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.