June 2007

Wired’s July Issue: Google Maps and the Hyperlocal Future

Google Maps Is Changing the Way We See the World, from Wired’s July issue, is a far-reaching state-of-the-topic article that looks at Google’s mapmaking ventures and the tremendous amount of amateur mapmaking it’s stimulated. Covers all the bases. Noteworthy: “Today, the number of mashed-up Google Maps exceeds 50,000. (Google Maps itself is now the second-most-trafficked mapping site, after MapQuest.)” I haven’t seen map traffic data in years, I think.

The article’s story largely follows the road from Keyhole to Google Earth and the creation of the mashup ecosystem; some might find the laser-like focus on Google a little unfair to its competitors, but Google, for whatever reason, is at the centre of the mashup phenomenon. I imagine that some might also take issue with calling mashups “mapmaking,” since the terrain, streets and other data come ready-made — me, I see neogeography as essentially an exercise in annotation. (Richard quibbles about one of the sidebar items, the one on geotagging.)

Also in July’s issue of Wired: Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future, a story by Bruce Sterling that imagines a blogger ten years from now in a world where everything is geotagged.

Via All Points Blog: 1, 2; Peter gave us a heads-up earlier this week.

Google Maps: Draggable Driving Directions

Google Maps screenshot The driving directions feature on Google Maps has just received a major upgrade. Multiple stops and traffic conditions have (apparently) been added, but the big one is that you can now change the route you’re given to your destination by clicking and dragging it to a new highway. (Essentially, it does so by adding a waypoint.)

The concomitant interface changes are, as you might expect, pretty flipping elegant. Here’s Google’s video explaining the new stuff:

The usefulness of draggable driving directions is obvious: in addition to routing around the traffic congestion so helpfully pointed out by Google Maps, you can also reroute clearly nonsensical directions that such systems inevitably spit out from time to time.

Frank points out that the directions can be exported to Google Earth.

Miami Herald NAVTEQ Profile

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a newspaper article profiling one or the other mapping data company — i.e., NAVTEQ and/or Tele Atlas — with a focus on its local surveying efforts, but here’s a new one from the Miami Herald, which looks at NAVTEQ. (I can only imagine the PR war behind the scenes.) These are usually similar to one another; one twist this time is the difficulty cited in getting access to gated communities.

Previously: Getting Out from Behind the Wheel; NY Times: Navteq in New York; Again: TeleAtlas in Berlin; The New Yorker on Road Maps and Directions; Again: Navteq in San Diego; Another Profile: Navteq in New York; TeleAtlas in Santa Fe; More on Digital Map Field Researchers; CNet Profiles TeleAtlas; SF Chronicle: Digital Map Field Researchers; Backcountry Mapping; Online Maps’ Foot Soldiers.

Google Street View Privacy Roundup

A roundup of links about Google Street View and its privacy implications (mostly) that have been accumulating in my queue for the past few weeks.

Slate: Google Spies on America.

This Denver Post editorial also raises some concerns about “personal security.” (The editorial also says that “Amazon.com abandoned its photographic maps last year after privacy concerns were raised. Its cameras photographed women walking into domestic violence shelters.” I don’t recall that being cited as the reason at the time; this must be a variant of reporters’ “in the wake of” trick that implies causality without having to prove it.) Via Anything Geospatial.

Of course, Google has a process for removing yourself for its imagery. Wired’s Threat Level blog goes through the process, which has changed in the meantime, starting off quite byzantine in terms of the identity proofs required and ending up prone to third-party abuse. Via All Points Blog.

European privacy laws require explicit consent for the commercial use of photos in which individuals are identifiable: we may not see Street View in Europe any time soon. Via Slashdot and Slashgeo.

You know things are getting silly about privacy, security and Google’s imagery when the Indian press says things are getting silly. The Financial Express: “How is this snoop job any different from what governments in India and across the world have been doing for years, and who’s to say that we can trust the government any more than we can a private corporation? At least a private company’s intentions are far clearer — nor will it invoke ‘security’ to watch you.” Via Ogle Earth.

Finally, it would appear that Microsoft and its contractors are hoping you’re watching them as much as they’re watching you. Given Windows Live Virtual Local Earth’s mind share relative to Street View, I guess they’re making lemonade.

Previously: Google Maps Street View and Privacy; NY Times on Street View and Privacy; Google Maps Street View: Moral Panic Update.

More GPS Confusion

Rich Owings takes apart an ABC News article that appears to conflate GPS receivers and personal locator beacons. “So let me make this clear,” Rich writes. “A GPS is not a personal locator beacon. A GPS receiver, by itself, will not tell anyone (other than you) where you are. It is a receiver, not a transmitter.”

Meanwhile, Glenn has a list of some common GPS myths discussed during a Trimble presentation.

Previously: GPS Expectations.

Map Blog Update

Leszek reports that his Free GeoTools blog is moving to a new URLfreegeographytools.com — and a new name: Free Geography Tools.

Via Catholicgauze, the Infonaut Blog, from a company that does map-based medical IT stuff.

Given all that has been said lately about map technology and privacy and security, as well as, more generally, questions of copyright and intellectual property, Kevin Pomfret’s Spatial Law blog is worth a careful look. Via Geothought.

Update: Vector One has a new address, too; the archives are missing at the moment, though.

Readiness and Relief Maps

I encountered a couple of cases of map-related double entendres recently (not at all salacious) that puzzled me for a while.

Earlier this month, Mitch wrote in with a question:

I have a United States map like the ones that used to be in every elementary school classroom. It’s the kind that rolls up like a window shade. It shows the 50 states, each in a different color, along with the major cities and highways. It says on it “readiness map of the United States”. My question is, what do they mean by readiness? I’ve searched for an answer but come up empty. The map companies are still selling readiness maps but I can’t understand why they’re called that.

Knowing nothing about these maps, my first thought was emergency preparedness, but a cursory search reveals that it’s a line of educational maps targeted at a particular grade level — “readiness” in this case refers to learning.

Similarly, a link from Great Map with the title “the generic advantages of relief maps” led me to assume that it would be about terrain mapping. It isn’t: it’s Global MapAid’s page on why maps help humanitarian relief workers.

Previously: Global MapAid.

Mapping Urban Growth

BBC News: Interactive Map: Urban Growth (screen capture) From an in-depth report on the global urban population explosion, the BBC has an interactive map showing the growth in urban population from 1955 to 2015; cities with more than five million inhabitants are also shown. Quite interesting that they use the Gall-Peters projection, and that they point out that they’re using it. Via Things Magazine.

Subglacial Lakes and Rivers in Antarctica

Antarctic Lakes (portion)

A recent National Science Foundation report discusses what should be done to explore and preserve a system of lakes and rivers beneath the Antarctic ice cap; of interest to us is this map of that system.

Ice-penetrating radar and other studies have identified more than 145 subglacial lakes under the ice of the southernmost continent, including one under the South Pole itself. The largest known is Lake Vostok, which has a surface area of roughly 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles), making it roughly the size of Lake Ontario in North America. […] Scientific evidence further indicates that these environments comprise vast watersheds some of which appear to be connected by rivers and streams that flow freely beneath the ice sheet, which in most places is more than two miles thick.

Via Kottke.

Gerrymandering as Computer Game

The Redistricting Game is a surprisingly addictive Flash-based, online game that illustrates the state of electoral redistricting in the United States. It is, in a nutshell, gerrymandering as computer game: your missions include stacking the deck on behalf of your party, protecting all incumbents, and creating a minority district — and getting them past the legislature. The last mission delivers the site’s message: what redistricting would look like if the maps were drawn without considering the electoral impact and were not subject to the influence of politicians keen on re-election. An interesting (but by no means disinterested) teaching tool. Via All Points Blog.

Previously: Computer-Generated Electoral Districts; Congressional District Maps; U.S. Electoral District Ballot Initiatives; State Redistricting Pages; Texas Congressional Redistricting.

Peters vs. Fuller

In a November 2005 article for The American Surveyor, Angus Stocking considers — and compares — two “alternative” map projections: the Gall-Peters projection, proselytized by Arno Peters, and the icosahedral Dymaxion projection by Buckminster Fuller. To put it mildly, he prefers the latter to the former: “[I]t’s a shame that [Fuller’s] unique map is not better known, and almost a crime that the relatively clumsy Gall-Peters projection seems to have displaced it as an educational tool and wall map. All of Peters’ stated goals — fairness, equality, non-bias — are better achieved by Fuller’s simple, elegant and brilliant creation.”

Previously: Review: Seeing Through Maps; New Edition of Seeing Through Maps; Dymaxion Map Projection; The Peters Projection.

Why Do People Follow Bad Directions?

Nicholas Forbes writes with an interesting question about why people follow bad directions — covered here ad nauseaum — that is above my pay grade:

I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Nottingham UK. I have been running research recently into the phenomenon in which drivers receieve inaccurate instructions and follow them.
Specifically from a psychological percpective, I’m interested in whether this is caused by deficient attention (to surrounding road signs and environmental information) or excessive trust in the navigation system or both.
I’m trying to categorise and classify mapping errors that drivers receive most frequently from navigation systems. I have been searching the web (with little luck) to find online sites or forums in which people have reported errors they have received. Unfortuntely the Navteq feedback site doesn’t divulge any feedback they have receievd.
I was hoping with your experience in this area you may be able to point me in the direction for any online resources of this kind of information, particularly any resources that list mapping/routing errors drivers have received.

Previously: Case in Point: Driver Obeys Directions, Gets Car Hit by Train; Apparently I’m a Pundit Now; Plunging into a River — That Makes Sense; ‘Do Not Follow Satnav’; Ambulance Goes Slightly Astray; More German Driving Misadventures; Hang a Left at the Pile of Sand; Getting Stuck in a Narrow Welsh Laneway; Because My Car Said So; Crackpot Directions Send Drivers Along a Cliff.

Update, 6/17: Nick has a study page (via Fabien Girardin).

Windows Virtual Globes on the Mac

Virtual globe applications are, with the exception of Google Earth, Windows-only, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them on a Mac. Back in the PowerPC Mac days we had Virtual PC, which ran Windows inside an emulation window: there was a performance hit, but it ran. On Intel Macs, you have several options: reboot directly into Windows using Boot Camp, or use an emulator like Parallels. Boot Camp is the better option for performance reasons, but an emulator is more convenient. The latest version of Parallels adds 3D graphic support; Stefan tried it out to see how well it ran ArcGIS Desktop, Skyline Globe, Virtual Earth 3D and World Wind. All of these apps run well using Boot Camp; did they work under Parallels? “Alas, in a word: No. Despite trying all possible configurations for RAM and graphics memory, most of these applications either won’t run at all or run unstably.”

Flickr Feeds

I use Flickr to post my photos online, and I’m interested in geotagging my photos, so when Flickr made available some additional geotagged feed options, I paid attention.

Why should you care about GeoRSS or KML feeds? Feeds allow data to be exported in a format that other services can read. Those of you who use an RSS newsreader know how this works, but RSS isn’t just for people using newsreaders: for example, I use RSS to aggregate posts from all my blogs onto my home page. Flickr’s GeoRSS and KML support means that Flickr photos can be imported into a Google Maps mashup, or viewed in Google Earth (despite the fact that Flickr is owned by Yahoo) or, for that matter, by anything else that can read GeoRSS or KML formats. Feed support makes data platform- and site-agnostic.

The less feed support you have, the harder this kind of thing is. Stefan Geens had a hell of a time getting his Flickr photos into Google Earth — 1, 2, 3 — eventually resorting to using Yahoo Pipes as a middleman. (Stefan still prefers the Pipes method to the admittedly beta direct method, which only does the last 20 photos.)

Previously: Google Earth: Flickr Browsing Tools; Enterprise Blog; Will Flickr Get In-House Geotagging?; Flickr Adds Geotagging; Flickr Geotagging Roundup.

Censoring Satellite Imagery at the Source

Even though the new street-level imagery from Google is getting all the attention lately, the issue of censoring satellite and aerial imagery has not gone away. Not by a long shot. Via Ogle Earth: Henri Willox noted yesterday that French air bases are now pixellated in Google Earth — a situation, he says, that puts Google Earth on the same level as the French geobrowser site, GéoPortail.

In his post, Henri writes that “it’s not Google who is responsible for the censorship, but solely the furnisher of the images” (my translation). That’s an important point to make: governments who fret about such images make a mistake when they complain about, or to, Google. Most governments have no say in the production of such images, so fulminating against Google — instead of the providers of such images, who they cannot touch — speaks to their impotence on this matter. Short of blocking the Google Earth application or its IP traffic, there’s little that most governments can do. Most governments.

Last month — yes, I’m still behind — there were a couple of articles about the U.S. government’s interest in censoring satellite images. First came an AP article quoting the director of the NGIA, Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, expressing his concerns that satellite imagery could be used to put U.S. troops at risk. The method he suggested — one that was used in 2001 in Afghanistan — is something called “checkbook shutter control”:

“I think we may need to have some control over things that are disseminated. I don’t know if that means buying up all the imagery or not. I think there are probably some other ways you could do it,” he said, leaving the specifics to legal and policy experts.

The article discusses some of the pitfalls involved in the government trying to supress certain imagery, especially given that so much of it is generated by commercial satellites, not the government. If they tried to restrict the imagery by buying it all up or by other, less subtle means, they would almost certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds.

A subsequent article from the San Francisco Chronicle examines just how inconsistently sensitive sites are pixellated. Locations that are pixellated in Google Maps, for example, are not pixellated in Microsoft or Yahoo’s map sites. Google says it does not censor imagery itself: whether a location is obscured depends on what the suppliers do to the images before Google, Microsoft or Yahoo get them, who those suppliers are, and which company uses which supplier. The U.S. government has never asked satellite companies to skip over certain areas, though it could; the U.S. and other governments have guidelines as to what aerial photographers can and cannot take pictures of. Then, whoever owns the imagery may or may not respond to requests to blur sensitive sites. The end result is a patchwork where there is no rhyme or reason to pixellation: a site is obscured for reasons of local power, paranoia and sensitivity, rather than hard and fast regulations, universally applied.

Blur images from one source, and users can find another. Censor the hell out of one map service, and users can use another. It’s the Internet: censorship is interpreted as damage to be routed around.

Via All Points Blog and Ogle Earth, among others.

Google Maps Street View: Moral Panic Update

Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin asks, “Would we feel differently about street-level image mapping if it were done by a government agency? … Cameras aren’t new, maps aren’t new, the internet isn’t new, nor is Google or Microsoft. So why does this feel so freshly creepy to so many?”

Xeni also links to a post by John Battelle in which he muses, “How long till this becomes live video? Think about this for a moment.” Yes, indeed: think about it. For this to be live video, there would have to be cameras on every street. If there were, we would have far bigger problems than whether the video feed was on the Internet.

Someone who hasn’t thought about it is Fast Company’s Lisa LaMotta, who, in equating the service with stalking, calls the images “real-time.” Um, no. Via Anything Geospatial.

Despite the inflammatory headline, and a story that seems to conflate satellite/aerial and street-level imagery, the gist of the quotes in this PC World article is that everyone should chill. Ditto Lance Ulanoff, who has this quotable gem: “[T]o be fair, these images are a moment in time. That poor schlub isn’t standing on the street in front of that strip club today. He was there weeks, months, or even more than a year ago. Of course, let him try telling that to his wife.” Via All Points Blog.

So: not real-time stalking, more of an “I Know What You Did Last Summer” kind of thing.

Google Earth Imagery and Terrain Update

A big update to Google Earth’s imagery and terrain layers on Saturday that includes Canadian, German and French cities, U.S. counties, Japanese cities/regions, 50-cm-resolution imagery for England, 60-cm imagery for many areas including Antarctica and Greenland, and 10-metre terrain for the western U.S. and Canary Islands. Among many other things. Via Frank and Stefan.

NY Times on Street View and Privacy

The story of the privacy implications of Google’s Street View (see previous entry) has now been picked up by the New York Times.

Meanwhile, scouring Street View for interesting or amusing images is turning into another pastime, as it was when Google Earth was first released: Wired’s Threat Level, Streetviewr.

Via Slashdot.

Update: Chad wonders whether Google broke some laws in collecting its imagery.