Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mapping Opportunity: Stephen Fry's trip

A lot of the time I look at content on the web, TV and radio and think 'I could enhance that SO much by using Google Earth'. With Google Earth being free and creating maps so easy there is a real opportunity for improving public outreach with Google Earth - hence the first part of the title of this post 'Mapping Opportunity' which I'll start using as a tag. In this example we discuss using a Google Earth map to structure video and text content in a multi country trip.

Stephen Fry packs his bags at home.
I've had to guess where he lives, some of you may recognise my choice of location.

The Content:
Stephen Fry is on his travels again:
"It's farewell for quite a few months, I fear, as I head off to Africa, Mauritius, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Sea of Cortez to make a documentary about disappearing species."
This is a follow up to a book by the late and greatly missed Douglas Adams: Last Chance to See. Stephen is posting tweets (as they are known) on twitter and the occasional video so people can follow his travels. This makes for a perfect map based project and Stephen has actually published a map showing his location on twitter a couple of time - but its just a location placemark in a Google Map, a very limited use of web maps.

Another screenshot with Mt Kenya in the Background

My Map:
Amongst other things I have
  • Embedded the videos in placemarks at likely locations
  • Added one of his Tweets as a placemark
  • Added content from the Arkive project which shows the sort of related placemark people could find when browsing around the project area in Google Earth
I have had to guess lots of the locations since I don't actually know where he was. I could also have:
  • Added formatting (icon, text etc) as in the Arkive placemarks
  • Time stamped the elements so that you could animate them with the timeline to show Stephen's progress. This would work particularly well because Stephen has produced lots of Tweets
I hope the map adds something to the content beyond what was possible with the existing web pages. In general I think that material produced on a journey works better as a map than a web site.

Offer: I have the greatest respect for Stephen and the memory of Douglas Adams so if Stephen's team want, I'd be happy to give advise on how to best use maps in their outreach for free. It may be too late for this trip but I'm sure there will be others...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Timeline Tutorial Video

Previously I posted a howto on some aspects of the timeline. I've had to do a proper tutorial for a course I'm working on at the moment so here is a cut down version for you all. It explains how to get the timeline to work properly:

I had various technical problems with uploading it to youtube which is why its still in flash format.

Wish List: Investigating this has led me to believe the timeline controls are too simple given the complexity of what it does. It harks back to my earlier post comparing ESRI's timeline with Google's, the chief suggestion I'd like to carry forward is that there needs to be a power/newbie toggle switch that keeps the timeline as at present for the power users but when clicked reveals an alternative expanded view for the newbies. Here is a summary of the problems and my suggested solutions using the 'newbie view':
  • Multiple sets of time data: Animating different data sets with time is very powerful but even I get confused about child folders and what should be showing. There should be a number of timelines showing along the top of the screen with a playhead and a line showing when the data starts and stops for each data set. When you select a different parent folder the timelines will change accordingly along the top of the screen.
  • Downloading Data: Much time data is in the forms of images which have to download via a network link. Users press play on the timeline and nothing happens because the images haven't downloaded and so can't be rendered. There should be a special shading on each timeline showing which bits are still downloading and when you get to an image that is still downloading it shouldn't just be a red cross in the main screen, it should say 'Downloading...' so users know what is happening.
  • Range of Time: There should be an illustration of what time range the playhead is activating as it moves. At the moment you just drag the handles around and guess a range, a simple 10y, 25w, 9h readout would help (if the timerange is much smaller you could just shift the units of time to something like 9h, 50m, 6s).
So all that would be visible in the newbie view and that view would be the default one which would be showing when you first open GEarth.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

GeoCommons: Map Creation Pleasure

The Evil of PowerPoint: There has been a ground swell of opinion in educational circles that PowerPoint gets in the way of effective presentation giving. If you're interested, John Naughton is a brilliant speaker and has written on the subject here (including linking to a lovely parody which tries to use PowerPoint to deliver the Gettysburg Address). The thrust of his argument is not that PowerPoint isn't useful, its that its wizards and templates tend to push people into giving a bullet ridden sales pitch. Often, they could do better using other types of presentation, e.g. simple multimedia graphics via PowerPoint, a topic which I explore in a paper here.

So I was delighted to find GeoCommons, a service to help people build maps. Unlike PowerPoint it guides people to produce good design with its wizards and templates, see the screenshot of its icon panel:

Screenshot of GeoCommons Icon Chooser Panel

Good for colors, icons and backgrounds: As you can see, you have to have a halo with your icon, a feature which I thoroughly approve of and about which I've blogged previously. And it's not just icons, when choosing fills for thematic maps you are presented with sensible color scales like the ones from ColorBrewer*. I also like the fact you can choose a blank background for your map, helpful if it is very full of symbols that are making the view cluttered.

KML Polygons?:
Unfortunately it seems not to be able to cope with uploading KML Polygons which is a shame, I've emailed them to ask if I'm right about this or if I've just come across a bug but no reply of yet.

In other areas it also scores highly but this has been well documented by Stefan so I'm just keeping to design aspects in this post.

*In fact the same people that brought you ColorBrewer were also involved in designing GeoCommons.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Indian Floods

A while back I published a lesson plan showing the causes and effects of global warming on flooding in the Brahmaputra. Unfortunately the discussion was all to accurate and floods have been occurring in the region I discussed in the last month or so. Google have published their own Google Earth project showing imagery from August 3oth and 1st of September.

Here is a screenshot from my lesson plan:
this image shows settlements in the area, the color of the circle shows how 'sensitive' they are to flooding and the size the population.
this image shows the same area with a red overlay of what has been flooded from the google project. The two translucent areas show regions I identified in the lesson plan as;
  • North area: poor people living close to the river
  • South area: richer people living further from the river.
Design Point: The red color used is far too intense and isn't a natural 'water' color - dark purple or blue would have been a better choice. At the moment 'river of blood' is what springs to my mind.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Misleading Graph: BBC on house prices

Map design is a subset of informational design and so techniques on how to mislead with statistics in graphs should interest those of us involved in maps.

Today I was surfing the BBC site and came across this:

It comes from an article discussing house prices and shows the percentage change of house prices with time according to Halifax and Nationwide. I added an inset (see arrow) which cuts a section of the y axis at the bottom of the graph and aligns it with the graph further up. As you can see, -10 lines up with 0 but the spacing of the intervals at the bottom of the graph is less that in the middle of the graph so -11, -12 and -13 don't line up with -1, -2 or -3. This has the effect of making the graph look less steep than it actually should be over the last 3 months.

So was this just some BBC junior being told to fit the graph into a smaller space and making a genuine mistake or is there a reason for this error?

Recently I've noticed the BBC trying to put a positive spin on the financial crisis gripping the world economy. I broadly welcome this, since part of the problem is people's trust, the media talking negatively certainly don't help the situation. In the text that goes alongside the graph at one point it says:

"It joined the Nationwide in claiming that the rate of decline [of house prices] was starting to stabilize when looking at three-month comparison figures."

So it could be someone trying to back up that statement by making the graph look like it agrees. However, the title of the article "Further decline in house prices" is pretty negative so I'm inclined not to believe its a mistake rather than an underhand attempt to mislead.

Whichever it is, this is not what I expect from the usually excellent news coverage from the BBC.

Later (20:40 9th Oct): With impressive speed its been corrected.