Thursday, August 28, 2008

GPS to Google Earth.

Quick post today, I'm about to take some leave but will be back next week.

I have to admit that I was never really keen on all the fuss about converting GPS trails to Google Earth files, it just seemed a bit of a fuss. However, on Monday I gave a talk at the Royal Geographical Society London on just this subject so I spent a while last week mucking around working out how to do it. I was impressed with how easy it is to process the data plug in your GPS, turn on GPS Utility , do a bit of setting up, press download and the data is on your PC. Save as KML and you have your data in Google Earth. What really impressed me and the participants of my session was that you can see the trail you walked and using the time control animate your progress. See the file:

GPS track of me getting some sandwiches at work

The GPS automatically records my position every 2 seconds which is the data making up the time tagged part of the data.

Playing around with this made me realise that Google's documentation on the time controller isn't up to the job, and since Googling 'timeline tutorial google earth' lists this website as the top link I think I'd better put something down in writing soon.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Graph Design: Lessig's Video Chart Fails to Deliver

Strongly linked with Google Earth web design is design of graphics such as charts, tables and graphs.

Lawrence Lessig is a well known commentator on copyright and the internet. He's also a master of presentational skills. Usually. This graph is the most important graphic in his most recent presentation and I don't think it works:

US broadband penetration slipping Its shows a wonderful snippet of information: in terms of broadband penetration the US started at 5th in 2000 and in 2007 had slipped to 22nd place. The graph could be improved in a number of ways:
  • 5 and 22 are unit-less numbers: As Lessig himself comments this is a problem. They could refer to gigabits per year, positions in an online poll or Osborne luggagable computers for all we know.
  • Missing Axis: Related to the unit-less numbers, why is the y axis missing? If I cared to read off the value in the year 2003 I would find it difficult. Whilst this would seem to be a petty request, showing data in a way that users can query in different ways is good design.
  • Unnecessary 3D: The shadow, 3D shape and perspective view don't add anything. A 2D graph would be better as it would be easier to process mentally.
  • Data Thin: Why only show the decline of the US? Why not show other countries for comparison and emphasize the US plot? France especially deserves to be plotted since it is mentioned as doing better than the US later in the presentation.
  • Title: I'm also a little suspicious of the title border. Is it adding anything? The 'ripped paper' design doesn't appear anywhere else in the presentation so its not part of a consistent design.
If you're interested in these types of discussion topics, Edward Tufte is the author to read.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hurricane Flight Graphic: Full Review.

In this post I complete a review of a Google Earth project by Tropical Atlantic highlighting the work of the Hurricane hunters collecting real time weather data of tropical cyclones. The author and I have been swapping comments so the back story is covered too.

Screen shot of the project.

Back Story: I promised this review of this project a while back after posting some immediate thoughts. Since that time the author Christopher Hollishas added comments about my post. I really appreciate this happening, the best way to learn for all of us is to discuss. Christopher says that he never meant the project to be for the public, he meant it for skilled hobbyists. That being the case a lot of my discussion is invalid as I'm assuming that the project is aimed at the unskilled public. However, you can't properly assume skills unless you've sat down and done some hallway testing, I wonder if this has this been done with some hobbyists and what was learnt about the project? If it hasn't been done I bet that the skilled hobbyists are a lot more like the unskilled public than Christopher thinks.

The Review:
1. What do the users get out of looking at the project?
They get to see real time (if a mission is being run) where the latest mission into a hurricane is and what its measurements have been as it has flown. There is a lot of public interest in this story because hurricanes are interesting and the people flying such missions are (in the public perception) putting themselves at considerable risk. Hobbyists able to interpret the data may be getting the latest data on the hurricane.

2. Is there a good introduction?
No, there isn't an introduction at all, a serious problem.

3. Is the text written concisely?
Yes it is but it is written as brief notes which cannot be understood by public.

4. Have icons, lines and areas been used well?
No, and my detailed comments on this are here.

I usually admit in a review that my suggestions are only informed opinion, however, the key here has two ranges of wind speed marked as the same color; that's just plain wrong. In addition, I think there are too many icons shown to illustrate the wind strength and direction data. Color may not be the standard meteorological way to illustrate wind strength but the standard approach here doesn't work as the wind icons are too closely packed.

In addition I have no idea what the binoculars and cylinder icons actually mean without clicking them open.

5. Have acronyms been avoided?
No, in one of the arhieved files I found HDOB, OB 04, AF304 and RECCO used. All are incomprehensible to me.

6. Is the Places column structured well?
Yes, this is pretty simple and straightforward

7. Is there an appropriate amount of data in the project?
Yes, the amount of data in the project is OK to tell the story.

8. Have advanced elements been used that could be avoided?
There isn't anything in the project which is overly clever, in fact for once I would suggest that the use of the regions feature could reduce the problem of screen clutter - if only every 10th wind icon was shown this would reduce screen clutter when the viewer is at high altitude and all the icons could come into view as the viewer zoomed in on the flight path.

9. Is there Map Junk?
No, the project is clean and clear of none essential items.

10. On entry is the level of visible features appropriate?
Yes apart from my thoughts on the icons looking cluttered.

This is a great story of high interest to the public and being able to track the plane in real time is a master stroke. I think the project should be relaunched for the public as well as for hobbyists. As it stands it's a lost opportunity to get some fantastic public attention for Tropical Atlantic.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Flooding in London

Andy Smith and team at CASA UCL created the above movie clip. Thought it deserved to get put in GE.

Flooding Movie Clip Located in Google Earth.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Future of Geography Teaching

Students can now share a virtual teaching space with a map on the floor, when posed a questions such as 'where would you put your house' they vote by moving their avatar to their chosen place on the map.

Predicting the future is a notoriously dumb thing to do but here goes: Stefan of Ogle Earth points out a development importing Google Maps into Second life (the second half of the post) talking about some of Eric Hackathorn's work. I predict its a development that is surely something we are going to see much more of in education:

Screen shot of Big Island Hawaii imported into Second Life with my KMZ layers imported in on top. You can see my avatar standing mid island.

Real Life Teaching: I already use Google Earth in a lesson where I teach students about the volcanoes of Hawaii and then get them to decide where they would put a house on big island Hawaii to avoid being burnt down by lava. I project Google Earth onto the wall and use a grid marked on the floor so that students can stand on the ground in relation to where they would put their house on the map.

Second Life Teaching: Of course in Second Life its possible to project the map onto the floor much easier than in real life and this is what the screen shot above shows. You can see my avatar standing in the middle of the Google Maps generated map over which I've loaded a kmz file showing, amongst other things, 3 active volcanoes*. It would be possible to run a teaching session in Second Life mimicing my real life teaching but with the advantage of a map on the floor.

Not there yet: In real life this technique has proved popular with teachers and students. Unfortunately, in second life Eric's development is still too clunky to be used for real but I agree with Stefan, you are going to see a lot more things like this in the future when the technology gets quicker, slicker and easier to use. At the moment the social space is provided by Second Life and the maps by KMZ file and Google Maps but the idea - mashing up maps and a virtual avatar space - could be delivered by other applications just as well.

*strictly Pu`u`O`o isn't a separate volcano from Kilauea which are both marked on the map.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Default Layer Icons

I'm back after a great break in Spain, I haven't touched a computer in 10 days which has been refreshing.

Frank's Opinion: Over at Google Earth Blog Frank comments on the new layer icons in Google Earth, his criticisms are:
- They're too small
- They're often redundant (Places and Wikipedia discuss the same location)
- They're all the same color

Here's a screen shot:

Its deliberately small so that you can get a sense of how the icons mix together. As you can see, on a gray background (this is the Thames in London) the icons fail to 'pop out' at you.

My Opinion: I agree with Frank except for the size. I think if they had different colors then the size would work. However, I have some additional views:
  • Double Halo: The icons just have a white halo around them, to make sure they stand out against all backgrounds they need a white and a black halo around them.
  • Hidden Content: Google use region control to keep the view uncluttered; as you zoom in more icons appear but not so many to block the view. This does work but in the process causes the 'hidden content' problem.
  • Icon consistency: Google keep on changing the icons they use for this content. This is a problem as people come to associate an icon with certain content so consistency is important. You can change an icon so as to improve it but leave it recognisably the same icon (like this) but Google have binned their whole design and started from scratch.
To illustrate the color and double halo and size points, I've added some icons to this view:

To be fair, I've bumped up the size slightly but if you look carefully I've made the icons translucent which reduces screen clutter back down. I think they stand out from the background (pop out) and stand out from each other much better than Google's icons.

Discovery Icon: I also don't like the discovery Icon middle left. To be fair to Google, they probably have a deal with the Discovery channel to use their trademark 'as is' but as a map icon its way too busy is too large and, again, has no double halo.