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collaborative cartography system

FROM: Chris Heathcote

What NEED does this meet?
Many projects based on real communities (and real life) need good high-quality geographic information. In the UK, this data is only available at a very high price through a few companies (notably the Ordanance Survey, Consignia). This takes mapping and geographical data out of the reach of many small community and non-profit projects.

Several of the project ideas already mentioned on mysociety require a good base map and additional data collection/local participation (e.g. CCTV map, Eyesore - and others such as openguides.org). My proposal is to build an extensible system that not only is a useful resource in itself, but acts as an enabler for many other projects, giving open free access to the data collected to other suitable organisations. So, the participants are people who want to engage between their environment and the collaborative system, but the real beneficiaries are the many projects that can benefit from such mapping and geographic information.

What is the APPROACH?
Collaborative cartography requires a structure to organise activity, prevent duplication and cross-check data quality.

I have outlined initial thoughts, on how to handle the scale of the problem, potential enabling projects, and participant organisation at
http://undergroundlondon.com/antimega/archives/000149.html .

Whilst this mainly talks about London, now is the time to think about ways to extend and plan the system to support anywhere where there are enough interested citizens to make it work.

Several other people have been thinging about collaborative cartography: http://twenteenthcentury.com/uo/index.php/CcSemanticMappingWeek (with a specific mention for Jo Walsh, who has created several projects that start looking at this problem - http://space.frot.org/ )

What are the BENEFITS to people?
The benefit is subtle but with huge implications. Geographically-organised campaigns become trivial to start. Civic projects become location aware, and more user centric. Projects that could not even be considered due to cost implications can now be started. Good geographic information is a key enabler for true social software - projects that talk about your local society and let you engage with it on a completely equal footing.

What is the COMPETITION?
The biggest competition would be if the OS waved their magic wand and released a subset of their data under a free-for-non-profit licence. Any data like this would be rolled into (and benefit) the system. The system is more than just geopgraphy, as the participants will also be collecting other useful data, such as streetfront photos, wi-fi access points, mobile phone cell IDs, and any other social information that would be useful for a project.

What BUDGET & LOGISTICS are required?
The hard bit is creating the database and front-end system, and keeping interest alive (until the community has enough momentum to carry on regardless).

Some people have created some exploratory code to test some of the programmatic concepts: http://the.earth.li/~kake/cgi-bin/mapping-simple/index.cgi .

It would be worthwhile doing research into how others use the free geopgraphical information available (such as in the US - wi-fi mapping and planning, MYC cell phone quality map), how to make it more useful, and what input and output mechanisms would benefit such projects.

There's nothing that hard in the system, but there's quite a lot of it, and potentially a lot of data to store and search.

From a participant point of view, we could conscript contributors from projects that would benefit from this information (such as openguides.org) to beta and seed the project.

October 31, 2003 in Geographic, User Created Content | Permalink


Doh - I should have read yours, before submitting mine - then I could have referenced it :) This obviously is an itch that many people want to scratch, and I think is quite achievable.

Posted by: Ben Daglish at Oct 31, 2003 1:09:37 PM

There is an open source system for transport routes in Berlin [http://www.bbbike.de - http://bbbike.sourceforge.net] which looks interesting, perhaps as a starting point. Don't know if it has an interface for entering / updating data, but there must be some way of maintaining it.

Using an existing standard data format may be an advantage for compatibility reasons. A system like this would be extremely valuable for local planning and transport issues. I suspect that councils own some data which could be put into the public domain.

You could go along way with a laptop and a GPS device, go around recording roads and junctions, automate this and upload to a server. You would have a decent map in no time. Get people to post information against the grid point - road names, description, cycle lanes, traffic flow, air pollution, whatever - pubs, clubs, gigs coming up....

Make it open access like a wiki, and open ownership, like GPL or indymedia.

Posted by: Mike Tonks at Oct 31, 2003 1:27:25 PM

This is a seriously hard thing to do purely because of the numbers involved.

There are something like 250000 miles of roads in the uk. If this is done on a voluntary basis (say 3 hours, 2 days/week and you want a complete map within 2 years then you're looking at a well organised and motivated team of nearly 150 surveyors and someone to manage their work. In addition you'll need to check the data consistency, manage a _huge_ database...in short duplicating a lot of the Ordnance Survey's work.

I would argue that it may be more worthwhile to get the OS to provide some sort of subset of their (our!) data on a non-commercial license which could be hosted and accessed via a web service with an open API for non-commercial projects.

Posted by: andrew at Oct 31, 2003 1:40:23 PM

Yes, we def. need some alternative data source for things like maps. What I do wonder is that if we start making proposals for the projects that need the data (ok, yes the cctv map is my pet one, I have been playing about with this for the last year, but feel that the lack of access to maps / postcode data has been a stumbling block), we can in a sense force the OS's hand into releasing their datasets, on special use licences?

Attending the Cartographic Congress was an eye opener, the show and tell evening did bring a lot of ideas to the table. I think we need to be looking at building this, but I wonder if we spend too much / long on this and then the OS do relent what do we have ?

Posted by: mark simpkins at Oct 31, 2003 1:52:18 PM

Open/Collaborative mapping in itself will not accomplish any of the aims listed on the mySociety homepage, but is an enabler of such projects, as is Apache, mySQL and Perl. It's also hugely resource intensive.

I wonder if it wouldn't be better to campaign for a 'community license' from the OS - maybe set up a group to organise this?

Posted by: andrew at Oct 31, 2003 2:28:58 PM

Yes - it's a big problem. Read my blog post to see an idea of how to break it down into manageble sections:

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither would this map. But you have to start somewhere.

As for OS, if they did release any data, it would make this system stronger. It's *really* unlikely though, for a number of reasons, and their data is in a different league, and mainly used for different purposes for whay we need. The data collected for this project wouldn't just be map data, but additional information, such as wi-fi access, post codes, reviews, photos, public transport, CCTV cameras... anything people can dream up.

Posted by: Chris at Oct 31, 2003 4:12:01 PM

There definetly appears to be a need for a general purpose mapping tool in a number of the projects i have seen here. Maybe this will be a massive undertaking, but maybe it is worth following up...:)

Posted by: John Taylor at Oct 31, 2003 4:51:10 PM

Have the same idea - registered http://www.freeworldgazetteer.org.uk/ a while ago...

Cheers Daniel

Posted by: Daniel Harris at Nov 1, 2003 9:29:06 AM

Collecting route data is incredibly easy. Just leave your GPS logging track as you drive/cycle around. Get back to an internet connection and upload the raw track data.

The problem then is identifying meaning, such "as this section of track is the
eastbound A406 (aka North Circular Road) from Hanger Lane Gyratory (large roundabout)
to Henlys Corner (light controlled crossroad). This section of track is a dual carriageway"

Some of this can be done by logging waypoints along the course, and then remembering what was there. Others can be done by getting software to automatically note intersections to help.

With a collaborative system, many popular routes will typically get surveyed multiple times, in which case some sort of waypoint/intersection averaging must take place to determine the most accurate survey, since GPS can have varying accuracies. Then you've got the problem of different people logging different descriptions, so you need a formal method of identifying such features (e.g. Never abbreviate "Road" to "Rd", or "Rd.").

It's something to keep passengers happy, especially if they can see the communal map being built in real time as they go along, which would require some easy to use software (easy enough for kids to use) to run on laptops / PDAs.

Posted by: Simon Hewison at Nov 2, 2003 5:44:43 PM

There is also a patent issue vis-a-vis solutions which will use the Open Mapping/Cartography system.


The European patent EP0845124B, entitled "Computer System for Identifying Local Resources and Method Therefor," relates to Multimap.com's technology for displaying both an image of a map and information data relating to at least one place of interest on the map to an end user

Posted by: andrew at Nov 4, 2003 12:16:20 PM

The patent is shown here:

It applies to a very specific usage of information - the _client_ computer overlaying information on top of a map, with information coming from two separate sources. If it is done on the server, that is fine.

There's bound to be prior art for this anyway.

Posted by: Chris at Nov 5, 2003 1:49:17 PM

This does sound like it would function in many of the same wasy as Urban Tapestries -- the key thing being here that we have already built the backend database and a way of integrating GIS data from a variety of sources (not only, but including the OpenGIS GML format used by Ordnance Survey). As you know we're finishing up a rough prototype to demonstrate many of these functions at a public trial in London next month. Our plans for further development on the project are primarily focused on exploring social applications for this kind of 'public authoring' technology and making the basic platform available to others as soon as we can get a stable enough version developed.

One of our aims is to gradually persuade the OS to open up parts of their database, especially for non-commercial applications, and the fact that they've given us access to a sizeable chunk of it (although only for the trial and not to be made available via the web) suggests they are open to discussion. Their biggest problem is that it is not the OS itself, but the government which sets their commercial targets as a way of recouping its considerable investmant in mapping the UK. We have to persuade Tony (and perhaps more realistically) Gordon to effect real change in how OS data might be shared.

Posted by: Giles Lane at Nov 9, 2003 3:58:34 AM

So is there a possibility of trying to sort out some sort of lobbying for this? I think that we need to have in place various options for accepting data from various sources, but I am interested in lobbying for some sort of access to the OS content for usage in a non-commercial environment. And if it is through govt that we have to go, there are ways to start making that noise at least.

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I am currently in the market for steel buildings. I have heard that the steel building industry can be deceptive. I ran across a company called Anthem Steel buildings. Anyone ever purchase a building from them?

If not, do you know any other steel buildings companies?


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