Thursday, June 24, 2010

on Blogging and Tweeting

This blog is coming up to 3 years old so I'm trying to make time to do some reflecting on the work to date. Today I thought I'd talk about why I'm still doing this after 3 years:

Lost Decade of GeoWeb Usability: A while back I compared the progress of GeoWeb usability with the history of web usability. Jakob Nielsen described the first ten years of the web as the lost decade where web design was awful and no one seemed to care. Whilst there are encouraging signs of an understanding of what makes great GeoWeb content (Axis Maps, Stamen Design, New York Times: example ) there is much more out there that is badly thought out IMHO. So I'm still here advocating good GeoWeb design.

Blog as Outward Facing Notebook: When I first started this blog I had grand ideas of getting lots of useful feedback based on the long lists of comments I was seeing on some other blogs. I don't get as much feedback as I expected and I now realise that its a power law relationship - a few blogs get the majority of the attention with lots of comments whilst the rump of bloggers get a loyal core following but less feedback.

However, this hasn't put me off the process, I actually blog because its a great way of forcing myself to keep decent notes on all kinds of map related stuff. The fact that I can turn it outwards and share these ideas with a larger community has some benefits but is mostly just a bonus, its use for me is mostly as a personal index which I search for something most days I'm online. I recently found I share this view of blogging with John Naughton, one of my favourite web/internet gurus.

Tweeting: As for tweeting, my motivation is much the same. I treat it as a micro-blog where I post all the links I may find useful in the future but don't have time to write up properly as a blog post.

Hits: The final bonus of blog keeping is seeing the hits, I've found it fascinating what people are interested in on my blog.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blog New Look!

The blog has a new look from today, hope you like it!

Forgotten Spaces Google Earth Tour

Forgotten Spaces is an architectural competition that suggests new uses for the forgotten spaces around London. As a Londoner and appreciater of architecture it caught my imagination and I went to see an exhibition about it over the weekend at the National Theatre.

I enjoyed it but was frustrated by the lack of a decent overview map both in the exhibition and on the web: I wanted to see about what the neighbourhoods were like around the locations. It occurred to me that they could have used Google Earth really well in presenting the competition so I created a Google Earth tour of three of the entries to illustrate the idea.

It isn't very slick as I'm short on time but I think its good enough to shows some ideas that I discuss below:

A few points to make about the tour:
  • Quick!:Whole thing took me 2 hours, including a fair amount of time spent locating where the spaces were. In a day I could create something slick looking.
  • Streetview: You can get streetview in Google earth (they have their own layer), by copying the photo spheres into the tour folder you can incorporate them in the tour as I have. Gives you great local context.
  • Viewing Elements: I imported the photos into Google Earth as photo overlays - you just drag and drop them from windows explorer into the main GE window. Its very quick but you cannot enter the viewing mode in the tour which is a pain, same with the streetview photo spheres. On a tour you can pause the tour and double click the elements and you'll be able to enter photo viewing mode, have a go to see what I mean.
  • Avoiding Cyber Sickness: If you throw the camera about wildly its possible to induce cyber sickness in viewers and even if you don't do that, wild camera moves confuse users, they don't know where they are. You can see that I tend to zoom and pan in and out whilst keeping the view north-top vertically-down. If I want a tilted view with a non north bearing I do that when zoomed right it, trying to keep the relevant screen elements in view as I do so. Zooming out, I straighten up the view before zooming out.
  • Overview Map/relative locations: To help users build up a cognitive map of where all the elements are (so they can effectively explore afterwards) I start and end with an overview of all the locations and between locations fly up to this overview. When panning from place to place I keep elements in view so users can get an idea of their relative locations.
This post is unofficial and not condoned by RIBA, I have used their copyright images for educational purposes and also as a critique of the web presentation of Forgotten Spaces.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cloud GIS: Indiemapper review

Update 12/6: I spelt Indiemapper wrongly as Indemapper which I've now corrected. Thanks for the heads up Maarten.

Introduction: Indiemapper is an online GIS from Axis maps, it compares with services like GeoCommons (my GeoCommons review) and the newly released ArcGIS Explorer online (James Fee's review).

I was really excited to dive in and experiment with it as it promised to enable good map design practices. Sure, you can still make ugly maps with it if you try hard but the defaults will nudge (in the sense of this nudge book) you to make good design decisions and contextual help is there to inform you of good design practice. No one will be surprised to hear I think this idea is a Very. Good. Thing.

I discussed Indemapper with Mark Harrower on a conference call before writing this review.

  • Good Map Design as Default: By integrating colorbrewer and typebrewer into the package and providing design advice in contextual help they've produced an app that promotes good design. Yay!
  • Cloud Based: This is aimed at people who don't need the full power of desktop GIS and its a cloud based service so you can access you work from any computer.
  • Group Working: Is also possible and I can see lots of potential for this.
  • Contextual help: As well as supporting good design, contextual help is a real usability plus - instead of having to waste time finding the help section that deals with your particular problem, a contextual help button takes you straight to what you need.
  • Integration with PhotoShop: Axis maps have made a point of making it easy to export from Indemapper into other software such as photoshop.
Sort of Neutral:
  • Projections: Indemapper is promoted as being good at handling projections. I can see where Axis is coming from about this but I don't think projections are as important as they make out.
  • No User Manual (yet): Mark explained to me that one of the audiences they had in mind for Indiemapper was for people not expert in GIS who don't need full GIS functionality. For those people the GIS like interface is intimidating, they really need a set of step by step tutorials on howto make a map with Indiemapper. Contextual help just doesn't fill the need properly. Mark said they had a series of video tutorials planned covering this.
  • Free for Educational Users: All Unis I know will have GIS teaching materials authored for Arc. IMHO to persuade a tutor to switch to Indiemapper for teaching the educational licence cost has to be zero and at the moment, its just a reduction. Both ArcGIS Explorer online and GeoCommons are both free.
  • Desert Fog on Startup: When first opened Indiemapper has a blank screen. For users who have been making maps in NeoGeo tools like Google Earth or Google Maps, they will be confused and a little intimidated that there isn't a base layer visible. Better to have a default layer visible that users can change than a blank, desert fog screen.
  • Static Maps only: Indiemapper isn't designed to produce interactive maps. Mark said this was something they would consider in the future. I agree with him that there's a ton of applications for static maps but I'd like to see some simple interactions possible - clickable pop up balloons with simple html would do.
  • GIS Metaphor: Indiemapper works on a GIS metaphor in that a database is linked to a map. If you open a few layers and click on a point you will pull up the normal GIS attribute table. This is second nature to anyone who's worked GIS but newbie map makers will be confused, attribute tables and how it links to a map are quite a complex concept to understand and manipulate. Mark explained to me that the design team spent time discussing if there was a better way to organise a map than layers. I agree with their decision to use layers as the way to organise the map, I can't see a way around that, but I think they could have adopted an interface where data is still arranged in layers but the underlying data structure (XML as it happens) is hidden from the users view by simple screen interactions. Google Earth operates in this way, you don't get to see the KML with simple main screen operations.
Unlike my other criticisms, altering the GIS metaphor is probably a big structural change, so I doubt its worth implementing. That's OK so long as they make sure the issue is well covered in the video tutorials.

When Indiemapper is supported by video tutorials and able to produce simple interactions it's a tool I'd definitely consider for my teaching and for producing my own maps.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Google Earth Tours in Geog. Teaching III

This is a 3rd of a 3 part series. Part 1 was introduction and started the 'rules of flight'. Part 2 finished off the rules of flight. This post covers audio, annotations, testing, use of layers and a literature review that covers all three posts.

3. Audio:
Research shows that an audio commentary is much easier to understand than a narrative delivered via on screen text. Labels identifying major sections of the animation also add value. However, adding background music has been shown to be valueless - it's just a distraction in an educational situation.

Audio and visual elements should match in a GET because you shouldn't make users interpret two different presentations at the same time. A critique of a GET which did not follow this advice can be found in an earlier blog post of mine under the heading; "Talk about what's on Screen"

Audio Practicalities: I describe how to produce an audio GET in this tutorial

4. Annotations:
If the GET audio track has a descriptive line like 'and here you can see the extent of the Scottish Highlands' use an on screen marker such as a polygon to draw the viewers eye to the location concerned. Annotations like this should be used throughout tours, its easy to learn about a study area by doing a tour and forget that your users haven't formed a cognitive map. Annotating what you're discussing is a solution to this.

5. Testing:
Despite the best intentions, and having created a GET that you think looks and sounds excellent, often users miss elements that you thought you had made obvious or they misinterpret the message of the tour in ways that the author had not considered. The only solution is to test 2 or 3 typical users before releasing your GET, fortunately, this is much quicker, simpler and cheaper than you would imagine following Hallway testing guidelines.

6. Use of Layers:
A layer refers to a set of data, examples include: a thematic map showing voting by region in an election or a set of placemarks showing locations of pizza restaurants. If you wish to explain a complex map which is made up of a combination of layers e.g. showing that right wing voter States in the USA have more pizza restaurants in them, you will need to use multiple layers. It helps your users if you turn the layers on one by one in your tour explaining what the screen is showing as you go. Showing them all the layers at once and trying to explain what they are seeing is less clear.

Sometimes layers are complex enough to require annotations themselves (e.g. circling an area of particularly dense concentration of pizza restaurants)

Layers Practicalities: In running through a tour to record an audio it can often help to collect separate layers into a folder. When running through the tour you can then select a camera view for the folder and turn all the elements in it on and off at the same time. For example, you could put the pizza restaurants layer and a polygon annotation mentioned above in one folder.

Literature Review: In writing this series I did a literature review which the academics amongst you may find useful. I've expanded it since writing this.