Monday, July 30, 2007

Vizualizing the World

I have trouble getting up in the morning, the best way I've found of dealing with this is to set my alarm half an hour early and watch a TED talk on my video iPod before getting up. Odd I know, I have to share this morning's example with you:

It's Hans Rosling talking about animated graphics, not strictly Google Earth or even virtual globes but what he's doing is producing a visualization that helps people understanding what is happening on our planet. And its absolutely wonderful.

You'll note that because of the mass of data he's plotting his icons are as simple as possible - colored circles. To track the path of an icon across the graph he doesn't use a line, he uses a trail of icons - instantly you know which icon he's talking about. Also, there is no chart junk, everything on the graph is there for a purpose. I could go on further about it, but I'd just end up sounding gushy.

You have to watch to the end for the finale, it had me laughing so much I probably woke up my neighbors.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Map Elegance

Update 30/7/07: some details corrected

In the near future I'm going to publish an interview with Steve Chilton, Chair of the UK Society of Cartographers. In the process of doing a bit of a catch up (we met last year when I gave a talk to their annual conference) he pointed me to a talk ('Here be dragons' - he does two talks) he gave recently to the OpenStreetMap conference about map design. I'm going to talk to Steve about OpenStreetMap organisation in the interview so I won't talk about the project here, but I did like one particular point he made in his talk which is about the Artistry involved in map making. Over at Juicy Geography Noel recently ran a competition to find the most artistic view from GE, here's an example I've always liked:

(a screen shot of some beautiful rivers in Mali from Google Earth. KML file here)

but that isn't what Steve meant, I think he was alluding to the elegance that comes with good design. Similar to a soaring arch in a Cathedral or the simplicity of an iPod interface, the beauty of a map lies not in its form but in how it performs its function. The classic example of this is the London tube map (which I can't show in an image from copyright reasons).

Monday, July 23, 2007

Death to Acronyms

I've been a little quiet recently as I've been on holiday in gorgeous Ireland but I'm right back in the saddle now.

Today's topic is quite straight forward, avoid acronyms if at all possible.

(SPQR, acronym for the Roman empire is a contender for the earliest known acronym)

Its all too easy to have some expertise in an area and forget that the normal world doesn't know that WMPTE (pronounced wumpetty) stands for West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive so you stick it as a label somewhere in your Google Earth project and confuse all the Newbies. Of course some Acronyms are acceptable, you'd have to have been living on Mars not to know what BBC, NASA or FBI meant but most should be avoided at all costs.

You may think this is a little picky of me, its surely a very minor issue? Well yes, but good design is all about the details, an unexplained acronym is a 'trip' and it takes surprisingly few trips to lose your newbie user.

By the way, acronyms make wonderful passwords. If you are plagued by admins who insist you change your password frequently like I am a line from a song: 'Fifty ways to leave your lover' forms a a memorable and pretty much unguessable 50WTLYL (but do think of your own of course).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Google Earth Projects that Suck?

One of the most successful websites about website design is the wonderfully titled Unforgettable title and does exactly what it says on the tin - shows you truly bad design from around the web and points it out in no uncertain terms. It's always fun to titter at the inept and, if they go ahead and publish their flawed work to the world well, they get what they deserve don't they?

I did toy with the idea of doing that on this blog. There are some eye wincingly bad google earth projects out there and it would be enormous fun to point you at the indecipherable messes people have published so we could all have a laugh, but its just not my style. This probably comes from the years I spent working at the Open University (OU) where I met a lot of wonderful students. They varied in their reasons for taking a distance learning course but one type was someone who was fiercely loyal to the OU and had been out of education for 20 years. All too commonly they had had terrible experiences at school like being humiliated in front of their peers and told they would never amount to much. Knowing they had under achieved and feeling they wanted to prove themselves they were brave enough to come back to education after all those years. It was wonderful to see them bloom under the excellent support and professional feedback that the OU provides.

So I can't blog googleearthprojectsthatsuck, its constructive cricitism and a right to reply or nothing. I've started emailing a few contacts responsible for some of the well known Google Earth projects out there and I hope to start bringing you some case studies in the near future.

Friday, July 13, 2007

How Tos

In my enthusiasm for getting going here I haven't posted any instructions on how to change your Google Earth project. The Google Earth Userguide is your friend if you want to learn how to do something and I also like these help videos mainly because I did them but because I'm nice I've also given you some short cuts on how to implement the topics I've covered so far. I've wrapped them in a .pdf so you can print out easily.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Podcast Launch

To officially launch this blog (I've been happily talking to myself here so far) I've published a podcast about using lines in Google Earth projects:

here's the related Google Earth .kmz file
Its a development of another podcast I did a while back at my podcast site Kokae on more general design:

If you care to watch both you will spot a contradiction. In the first 'Lines' podcast I extol the virtues of the sludgy coloured line and then in the second I go and use lots of brightly coloured lines. I would argue that I'm sticking to my own rules, in the first case using a grey line produced a map that had lots of data on it. In the second there was less data (positions of ships and their routes) but more types of data (different voyages). Differentiating between the routes became more important than being able to see lots of data in one go.

Part of the problem lies in Google Earth, when you view a Google Earth project data is plotted on top of satellite imagery which allows a user to see where they are. In a traditional map the background would be white, the user has to scratch her head to work out where the map is and which way its pointing *but* subtle differences in icons or lines stands out more clearly. All of which gives me an excuse to dig out a historical map of Hawaii from the David Rumsey collection:

It doesn't use colour but you can imagine if we plotted Cook's journeys around the islands we wouldn't have to resort to bright, primary colours lines to do so.

Aside: The Hawaiian chain was initially known as the Sandwich Islands as marked on the map and Hawaii, correctly pronounced Ha - vai - ee was spelt a decidedly odd 'Owyhee'.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Introductions Help Your Users

The first question you need to ask when writing a University course, setting up a company or becoming a politician is 'who am I helping?'. Its no different with a Google Earth project, you have to consider the range of people who will use your resource.

My former employers, the Open University in the UK, used to have a good exercise for focusing on this problem; they used to try and imagine the spectrum of people taking one of their online courses and identify what people were like at the ends of the spectrum. The course needed to be a compromise between these users and their different needs. Thus we had discussions about whizzy Wilma, a power IT user who would be frustrated by the lack of features in a course and would want things to download quickly. Her most valued belonging was her Blackberry. Or tentative Tony who was retired and wanted the web pages to be very straight forward as he was not comfortable using the web. He usually wore slippers. Know-it-all Noel was a particular favourite of mine, a medium level IT user his problem was that he had already knew the topic being taught much better than everyone else and was always trying to prove this in his emails to other students and his tutor. We imagined him to have terrible taste in golfing sweaters...
(photo courtesy of headur from

These users are not only found taking Open University courses, they also use Google Earth projects. A lot of projects seem to be aimed at know-it-all Noel, there are lots of layers showing an amazing array of photos, text and other information but not much thought put in to helping tentative Tony. He needs some kind of introduction and some gentle but brief guidance on what to start looking at.

An introduction should cover the main topics (no more than 3 I think) that the project helps with. This could be a series of bullet points or questions. Then a brief section of text covering the data, when I say brief I mean 50 - 100 words, any more and the user will skip it, no one but no one reads instructions properly these days. I don't think its a good idea to guide users in how to use Google Earth in an introduction, you have to rely on them knowing that for themselves and you only have 100 words but they need to know about what they can find in your project.

I think there are three main ways of delivering an introduction to a Google Earth project;
1 - an introductory folder at the top of the project which has a pop up bubble with the text in it. I usually name mine 'Read Me First!' so that users are in no doubt what it is.
2 - An overlay image that users cannot avoid seeing and therefore reading. The image is a screenshot from the Explore Artic Drilling project I was talking about last week. I'd like to be talking about another Google Earth project but this one was the only one I could find quickly with a good introduction
3 - A video fly through of some of the main features of a project. The Digital Urban folk and I kind of came up with this when I spoke to them recently. I'll explain how later but to show you what is technically possible with a video this is one of theirs taken of Google Earth;

Helping users is the important part of this post when compared to introductions, our trio of imaginary users are a group we will be considering again I'm sure. I'll leave you with a link to creating passionate users, a sadly defunct blog about user support. Well worth a read.