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February 19 2014

September 01 2013

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August 20 2013

In collaborative cartography, free data trumps free services - Wired explains the user's…

In collaborative cartography, free data trumps free services - Wired explains the user’s frustrations with how #Google #Maps data can only be accessed through Google services. As you surely guessed, the salvation is found in #Openstreetmap:

August 14 2013

August 12 2013

Simple, fast map data editing | MapBox

Simple, fast map data editing | MapBox

We are trying to make it easier to draw, change, and publish #maps. Some of the most important geospatial data is the information we know, observe, and can draw on a napkin. This is the kind of #data that we also like to collaborate on, like collecting bars that have free wifi ✎ or favorite running routes. aims to fix that. It’s an an open source project built with #MapBox.js, #GitHub's powerful new Gist and #GeoJSON features, and an array of microlibraries that power import, export, editing, and lots more.

#données #cartographie #interface

September 29 2012

Apple’s maps

Apple Maps screenshotApple Maps screenshotI promise not to make any snarky remarks about Apple’s maps disaster, and the mistakes of letting a corporate vendetta get in the way of good business decisions. Oops, I lied. But it’s good to see that Tim Cook agrees, at least about quality of the maps. It’s humbling for a company like Apple to issue an apology.

The real issue isn’t the apology, but what happens next. Google seems to be in no hurry to submit a maps app. It’s unclear how much patience Apple’s customers have; on my Android phone, I probably use Google Maps more than anything else. Not having public transit information when I’m in New York would be a deal breaker for me. I suspect Apple’s fans are more loyal, but even that has limits. How long can the fanboys wait?

One article put Apple’s mapping efforts 400 years behind Google. That’s a lot of catch up. And Google certainly isn’t standing still: their addition of underwater photography to “street view” is spectacular, and may serve us well when sea levels rise. But that’s not the point, either. Apple doesn’t have to “catch up” to Google, though I’m sure they’d like to. They just have to get a product that’s good enough. I don’t think that’s a three-to-six-month proposition. But it could be done in a year or two.

Here’s the difficulty. As Stephen O’Grady has pointed out, the problem with maps is really a data problem, not a software or design problem. If Apple’s maps app was ugly or had a poor user interface, it would be fixed within a month. But Apple is really looking at a data problem: bad data, incomplete data, conflicting data, poor quality data, incorrectly formatted data. Anyone who works with data understands that 80% of the work in any data product is getting your data into good enough shape so that it’s useable. Google is a data company, and they understand this; hence the reports of more than 7,000 people working on Google Maps. And even Google Maps has its errors; I just reported a “road” that is really just a poorly maintained trail.

Maps isn’t Apple’s only data problem. Apple’s spelling correction is an embarrassment. Google has this nailed, both from the standpoint of accuracy and user interface, even to the point of auto-suggesting the next word (with uncanny accuracy). When I’m typing on my Android phone, I don’t even bother correcting mistakes: I can trust Google to pop up the correct word, often before I’ve finished. On my iPad, it’s another story. As Google’s Peter Norvig has said, “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data.

Again, I really don’t mean to be snarky about Apple, so I’ll stop here. Apple has been successful by being a great product company. But to move forward, they have to become a great data company. Likewise, to succeed at offering services (including map services), they have to become a great operations company. It isn’t just about product design. I have no doubts that Apple is capable of making the shift; if they do so, the year or two it takes them to get a map product that’s “good enough” will be well spent. But if they don’t make this shift, they could be in for a rough time.

December 22 2011

Four short links: 22 December 2011

  1. Fuzzy String Matching in Python (Streamhacker) -- useful if you're to have a hope against the swelling dark forces powered by illiteracy and touchscreen keyboards.
  2. The Business of Illegal Data (Strata Conference) -- fascinating presentation on criminal use of big data. "The more data you produce, the happier criminals are to receive and use it. Big data is big business for organized crime, which represents 15% of GDP."
  3. Isarithmic Maps -- an alternative to chloropleths for geodata visualization.
  4. Server-Side Javascript Injection (PDF) -- a Blackhat talk about exploiting backend vulnerabilities with techniques learned from attacking Javascript frontends. Both this paper and the accompanying talk will discuss security vulnerabilities that can arise when software developers create applications or modules for use with JavaScript-based server applications such as NoSQL database engines or Node.js web servers. In the worst-case scenario, an attacker can exploit these vulnerabilities to upload and execute arbitrary binary files on the server machine, effectively granting him full control over the server.

September 30 2011

Publishing News: Amazon vs barrier to entry

Here are a few stories that caught my eye this week in publishing news.

Let the ecosystem wars begin

KindleTrilogy.PNGAmazon's new Kindle Fire has the potential to disrupt the tablet space, but what Amazon did this week may actually be a much bigger deal with much broader implications: it lowered the ereader barrier to entry. And it lowered it on a mass-market level — at $79, the low-end Kindle arguably becomes an impulse buy.

Alex Knapp does a nice job over at Forbes outlining how these shiny new affordable Kindles will affect ebook sales and publishers (and a more in-depth look from a traditional publishing perspective can be found at CNN Money). But Amazon's long game isn't to sell hardware, it's to wrangle customers. Jeff Bezos said as much during the launch announcement: "We don't think of the Kindle Fire as a tablet. We think of it as a service." Once a customer has the device, shopping for nearly anything becomes an easy, seamless experience. As pointed out on Digitopoly, "the battle of the tablets is not a battle of devices, but a battle of ecosystems."

As excitingly disruptive as this is, there was one point that so far has gone largely overlooked in the media: the privacy issues of Amazon's Silk browser, which will run on the Kindle Fire. Chris Espinosa describes the situation on his Posterous blog (hat tip to ShelfAwareness):

The "split browser" notion is that Amazon will use its EC2 back end to pre-cache user web browsing, using its fat back-end pipes to grab all the web content at once so the lightweight Fire-based browser has to only download one simple stream from Amazon's servers. But what this means is that Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet.

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A map in need of a website

BookshopMap.pngOn the opposite end of the disruptive digital spectrum, an extensive map of London's independent bookstores was published ... on paper. As described at The Bookseller:

The London Bookshop Map features 87 indies from across the city including ones selling new, antiquarian, specialist and second-hand titles. The map is free and is available in bookshops and galleries. It features a text work from the artist David Batchelor. The map will be updated every six months and rereleased with a new text artwork.

This is a fun idea for consumers and treasure hunters, and a great way to market indie booksellers. But to garner a larger audience it seems this project would lend itself well to digitization, and maybe even interactivity — perhaps something along the lines of Lonely Planet's city guides (on a smaller scale, of course). At the very least, this map deserves a website.

The sky might really be falling

The latest survey from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project this week spelled out some dismal news for newspapers. Most notably:

Most Americans (69%) say that if their local newspaper no longer existed, it would not have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community.


Click here for interactive version.

That percentage increased to 75% when looking only at 18-29 year-olds. Newspapers aren't out the door quite yet, however. Though those percentages point to an impending irrelevance, "[a]mong all adults, newspapers were cited as the most relied-upon source or tied for most relied upon for crime, taxes, local government activities, schools, local politics, local jobs, community/neighborhood events, arts events, zoning information, local social services, and real estate/housing."

You can view the entire report here.


  • How many imprints does Amazon run?
  • More Publishing Week in Review coverage

  • September 13 2011

    A new look for weather data

    WeatherSpark is tapping into a variety of datasets to deliver a different level of weather engagement. The new website, which provides data from more than 4,000 weather stations, lets you interact with full-screen weather graphs to investigate current forecasts and historical weather patterns.

    In the interview below, I talk with WeatherSpark co-founder Jacob Norda (@jacobnorda) about his company's approach to weather data and visualizations.

    WeatherSpark full screen forecast and historical trends
    In addition to forecast information (left), WeatherSpark also offers access to historical trend data (right). (Click to enlarge.)

    What problems with traditional weather information are you trying to solve?

    Jacob Norda: Most weather websites present weather data using tables with numbers and icons, and they show maps in very small viewports. This makes it hard to get an overview, and it typically requires a lot of page views to find the relevant information.

    We wanted to address these shortcomings by using an integrated dashboard with a powerful map and graph view. This allows for an overall weather impression — "it's raining nearby," "today will be a hot/cold day" — the ability to look for very specific information — "It'll be 70F at 2pm" — as well as an intuitive way to get to historical weather and average weather information, which is not readily available.

    We decided to show the historical information because we think it's interesting. People oftentimes say things like, "last summer was unusually hot/cold/wet," and we wanted to provide a way to actually look that up. That information also powers the averages, which we had to have, so it would have been a missed opportunity to not make it available.

    In addition, technical restrictions make it so other websites can only show radar animations over very short periods of time, typically two hours. We've solved these technical issues, and that means we can offer full-screen radar playback spanning several days. That allows for things like radar animations of hurricanes.

    Where does WeatherSpark get its data?

    Jacob Norda: We get the forecasts from a number of sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, World Weather Online, and Weather Central. The sources are noted on the about page. The historical data comes from a number of governmental and non-governmental data sources, primarily NOAA.

    How can weather data be improved?

    Jacob Norda: There's a wild variety in file formats, both for historical and forecast information. The information would be more easily used if this data were somehow unified. However, removing old formats or APIs would break legacy systems, so we don't envision the current sources doing that. We're considering offering a unified API, but it's in the pre-roadmap stage at this point.

    This interview was edited and condensed.

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    August 01 2011

    Missing Maps and the Fragility of Digital Information

    A couple of months ago, I had a remarkable demonstration of the fragility of the "always on" connected mindset. I was on my way to the wonderful Hunewill Ranch for Francisco Dao's 50 Kings Cattle Drive (a remarkable event that deserves a post all its own.) Hunewill Ranch is on the far side of the Sierra Nevada, near Mono Lake, and I settled in for a long but uneventful drive, guided by Google Maps on my Android phone.

    It was a beautiful late spring day towards the end of May, hot even, so the last thing I was thinking about was the possibility that Sierra passes might still be closed. So I was quite surprised to find a sign that the road ahead was closed in 5 miles. I'd have to turn around and retrace my path for over 80 miles.

    Now right away, I felt rather betrayed by Google Maps. (Bing Maps was no better.) After all, if the relatively small number of Sierra passes are closed for extended periods of time, how hard would it be to detect that fact and automatically deliver only a working route? Instead, Google provided only a small disclaimer (and one that appears only just before the failed step in the route), that the road ahead "might" be closed. Unless I read the entire list of directions carefully, I wouldn't see the warning till just about the point where I saw it on a road sign!

    (Small advice here to governments: create a web service or even a twitter service that announces when you close and lock the gates to mountain passes, and feed it to mapping services, so they don't all have to do the work of figuring out whether or not a pass is actually closed. But mapping services like Google or Bing could also figure this out on their own, by scraping websites where closures are announced, or even noticing from GPS traces that no cars pass through at a particular point in the year. Given the small number of mountain passes, this would seem to be a simple and much appreciated investment of time and effort.)

    It got worse. Now I had to find another way through the Sierra. Unlike on a PC, where you can drag handles on the map to choose an alternate route, on the phone there really are no affordances for alternate routes. You can't say, for example, "Bridgeport CA via Highway 50" in the search bar (which would seem like a simple and elegant way to express a route preference.) Instead, I had to pick a destination partway to my destination, and get a route to there.

    Because it was very difficult to get the big picture on the phone's small screen, I thought to pick up a paper map at a gas station. To my dismay, the spinner racks were empty, with only a few maps of other parts of the state available. I immediately regretted throwing away my paper maps in a cleaning binge a few years back - I can easily imagine futures in which they will be worth their weight in gold.

    I was back to my phone's tiny screen. Highway 50, the main route up through the Sierra, which goes to South Lake Tahoe, must surely be open, I thought. So I set my destination as South Lake Tahoe and tried again. It was tough to tell if the route I was taking went through any high passes, but it looked OK, despite the warning, once again, that the road ahead might be closed. Unfortunately, 90 minutes later, I came to another "pass closed" sign, and had to retrace my steps once again).

    Finally, I got low enough in the foothills to make it over to Highway 50 and then over the mountains. (I should note that the route on which I eventually succeeded also still bore a warning that the road ahead might be closed.)

    That wasn't the end of my troubles. On the far side of the mountains, my Maps app suddenly quit. I was out of cell range, and couldn't refresh the directions. I was back to a vague sense of where I was headed, and the kindness of strangers, as in "the old days." Fortunately, those tried and true methods delivered me to my destination, late by four hours but glad of the thought-provoking experience.

    P.S. In one final adventure (what Chesterton once so delightfully defined as "inconvenience properly regarded"), I stopped for gas, only to find the pump empty."They'll be by in the next day or two," the proprietor told me. The same was true at the next two stations. I was running on fumes by the time I got to Bridgeport, a full tank, and a return to cell service.

    It was all a good reminder of the fragility of some of our systems. They will get better over time, to be sure. But even those expected improvements won't ensure that there isn't a catastrophic loss of service at some inconvenient time. It's on my to-do list to get a comprehensive set of paper maps, just in case.

    What other systems do we depend on that we take for granted? Water, power, food top the list.

    Tags: future maps

    May 09 2011

    May 05 2011

    Interactive mapping and open data illustrate excess federal property

    Last week, I reported how open source tools make mapping easier. Yesterday, the White House showed how open data can be visualized in a massive new interactive feature posted at The map was published as the White House proposed legislation to create an independent commission to identify civilian properties that can be sold, closed or destroyed.

    The interactive map of excess federal property is beautiful, fast, and it shows the location of approximately half of the 14,000 buildings and structures that are currently designated as excess by the White House. Many structures from the Department of Defense are not mapped, given national security concerns.

    As the biggest property owner in the United States, the federal government has an immense amount of data about its holdings. By mapping out the locations, the White House has taken the step of not only putting open data to good use, but also educating online visitors about just how much property is out there.

    For those that wish to download the dataset themselves, the White House has made it available as a zipped .csv file. The White House also released an infographic that provides a static look at the data.

    Click to enlarge

    As USA Today reported, however, that while identifying surplus buildings is a step toward greater transparency, knowing what can be sold won't be so easy:

    A USA TODAY analysis shows that just 82 of the 12,218 surplus properties have been identified as candidates to sell. That's partly because the federal data are from 2009, and many might have already been sold, said Danny Werfel, the OMB's controller.

    In other words, actually divesting government of the excess property will be harder than mapping it. Financial, legal and political roadblocks will persist. That said, with bipartisan support there might be billions of dollars in maintenance out there that could be saved. And with the release of open government data in structured form, civic developers can work with it. On balance, that's a public good.

    The rapid evolution of tools for mapping open data is an important trend for the intersection of data, new media, citizens and society. Whether it's mapping issues, mapping broadband access or mapping crisis data, geospatial technology is giving citizens and policy makers new insight into the world we inhabit.


    May 02 2011

    April 26 2011


    MapAction - Home Page

    MapAction logo

    The Emergency Mapping Service

    Before an aid agency can respond to a disaster, their first need is for...information. Where are the affected people? Where are the relief resources? Who is doing what already?

    MapAction delivers this vital information in the form of maps, created from information gathered at the disaster scene. By conveying a 'shared operational picture', our maps play a crucial role in delivering humanitarian aid to the right place, quickly.

    MapAction is unique. We are the only non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a substantial track record in field mapping for disaster emergencies. Since 2004 we have helped in 25 emergencies including the Asian tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and tropical storms. We can deploy a fully trained and equipped mapping team anywhere in the world, often within a few hours of an alert.

    "Mapping support during the early phases of a response is critical, as responders and donors try to more clearly understand the situation on the ground. Without MapAction, the capacity to provide what is needed often simply doesn't exist." (UN disaster coordination manager, Pakistan flood emergency 2010) 


    We have harnessed the power and portability of modern technology – particularly geographical information systems (GIS) and satellite location systems: GPS. So we can gather information on the ground, combine this with satellite images, and produce maps in the field, delivered directly to the rescue and relief agencies themselves. Between emergency missions we also deliver training in GIS and other skills to disaster management agencies around the world. Most importantly, we help to build disaster mapping capacity in the most vulnerable countries.

    Making it all happen

    MapAction delivers its ability to respond 365 days a year through a volunteer group of GIS professionals specialy trained in disaster response. Our volunteers work in a range of fields from Antarctic surveying to zoological research. They comprise the most competent and experienced emergency mapping team in the world. Backing up the operational volunteers is a cadre of full time staff, part-time specialist officials, and a board of trustees. MapAction counts among its strategic partners the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), with whom it regularly trains and works, UNOSAT, and the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID).

    How you can help

    Click here to find out how you can play a role in keeping MapAction’s volunteers ready to respond to disasters around the world.

    April 12 2011

    Maps aren't easy

    There is an art to data journalism, and in many cases that art requires an involved and arduous process. In a recent interview, Simon Rogers, editor of the Guardian's Datablog and Datastore, discussed many of the issues his team faced when they assembled databases and reports from the WikiLeaks releases. More recently, journalists have been building scads of interactive maps to illustrate news from the disaster in Japan and the political situation in Libya.

    A recent story at Poynter looking at the importance of such maps also briefly noted their return on investment:

    "The data-driven interactives take a lot of time and teamwork to produce, but they have the greatest value and generate good traffic and time-spent on the site,” said Juan Thomassie, senior interactive developer at USA Today.

    So, hard work yields strong engagement. Sounds good. But that same Poynter article included this eye-opening aside: the New York Times has four cartographers. On first blush, my editor cringed at the (seemingly) exceptional number of hours and resources the Times is dedicating to map production. Does a news org really need four cartographers? I turned to Pete Warden, founder of OpenHeatMap, for some informed answers.

    Warden walked me through the labor-intensive process — one that may very well justify a full cartography team [Ed. duly noted]. He also discussed a few tools that can streamline data journalism production.

    Our interview follows.

    What are the steps involved in making an interactive map?

    PeteWarden Pete Warden: Usually one of the hardest parts is gathering the data. A good example might be the map Alasdair Allan, Gemma Hobson, and I did for the Guardian (see the screen shot below; find the dataset here).

    Alasdair spotted that the Japanese government had released some data on the radiation levels around the country. Unfortunately, it was only available in PDF forms, so Gemma and I did a combination of cutting-and-pasting and manual typing to get all the readings and locations into a spreadsheet. Once they were in a spreadsheet, we then had to pick exactly what we wanted to display in the final map.

    Alasdair took charge of that process and spent a lot of time trying out different scales and units — for example, showing the difference between the current values and the background levels at each location since some areas had naturally higher levels of radiation. That involved understanding what the story was we wanted to tell — similar to the way reporters put together quotes and other evidence to support the points of their articles. It also meant repeatedly uploading different versions and iterating until there was something that looked interesting and informative.

    Click here to visit the Guardian's original story.

    Are there tools that can make the data acquisition and mapping processes more efficient?

    Pete Warden: I'm obviously a big fan of OpenHeatMap, but I've also been very impressed by both Google's Fusion Tables and the Tableau Public tool. This gives users a lot of choices. My design bias is toward simplicity, so OpenHeatMap's audience includes users unfamiliar with traditional GIS.

    You recently released the Data Science Toolkit. How can the open source tools in that kit be applied to data journalism?

    Pete Warden: The toolkit contains a lot of tools based on common requests from journalists. In particular, the command-line tools, like street2coordinates and coordinates2politics, can be very handy for taking large spreadsheets of addresses and calculating their positions, along with information like which congressional districts, neighborhoods, cities, states and countries they are in. You can then take that data and do further processing to break down your statistics by those categories.


    April 10 2011

    March 25 2011

    5164 5bda 500


    Happy Birthday, Manhattan Street Grid!

    Two hundred years ago today, city commissioners certified the Manhattan street grid, spurring development by ensuring 7 miles of regular street access.

    When the 2000-block grid was approved, urbanized Manhattan ended at Greenwich Village. Areas north were farmland and unsettled areas.

    When the street grid was designed, planners anticipated that New York, then a city of 40,000 people, would grow up to 34th Street and have a population of 400,000 over the next 50 years. By 1860, Manhattan had already grown to 800,000 and continued to grow uptown. 

    The street grid was chosen because officials thought that the consistent 90 degree angles, dissimilar from the narrow crooked streets downtown, would discourage the spread of fire and disease.

    The grid made the city more egalitarian, carving out lots (mostly 25 by 100 feet) available for purchase. Roland Barthes, the 20th-century French philosopher, wrote: “This is the purpose of New York’s geometry. That each individual should be poetically the owner of the capital of the world.”

    Today, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden celebrates the block: “The 200-foot-long block is short enough to provide continuous diversity for the pedestrian, and the tradition of framing out the grid by building to the street-wall makes New York streets walkable and vibrant.” 

    Quotes from NYT

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