me, was hoping to see all the new gadgets that had been hyped in the run up the event. What we didn't realise is that visiting a fair requires some planning before the event to make sure you can fit in the things you want to see as well as a good selection of the other stands. We missed out on a big chunk of the stuff we wanted to see having lingered for too long in the other sections. Seeing everything on display is not an easy task in an area that's almost half a million square metres in size, and it's unbelievably easy to get sucked in to the stands as you go along.

Personally, I was amazed at the amount of geo-related goods and services that were being exhibited - from data providers such as Navteq and Teleatlas, through handheld GPS, mobile phone integrated GPS navigation systems, in-car navigation systems like TomTom (this was probably the biggest share of goods, including many models from China hoping to take a chunk of the market) and a variety of other things. There was also a lot of information from government entities, from both regional and national mapping authorities in Germany and from other European countries. At some point I will attempt to wade through the German literature and find out what's going on in the geospatial world here in Germany.

Perhaps I'll write more about some of the exhibits as and when I get a chance, but for now, check out some of the CeBIT photos from PocketGPSWorld.com.

Jeeves Mapped Europe for Ask.com

Before Jeeves was given the boot retired after ten years of service, it seems he was given the task of travelling Europe for Ask.com's next big offering, Ask.com Maps and Directions.

Despite the default view of Ask.com Maps being the typical America-centric view of the world, they appear to be the first new AJAX-y style mapping provider to cover Europe in any detail. They give road maps for all of the European Union countries, plus a few others, including Moscow. In addition, they give much higher resolution aerial photos for Stuttgart and probably for other cities as well, though I must admit I didn't check. They even have road data for the Isle of Man, but sadly no higher resolution aerial imagery of the area.

It's all much better than Microsoft's poor geodata offering and Google's lack of European data outside of the UK and the Torino area of Italy.

One area that definately needs work in the new Ask.com Maps service is the search, which seems patchy at best when looking for places outside of the US.

Oh, and it's not the fastest of services either, but for now I'm happy to put up with that in return for the vast improvement they have in geodata over the other providers. If the ability to link in to the service was simplified, I'd be happier too. And I'd be bowled over if they produced an API for their service.

Location-based functionality within Drupal

Having laid out last week some of the overall location-related functionality I'd like to see within Drupal, I wanted to start a proper list of areas around which I would like to see development within the Drupal community. I'll be putting effort into creating and improving many of these, and hopefully working with others who want to help as well.

I've broken down the functionality into three sections of the data flow - incoming data, internal processing and display, outgoing data and external systems. Please feel free to leave comments on which bits you'd like to see sooner rather than later, and any extra functionality that I've missed off the list.

  • Incoming data
  1. Ability to tag individual nodes in system with location information
  • by address (functionality already exists)
  • by clicking map
  • by coordinates
  • Ability to extract location information from EXIF tags in jpg images
  • Ability to automatically extract location of items from incoming feeds
    • from RSS feeds (using the geo namespace or GeoRSS implementation)
    • from KML feeds?
    • from GML feeds?
    • Internal processing and display
    1. Ability to search near location
    • by address (currently can search near zipcodes only)
    • by city/country
    • by clicking on map (or entering coordinates)
  • Listing of similaraly tagged nodes nearby
  • Mapping
    • Simple visualisation
    • Mapping nodes on top of imagery
      • Google Maps
      • Yahoo Maps
      • Maps from a GIS (eg MapServer)
    • GIS functionality
      • Point in polygon analysis (for example, to find which region a point lies in - useful for determining which country a pair of coordinates lies in, or which administrative district a point lies in)
    • Community map creation
    • Map of nodes with ability to filter by users, buddies, location, etc
    • Outgoing data
    1. Export any Drupal page as a feed (or layer) - e.g. search terms, tags, node types etc
    • RSS feeds with location imformation embedded
    • KML feeds
    • GML layers (using WFS from OGC to allow data output capabilities to be determined)
  • Ability to filter by geographic location, user, content type etc
  • Ability to export single points
    • links to maps (functionality already exists)
    • link to Google Earth placemark (complete)
    • External systems
    1. Creation of a geocoding system that can be accessed and queried by other systems (including Drupal) through a RESTful style XML interface - similar to Mikel Maron's geocoder

    updated 16th February 2006

    After the OSCMS summit

    The OSCMS summit is now over, but it's been a great week, packed full of information and activities. I've met a number of the other people interested in using Drupal for location-enabled activities, from simply tagging of content with a geographic location, to mapping those locations (and others) and actually implementing more GIS-like functionality.

    One of the things I really want to see happen (and will certainly be helping with) is making sure that we are complying to standards of geographic data sharing so that information from outside the Drupal framework can be pulled into Drupal, and information can similarly be pushed out and used by other systems - from Drupal sites (through GeoRSS feeds - or the other GeoRSS standard being proposed), to Google Earth (using KML) and also systems capable of reading in OGC-compliant feeds (probably implementing a WFS interface).

    Improving the usability and functionality of inputting geographic information is also high on my priority list, trying to get away from the largely US-centric input that is present at the moment. Of course, that's not easy when the availability of reliable and open geographic data is scarce outside of the USA.

    I'll be keeping track on here of the bits I'm working on - and others are working on - here in my blog over time.

    OSCMS Summit

    I'm lucky enough to be flying out tomorrow to go to the OSCMS Summit (that's Open Source Content Management Systems) which is being held in Vancouver this week.

    The summit will be my first chance to meet some of the large community of open source developers that support the Drupal project that much of the work I'm currently doing is based on.

    I'm particularly interested in the location aspects, how it can be improved and what new functionality can be implemented to improve the spatial awareness of sites run using Drupal. It's great to see such a large crowd of people have signed up for the geodata workshop on Wednesday so it ought to be a great opportunity to meet others interested in the same area and work together on producing some great new features.

    Mapping the Isle of Man on Openstreetmap

    Isle of Man roads mapped using OpenstreetmapBack at the end of last year I bought myself a relatively cheap GPS unit - the Garmin eTrex personal navigator. I had wanted one for a few years and frankly it felt strange having gone through two related degrees, being interested in the area, and yet still not owning one of my own. For a long time I had felt left out, not being able to take part in things like Geocaching, easily geotagging my photos or helping expand open source mapping databases.

    For the first few weeks that I had the device, I spent some time working out what situations it would work under - from being in the open, to keeping it in my pocket, to being surrounded by trees, buildings and even inside trains - and what sort of accuracy it could achieve. Whilst doing that I was also building up my database of waypoints around Stuttgart.

    Christmas time came, and it was time to head home for a short break. It was interesting holding the GPS up to the window on the plane, seeing the acceleration as we accelerated down the runway. This was all experimentation though, in the lead up to my main plan of action for when I got back to the Isle of Man.

    I wanted to drive as many of the island's roads as possible, taking tracklogs as I went, to allow me to add them to Openstreetmap, the open source database of streets around the world. It has taken me quite some time in the weeks since, but I've finally mapped just about all of the roads I drove (or at least the ones where the GPS was tracking). You can see the result by zooming in to the Isle of Man on the site.

    The mapping of the Island is nowhere near complete (it's mostly the southern end that I concentrated on), and now that I'm back in Stuttgart, I want to see if I can find people located in the Isle of Man with a similar interest in opening up this sort of level of mapping to the public. Anyone with a GPS (and computer connection) can help out by driving some of the remaining roads, or even fixing areas of the map that I've inevitably not mapped as correctly as I would have liked to have done.

    Degree certificate

    My official degree certificate arrived at home today, with a nice suprise.

    Based on provisional results I thought I'd come out with a high Pass level mark, though not quite enough for a Distinction. Having now received the certificate from UCL, it turns out I have actually been awarded a Distinction in MSc Geographic Information Science. It was brilliant news when I found out!

    Waiting for the GPS news

    I've been waiting all day to see what the new GPS plan is that the US were meant to unveil today. It sounds like it'll be similar to Europe's planned Galileo system, giving consumers location information with a higher level of accuracy.

    With a constellation of satellites already in orbit, however, they can presumably add a second frequency - and therefor better accuracy - without too much effort, easily beating us Europeans to the claim of having a more accurate GPS network.

    Google Earth for Mac OS X (+ 3D buildings)

    When I decided back in August last year to move back to the Mac, I had chosen to move to a platform that wasn't very well supported when it came to programmes like Google Earth or NASA's Worldwind. I survived without it for a while, but you can probably imagine my excitement when in December an early Mac OS X beta version of Google Earth started making the rounds on the internet. It wasn't being released by Google officially, but I couldn't help but download it to give it a spin.

    The early version seemed a little unstable at times but it had just about everything that the PC version had, and was every bit as enticing and mesmerising. Even my family agreed after I got the computer out at Christmas and opened up Earth. Fascinated for hours, we looked at places the world over, at times flying through some of the more impressive of global landmarks. Then, when I came back to work, I noticed that Google had officially launched their Mac version, leading to even more exploration.

    What I hadn't seen until last week, was the number of three-dimensional buildings that are available for placing on top of the satellite imagery. In London, for example, there is a 3D UCL campus available, as well as Centre Point, the BT Tower, the Euston Tower and the London Eye - all from a guy at UCL. In Paris, you can overlay the Eiffel Tower on the map. In the middle of the Nevada Desert, you can see the outline of Area 51 buildings, or even a slightly more exotic version. It's great to be able to fly around these buildings and explore them from a desk anywhere in the world.

    Every cloud has a silver lining

    I flew home last week for a Christmas break with family and friends. I had booked myself onto a low cost carrier (HLX) back to Manchester and then BA from Manchester back to the Isle of Man the following day. After queuing in the wrong line for about 15 minutes (Who'd have thought that 'All Flights' actually meant 'All Flights - except Manchester, which has a huge great big queue, the next aisle down'), then another 30 in the right line, I made it swiftly through to the departure area. The queue to go through passport control was short but soon grew as the guards started to become concerned that the guy in front's passport may be fake. It took them at least 20 minutes of inspection before they gave this guy his passport back. They were easier on me but still looked suspiciously at my rather worn passport under the glare of a UV light and magnifying glass.

    The flight was delayed a while, as it later turned out that the inbound flight had some technical difficulties. What that meant though was that the full plane-load of people actually got to travel in a much more spacious backup plane operated by the parent company, Hapag Fly.

    I watched with interest as the overhead screens (once they'd finished playing random Christmas music videos) started to show our location and proposed route into Manchester. This plane locator, it turned out, went miles beyond anything I'd seen on flights in the past. To start with it showed the standard plane, pointing in the direction of travel, on top of a satellite image of Europe. Part way into the flight it began to show something more interesting - virtual views out of the side windows and out of the cockpit, using detailed satellite imagery. I thought it was a great use of geographic data, especially on flights where you're going overland and where the view is obscured either by cloud or just by the fact that you're flying through the night.

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