Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Using Maps on the Web 1: Maps with added Web.

Patterns: Reading this useful advice from Mano Marks and Chris Peters for NGOs thinking of using GeoWeb tools set me thinking. I've long been a fan of the O'Reilly book 'Designing Interfaces' by Tidwell. One concept it uses well is 'patterns', e.g. a list view with expandable items is a pattern and is how folders in windows explorer and email programs work; they both share the same pattern. With Google making it easier to embed GEarth, GEarth tours and GMaps in a web page I thought it worth exploring 3 Geo related patterns:
  1. Map with added Web
  2. Web with added Map
  3. Virtual Globe
I adopt the basic structure she uses in discussing the patterns. Today, I'll tackle the first of these with the other two in later posts.

Maps with Added Web

Screenshot of Pop up balloon of Crisis in Darfur project from USHMM.

Content that is mostly in a map form but which accesses web page material such as photos, videos, text or links to other websites through use of pop up balloons.

Use When: When the most important thing about your content is location but when it is helpful to include links to other websites and html like content. This separates it from other the geo patterns I've suggested such as Virtual Globes where it a feature of the Virtual Globe such as the 3D topography view is the driver for choosing that format. In the case of 'Web with Maps' the web presentation takes precedence over the spatial presentation.

Why: Location sometimes is the most interesting thing about your content. In the case of the Darfur project above the pattern of the placemarks puts over the sheer scale of the crisis. Classic examples would be a website following an expedition or a set of photos where their location is important.

How: You can either choose to publish your material as a KMZ file so that it can be opened with Google Earth or embed a GEarth or GMaps plugin in a web page with no other material on it except for maybe a key. The Google Earth route is easier to produce without programming skills.

You may wish to provide linked web pages but the overall point is that the map represents the 'spine' of the content.


WaterAid promotes its work in developing nations with a Google Earth file which has text and photos in pop up balloons.

Public land for sale is a similar example

A Sound Map from Wild Sanctury:
this uses web based audio files, the map is the organising system so it is map with web IMHO.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Where 2.0 topics

So I've been following where 2.0 via twitter and the videos published and feeling like I missed the party :(

Google Earth for NeoGeographers: Frank gave a good summary of what is possible with Google Earth from reading his PPT presentation.

Community GIS for New Orleans: Denice Ross and James Fee gave a good talk on using GIS and web GIS to provide New Orleans with spatial information. What I particularly liked about this was that they mentioned that they did user testing (details). I tend to advocate a less sophisticated testing regime than they describe, I think you can identify most of the problems with your web site without needing to work on users actual machines but it was a good write up.

It was also interesting to hear that James Fee did a good job of assessing technology needs rather than ploughing in and telling the clients what technology they should use.

4D Maps: Brandon Martin-Anderson talked about representing 4 dimensions on a map. There was some interesting stuff in there but I felt he missed out discussing the many examples of time in GEarth and also Hans Rosling's wonderful visualisation tools.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Inset Maps

GEarth has an option for an overview map (ctrl M or Options > Overview Map) but it shows your location on a world scale and doesn't show direction of view.

Google Maps Inset Map with Man and Arrow Icon

In Streetview on Google Maps the equivalent is a lot more sophisticated with a person icon and an arrow showing direction. In a GEarth tour it is good practice to show users a similar inset map with a more relevant smaller scale as it helps them understand where they are and which direction they are facing. I've produced a tour to illustrate how to do this using Screen Overlays, click the image below to be taken to the tour (GEarth Plugin needed):

The tour shows you various views and I turn the inset map (a screen overlay I created using a graphics package) on and off in the tour to show how it could work. Note that as best practice I usually align my view northwards in a tour unless there's a good reason to do otherwise. If you changed viewing direction in a tour the inset map would be more useful.

Of course, it would be a lot better if the inset map was programmed so location and view direction changed in real time as in street view rather than being static images, this would be a nice feature to see in GEarth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

OS and Google rights

Gavin took OS Openspace data and wrapped it up as KML which allows it to be read by GEarth and GMaps. Ed Parson's wonders why OS have turned off Gavin's licence, there is no clear explanation as to why this was done by OS. However, I find it odd that Ed didn't think about Google's terms and conditions, it's via Ed that I know about the section that does not claim ownership of your data published in GEartn and GMaps but does seek to claim the right to reuse it without having to obtain permission. Google claims this is purely for the purposes of being able to search the content and to promote their services.

IANAL, nor have I insider knowledge of the legal views of OS but it seems to me that to defend its copyright OS wants to be seen to be preventing its data being put into GEarth and GMaps because it does not wish to activate that right. I have no idea if Google would be able to claim that right based on Gavin's mashup but the risk must be there.

I have no real insights on the rights and wrongs of this beyond what is already out there in the blogsphere but as someone who is working with both OS and Google it would be in everyone's interest (including the ultimate employers of OS, the British tax payer) if they would both start at least discussing these rights issues.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Google Earth Tour Tips

I'm currently writing a tutorial about how to design a tour in Google Earth. Thought it would be useful to put some parts of the advice in an actual tour so here it is.

Good Practice Points:
  1. In areas with little topography to help fix the eye, adding placemarks helps
  2. Flight paths when covering large distances, should be looped
  3. Keep bearing North wherever possible
  4. Add annotations to help users see features you are referring to
  5. Use a tour as an introduction and point out features that you think are good that users might otherwise miss in your content.
  6. Putting a tour in a GE plugin like this with this gadget saves you having to instruct the user how to set up the GE client if you need them to turn on layers like terrain and turn off roads.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Graphical Editor for Google Earth Tours

So I've been experimenting with tours a lot recently and have found it easy to produce tours with lots of flights and placemarks that open and close but more difficult when you're trying to sync audio with the tour. Partly this is because of a bug but also because I'm frustrated with the need to hand code rather than use a graphical editor. GEarth itself allows you to produce tours without coding but you can't use it to tweak a tour e.g. change a section of the audio.

I think there is a widspread need for a tour editor that operates like Captivate:

How Captivate Works: As you can see from the screenshot Captivate works on a slide metaphor for producing video tutorials of software. Audio, annotations and text call outs within each slide can be sequenced and controlled in terms layering (what element lies on top of what) by manipulating the time line control (top right). The result of your edits is viewable in the screen view in captivate (bottom right). Slides represent a section of the tutorial (left column).

Suggestion for a GEarth Tour Editor: For GEarth tour this could all be produced within a web page that uses the GE plugin, a slide would represent a section of the tour. The plugin view would replace the main screen and editing the timeline would sequence the audio, control elements being turned on and off and control the camera flight.

LazyWeb Request: If anyone knows of something like this/is building it already, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Dangers of Templates and Models

Brady Forrest of O'Reilly Radar interviewed Jack Dangermond, the founder and CEO of ESRI about various GeoWeb related topics in 3 interviews (1, 2 and 3).
The part that really interested me was Brady's question in the first interview section where he asked:
" Do you think that the explosion of web-based mapping has just filled the world with ugly and poorly designed maps?"

Cartographic Templates: Jack agreed and answered that he thought that the answer lay in producing cartographic templates like color ramps and symbology sets for applications such as hydrology. He goes on to compare templates in cartography with the use of templates in PowerPoint, which is an interesting choice of example as I'll discuss. On the one hand, I agree with him. I've called for an improvement in the default icon template in GEarth as this would help low level users produce better maps.

Inappropriate Template use: However, there is also danger in the use of templates in that they get used inappropriately, this has been pointed out in a wicked lampoon of PowerPoint where the Gettysburg address is forced into a PowerPoint presentation. In the case of GEarth, you can imagine someone opening two data sets using different template symbologies and having trouble separating similar looking icons that were never designed to be viewed together.

Not a Complete Solution: Producing templates also doesn't answer a number of presentational problems in GEarth that relate to it being far more interactive than a simple paper map, for example, designing the places column to be clear, coping with large numbers of points and using the timeline.

Models Misused: Jack then goes on to discuss how he thinks standard computer models will become more common with people being able to use the models of others to do expert analysis. Even more than templates being misused this rings alarm bells for me. My masters degree was in Hydrogeology and I still remember our professors continuously warning us about 'taking an off the shelf model and shoveling data into it', time and time again they gave us examples where non-experts have done this and made bad decisions as a result. A simple example was the 'never ending lake', a hydrogeological model had been produced by a non-expert that seemed to suggest an aquifer had abundant water supplies that would last idefinately. When analysed by an expert it turned out the model had a badly programmed lake within it, the level of the lake didn't fall however much water leaked out of it and it was the effect of this that was incorrectly predicting that there would be abundant water available in the future.

Models used Well: Which isn't to say models for the public are always bad, when you put a start and end position into GMaps and ask it to work out a car journey route its running quite a sophisticated network model to give you a result. We just need to be sure that where expertise is required to input data into a model, only experts do it.

Norms and Principles: My own two cents worth of opinion on what would really help the red dot fever problem is that more than models and templates we need to evolve norms of use like tabbed navigation in web pages and design principles such as knowing to keep text in pop up balloons brief and to the point.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Clustering Placemarks

Pam Fox has published a talk on avoiding red dot fever, in it she looks at various ways people have dealt with displaying large numbers of placemarks.

Users First: Firstly an observation: in this blog post Pam links to the author tackles the problem in a techy way, the problem is viewed as 'plotting too much data slows down the computer' and the solutions offered are technical. IMHO our first examination should be 'how can we best help the user?' before gettting into technical solutions. I apply this frame of thought to some of the maps Pam mentions below.

Maps with User Experience (UX) Problems:

Clustering Experiment Map

Clustering experiment: placemarks are clustered into group placemarks (see above image). It works but the user doesn't know the geographical bounds of the cluster. Its basically the same issue I talked about under 'Regions Functionality' here.

Pizza example solves that problem by being linked to state boundaries but I think a color coded key related to polygon fill would work better here - in this context I want to know there are lots/some/no pizza restuarants not that there are exactly 43 in California. Using size for the icon is good in that I suspect it is related strongly to number of restuarants in the users' mind but it has the problem that it obscures some of the other states notably California and the small eastern states. That's my opinion but its arguable.

Heat map this works well at a high level, its essentially the polygon fill solution I suggest above but when you zoom in, rather than resolve to placemarks, the heat map just becomes 'hot dots' which cluster around individual points which doesn't work that well.

Maps with Great UX:

Placemarks as Circles Example.

The Google maps way of presenting the majority of placemarks as simple circles while selecting some 'best' placemarks as paddles is great, it allows many more placemarks to be rendered on screen without cluttering the view or slowing the computer down too much.

Is the Criticism Fair? Criticizing this work is a bit unfair, a lot of it is experimental, designed to show off some functionality rather than being a real published map. However, I think its worth discussing the problem and the maps formed a nice illustration of issues. I would be interested to hear of user testing on these maps if any exists as that would be the acid test.

My Solution: To deal with large numbers of placemarks I would do the following:
  • At altitude the map is a grid of colored squares or polygons, color indicates density of placemarks underneath (described in detail here)
  • With the colors laid out in a key (Pam mentions the importance of this)
  • As the user flies lower and reduces the number of placemarks that must therefore be rendered, the grid dissolves to reveal the placemarks themselves
Choice of grid size, colors in the key and at what height the placemarks appear is context dependent.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

GeoWeb Converts

I gave a guest lecture this week on the GeoWeb to students on a GIS course. To persuade them of the importance of the new technologies I told them the story that Michael Jones told in his frontiers of geophysics lecture at AGU last December (I'm on the road writing this so forgive the lack of a link to the video: it's about 40 minutes in if you care to find it) about how Condi Rice was wowed by GEarth in Dafur.

They seemed to get it and one student described it as inspiring and was asking about GeoWeb jobs. Good to be reminded I work in an interesting topic area.

-- From My iPhone