A Modern Mapping Party

Last month I ran a mapping party in Castle Rock, Colorado at the new Philip S. Miller Park:

Philip S Miller Park

Philip S Miller Park

The park was challenging for a few reasons:

  • Nothing on the map before we did the party
  • No up-to-date aerial imagery
  • Lots of footpaths in winter mud conditions

Luckily we had a bunch of enthusiastic people at the event. The footpaths were easily captured using GPS units but the new buildings, football field and other macroscopic features were harder to do.


Drones to the rescue!

Luckily I own a Phantom Vision 2+ drone which looks like this:


So I sent it up to 500 feet or so and took some pictures with the HD camera which looked like this:


The image shows part of the car park, internal access roads and the new sports building (red) and swimming pool (beige). Having some pictures is great, but what we needed to do was patch the images together to be able to map on top of them. You take these warped images from some height, location, yaw, pitch and roll and stitch them in to something flat and usable .

Enter MapWarper. This web-based tool will help you spit out that map:


You’re looking at multiple images stitched together, click it for a bigger interactive version. MapWarper is a little clunky in the work flow as it stands today. Each image is stitched to OSM as a ground truth and then you use multiple of those in to a layer. The problem here is when you have no ground reference to stitch to, which is the issue we had. It would be super useful to be able to stitch images to each other, and to the ground rather than having multiple images in free space. Still, the thing basically works but is best used (and apparently intended for) single high altitude images, or old maps. Not multiple images like I did.

One solution would be to send the drone higher and cross fingers it doesn’t decide to fly away or something, and take a single image that way. The downside is lower resolution of the imagery. Upside it (hopefully) less distortion from the fairly wide angle lens the Phantom Vision 2+ has.

You can go from MapWarper to editing using iD on the OSM website pretty trivially, and anyone can now use the imagery to help improve the map. So one person can go through all the imagery pain, but then everyone else can use the imagery as if it was just any other layer. Big savings there.

So what’s important here? I think it’s a new tool in the belt for use at mapping parties (and a new set of toys to play with). You’re no longer (and haven’t been for a while) restricted to existing imagery and GPS units. For a fairly modest cost you can collect your own live imagery and make maps better, all by yourself.


Measuring continental drift with your phone!

Most of the work mapping people do is concerned with moving GPS units. Walking, driving, biking with a GPS and doing things with that movement data. But, there is a big use case for static GPS units too!

As far as I can find out, continental drift and glacier movement is measured by buying a GPS, strapping a really big battery/solar pack on to it and embedding it in a lump of concrete (or a glacier) so it won’t move much. Then you come back a year (or whatever) later and see how much it’s moved by averaging out the locations it’s been collecting. The location will vary minute to minute within some bubble (30ft across or so). But over the span of a year you can average it out and get the movement of the glacier or continent. Like this guy is doing:


Guy planting a GPS in a glacier

So the question to me is, instead of having one GPS collecting for a year, could I have 365 GPS units for a day? Or, 4,380 GPS units for an hour…. And get the same result? Or at least something fun to wave around?

I suspect the simple answer is no, because having thousands of GPS units in the same place for an hour will all record the same systematic bias. But, what if you had thousands of people collecting drift information part-time around the planet? That would be fun!

So I built a little thing I’m calling OpenDrift. If you go to m.opendrift.org with a phone there’s an alpha version of what I’m thinking. What it does is uses your accelerometer to wait until your phone is still. Then, it uses the GPS to start recording. As soon as you pick it up it will stop since you moved the phone. If you knock the table it’s on, it will stop. And so on.

So, you could imagine instead of leaving your phone to do nothing overnight you could instead leave it to record 8 hours of drift data. We’d anonymize it and record drift information just for the nearest 100 mile square or something so we don’t know where your house is. Then we could aggregate that data with other phones across the world and see if we get something that looks accurate out of it.

Maybe, just maybe, we could produce a pretty visualization of that data. It would be a huge, fun citizen science project.

Today the code isn’t actually recording anything, and it can’t distinguish a phone from a laptop (which typically won’t have a real GPS). But the proof is there and I’m working on those things.

That sounds fun, what can I do?

Join the mailing list. Also, the code is on github, feel free to submit patches.


The Book of Reddit

The Book of OSM is going really well. So much so that I’m thinking about what’s next.

I love reddit. I’m thinking that a book of interviews with the people who make reddit live would be super interesting and fun. I’m imagining 25-35 interviews across a range of subreddits and interests. Why those subreddits exist, what makes them tick, who the people are and so on.

You can sign up at thebookofreddit.com to keep in the loop.

I’m building a book cover right now over on crowdspring. You can vote on the book covers. Have a look and let me know what you think about the idea and the best cover design.


10 Ideas for Southwest Airlines

I love James Altuchers “send someone 10 ideas a day” thing and have been doing it for a while. I figure, since the response rate is pretty low why not just make them public too?

  1. I almost made A-List preferred in 2014. Southwest should email me in December and tell me I’m going to miss it by a few flights. Southwest should email me in January and say “hey for $100 you can top up to get to A-List Preferred” so I don’t miss out. You get more revenue, I don’t miss the opportunity like I did.
  2. The front row on the plane has nowhere to store a bag since there is no seat in front. This is especially painful for people picking the middle seats late in boarding since the overhead bins are full. Figure out a way for the front row to have some storage and it’ll make it available to people like me with a laptop who get on the plane first but have to sit further back because there’s no space even though the seats are free.
  3. Fix the WiFi. It’s only ever barely worked. I took a Lufthansa 747 over the Atlantic a few months ago and used their WiFi. Whatever those guys are doing works.
  4. Stop sending me drinks coupons if I don’t drink. Figure out some other reward, since people just sell them on eBay.
  5. Make the drinks coupons digital in the app and save the paper and mailing costs. Figure out a way to avoid fraud with QR codes or something. Maybe print them on the ticket.
  6. TSA are your number one customer pain point. Help A-List customers get Clear cards and figure out a way to make TSA die.
  7. Mobile boarding passes disappear from the app when the flight is delayed since it thinks you’ve boarded and taken off. Fix that. It’s causing gate staff to reprint tons of passes.
  8. The mobile app makes it painful to scroll through all the cities to find the one you want when booking. Let me type a few letters to narrow the list down.
  9. Add baggage tracking to the app. Let me get alerts when the bag is scanned off the plane and so on.
  10. Partner with Uber and UberX so someone is waiting for me when I land and knows where to take me. Let me set this up in-flight on the wifi.

Sustainable Open Source

Pure open source projects for the most part fit on a spectrum between “dead” and “permanently about to die.”

The vast majority are dead. This silent evidence can be found in random search results popping up old sourceforge projects not updated in a few years.

The two obvious questions are why is this so, and does it matter?

The why is pretty easy. Without a rational set of incentives to continue a project, the irrational takes over and the project blows up. If you’re not working to help your customers so you can pay the rent, you’re there for some other reason. It’s fun, the ideology is attractive or some other reason. This is why non-profits are full of crazy. The challenge is that things are only fun for so long and then you leave.

The great churches of open source might be linux in all its forms and wikipedia. Wikipedia is clearly about to die, because they tell you every time they run a new fund raising campaign. The various linux things are all about to die: Debian gave way to Ubuntu which is apparently giving way to Mint.

Now, should we care?

I argue we should. Having slightly more stable open projects would have a number of benefits. Most of these benefits are hard to prove and intangible. For example, imagine Debian becoming Ubuntu without creation of intermediary projects and all that wasted effort. To the end user there’s a little less friction in using one distribution rather than switching. But, if there was stability and better incentives, maybe all linux distributions wouldn’t look like Windows 98 – maybe designers would be incentivized to contribute meaningfully instead of running away screaming.

Or, Wikipedia without the period funding spam. It’s hard again to quantify the inconvenience of the banners asking for money as opposed to something else like advertising or reddit’s community-driven ads to fund the project rather than donations.

It appears that open projects typically get taken over by the ideological extremists who want everything to be free, everywhere and all the time. This makes it difficult to achieve anything so the middle group leave to form some new project. The original dies and then the new one eventually gets taken over and so on repeatedly. The people with a profit motive aren’t usually there in the first place, since they’re happily using a mac, windows or whatever the proprietary version is of the project.

The lack of profit motive has other side effects. It means UI/UX in open projects is stuck around the Windows 98 era as I mentioned. It means that reddit owns the community and content that wikipedia should be embracing. It means new improved things typically aren’t open projects. Open projects are typically open copies of existing things, cheaper and faster and less bugs. But still copies.

The other models for creating Intellectual Property have their own downsides of course. VC-backed stuff (open or closed) tends to blow up 90+% of the time. Closed projects don’t get widespread input and improvements where it matters.

I think hybrid dual-licensing is the future. It worked ok for MySQL. It’s working for many other projects too, and it doesn’t look as draining as doing purely open projects while still paying the rent.

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