november 2005 archives

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Cartograms and school atlases

As announced in a previous post on cartograms, I recently attended the seminar Geo-information and Computational Geometry. It was an interesting day. Especially the presentation of Mark de Berg on I/O- and cache-efficient algorithms for spatial data handling put my practical experience with route engines into a theoretical context. Engineering an online travel directions service, you really have to go down to this level to optimise the time it takes to calculate a route, thus ensuring acceptable response times.

Another highlight was the presentation by Bettina Speckmann about algorithms for cartograms (and other geo-information visualization techniques). The latter part I put between brackets as she was so enthousiastic about the cartograms, there was no time left to talk about other topics! Dutch readers will probably remember the rectangular cartograms from the Bosatlas, the famous school atlas. Because of their layout and shape, rectangular cartograms facilitate estimating the size and comparing areas. Therefore, even school children can decipher the graphic language. However, it is sometimes hard to actually identify an enumeration area as the geographic shape and relative location have often been sacrificed in the process. Try the Java demo: it is really fun to play with and to make your own cartogram!

Talking about the Bosatlas, the National Museum of Education in Rotterdam now hosts the exhibition De magie van de Bosatlas, covering 125 years of the history of both atlas cartography and geography curriculum in the Netherlands. To further mark this anniversary, Wolters-Noordhoff, makers of the Bosatlas, published the Biografie van de Bosatlas, written by professor Ormeling. Highly recommended! For those readers not fluent in Dutch, Wolters-Noordhoff Atlas Productions also work on school atlases for other countries, e.g. France, Italy, Switzerland, and Canada.  permanent link for this entry

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

They have been around the block

In January last year when I first wrote about Metrobot, the service only had directory listings for a number of major cities: New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, San Jose, Seattle, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Tucson, Denver, and Las Vegas. But as of last week, Metrobot has expanded its coverage to all of the US. On the homepage, you can either search for a business or service in a particular area supplying both a query term and address details, or you can browse around the map by simply typing in a full address (i.e. a house number, a street name, city, and state).

The main map is a schematic representation of the street and further indicates the intersecting streets. Clicking on the ends of the main street or on any of the stubs that represent the intersecting streets, users can traverse the road network and learn about the businesses located along these roads. The schematic map is a bit like the route represenation that shows you the type of road your travelling on you see on the Maporama when you use their travel directions. On the right-hand side of the Metrobot page, a Google Maps maplet shows you the geographic layout of the street to get a sense of reality.

The schematic map and geographic map side-by-side on a webpage reminded me of Amazon's Maps beta with BlockView Images. For particular cities across the US, Maps not only shows you a MapQuest map (with some pretty smooth map navigation widgets), but also pictures of both sides of the street on the right-hand side. The buttons on either side of the panorama of pictures allow you to scroll/stroll along the pavements of the streets. It's just scary how real it seems with these pictures of every part of the street. The overview map at the top on the Maps webpage would be a useful addition to the Metrobot interface as navigating the streets just really isn't that simple. Hey, and how about adding geo-referenced snaps from Flickr to BlockView Images? Makes it a bit like Mappr I guess.  permanent link for this entry

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Guiding voices

The Dutch have lost it. That's the premise of the Van Kooten en De Bie Navigatiesysteem CD. For years, the television programme of Van Kooten & De Bie on Sunday nights served as a beacon for Dutch society and helped us navigate through the ocean of current affairs. This new CD aims to chart a new course for Dutch society again. Therefore, it's not a coincidence the CD was released on the first anniversary of the dead of Theo van Gogh. The hype of in-car navigation systems served as the source of inspiration for Van Kooten & De Bie to record 10 new sketches based on some of their well-known characters, e.g. mother and son Carla and Frank van Putten, De Vieze Man, and of course Jacobse and van Es! If a Dutch voice on your in-car navigation system wouldn't get you anywhere, imagine Swiss Tony or Kenn and Kenneth (the Suit You tailors) from the British sketch-based comedy Fast Show giving you driving instructions!

For some time now, you can download loads of different voices for your TomTom navigation systems from their website. For English, I think Mikey and Sebastian are really funny, but of course none of these voices surpass John Cleese! Other websites have also started to offer voices to download into your own navigation system, just like you would download a new ring tone for you mobile phone. The website SatNav Voices has got a wide variety of voices. You can even have your own voice recorded! It's good fun to try the samples on their website, but I bet it's getting a bit boring if you have to listen to horny Selina or the Movie Voiceover Man when you're going on a long journey. They not only sell voices, but also offer additional map colour schemes for your TomTom map display. Navtones is another website where you can download voices for your navigation system. They currently have only a limited choice, but they're targeting not just TomTom, but other navigation systems as well.

How about having not just audio clips for the default instructions, but also comments for instances that you are disobeying the instructions. For example, Anne Robinson shouting out at you: I told you to turn right, but were too stubborn to do what I told you! You are the weakest link. Bye, bye!permanent link for this entry

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Netherlands still the world centre of the map trade?

Today, the Dutch digital map data supplier TeleAtlas raised € 467 million in IPO today after they were admitted to the Euronext Amsterdam listing this morning. This IPO comes only a few months after the Dutch car navigation system developer TomTom went public. Interestingly, it is said that over the last 9 months 17 percent of the TeleAtlas revenue was down to TomTom, followed by Blaupunkt, accounting for 12 percent of TeleAtlas revenue.

During the seventeenth century, Amsterdam dominated the international map trade. Famous cartographic firms such as Blaeu and Hondius were all based here and supplied maps to the Dutch East India Company and the rich families of Amsterdam. But it seems the Netherlands are again the centre of the digital map industry. TomTom has its headquarters in Amsterdam. TeleAtlas is based in 's-Hertogenbosch. AND is headquartered in Rotterdam. What is it with the Dutch and maps? I bet it is our preoccupation with trading. Even nowadays, the Netherlands play a major role in European logistics.  permanent link for this entry

Thursday, November 17, 2005


There's YAMA (Yet Another Mapping API) on the market only a few days after Yahoo lauched their Flash and Ajax mapping APIs: the Rand McNally MapEngine. Whereas other online mapping services tend to process TeleAtlas, NavTeq or AND data as is, Rand McNally puts efforts into augmenting, correcting and enhancing these datasets. Furthermore, they cartographically improve the presentation, resulting in an end product that contains more complete, accurate maps. It's a tough trade-off between serving up the most up-to-date mapping data quickly after new updates come in or doing further QA and cartographic editing in-house in order to have more accurate and aesthetically pleasing maps and in particular travel directions. That's where in-house QA really pays off. This really brings us back to the question what do users perceive as quality when it comes to a online maps?

Since the Yahoo! API is only for non-commercial apps and the Google Maps API may at some point introduce location-specific ads to their maps, the Rand McNally MapEngine API is a viable option for businesses that rely on online map services for their field operations or to direct customers to their brick-and-mortar stores. Especially now that MapQuest is encroaching on the territory of Rand McNally with its MapQuest Publishing product line of road atlases, special interest travel guides, school atlases, and reference atlases, it's time for Rand McNally to fight back.  permanent link for this entry

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Commoditisation of geographic information

The acquisition of Whereonearth seems only a small footnote in the history of web mapping in the light of Yahoo!'s recent announcements. Not only has Yahoo! released mapping APIs for both Flash and Ajax — firmly putting itself on a par with the Google Maps API — but it has also opened up geocoding! All in all, web maps have never been pushed across the Web at this rate before, as Ajax implementations in particular have released web mapping applications from the dire click-and-wait paradigm. Online mapping suppliers no longer determine the map view, but leave it up to the end-user to centre a map view that may cover multiple map tiles.

This level of user control over the map view and the availability of a geocoding web service has further strenghtened the commoditisation of geographic information. Search engines have certainly thrown in their weight negotitating their terms of service. Fair enough, Google had to jump mapping data supplier for its mapping API, but you can still use the TeleAtlas data on commercial websites! Although the Yahoo! mapping APIs are limited to non-commercial websites, the geocoding API makes the Yahoo! offering very tempting if you are not aiming to make any money with your web mapping app.

Yahoo!'s traffic web services offered as a geoRSS feed and as REST further emphasise the advantage of search engines over online map providers to use their power in commoditising geographic information. Static geographic information on the web, in particular raster-based web maps, seem to approach the end of their product life cycle. Dynamic geographic information on the web such as traffic information or taxi and shuttle locations are just taking off.

Despite all this, being based in Europe, these developments still just don't really bring about the excitement in me that geowankers in the US must feel, because these web services lack coverage in continental Europe. Nevertheless, we should prepare ourselves for the flood of web mapping applications that can be built once continental European coverage becomes available.  permanent link for this entry