Tuesday, July 28, 2009

One People Review, Google Flat Earth?

Update 12.20pm: Frank points out that its worth watching the video in HD version if you have the band width to do so.

Back in June I reviewed a visualization of mobile (cell) calls around Washington on Obama's inauguration day. The visualization above comes from the same people (One People page).

  1. By using a flat projection of the Earth instead of a virtual globe the visualization avoids problems of countries being hidden by the curve in the earth.
  2. Translucent loops are sensibly used so that many loops can be rendered on the same screen
  3. The Base map is low contrast, this muted look allows the eye to concentrate on the loops
  4. The moving timeline graph illustration at the bottom of the screen adds lots of extra information in a digestible form.
  1. The base map could be simplified further than noted in pro #3, just one single color for land and cities as bright spots would be better. I'm not even sure what the current shading represents.
  2. The moving spots on the loops to illustrate call rates doesn't really work. I suspect a better scheme would have highly transparent and yellow color loops illustrating low call rates and highly opaque and red colored loops for high call rates (with mid transparency and orange shades for mid level call rates).
  3. There is no key or scale for the graph
Flat Earth: The most important point though is the use of a flat earth. Map the Fallen makes use of loops as do some other projects in Google Earth. At the risk of being labelled a flatearther I think the ability to flatten the globe sometime would be really useful, its a major problem with using thematic maps in virtual globes. Of course, a flat earth is what Google Maps already offers but it would be handy to be able to add loops, models, have topography and be able to add tour like functionality to Google Maps.

Convergence GMaps and GEarth: IMHO Google seem to be moving away from the GEarth client towards the GEarth API, which of course integrates closely with GMaps API. So I'll probably get my wish sometime soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Placemark Clustering: GeoCubes and Barry Hunter

I've discussed clustering placemarks before but thought a revisit was in order since coming across Barry Hunter's work which is partly based on GeoCubes.

Since Barry develops the idea (with a neat little web form in a placemark which I like) from GeoCubes (design 1) I'll just comment on this GeoCubes visualization.

The visualization shows placemarks (it doesn't matter for this discussion what they represent) collated into square cells. The number of placemarks is visualized by a colored cube and a number written on the cube.

  1. Clustering Need: You can't render thousands of placemarks on screen at any one time so they must be clustered in an easy to understand way. GeoCubes does this.
  2. Grid: In the cubes visualization shown placemarks are collated into a grid which is easily understood (other systems collate placemarks into areas where the boundaries are not known - much less comprehensible by the user)
  3. Placemarks and Visualization: When you fly into the screen the cubes dissolve to show the placemarks themselves. Thus you can find the exact location of a single placemark.
  4. It does all this automatically
  1. Figures on screen distracting: The mind processes numbers serially but color in parallel so picking out all the numbers between 500-800 in the screenshot is slow but you can almost instantly identify the 7 orange squares. This is because the mind processes colours in parallel (try it for yourself). So it would be better to have the number text revealed by a mouse rollover or click but otherwise be invisible.
  2. Seamless Cubes: The size of the cubes shows the density of placemarks as well as the color of the cubes, it would be more useful if the cubes went all the way up to the boundary of the cell as then cells with the same density would merge into one seamless, color blob. Barry tells me the geocube guys are thinking about this already.
  3. More Intervals: The number of the placemarks per cell is split into 3 intervals ( 1-100, 101-1000, 1000+). It would be better to have a color blend with more intervals as more information would be immediately apparent (see parallel processing of colour in [1]). Good blends of colors can be gained by colorbrewer which I review here.
  4. Density vs Count: As you zoom in the cells split themselves into smaller cells so that the placemark count goes down. This causes a change of color in the cells but the density of the placemarks per square km hasn't changed. I think it would be better if the cell colour illustrated placemark density as the color would remain more constant. To see what I mean compare select design #1 at geocubes and zoom in. Compare that to zooming in on this pizza resturant map (only imagine at the lowest altitude the heat map dissolves and leaves just placemarks).
If you've been watching carefully you will see that if all the changes I suggest were put in place we would end up with pretty much 'My Solution' outlined in my original post.

Barry's response to the review was positive and he's thinking of producing an experiement in line with my suggestions. I hope that it happens!

Friday, July 17, 2009

ColorBrewer 2: Pick Colors for your map

In a previous post I pointed out that color brewer is a useful tool for choosing colors for your map. Well its been updated with added features, including easy export for ArcGIS. Yay! A welcome update to a useful, free and easy to use tool.

Feature request: When someone next works on this I'd love to see export for Google Earth - support all those naive geographers out there!

Color Blind Issue: I also wonder about the opt out nature of color blind blends - at the moment you are offered color blind unfriendly blends which you deselect by choosing a tick box that removes all color blind unfriendly blends. In the spirit of libertarian paternalism (yup, I read Nudge on holiday) I wouldn't want to stop people being able to access blends that are color blind unfriendly but wouldn't it be wise to make them available on an opt in basis? Make it so the blends are no longer available in the default selection but you can tick a box to access them?

I feel a bit mean grumbling so I think it important to add: this is a lovely tool that has been produced for free by a very smart team. Thank you all for your efforts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

GE Tour Editor: Snoovel

Via GEB I learnt of Snoovel, an answer to my lazy web suggestion that GE Tours would really be a lot easier to put together with a graphical editor. I've been in contact with Andy Schweiger from Snoovel about the development.

Pros: They've done some good things:
  1. Draggable Controls: the timeline has some advanced drag and drop and draggable boundaries to objects which is really helpful.
  2. Slick looking interface which is stylishly put together.
  3. Audio: Ability to add audio files is very useful. I have spent hours trying to hand code audio into tours and its a pain.

Cons: I have lots of little grumbles like the lack of a play head showing you where exactly you are on the timeline, but its a little unfair because this is a beta release. So I'll concentrate on some more fundamental issues:
  1. No ability to add or control KML content: Being able to turn Features on and off like Placemarks, Overlays, Screen Overlays and (especially) pop up Balloons is a key part of tours IMHO. Andy tells me that they plan to add this later but that there is an issue with the plugin then getting overloaded and crashing which users would then blame on Snoovel. Some kind of dash board indicator to show how overloaded the plugin is getting is the solution?
  2. No help files: Its disappointing that there's only a screencast to show you how to use the service. You may think this is forgivable since its a beta release - well that's a fair point but I think documentation is usually thought of only as an after thought in projects like this and its key to the usability of the service.
  3. Scenes and Points of Interest: The system Snoovel uses to control the look direction in the tour is to have what are termed camera views and to organise these into scenes. A scene is associated with a 'Point of Interest' (POI), Andy says this is to enable copying of scenes. I think users would be quite happy with copying scenes and from their point of view the POI just makes the process of producing a tour more complex.
Conclusion: Overall I think this a good service and I'm glad to see it out there, as Frank mentioned in his review, its the most sophisticated tour editor available to date. A good thing to experiment with if you're happy with beta versions, I look forward to seeing it develop.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Layar: Augmented Reality and GIS

Via Digital Urban I learnt of Layar which is a service for mobile devices that shows information using tools that sense direction and location. I'm not sure how successful this particular service is going to be but IMHO services like this, which add GIS data to normal views via Augmented Reality, are going to be huge.

Why? I think that the fall in popularity of Second Life vs Twitter shows us that the mundane (being able to read bits of text about other's lives) can be incredibly compelling.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Creating Tours HowTo 1

I've been working with tours a lot recently. I've previously blogged about how to produce what I called a simple tour, but I've decided to rewrite my advice based on my extra experience. In the near future I'm going to be writing a couple of these Tour HowTos, this first one is aimed at a level of use below than the earlier 'simple tour'.

A simple fly through tour: Producing a tour is wonderfully simple, an example would be a flight to show the physical landscape in the Grand canyon as in the video above. Effective instructions on how to produce such a tour are here from Google.

Producing a Smooth Flight: To produce such a tour you can simply use the mouse controls but you will get a better quality flight if you use a 3DConnexion mouse. If you don't have one or another way of improving the quality of the tour is to produce placemarks which serve just as camera viewpoints and use them to record the tour. To do this:
  1. Fly to the first camera viewpoint you wish to capture for your tour.
  2. Create a new placemark, name it something like 'View 1' and click 'OK'
  3. In the places column right click the placemark and select 'Snapshot View'. This associates the current view with that placemark.
  4. Fly to a new position and repeat from step [2]
  5. Repeat for as many viewpoints as you wish to create
  6. Now untick the placemarks you've created in the places column.
  7. double click the text of the placemark in the places column and you will fly to the view but without seeing the actual placemark.
if you double click these placemarks whilst recording a tour, a smooth flight to the camera view will be recorded in the tour. The tour can be made up of a series of flights between such camera views.

This isn't the most elegant way of recording a tour, writing the code directly would be better but many people don't have the skills for doing that in which case this is a sensible approach.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy Birthday Blog!

This blog was two years old yesterday.

182 posts in that time with an emphasis in the:
Its been rewarding meeting up with people and finding that they follow my mental meanderings here.