Cool mapping things for real people

I was at Housing Camp Cymru last weekend. It was great.

I pitched a bring and share session on mapping apps. Because housing is so much about physical place putting stuff on maps feels like an obvious thing to do. I often find that, unless they really love maps, many people don’t realise how easy it has become to do cool mapping things without spending money or getting a degree in geography.

(This is not to denigrate GIS specialists because there is even more really cool stuff if you actually know what you are doing).

So here’s a quick run down of some of the stuff we covered.

Open, shared and closed data

Perhaps inevitably  (given that I’m part of the ODI-Cardiff team) we talked about the question of being able to use data.

Closed data is data you can’t use, shared data is data that you may be able to use but there will be restrictions on what you can do with it, open data is data anyone can access, use and share.

This video explains this rather better.

Google Maps

Chances are you have used Google Maps to do something like work out how to get to a new location. It’s got very powerful mapping and routing tools. It’s also really (really) easy to create simple custom maps.

(Not the most dramatic map I’ll confess).

To get started with this you just need to create a map on Google Maps.

Fusion Tables

To put more complex and rich data on Google Maps there is a nice tool in the Google Drive suite called Fusion Tables.

It does two jobs really well:

  • it “fuses” tables (links two spreadsheets together based on a column of data that they share)
  • it takes columns of geographical information and puts them on a Google map

It’s smart enough to process some sorts of data so if you have postcodes in a column Fusion Tables will turn those into points on a map for you. It’s also capable of handling polygons (shapes: that you might use to show borders or boundaries).

I used Google Fusion Tables to create this clickable map of changes in crime rate in different parts of Herefordshire.

More information in the excitingly titled Investigating crime rates at small geographies.

OpenStreetMap

While the Google tools are very useful there are limits to what you can do with Google Maps. Not least because the Google Mapping data belongs to them and you can access the underlying data nor can you use Google Maps for any purpose.

There is a source of mapping data that you can do all this with: OpenStreetMap.

OpenStreetMap started as an open data alternative to Ordnance Survey and is one of the most incredible datasets in existence. It is “Wikipedia for maps” anyone can edit it and add data to it.

There is so much to say about OpenStreetMap that it would require 100 more blogposts. To get some sense of the possibilities have a look at Mappa Mercia and the Missing Maps project.

There are so many projects built around the OpenStreetMap community. Check out Mapillary and Walking Papers to get a sense.

With OpenStreetMap data you can do anything with your map, create web tools, or print out a massive noticeboard without paying anyone or asking permission.

Ordnance Survey Open Data

The UK’s mapping agency is releasing more and more of its data under and open licence. You can download all sorts of different files from OS Open Data.

 

Carto

A nice alternative to Google Fusion Tables which allows you to use a range of different mapping data sources is Carto (previously CartoDB). Carto is actually more powerful than Fusion Tables and it’s on my list of things to learn more about.

It’s a freemium product but the free stuff is very good.

Ushahidi

Developed in Nairobi to map post-election conflict Ushahidi has found uses in disaster response, monitoring buildings at risk and hundreds of other situations where citizens want to report and monitor things happening in their locality. Ushahidi 3 is just out

You can experiment freely at crowdmap.com.

QGIS

Want to try full-fat Geographical processing? You can do that for free too with the open source QGIS. This is a professional scale Geographical Information System. Don’t expect to become a satellite processing expert in a few minutes. But QGIS is powerful, free and has a healthy community of advice and plugins. So if you like maps you’ll love QGIS.

Other random things we mentioned

Crime data can be downloaded from police.uk.

LIDAR (a laser version of RADAR) data is avaiable for much of England and Wales. This is geeky but clever people have started doing fun things with it like writing a script to turn your estate into a minecraft world.

 

“Has the milk tanker been yet..? I’m waiting for the Internet”

Photo of the tank of a Milk Tanker which prominently shows United Dairies
United Dairies glass-lined milk tank – freight train tanker carriage by David Precious. https://flic.kr/p/f1MQTB used under CC-BY-2.0

 

So this afternoon I went to a conference about highways.

Despite what you might imagine, this was geeky even for me. But I had been persuaded to run a workshop on “Smart Rural” a half-formed idea I (and other rural types) have that smart city initiatives may not have that much to offer the countryside.

I thought we would be talking about autonomous vehicles and intelligent tractors. But in fact we ended up talking about internet connectivity.

This was slightly galling because I try not to talk about internet connectivity. It’s a big problem in rural areas but it’s not going to be resolved at the sort of scale and speeds that would make a lot of smart city type projects viable.

But it does seem to sit at the heart of many issues in this space.

So what, I asked the group, are solutions that don’t involve the answer “Gigabit fibre”.

And one of our participants told us the story of a hack used in Cuba to get round the fact that Internet access is not available. People move files (video, magazines, books) physically. By regular courier or truck. It’s an obvious solution. And actually in the west we move very large files (or collections of files) physically because of the time taken to stream across the Internet.

So, this got me thinking, could we do something similar in rural areas? Could we arrange local (in village) caching of, for example, the BBC iPlayer. The BBC already uses Content Delivery Networks to cache files locally to your ISP.  This would be an iteration of that approach. The data could be distributed across a local network: say a WAN or a mesh. The files could be updated over the internet pipe into the village or physically brought to the location, or a combination of the two.

And maybe the same system could serve other content. Unlike the Cuba model there is likely to be a connection to the network, just one of limited bandwidth. So the server could be intelligent about what data it pulled (and sent) down the pipe and what data stored for physical transport.

There are a range of vehicles that visit rural communities on a regular basis: most obviously (and, in this context, pleasingly) the Royal Mail, but milk tankers, feed transport, the cars of commuters, buses, refuse lorries and so on.

Maybe as the connection enabled Royal Mail van enters the village it connects to the WAN, handshakes and starts pulling the data off the network as it travels around. Then it stores it on-board and handshakes with a server connected to a (bigger, faster) pipe back at the depot. What the Royal Mail didn’t have time to capture can be loaded to the Milk Tanker a bit later.

I can’t decide if this is a good idea (in which case it’s probably already being used somewhere) or over-engineered silliness (in which case someone in my network will probably met me know.

For completeness here are photos of the flipcharts that we created in our discussion.

 

 

A quick thought experiment about Article 50

Dog apparently lost in thought
Deep Thought by Jan Tik used under CC-BY-2.0

Over the weekend I went on a nature ramble in an attempt to get all this Brexit stuff out of my head.

The attempt failed. Instead I started to think about the limits to the mandate provided by the referendum.

Take this thought experiment:

It is 10 September 2016 and, freshly elected by Conservative party members, the new Prime Minister is being briefed on the negotiating options.

“It’s bad news I’m afraid Prime Minister”

says a civil servant

“All 27 EU countries are going to fail to agree to any terms in the negotiation. Our covert intelligence confirms that they are all very serious on this point.”

“That’s a surprising and perhaps somewhat unbelievable show of unity between the fractious EU”

says the Prime Minister

“Well yes”

explains the civil servant

“but this is a thought experiment.”

“What are the consequences then?”

“Well, as you know Prime Minister, once Article 50 is triggered if we fail to agree a deal we exit the EU on WTO terms, which means no access to the single market tariffs on any trade with the EU, no agreement on the status of British citizens in the EU and a host of other things none of them, from a trade position, ideal”.

“This seems very bad”

“Well yes Prime Minister, this is literally the worst thing that could happen if Article 50 is triggered. That’s why it’s useful for a thought experiment”.

So, knowing that we will exit with no deal, should she trigger Article 50?

Mandate:

Does the referendum give the Prime Minister (or conceivably Parliament) the mandate to trigger Article 50 under these circumstances?

There’s a legitimate argument that it does. This was a foreseeable outcome when people voted so they could and should have taken it to account when casting their vote.

There is a legitimate argument that it doesn’t. The referendum was advisory, we have a parliament to deal with the detail. One of the protections of a representative democracy is we expect our representatives not to undertake actions even if they have public support if they are profoundly against the national interest.

Of course the EU is going to negotiate with us. We’re not going to crash out on WTO terms.

Probably.

But when we press the Article 50 button we don’t know, for sure, what will happen.

So does the referendum mandate the pressing of the button regardless of the consequences? And how can those consequences be reasonably assessed?