Why OpenStreetMap matters: Where did Dokdo go?

One of the rocky outcrops under dispute. Photo // CC BY NC

Battle lines have always been drawn over maps. Place names are political, cultural, temporal: from Constantinople to Istanbul and Burma to Myanmar what a place is called matters.

In the digital age, however, you have no idea who is behind the changes and why.  The companies that make the maps millions of people use every day change names following opaque processes that appear to depend on who lobbies loudest at the moment. It’s a strong argument for free, public, editable maps like OpenStreetMap where both the changes and the debate are transparent.

About a week ago, I spotted this poster petitioning Google to put Dokdo back on the map at San Francisco’s Korean American Community Center of San Francisco & Bay Area.

They’re a small group of islets off the coast of South Korea with a host of potential names. The Korean name for them is Dokdo, in Japan it’s Takeshima; Liancourt comes from a whaling-era French ship that almost wrecked on these jagged rocks.

In 2012, the centuries-old fight between Korea and Japan went digital and, bowing to pressure, Apple Maps and Google Maps changed the name from Dokdo to Liancourt Rocks. The drive to change it back hasn’t ebbed, as recent as April 2018 the islands cropped up in a dessert that didn’t sit well with Japanese diplomats.

The Silicon Valley companies who reside roughly 5,400 miles away from the contentious spot never publicly stated why. And if this sounds like just arcane name-calling – at stake are fishing rights, resource rights, national security rights. (The dissection of why this matters in “Prisoners of Geography” is definitely worth a read.)

Considering the 2012 date on the poster, I wondered whether the question had been settled. Nope. Open up the map that’s an extension of your brain (aka your smartphone) and neither Google Maps or Apple Maps will get you to Dokdo.

Google does a slightly better job, at least acknowledging that the place you’re looking for when you type in Dokdo is what they’ve decided to call Liancourt Rocks.

Apple Maps assumes its users have fat fingers and shows places with “Tokyo” in the name.
The exception: if you’re searching close to South Korea, it directs you to the Dodko Museum, dedicated to the territorial question.
On OpenStreetMap, by contrast, you’ll find Dokdo.
Even if you’re not logged in, you can see when the last edit was made. Sign up for a free account and you can see the history of the edits and join the discussion. The last tag on the page shows what the “wrong name” is.
It’s not perfect. If you search for Liancourt Rocks, it’s a little confusing because there are no results on OpenStreetMap but there’s a result from database GeoNames.
Looking up just “Liancourt” gets you two OSM results  in France, with the GeoNames entries “Liancourt Rocks” rolling through France, Canada and Haiti before getting to the search term.
There’s a lot more to be done — for starters, getting OpenStreetMap as the every-pocket cellphone map. For an itch-scratching project, I’m testing a bunch of OSM-friendly apps (mainly for editing but most also provide navigation) and there is a ways to go.

But until Google and Apple launch open, community-driven forums for questions surrounding map making (much like they are proprietary-driven companies but still have open-source departments) OSM willl be the fairest, most transparent public map around.

 

Quick preview of forthcoming book “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey”

Most of us have swerved a few wrong turns or hacked through some questionable trails and cursed the map. Most of us, though, wouldn’t spend seven years and engage dozens of experts to make a better one.

Then again, most of us aren’t Bradford Washburn. This climb-every-mountain polymath was let down by the sketchy trail maps of the Grand Canyon available in 1969. At the time, age 60 and director of the Boston Science Museum, he knew what made a good map. Washburn was the first climber to scale 20,320-foot Denali and his map of the peak is still considered the definitive map of the region. A pioneer in aerial photography, he’d go on to map Mount Everest and the Presidential Range.

But it’s his National Geographic Grand Canyon map, finally published in 1978, that illustrates his “extreme dedication to the craft of map making” says Betsy Mason, co-author of Nat Geo’s All over the Map blog. Mason previewed one of the 80 stories and showed off some of the 200 maps from forthcoming book she wrote with colleague Greg Miller titled “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey” at the recent California Map Society spring meeting.

It was the best of crowds (people who readily chime in with the correct pronunciation of “theodolite” and already grasp the merits of hachuring) and the worst of crowds (after lunch on a warm Saturday) but the story behind the Grand Canyon map kept people mostly awake and ready to push over the 45-minute session limit with questions.

Mason and Miller first started the Map Lab blog back at Wired, then moved it over to National Geographic in 2013. Mason, taken with Washburn’s Grand Canyon map the first time she saw it, went archive diving at her new employer’s and found a “huge trove of boxes” about the making of the map.

Photo brewbooks on Flickr. // CC BY NC

She spotted Washburn’s pitch to fund the Grand Canyon map describing the most current 1962 map (at a scale of 1 inch = 1 mile with 80-foot contour lines) as “simply inadequate” and “disturbing” for the “incredibly rough country” with “extremely intricate trails.” His map would be an “exciting addition to world cartography and one of the most magnificent cartographic challenges.”

Komo Point. Washburn’s reference point – a globe core – used for aerial photography still marks the spot. Photo brewbooks on Flickr. // CC BY NC

The acceptance for his proposal was swift, but that was the only thing that happened fast. By the time Washburn and his intrepid volunteers had spent 147 days in the canyon, made over 700 helicopter landings and mapped 100 miles of trail, the original $30,000 cost had already ballooned to $100,000 (about $500,000 today, Mason says.)

“The hardest part was to come. Turning the field work into a map would turn out to be just as laborious,” Mason says. The tech and techniques involved in the Grand Canyon map are as fascinating as they are unfathomable to software-driven mappers today — for starters, translating aerial photos and surveying information into contouring sheets by hand etching them. Those sheets were then condensed into one map at a scale of 2,000 feet per inch with 50-foot contours. You’ll have to check out the book for more on the artistry of rendering the curves and dips of the canyon leading to the published version of the map, which was not a commercial success.

As map lovers who are journalists, Mason and Miller focused on digging up the stories behind the maps rather than on history or cartography. Some of the maps she previewed included pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s 19th-century map of the retina and Jerry Gretzinger’s map of a fictional world — 50 years in the making and counting.

You’ll be able to wrap your hands around the hardcover “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey” on October 23, 2018 — in time to put it on your holiday gift lists and make room on the coffee table.

Five-minute map: San Francisco’s proposed Uber/Lyft loading zones

Update: March 23, 2018. A pilot zone geofencing Lyft drivers from picking up passengers on Valencia Street has been added in the Mission. Source: Examiner.com

If you drive, walk or bike in San Francisco you know what a nightmare the ride-hailing services can be.

And if you use them often you’re probably in the habit of trying to pin yourself on a side street or a big empty parking space/driveway and pray they don’t double park while trying to find you. (Zipping past the anecdotal, it’s been calculated that 45,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles now operating in San Francisco account for more than 200,000 trips a day.)

So now the city is interested in adding ride-hailing passenger pick-up zones in a horse- trading effort to wring more data from these startups.

The San Francisco Examiner reports there are seven proposed “loading zones” and maybe one or two will be piloted. It’s a well-reported story — except that it’s missing a map. The neighborhoods are Hayes Valley, Inner Richmond, Inner Sunset, Noe Valley, North Beach, Marina and downtown.

Five minutes later with Google Maps:

A few things jump out — there’s nothing in the traffic-choked Mission district (see update above) and two “maybes” downtown. (The mapped one on Howard Street above and another potential one left unmapped since it’s described as “between Howard and Third or Fourth streets.”)

Also, once they’re mapped, if you zoom in it’s apparent that the length of these zones varies widely. The North Beach one looks like road rage waiting to happen.

San Francisco does have passenger loading zones already — white curbs with a time limit of five minutes — which in my armchair estimation (and the name “curbs”) says they’re mostly shorter than the approximately 600 feet (two blocks) of the shortest ride-hailing zones in the Richmond and Sunset…

Thoughts?

Full story over at The Examiner.

What’s under the canals of Venice? Old boats, tires and a few surprises

Image courtesy Ismar-Cnr.

Most visitors to Venice drift through the canals on gondolas taking selfies. But a group of researchers spent seven months puttering along pointing high-resolution multibeam echosounders into the waters instead. About 30 of them in all worked aboard the powerboat Litus, intent on mapping the Venice lagoon to gauge the effects of climate change on one of the world’s most improbable cities.

Research boat Litus, courtesy Ismar-CNR

While what’s under those gray-green waters isn’t exactly surprising — boat parts, old tires and containers — scientists say the underwater elevation mapping (that’s “bathymetry,” for the technically minded) comes at a critical time.

Old boats, tires and containers. Image courtesy Ismar-Cnr.

The last 100 years have radically altered the shape and ecological makeup of the lagoon, researchers say: for starters, salt marsh areas shrunk by half and underlying sediment has radically shifted. The “floating city” already struggles to stay above water in the spring and summer floods and relative sea level rise is expected to increase their frequency. The Mose system, with its 78 mobile gates that can hold back almost 10 feet of water, construction launched in 2003 and is said to be near completion in 2018.

Entrance to Malamocco port 1) Mose gate 2) 48-meter (157-foot) trench 3) the oil refinery canal. Image courtesy Ismar-Cnr.

“Before the Mose system begins to function, it was important to have a full picture of the bathymetry and currents of the tidal channels and inlets, which are the most dynamic portion of the lagoon,” researchers say in a paper published in “Nature.” They caution that the relatively rapid erosive process could threaten the stability of the “hard structures” (read: priceless palazzos) in the near future and should certainly be periodically monitored.

If you want to dig into the datasets, the scientists from research groups (Ismar-Cnr and Iim) have CC-licensed and made them available online with the paper.

A scour hole found where two channels meet. Image courtesy Ismar-Cnr.

“The data also allows us to identify areas with large dunes at the bottom and adjacent erosion sites that document the most dynamic points in the deep lagoon, where it’s important to cyclically repeat these studies to quantify the movement of sediments,” head of the study Fantina Madricardo says in the press release (translation mine.)

Part of the reason these Venice maps look so trippy (or alarming?) is due to the city’s curious geography, perching atop 118 islands bridged by canals. On most bathymetric maps, deeper waters are represented by soothing darker shades (green, blue, violet) and warmer colors (red, orange, yellow) represent shallower waters. A bathymetric map of the San Francisco Bay by comparison looks, well, a lot more soothing despite its notorious currents.

Armchair mappers: help prepare for the next humanitarian crisis

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 5.05.35 PMKathmandu before and after OpenStreetMap’s humanitarian team dived in.

In just 48 hours after Nepal’s devastating earthquake, thousands of volunteers from around the world helped create maps that guided emergency response teams.

Many of these “digital humanitarians” came from OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping effort. OpenStreet Map launched  Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, when the office safeguarding country’s maps pancaked in the 7.0 temblor.

_Schuyler Erle shows what happened to Haiti's mapping office post earthquake._

Schuyler Erle shows what happened to Haiti’s mapping office post earthquake.

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Where in the world can you still send a telegram? [Map]

Telegrams may have gone the way of the steam engine, but there are number of places around the world, from Japan to Mexico, still sending them.

The news about India shuttering its 162-year-old telegram service sounded like the last, labored puff of a country making progress into a bold new era.

So I wondered where people are still using them as a swift, inexpensive means to send condolences and well wishes on important occasions. (An outfit called – what else? – iTelegram took over from Western Union for the U.S., though I can’t remember ever sending or receiving a telegram here.)
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Why journalists should bite the bullet and map with Quantum GIS

A view of Alameda census info over Stamen's terrain map.

A view of Alameda census info over Stamen’s terrain map in QGIS.

If you’re a novice mapper, tools like Google Fusion Tables (aka the WordPress of mapping) might make Quantum GIS look like rough terrain.

QGIS is an open source powerhouse for mapping that has a number of advantages. It’s free (as in free speech) runs on Mac or PC and you can import shapefiles, coverage data plus any personal geodatabases you may have on hand.

So get over yourself and try it, advised Len De Groot of Knight Digital Media Center in his recent online Intro to Data Mapping class.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. But there’s a lot of drag and drop, something most of us can do,” he said in the hour-long session to a group of around 60 global journalists. “You do have to build up some muscle memory on how this works, but it will make your data mapping much more robust.” Continue reading

Lessons from John Snow for the novice data journalist

A modern, color take on Snow's original.

An interactive take on Snow’s original map with color by andreit on umapper.

Dr. John Snow put cholera on the map. Well, to be more precise, he mapped the cholera outbreak of the 1854 in London’s Soho, stacking up the deaths against a contaminated water pump and saving an untold number of lives.

Snow’s bicentennial birthday happens this month, on March 15. They’ll be raising a glass to him at the Soho pub bearing his name as well as holding a free symposium in his birthplace of York.

His map is the stuff of textbooks, from design guru Edward Tufte – who even made a pilgrimage to the water pump – and was set before us in the MOOC Infographics and Data Visualization course and KDMC’s two-day seminar on data as a paragon of good information design.

In both classes, the clean, simple map elicited a whoosh of “ahh!” from the students – you look and immediately get it. (The back story of Snow’s map makes it even more powerful – the good doc was laboring against local authorities who still believed the miasma theory.)

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives.

His legacy lives on in health maps everywhere. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is hosting an art exhibit in Snow’s honor – you can check out some of the items, including the above gem of malaria outbreaks in fascist troops in Italy, here.

One of the big takeaways for me, as a novice, is how working with data is often a group effort. (Journalism, though it does require getting people to talk to you, is largely a solitary pursuit. Scribbling away in a garret or blogging with your laptop at a cafe doesn’t take a village.)

In his excellent The Ghost Map  (public library), Steven Johnson recounts how Snow was helped out by local curate Reverend Henry Whitehead, one of the few people who kept knocking on doors and talking to people during the outbreak. Whitehead’s knowledge of those particular dark, odorous London streets proved invaluable, even though he first believed Snow was wrong.

It can be tempting to hover over your spreadsheets and tinker with your scripts, much like you might worry over the structure of an article, but involving the community makes a difference.