Maps at your fingertips: The challenges and future of tactile maps

This isn’t the first time Frank Welte finds himself in front of an audience that doesn’t know how to read a map. He stands up and presses the thick 11” X 11.5 paper map across his torso on a diagonal. The right hand holds one corner steady; with the left he navigates a slice of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.

“The first thing I’ll do,” he tells the assembled graphic designers, user experience experts and urban planners during a two-hour workshop, “is start at the upper left, to see what the title of the map is, find the scale and locate north.” This three-page black and white map shows the area around Market Street where Welte, who is blind, works as an accessibility media specialist at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Without adding a crinkle to his blue dress shirt, he speeds to the center of the map for the “you are here” cluster of dots in a circle, finds Market street and starts tracing parallel streets, using the key on the pages behind it to locate street names.

Frank Welte critiques a tactile campus map.

Participants at the workshop, held during San Francisco Design week, learned that just how many people could benefit from tactile maps depends on how you define vision loss, as well as when the survey was taken. An estimated 25.5 million adult Americans (or about 10 percent) reported they either “have trouble” seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses, or that they are blind or unable to see at all, according to 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data. Worldwide, there are 253 million visually impaired people.

Navigating your surroundings, however, is a basic right that isn’t yet recognized even by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). However, to participate in today’s society you need access to information, says Greg Kehret, director of LightHouse’s Media and Accessible Design Laboratory (MAD Lab). Whether it’s using a microwave, the washing machine, or an ATM, the blind or visually impaired get “cordoned off through bad design.” Braille and tactile maps have proven useful but until now have been difficult and costly to design, manufacture and distribute.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, wants to change that with Tactile Maps Automated Production (TMAP), a tool for on-demand tactile street maps. Developed with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, TMAP is an accessible, web-based app that uses Google maps search information and OpenStreetMap data to generate tactile and visual representations of streets centered on a user-specified location. Using design parameters to ensure tactile legibility, TMAP quickly and cheaply generates tactile map files compatible with a variety of printers and embossers.

“Too many rectangles!”

The lack of awareness about the importance of tactile maps has created some design challenges along the way. For starters, there are no established universal symbols for these maps. “If you put your hands on a tactile image and you don’t have any training, it can feel like just a mass of lines and be very confusing. We’re here to make it less so,” says BJ Epstein, a project manager at MAD Lab. Using the idea of abstract concepts rather than mimicking real-world objects, the team has crafted tactile maps and wayfinding tools for clients including UC Berkeley, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Calgary Transit System and a number of music festivals.

Detail of a TMAP, via LightHouse.

Take, for example, a typical transit station: “There are rectangles for signs, there are rectangles for shelters, there are rectangles for benches. That’s too many rectangles! So circles represent benches,” Epstein says, adding that they aim to keep symbols consistent across projects. Scale is also less important than it would be in a traditional map, she says. A ticket machine might be about the same size as a staircase – because all the symbols are designed to fit on a fingertip. “We want to use symbols that aren’t bigger than that because that makes it harder to read. Smaller,” she adds, “and it’s harder to discern differences.”

Then it came time to test the skills of workshop participants, with a five-page booklet with the phrase “Do not open. NO PEEKING!” printed across the top. Eyes scrunched shut, we sat at round tables first trying to distinguish basic shapes before moving on to a simplified tactile street map. After failing to successfully identify all but the most basic shapes and mistaking a staircase for a taxi stand, your correspondent felt a rush of appreciation for people who must rely on tactile maps.

“The blind and visually impaired don’t just want empathy, they want practical solutions,” Greg Kehret says. “By showing what’s possible and making it available to as many people as possible, we’re changing expectations around what is reasonable accommodation, really raising the bar above and beyond.”

TMAPS maps are available online at http://LightHouse-sf.org/tmap/
Along with three versions of the map (simple, moderate and dense map scale) buyers get a tactile map key and an introduction to using tactile maps.

This article first appeared in the September 2018 edition of “Calafia,” the California Map Society journal.

 

 

 

Building resiliency maps for Indonesia

Mappers in Semarang. Via Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Indonesia.

Landslides. Motorcycle accidents. Mistaken for terrorists. These are some of the challenges faced by a team of local mappers in Indonesia working on disaster preparedness projects in three cities.

These speed bumps only make Harry Mahardhika chuckle. A training officer at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Indonesia, he still managed to hand over atlases to government officials in Jakarta, Surabaya and Semarang. The printed maps show what he calls “lifeline infrastructure” —  shelters, reservoirs, banks, hospitals, fire stations and the like. His team also provides workshops to officials on best practices for verifying map data plus training manuals and documentation on mapmaking.

Geography marks Indonesia for special attention. The world’s largest island country perches above the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. The consequences can be devastating: the death toll from the most recent earthquake and tsunami on Sulawesi island climbed past 2,000.

That makes this kind of resiliency mapping project even more important. “Governments need community and the community also needs government,” Mahardhika says. These mapping efforts were backed by USAID, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Pacific Disaster Centre (PDC), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Indonesia National Disaster Management Agency. The toolkit included OpenStreetMap, Open Data Kit and OpenMapKit.

Pushing paper

In October 2016, Mahardhika and team spent three months mapping Surabaya, one of the oldest port cities in Southeast Asia with a core population of three million. The setup served as a template for mapping the other two cities. The first step? Pinpoint the right government officials and obtain permits. If you don’t, “you will be seen as bad people or terrorists if you are mapping an area without permission.” Having a permit didn’t necessarily stop questions from skeptical locals.  When push came to shove, mappers were flanked by local workers from a disaster agency to quell fears and back up bona fides.

Gimme shelter

Deciding just what counts as lifeline infrastructure depends on the city. For example, in Jakarta, small places of worship were left off the survey because they usually don’t serve as emergency shelters but these same type of mosques were mapped in Semarang where they offer vital protection. “It’s important for us to know before mapping,” he says. And one more reason why building a community of local mappers is important.
“Locals have really important knowledge of the city, if we just sent people out who like mapping and OSM they’d spend most of the time lost.”  Mappers, some recruited from local universities, needed only basic computer and internet know-how. A mapathon was also held to boost skills.

It takes two

In the two smaller cities, teams were made up of two mapping supervisors, four quality assurance people and 16 on data entry. That number bumped up to one extra QA person and a total of 20 on data entry duty in Jakarta. In the field teams of two worked best. The ideal pairing? A more experienced mapper paired with a newbie, often a person with more granular local knowledge. Mappers can cover a lot of ground in pairs and, should quibbles arise, can be worked out quickly. “We don’t want drama in this project,” he adds.

Jakarta before and after the mapping project via https://visualize-change.hotosm.org/

Motor city

The mapping journey covers a lot of ground. Motorcycles are a necessity in places like Jakarta where traffic can eat up to 90 minutes to cover three miles. Teams set out first with permits, plus survey maps and satellite images to meet with village representatives. These meetings also serve to update and verify boundaries on a district or neighborhood level, Mahardhika says. Once these are set, the team hits the road again to map the critical and priority points in the area.

The data collected feeds into OpenStreetMap with customized presets on the JOSM editor and uploaded to the server. Then it’s pored over to check both topology and tags before review by a supervisor. Once verified, the supervisor exports the data and a printed version, the atlas, is given back to local government. Using the data collected, the team also presented officials with two thematic maps: evacuation routes for Jakarta and hazards in Semarang.

The results? In five months mapping Jakarta, over 1.5 million buildings and 24,965 ‘lifeline’ points were mapped. In Semarang over the course of four months 482,740 buildings and 11,048 points of interest were added and in Surabaya in three months some 643,933 buildings and 4,417 points of interest were added. The HOT team also jumped in during the most recent earthquake to map the hardest-hit areas in Sulawesi. Up next, the HOT Indonesia team will continue partnering with Facebook to fill out the country’s road network.

Catch his full 30-minute presentation at the recent State of the Map Detroit conference here.

 

Looking at the world through “Red Lines: Maps that recount our world”

SAN FRANCISCO — Federico Rampini wants everyone to play with maps. The veteran foreign correspondent – Brussels, Beijing, New York – has been drawing red lines on maps to reveal more about present, past and future geopolitics.

Rampini is something of a professional wanderer. Born in Genoa, Italy he grew up in Brussels. Still in his 20s, a stint at an Italian communist paper and a knack for languages landed him some reporting trips abroad. He’s been on the move ever since. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen based in New York, he returned “home” to San Francisco where he lived in the early aughts to present his latest book. Continue reading

Beautiful maps in minutes: Meet Kepler.gl

SAN FRANCISCO — Shan He may hold Silicon Valley’s most meta job.

“When I started out, I was building maps. Then I moved on to build tools to build maps and now I’m doing tools to do tools that build maps.”

He, who dumped brick-and-mortar architecture studies for computational design, joined Uber as founding member of the data visualization team in 2014. She went on to construct Kepler.gl, a tool that helps make “beautiful maps in like 10 seconds” — without any coding. Built using the deck.gl WebGL data visualization framework, the ride-sharing company recently open-sourced the geospatial toolbox that can be used with QGIS, Carto and Mapbox Studio. Given its origins, it’s easy to see why Kepler excels at large-scale visualizations centering on geolocations.

She set the stage for a recent standing-room-only meetup hosted by Mapbox for two case studies on what the tool can do and how you can get involved.

Catching air inside Uber

Chris Gervang, software engineer at Uber, started playing around with Kepler.gl without alerting his data vis team colleagues to his tinkering. Gervang works on one of the Valley’s most (ahem) pie-in-the-sky initiatives: an urban air transportation project dubbed Elevate. The second Uber Elevate summit featured a keynote by the head of aviation, Eric Allison, that would’ve fallen flat if not bolstered with stunning maps.

Titled “Scaling Uber Air,” it featured data visualizations to show everything the company knows about how people move around in cities and how to use that to model the future Uber air network.

“We were extremely careful to use realistic data for our visualizations, to show what we think Uber Air can look like using our most current research,” Gervang says.

To produce the visuals, they used images captured from a cinematography app, on top of Kepler.gl. in a four-step process: planning the story, using Kepler.gl to visualize the data in motion, then a video editor to add effects that weren’t available in a browser and, finally, put them into a slide deck to add graphics. His team then repeated the process for all 17 visualizations in the keynote.

One of those maps showed an average weekday in Los Angeles and Orange counties, 45.8 million unique trips happen over a 24-hour period aggregated, into one kilometer by one kilometer tiles — here’s that bit from the keynote, it’s even more impressive with motion. The entire keynote or slides are also available.

Lime time

If Uber is hated enough to regularly station guards outside its Market Street headquarters, Lime has the distinction of being one of three scooter sharing companies recently booted from the streets of San Francisco.

Aash Anand, head of analytics at Lime, says the company started out in 2017 in a much less contentious space, just a “normal, not electric, bike sharing startup.” One of the visuals showed a Kepler-made map of bike patterns spidering around Greensboro, North Carolina, the first Lime town.

Anand says that speed is what gives Kepler an edge — he put together his presentation for the meetup together on the 40-minute Uber ride from Lime’s San Mateo headquarters.
“That’s actually the biggest value of Kepler has added to my life as someone who works with data,” he says. “When Lime started really growing there was no time to make things look pretty and perfect, some of these were done at lightning speed, at the request of someone in a crisis.”

What’s next

The team at Uber hopes mapmakers that will adopt Kepler — and provide feedback. As they’re planning out the next set of features —including making sharing a lot easier more visualization types, especially “cool things like flight paths” Shan He says— they are asking folks to take a survey and hashtag any projects with #keplergl. If you’re ready to try it out, try the demo or check out the GitHub repository and the tutorials on Vis Academy, a hub for visualization tutorials and classes prepared by the Uber Visualization team.

Spot the difference: The new Apple maps

As a kid, I had a total thing for those “spot the difference” cartoons.

Here’s a look at what I found with the new Apple Maps for San Francisco, want to play* along?

(*Every attempt was made to frame maps at same zoom level but no scientific-y methods were employed to do this.)

Driving directions from Cupertino to San Francisco

Click to expand. Old version on the left. In the new version the option to show traffic and 3D are always in frame.

Continue reading

Stories, Stats & Scatterplots: Inside data visualization at the Financial Times

Four years ago, John Burn-Murdoch was a journalist who had never written a line of code. These days, the senior data visualization journalist at the Financial Times says he rarely writes anything but code.

While what Burn-Murdoch dubs a “cool journey” sounds a little extreme (from zero to R, on the job, seriously?), he was never strictly a text journalist. He holds advanced degrees in data science and interactive journalism. Before landing at the FT, he worked as data journalist at The Guardian for two years.

On loan from the London headquarters to focus on bias in artificial intelligence and geographical inequality, the spiky-haired, elfin Burn-Murdoch offered a peek inside the workings of the FT data newsroom for about 50 members of the Bay Area d3 User Group.

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Adventures in data cleaning: Did the New York Times undercount risky San Francisco skyscrapers?

It looks like the New York Times may have undercounted the number of risky skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, 48 instead of 39. It’s a seemingly small difference – 20 percent if you do the math – but it’s significant if you consider how many people work in these large buildings. A June 15 story focused on steel moment buildings cited in a USGS report.

I made a quick map using the addresses from the NYT story, then I wanted to make one that included photos of the buildings. This time I went directly to the report, noticing that the first address wasn’t listed in the story, it seemed like a good idea to see if there were any more discrepancies.

TL;DR

To check how I got them:

  • The USGS report, starting on page 360, in .PDF
  • The .KML file I made, for more fact-checking and map making (pretty please send links to your maps or put them in the comments – I’m a casual mapper, using new tools and working quickly!)
  • Here are the additional nine addresses from the report that weren’t in the NYT story:
  1. The Mills Building, 221 Montgomery Street
  2. 225 Bush Street
  3. 140 Montgomery Street
  4. 120 Montgomery Street
  5. 45 Fremont Street
  6. 55 2nd Street
  7. 555 Mission Street
  8. 611 Folsom Street
  9. 680 Folsom Street

The clumsy adventure

To start, I downloaded the 454-page .PDF, then extracted five pages with the buildings listed by using the >Print>Pages>Save as .PDF function in Preview for Mac. Then I converted the .PDF to .CSV with Sejda. After that, it was time for Terminal to merge the extracted data from those pages into one file with the command:

cat *.csv >merged.csv

Still too messy to be useful without a lot of tedious cleanup:

So I tried the quickest and dirtiest way I know: copy the table from the .PDF into Word, then from Word (where it’s recognized as a table) copy it into Excel.

There are a couple hundred buildings listed, but the ones cited in the story are steel moment frames. Erected before a 1994 building code outlawed a flawed welding technique, they harbor particular risk in a quake of magnitude seven or higher.

From the USGS report: Steel moment frame listed as “Steel MF,” “Steel moment frame” and “MF.”

From there it was a question of sorting the buildings listed as “Steel MF,” noting that a couple are listed alternatively as “Steel moment frame” and one as simply as “MF.” Messy messy messy: also, totally typical. (There were also about 15 more listed as Steel MF in combination with some other reinforcement, since it would require more reporting to figure out if they’re as risky, these were left out.)

Then I checked the addresses against the story, added polygons for the nine new addresses to the previous uMap, downloaded it as a .KML file and started playing around in Google Maps.

The resulting map is a little disappointing. For starters, the polygons from uMap (which uses OpenStreetMap) don’t jibe that well with Google. As for the images – since the real a-ha if you live or work in San Francisco is how many of these buildings you’re in or around – I always forget how bad these are in the noob version of Google Maps. When you’re editing in the map, they are Polaroid-style pop-ups that resize whatever pic you throw in. The published version looks nothing like that and the overall effect with these building shots (all vertical) is horrific. Ugh. There’s no way to resize the window from this version of Google Maps – the alternatives are Google Fusion tables (which wouldn’t solve the problem here since AFAIK it works with points, not polygons) or  programming via the Google Maps API.

Why this happened

So how did the New York Times undercount the number of especially shaky high rises? Going on my experience with newsrooms (long) and with data (short but painful) my first guess is that the USGS mistakenly gave the Times an Excel or .CSV file that was different from what ended up in the final report.

The reporter knew there were enough buildings to warrant a story, somewhere around 40, the graphics person had the file, made the map and those numbers were plugged into the story and fact checked without going back to the published report.

Or there was some glitch between the formats – given how annoying the process of getting information from .PDF into anything – it’s easy enough. Data cleaning is the least interesting, most tedious part of any project. In this case, if I’m right, there are 20 percent more risky buildings than originally reported.

A quickie map of San Francisco’s earthquake prone skyscrapers


See full screen

See full screen – search for San Francisco if you see a world map.

The New York Times recently ran a story about San Francisco high rises – mostly downtown and South of Market – with steel frames that harbor particular risk in a quake of magnitude seven or higher. About 40 of these skyscrapers, erected before a 1994 building code outlawed a flawed welding technique, were cited in an April USGS report.

It’s one of those stories that could’ve used in interactive map at its core, but instead (it’s the news business, kid!) the map was a small, static graphic (see below) and the story ended with a list of the addresses.

Image courtesy NYT.

So here’s a simple map of those 39 steel moment-frame buildings. A few necessary caveats: this is the handiwork of a casual mapper trying out a new tool. I’ve been looking for a way to use OpenStreetMap to make personalized maps and spotted some earthquake maps from the Japanese OSM community with uMap, so it seemed worth a try. It was heavy going for a map made on the fly – the polygon tool was clunky and importing the list as a cleaned up .CSV wasn’t happening.

Still, a few things pop out: A few of these risky buildings are also near construction sites. In OSM, these are shown in sage green. (The light green represents parks.)

The struggle to use the uMap polygon tool is real. This is a closeup of 550 California Street, with a 19-story office building under construction nearby.

The Folsom Bay Tower will be a 39-story, 422-foot (129 m) residential skyscraper.

Park Tower at Transbay will have 43 stories, First & Mission’s Oceanwide Center features 636-foot-tall tower on Mission at First Street and a 910-foot-tall tower on the opposite corner on First Street.

And much like the reporter, shocked to discover the NYT offices are in one of these buildings, there were a few a-ha moments. A family member works in one and I’ve been inside at least a handful recently – an event at Autodesk, a movie at Embarcadero Center, a Wikimedia meetup, met a friend staying at the Marriott, emerged from the Montgomery Street Station in front of one three or four times, etc.

It’s an unscientific sample size of one (well, two if you count the reporter) but would wager that most people who live or work in San Francisco are around, if not inside, these buildings frequently.

How to use mobile app Go Map!! to edit OpenStreetMap

Here’s a quick tutorial for the Go Map!! iPhone / iPad app (v1.5.3) created by Bryce Cogswell and available gratis in the app store.

The short video above shows how to edit in two scenarios – adding information to an entry and adding a point-of-interest. The text below is a mashup of my experience using it and the app’s help section.

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Getting started with OpenStreetMap: Making your first edit

If you want to contribute but aren’t familiar with OpenStreetMap (OSM), here’s a tutorial to get you started. There are two quick ways to begin with OSM, you can edit the map with local information or armchair map for Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT.) Either way, you’ll need to create a free account here. This LearningOSM guide is also worth a look.

Method one: Edit what you know

Once you’re logged in, choose your editor. The easiest one for beginners is iD. You’ll be asked if you want the walkthrough before editing – take it! There are more details on settings below in the humanitarian tutorial. Continue reading