october 2005 archives

Monday, October 24, 2005

Where on earth?

Despite Yahoo!'s announcement at Where 2.0 about opening up its mapping API, both the Google Maps API released the day before and MSN Virtual Earth have received much more attention since. As Nathan Torkington puts it in his comparison of Google Maps and MSN Virtual Earth:

So right now the quality ranking of mapping services is Google, Microsoft (but close and closing fast), and Yahoo! far behind.

Although the mapping API lets you plot points (supplied as a geoRSS file) on a Yahoo! Map, you can't directly integrate Yahoo! Maps into your web site. Instead, the map itself and the surrounding web page are hosted on the Yahoo! web site. Furthermore, the navigation is just not as smooth as that provided by the Google Maps API. Finally, Yahoo! even inserts ads in the result page.

Of course, in search, the order is different. I find it's Google, Yahoo! (close and closing), and Microsoft far behind...

And actually, search — not maps — is really what it is all about for them. This became clear earlier this month, when Google Maps graduated from Google Labs, dropped its beta status, and became Google Local (via The Map Room). As both Yahoo! Maps and Google Maps use Telcontar for their underlying mapping technology, Yahoo! just had to make a next move to distinguish itself from Google to keep up in local search. So last week, Yahoo! bought British local search developer Whereonearth. With its Internet Locality product for local online search and advertising, Whereonearth delivers location-based solutions to companies such as Hutchison 3G and lastminute.com. This strategic move reminds me of a similar acquisition a few years ago, when Microsoft bought Vicinity.

Since the big search engines are making inroads in the mapping arena, online mapping providers will have to rely more and more on their brand name, ad-free business to business services, and their geographic coverage as Google Maps and Yahoo! Maps don't cover large parts of Europe. As a next step, will Google now be going for Webraskapermanent link for this entry

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Fermat's last theorem in cartography

That's how, at the 2005 SoC Summer School, Danny Dorling referred to cartography's quest for a computer algorithm to create cartograms in such a way that for the same data and geography, it always generates the same map and preserves the shape of the enumeration areas. In his presentation, he drew attention to the breakthrough of 2004 in the creation of a new density-equalizing map projection by Michael Gastner and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan. Their diffusion-based method gained a lot of attention as they applied it to visualise the 2004 US presidential election results.

Danny's Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group at the University of Sheffield was involved in the BBC's in depth report Destination UK. The report includes various cartograms (referred to here as cartographic maps) to visualise data from the Born Abroad database about immigrants in Britain, where they come from and where they live.

The cartographic maps are made up of small squares, each of which represents an area of roughly equal population size. As a result, densely populated areas — like London — take up much more space than sparsely populated areas, like the Scottish Highlands. The cartographic maps make it is easier to see the information being displayed for the densely populated areas.

Since there is no direct relation between geographic shape of the enumeration area and the arangement of the squares, visitors can highlight a few cities both in the geographic map and the cartogram by ticking a check box to facilitate understanding the distorted view of the cartogram.

Another common approach to creating cartograms is to redraw the enumeration areas as rectangles, sizing the areas based for example on the actual number of votes cast per county during the 2003 California Statewide Special Election. However, this approach also comes with its own drawbacks with regard to users being able to identify the enumeration areas. Bear in mind, that although the number of pixels per county is easily computed, the actual shape and the arrangement of the counties are determined by Jonathan Corum himself.

This redrawing maintains borders between counties wherever possible, but California?s dense coastal population means that some of the more open western counties have been pulled apart where they otherwise would be touching.

Applying this approach of scaled enumeration areas proved difficult in the case of the 2004 Primary Results for Iowa. Its gridlike pattern of counties makes it difficult to maintain internal borders without massive distortion, requiring another method of scaling. Plotting the midpoint of each county and then drawing connections through shared county borders creates a simple network diagram of counties. When a county is scaled, it has a flexible framework in which to move, thus preserving the relationships between adjacent counties.

Since the maps produced using the diffusion-based method of Gastner and Newman are by far the most readible, I look forward to see some more maps of other geographies than the US produced using their method. If the maps Danny presented at the 2005 SoC Summer School are anything to go by, the quest to solve Fermat's last theorem in cartography ends here.

Nevertheless, I am eager to hear what Bettina Speckmann will present on Algorithms for cartograms and other geo-information visualization techniques at the seminar on Geo-information and computational geometry. Another interesting Dutch contribution to cartograms is from Amsterdam-based Mapping Worlds. Its EU Hospitality Map combines various parameters of hospitality: the higher the mean level of hospitality, the larger the country is.  permanent link for this entry

Friday, October 14, 2005

Street names

In the Netherlands, there are at least five streets named Mercatorstraat after the cartographer Gerardus Mercator. In the centre of Amsterdam, there is even a Blaeustraat . I thought, that's as far as cartographic references could go. Well, there are actually two streets named Landkaartje, that's small map in Dutch. Looking at other streets in the area, it appears there's a butterfly, Araschnia levana prorsa, that has the Dutch name of landkaartje. Wouldn't it be cool to have a street sign with that name?

Talking of street names, next week is the opening of the Mac Gillavrylaan in Amsterdam honouring the work of the Dutch crystallographer Caroline Mac Gillavry (1904-1993). Apart from her scientific work, she published two books on M.C. Escher, the graphic artist: Fantasy and Symmetry: The Periodic Drawings of M. C. Escher and Symmetry aspects of M.C. Escher's periodic drawingspermanent link for this entry

Monday, October 10, 2005

Geowiki going mainstream

According to an article in Japan Today (via All Points Blog), visitors of the Yahoo! Japan Maps website are asked to submit information on their neighborhoods to help updating the online mapping service. Based on the in-depth information about a particular area submitted by visitors, employees of one of Japan's major mapping companies, Alps Mapping, will visit the area to verify this information before they produce a monthly update of the map.

It's very much a collaborative mapping effort and reminds me a lot of Geowiki and Open Guides. These websites invite visitors to share information about places in the UK. However, while collaborative mapping is characterised by the importance it puts on the community and the Web of Trust among members of the community to filter the information, the employees of Alps Mapping act as a filter. Furthermore, Geowiki not only invites visitors to send information about locations, but it also encourages visitors to send their GPS-tracks to verify and extend their geographic database, just like other initiatives such as the London Free Map and Open Street Map. When can we expect this from TeleAtlas, NavTEQ and AND?

Actually, this initiative from Yahoo! Japan Maps is not even that novel. Other online mapping services also take feedback from their users to improve services. For example, MapQuest has always featured a Map Report Form on their website that users can fill in to report possible errors with a map. It's mainly geared towards resolving geocoding issues, but there is enough room to report other problems with the map as well. For their directions service, the website also features a Directions Report Form:

If an error can be verified MapQuest will work with its data providers and engineers to make appropriate changes. We thank you for helping us make MapQuest even better.

Also Multimap.com has a Travel Directions Feedback form as part of the Multimap Support Centre for users to help improve the Multimap driving directions. Even visitors of Google Local have the opportunity to complain about the search quality (e.g. incorrect address or incorrect map data) and report problems such as suboptimal driving directions or out of date maps and satellite imagery.

Although these websites take feedback from their visitors, they do not make use of the community of their visitors and its trust network to filter the feedback. UpMyStreet Conversations is an interesting non-map example. All visitors can access the website and read discussions on local topics across the UK. If you'd like to contribute, you simply sign up. Thus, conversations are ranked according to the proximity of the poster in relation to the area to which the conversation pertains. Also on Mapminder, you have to sign up and even spend some money to map your life so you can share it with other members only. I prefer the UMS Conversations approach where everyone can read, but only members can contribute.

So instead of just taking feedback about the online mapping service, create a community (e.g. MyMultimap, My Maporama, or My Yahoo!) and have members locate themselves (to filter by proximity) and invite them to contribute suggestions and to score other member's contributions. Thus, online mapping services can really improve what their user community thinks is important.  permanent link for this entry

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Paper, PC, phone, and PND

In early 2003, a senior vice president at Rand McNally told the New York Times :And what does frustration with online maps drive people to do? They go buy a real map. Apparently, MapQuest.com has come to a similar conclusion. A few months ago, it launched its MapQuest Publishing product line of road atlases, special interest travel guides, school atlases, and reference atlases! After almost ten years of online mapping — MapQuest.com was launched in early 1996 —, MapQuest is back where it started: publishing paper maps:

We are always looking for ways to extend the popular MapQuest service beyond the desktop with services such as our suite of mobile mapping and directions services, and now a new line of printed maps that will make finding places of interest easier.

In line with this statement, MapQuest has recently teamed up with the Dutch company TomTom to offer a Mapquest-branded version of the TomTom GO 300 navigation system. The MapQuest Personal Navigation Device (PND) further extends MapQuest's brand and mapping services beyond the computer and expands its presence in the LBS market. So what can we expect in the future? Will users be able to change the design of the TomTom maps, so you can opt for the TomTom 3D-look or the MapQuest stick-map look? They're both using TeleAtlas as their mapping data supplier. So will it just be a matter of time before they are start using each other's routing engine?  permanent link for this entry

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


During a debate in Parliament today, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs made a slip of the tongue when he openly criticised the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This news reminded me of two really impressive websites I came across some time ago: Iraq War Coalition Fatalities and Iraq War Casualties Map. Both take their data from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website.

The Iraq War Coalition Fatalities website shows the US and coalition military fatalities on a map of Iraq as they occur over time. Each dot on the map is located on or near the place the soldier died and thus represents a fatality, appearing as a red dot, fading to black and grey as time passes and is accompanied by a distinct sound effect. When more soldiers died close to each other in space, the red dot on the map has a deeper colour. When more soldiers died close to each other im time (e.g. on the same day), the sound effect is louder. Today, the animation runs from March 20, 2003 until September 28, 2005.

The Iraq War Casualties Map website on the other hand, shows a map of the US. Clicking on the (+), 30 more casualties appear on the map, starting from the beginning of the war. Each soldier is shown at their home town. You can click the icon for more details about that person. A slider bar shows the progress in the number of casualties (somehow casualties does not sound as definite as fatalities). Google's default pan and zoom functionality enable users to navigate to areas of interest and to distinguish individual icons on a more detailed level. Today, the animation was last updated on June 23, 2005.

While the former web site shows all coalition fatalities (including Dutch soldiers for example), the latter concentrates on the fatalities of US soldiers only. Because the icons are plotted on a map of the US, the message really hits home, whereas the map of Iraq still gives you a sense of aloofness, emotional distance. The ability to click on the figures and to obtain further information about that particular soldier makes the Iraq War Casualties Map even more striking. For both animations, it would be helpful to have a notion of the progress over time indicated by a moving slider widget and a bar chart showing the number of fatalities per day.

Nevertheless, it's great to see people can create their own online mapping applications to inform others about their views: mapping in support of freedom of speech to voice one's conviction. Yet another reason for freely available geodata?  permanent link for this entry

Monday, October 03, 2005

German measles

Is that what you get from staring for too long at the maps of the German election results? Don't worry: webmapper is not going to cover all things German! Actually, German measles the common name for rubella, one of the three diseases covered in the MMR vaccine. Although immunisation schemes started in 1974, there's a current outbreak of rubella in the Netherlands. You can monitor its progress on one of the maps in the Dutch National Atlas of Public Health, of which a new release was published last week.

The new release contains many new and updated maps. The majority of the maps are choropleth and point symbol maps. Because of its animated nature, the map of the rubella epidemic really stands out, emphasising the characteristics of an epidemic. As the epidemic travels over time and space, its pattern becomes apparent over time as the amimation unfolds. Positioning this animated map next to the map showing the immunisation rates, the message becomes even clearer. The 3-week period of the animation refers to the 14- to 21-days incubation period, the period after the infection and before the symptoms appear.

While the file size of most maps is between 25 kB (e.g. for a simple point symbol map) and 45 kB (e.g. for a choropleth map of the municipalities), the file size of the animated map is 633 kB! Much of the file size can be reduced using Flash instead of an animated GIF. The background (the map of the municipalities) can be seperated from the foreground (the proportional symbols). The background map currently does not change between 2004 and 2005, although some municipalities merged into larger administrative areas. Drawing proportional symbols on-the-fly reduces the file size, as the code for drawing is the same and can take a template symbol from the library. Instead of providing maps of arbitrary periods as hyperlinks next to the map, using Flash, users would be able to manipulate the progress of the animation and create time-slices themselves.

For a world-wide overview of MMR immunisation programmes, the NHS have put up a world map. However, it's not clear whether the countries with a lighter shade that are not clickable use MMR or not. Furthermore, why are Austria and some countries in Africa shaded as if they were sea? No data available I presume.  permanent link for this entry