Date

[Update 2008-01-03 fixed a technical issue]

I showed my recent post on embedding maps into blog posts to my long-suffering partner.

She said that while the embedded Google map was cool, the explanation was incomprehensible to her. Me, I would prefer that even if some of the technical detail went over her head that she at least got the point, which apparently she didn’t, on account of it was, well, incomprehensible.

(And then she went on to read a few more posts and pointed out some really bad sentences that I had written in the recent past. I think it’s my eyes that are causing the problem; they don’t focus on text like they used to, but it could well be my brain.)

Here’s another try at the same post with the word processor zoomed in to 150% so I can see what I’m typing.

The end result: an interactive map

First up, I invite you to admire this map which shows the route of a bike ride I went on with the Toowoomba Bicycle Users Group.

If you click on the map you can drag it around.

Use the + and buttons to zoom in and out.

And if you click on the title at the top (open it in a new window) it will take you to Bikely where you can look at the ups and downs of riding on the Darling Downs by clicking on Show then Elevation profile.

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Which shows you this:

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(Note: I think there’s something wrong; it shows a very dramatic dip in the ride that I don’t remember, around the 26km mark).

But what am I trying to achieve?

This is not just about putting up maps on a website. We are trying to develop tools so that authors can embed all kinds data into their publications and then visualize and explore and verify the data. As we work for a university we are particularly interested in this for educational and research purposes. We want to give authors tools to do three things:

  1. Allow them to capture or link to some data.

  2. Generate a static 2d representation of the data that they can paste into a word processing document and use for print or PDF.

  3. Publish rich interactive views of their data to the web:

Instead of publishing a bike route as a picture, why not embed an interactive map in a web document?

Instead of publishing a chemical formula for a molecule, why not show an interactive 3d model?

Instead of citing chapter and verse in a classical text, why not have the citations turn into links to multiple translations of the text? (Have a look at this list of tools and think about how they could be integrated with an online text.)

Instead of a table of data or a static chart, why not show a chart tool where the reader can zoom in an out, and otherwise explore the data?

This stuff is not easy at the moment. For example see this post by Peter Murray Rust about the difficulties of trying to paste a fragment of Wikipedia code into his blog, following on from an earlier post. Peter mentions the Integrated Content Environment project that I lead at USQ where we are trying to help solve these problems.

Now, I’m going to explain how I captured the data to make this map, and describe some of the challenges involved, and finish up by looking at some of the issues raised.

How do you make a map like this?

If you want to make a map like mine, the short answer is: join Bikely and draw one yourself using the instructions on the site. It’s a simple-yet-fiddly process of clicking on a map to draw your route.

But there is a much more complicated way which, of course, is what I decided to do.

I decided to use a GPS device to record a bike ride, upload the data onto my computer, then upload that to Bikely. I used a free program called GPSBabel to do the upload. (I had trouble with the USB cable I bought for my Garmin eTrex GPS. If you’re planning to do this maybe choosing the absolute cheapest cable off eBay is not the best plan.)

Once I got the upload working I ended up with a big file, with a couple of years worth of random data from the GPS as well as the route I wanted. Bikely wants to use the GPX interchange format, but it didn’t want all my data when I uploaded the whole lot it gave up in disgust. Eventually I figured out that I could load the data into Google Earth edit it down to just the route in question, then export it and upload to Bikely. That worked.

How do you publish a map like this?

So having made the map at the Bikely site you can capture it:

  • Click on Share.

  • Choose Display this map on your blog or website.

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The result is a fragment of HTML you can paste into the source of a web page.
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Only trouble is that if you are working in a word processor, and you paste in code like this all you get is ugly code in your document. Besides, the code by itself doesn’t give me the static version of the map I want for the print / PDF version of the document.

So, Ron Ward has extended the existing ‘embed’ feature in ICE, for embedding stuff like audio and video. To use it I have to do three things:

  1. Put the Bikely on-my-site code into a file somewhere that it can be accessed over the web. In the future we’re going to make this really easy, so you don’t have to think about it, but for now I had to create the file and copy it to my website. (You also need to change the empty iframe tag to contain a blank comment because of a Firefox rendering bug).

  2. Paste in a screenshot of the image, like this (on the Mac I hit Cmd Ctrl Shift 4, then selected the area I wanted to capture, and pasted into this document):

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  1. Link the image to the file. In my case the link looks like this:

  2. http://ptsefton.com/map3.html?embed

  3. View the document in ICE, and the HTML version is magically turned into a live map, while the PDF version, which you can’t see here, has a static image like the one immediately above.

Now, I know all that is complicated, but eventually we will automate the process so making a map is as easy as uploading the data from the GPS (which is hard enough on its own). ICE will automagically turn a tracklog into a map, and generate the printable version of the image for you. But this will not be a one-off development. There will be a plugin system so programmers can add formatters for lots of different kinds of data.

Issues

While this process works, it raises some interesting questions, for which I don’t have any answers:

  • In a scholarly context, would it be OK for me to edit my GPS log, as I have admitted to doing here? Depending on what the map is for that might be alright, but there are some kinds of data that really should not be edited.

  • If I expose the raw GPS data how do you know whether I have edited it? Would you trust it if it was signed by the GPS device so you could tell if I had tampered with it? Do you trust me not to hack my GPS device? Would you prefer it if I took along a witness? What about if you sent your GPS device with me, with a tamper-proof seal? Do I trust you?

    (A quick search GPS units that can sign their data turned up a patent, but it’s designed for shopping, not science 1)

  • If I do expose my data, and link off to the the Google map how do I preserve or future-proof my publication? Can I put the data file in my institutional repository? What if it’s really big data, like the stuff2 the ARROW team recently added to the Monash repository? What happens when Bikely disappears, or changes its terms of service? (Something like AONS3 should hep here).

  • How can we make the whole process work seamlessly so that working researchers to use it?

These are the kinds of questions the research and higher-education community will be looking at in Australia as part of activities going on around the new Australian National Data Service4 (ANDS).


1 Bradford H Needham and David Cowperthwaite, EP1485842 Intel european software patent - Authenticatable positioning data - Gauss (2003), http://gauss.ffii.org/PatentView/EP1485842 (accessed December 19, 2007).

2 Carlos J. Rosado et al., A Common Fold Mediates Vertebrate Defense and Bacterial Attack, Science 317, no. 5844 (September 14, 2007), http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/317/5844/1548 (accessed December 20, 2007).

3 Curtis et al., AONS - An obsolescence detection and notification service for Web archives and digital repositories, New Review in Hypermedia and Multimedia 13, no. 1 (January 2007), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13614560701423711 .

4 The ANDS Technical Working Group, Towards the Australian Data Commons. A proposal for an Australian National Data Service (Canberra: Australian Government Department of Science Education and Trainining, 2007), http://www.pfc.org.au/twiki/pub/Main/Data/TowardstheAustralianDataCommons.pdf .


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