Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Free GIS Tools – Google Map

It is not always practical or possible to use high end GIS software for specific tasks so free alternatives can be very handy. Not to mention that very often expensive commercial software can be cumbersome to use and produce dubious results (or not at all! – the supplier will remain nameless…). Good things can come for free.

Over the years I have collected a number of handy and free tools. I would like to share the list with you, starting with… Google Map API. I know, a lot has been written about it already but still not many professionals consider Google Map as a serious contender to “online GIS status”, and hence dismiss it outright as just a fancy toy, or even treat it as a GIS impostor. So, here are a few points why I believe it is a very powerful tool you cannot ignore. Just consider this:

  • Enormous throughput capacity - to deploy and maintain on your own a custom online mapping system with equivalent capacity would cost you a fortune.
  • Ready to use maps and imagery - the whole world of it, which would be prohibitively costly to replicate even if you are focusing only on a relatively small patch of land.
  • Comes with 2D as well as 3D view option that works on many browsers - I can’t name any commercial software that can do that…
  • Comes in 4 different flavours: Javascript (v2 and v3), Flash, Static Map and Mapplet – which gives you a lot of flexibility in choosing the right platform for your project.
  • Works online as well as on mobile devices (with access to the internet) – a single development platform for two separate access channels, just think about cost savings!
  • Bundled with handy web services: geocoder, reverse geocoder, elevation data service, data parser (txt, xml, kml, kmz, geoRSS), Street View panoramas, traffic, driving directions, local search, Wikipedia points of interests, videos and picture overlays, charts, spreadsheets and on-map advertising, if required.
  • Easy to integrate with any data: as images via Web Map Service or kml/kmz, or vectors and point data via Web Feature Service, xml, txt, kml, geoRSS or JSON.
  • Easy to extend with free custom libraries: drag’n’zoom, marker manager, marker labeller, drawing tools, etc. as well as your own code.
  • Easy to integrate with any website – as long as it is freely accessible.

There are many more exciting features that could be included but I think the above is a pretty impressive list of capabilities that will be hard to match by any other commercially available software. If your project involves deploying a public access mapping application that has to be build from scratch, you can’t go wrong with Google Map!

Related posts:
Google introduces Aerial View
Live traffic on Google Map Australia
Manual geocoder for 70 countries
Google Map Static goes V2
Ingenuity of Google Map architecture

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

3D Earth View added to Google Map

Developers using Google Map API enjoyed integration of 3D Earth View for browsers and standard maps for quite a while – is one such site that took advantage of this integration from day one. However, users of the official Google Map site were provided with this option only yesterday. Flat “Terrain” map is still available but has been moved now to “More…” tab.

Google Earth Plugin was released to developers in 2008 yet it took 2 years to integrate with Google Map proper. It was quite a challenge to combine all the functionality consistently between different map options. Google is constantly working on adding more and more functionality. In case you did not notice, you can experiment with some additional functions by activating tools that are not yet officially released – just click on the red New! text in the top right corner of the screen to bring up a pop-up box with extras, such as “Drag 'n' Zoom” or “Aerial Imagery” which shows rotatable, high-resolution photos presenting features on the ground from four different perspectives.

I must admit that on one hand I am excited about all that new functionality and constant updates of Google Maps and API versions however, on the other hand, it all is starting to look a bit chaotic. It is quite a challenge to comprehend all available functionality options! As complexity of solutions offered by Google increases more and more users will be opting for “simpler alternatives”. This is in turn may be a great opportunity for developers to provide tailored applications.

First spotted on Google Maps Mania: Google Earth comes to Google Map
Via: Official Google Blog: Earthly pleasures come to Maps

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Free weather widget upgrade

Free weather information tool that I launched in September 2009 has just undergone a small upgrade of functionality. It now also shows animated cloud cover over Australia in the last 12 hours. As all data displayed in the widget, the image is sourced from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in real time. Included is also a link to an interactive map with the latest weather information on site. I plan one more small update of functionality later in the year. Full instruction on how to integrate the tool with any blog or website is on free widgets page.

Cloud cover image is updated every hour and consists of 12 individual images, published by Bureau of Meteorology, which are converted into a single animated gif image with GD library. I am only now starting to discover this amazing image transformation tool for PHP.

Friday, April 23, 2010

UK unlocks vaults of spatial data

I reported last year that UK government made a commitment to release majority of its spatial information collected and maintained by the Ordnance Survey for free public use. The first set of data, including raster maps and vector topographic information, is now available for download. Ordnance Survey has always been a model national mapping agency with very efficient system in place to produce high quality and up to date spatial information for the UK. Til recently it operated on fully commercial basis and now is quickly catching up with “open access” initiatives.

Australia has also opted for open access approach. However, after initial enthusiasm surrounding gov2.0 taskforce and initiatives such as MashupAustralia aiming at unlocking volts of government spatial and non-spatial data things have slowed down to a standstill. The biggest achievement so far is adoption of Creative Commons licensing by many government agencies but access to data have not improved dramatically. No new data has been added to catalogue since January although it is good to see that NSW and Victorian governments followed with similar initiatives.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Intriguing map of government censorship

Google has just published a small map application showing world wide statistics about “Government requests directed to Google and YouTube” to remove content from services, or provide information about users of services and products. The information covers period between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009. You can draw your own conclusions however, general media has already started sensationalising the story with titles like: Big Brother is watching us on Google.

I would like to use this example as another proof that analysing information spatially can give additional insights into the issues under investigation. In particular, information presented as a list draws attention only to countries at the top of the list, namely Brazil, Germany, India or US. However, presenting the same information geographically can add additional perspective on the whole issue. What got my attention on this occasion was a geographic spread of countries with requests by government agencies. These are predominantly all established democracies in Europe, Americas, South East Asia and Oceania. There is a notable absence of requests form countries in the old communist block as well as the Middle East. There could be a number of reasons for this phenomenon warranting further investigation but just to provoke some thoughts, is it possible that, contrary to a popular belief, citizens in democratic societies are subject to higher level of censorship than those form more restrictive political systems?

First spotted on: Google Maps Mania

Google Maps Navigation launch in UK

In November last year I reported about Google entry into the mobile GPS Navigation market with its fully featured Map Navigation application for phones running on Android 1.6 OS. Now the application has been also launched in the UK. Australia should not be too far behind.

In contrast to other iPhone based tools from major GPS navigation companies, this one is totally free although it does rely on the Internet connectivity to work. For Google it is all about enabling a new advertising channel that can deliver highly targeted and localised ads with search and driving directions queries as well as in reference to points of interests displayed on the map. These are still early days for advertising on mobile devices but it appears Google is attempting to transfer its successful online model onto this platform.

Monday, April 19, 2010

More 3D anaglyph experiences

Google is not alone in reprocessing Street View imagery into complementary color anaglyps to enable 3D viewing experience. Norc, a Romanian based mapping portal with extensive inventory of street view like imagery covering major cities in Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Hungary, has also started serving anaglyph 3D view option. The effect is much more refined than imagery provided by Google. The example shows the Royal Castle in Krakow, Poland.

This is a very crude way of enabling 3D experience but also the easiest to implement. Microsoft with its Photosynth experiment is trying alternative, “modelled 3D” view, based on multi-image processing but also with mixed results. I don’t know if you realise but there is already a technology that enables viewing pictures and movies in 3D without glasses. An Australian company TriDef patented several years ago a process of converting pictures into a proprietary 3D format for viewing on special screens. I have seen it in action and it is a very natural looking 3D effect but it didn’t grab attention of mass audience as yet. If of interest, you can purchase from them software or a DVD player that will convert any movie into stereoscopic 3-D in real-time to view with special glasses on your current TV set or monitor.

All that money spent on technology to replicate the nature yet not many realise that human brain is actually perfectly capable of processing a single, flat image into 3-demensional perspective and you don’t even need any glasses for the full effect! It is a natural 3D perspective effect, exactly how you see everything around you – not the kind you see in the movies where things “jump at you” or “float in the air”. You only need to know how to look. It is great fun to view old, even black and white pictures in 3D. Movies and documentaries on wide screen HD TV also look great. This is a prime case of those “mysteries of human eyesight and brain” which cannot be patented and commercialised so, no one is really interested in telling about. I meant to write a post on this topic a while ago - I do my best to do it in the nearest future! For now just enjoy artificial effects.

First spotted on Google Maps Mania: Street View in 3-D Gets a Competitor

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Free postcode search widget

Today I am launching another free widget - Postcode Finder - that allows users to quickly identify relevant postcode number for localities of interest or find out which localities a particular postcode relates to. As all widgets available from, it is free to use for any website – I only humbly ask, just tell others about it! Information is sourced directly from Australia Post and is current as of 30 March, 2010 (and will be updated regularly).

Default search option is "postcode number" and “delivery area” as postcode type. Typing numbers in text input box activates “autocomplete” function that returns a list of matching records. Selection of postcode of interest is performed with a mouse click and information about that postcode appears in Results” tab. To activate location/suburb search mode just select relevant control under the input text box in Search” tab.

There are additional search parameters that can be set in Filters” tab. “Delivery area” postcode type is a default. Two other options include “Post office boxes only” and “All types”, which allows searching for Large Volume Receiver postal numbers, delivery area and post office boxes in one go. It is compact by size but not less powerful than postcode search function available on Australia Post site.

The widget can be embedded in any website with a simple line of code. Full postcode finder widget setup instruction is provided on site. It is also available as a Google Gadget.

Additional information for users

Australia Post datafile has quite a complex structure so, it is important to highlight certain relationships between records in that file to explain some interesting results of searches. In particular, although Australia Post separates “delivery area” type of postcodes from “post office boxes” type, there are instances of “delivery area” type postcodes that have post office boxes as well. Confusing? Here is an example to illustrate:

Postcode 2020 in NSW is listed as “delivery area” type with the following locations: MASCOT, SYDNEY DOMESTIC AIRPORT, SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. However, the last two items have additional flag in comments field: “PO Boxes”. Hence, postcode number search for “2020” will return the following information:
Post Code: 2020 (NSW)
Type: Delivery Area
Localities: MASCOT

Locality/ suburb search for “Mascot” will return the following information:

MASCOT (NSW) is in 2020

And the result for “Sydney Domestic Airport” will show the following:

Comments: PO Boxes
Other localities in 2020: MASCOT, SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (PO Boxes)

Another example of slightly confusing result is when search is for locations with non-unique names. For example:

There are two instances of “Darlington” in NSW, each falling in different postcode. In order to distinguish between the two locations Australia Post adds a reference to nearby locality in “Comments” field. It helps with searching as well. In particular, in case of Darlington there will be two distinct search options available to select from: “DARLINGTON (NSW) Chippendale” and “DARLINGTON (NSW) Singleton". However, the result will contain a comment that may appear a bit out of place, for example:

DARLINGTON (NSW) is in 2008
Comments: Chippendale
Other localities in 2008: CHIPPENDALE

Australia Post publishes regular updates of the datafile and it is available for free download from the following address:

Other related tools from

This free postcode finder widget is actually the fifth in the series of postcode focused tools that I developed for site. The first one was a thematic map with postcode and suburb boundary overlays. I followed it with more advanced version called Postcode Finder and soon after added demographic maps and demographic data tools containing information from 2006 Census of population and housing published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. There is still more to come. Stay tuned!

Your comments and suggestions for improvements, as usual, most welcome!

Related post:
Sales Area Management Tool with Postcodes 
Map of Australian Postcodes 
State postcode maps   
Post code maps and population statistics

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chat with a Pro - Keir Clarke

Keir Clarke is UK based freelance developer and the man behind Google Maps Mania. I have been collaborating and exchanging information on interesting Google Map applications with Keir since mid 2009 so he is an obvious choice for an inaugural post in this series. I have a lot of respect for Keir and truly admire his methodological regularity of daily updates. I visit Google Maps Mania every day as there is always something new and interesting there to discover. I posted a number of questions to Keir and below are his answers which provide interesting insights into the life and activities of this popular blogger.

Mike Pegg started Google Maps Mania in April 2005 and you took over from Mike in February 2008. How did this opportunity come about?

I first submitted a map to Mike in April 2006, hoping he would review it on Google Maps Mania. The map was the first (I think) Google Maps mashup to feature an embedded video actually on the map. Mike was kind enough to review my map. Over the next couple of years I submitted another two or three mashups to Google Maps Mania, which again Mike was good enough to review.

Because of the great work Mike had done with the blog and because of his extensive knowledge of Google Maps he was eventually asked by Google to join the Google Maps team. Mike was keen that Google Maps Mania remained independent from Google so, early in 2007 he started looking for someone to take over the blog.

Mike first asked me if I would be interested sometime in 2007. At the time I was teaching full-time and didn't think I could dedicate enough time to Google Maps Mania, so I turned him down. However, a few months after that I decided to take a career break from teaching and when towards the end of 2007 Mike asked me again, I jumped at the chance.

Can you share some statistics about Google Maps Mania?

Google Maps Mania averages about 5,000 unique visitors a day. There have so far been just over 3,400 posts in nearly five years of blogging. On week days I try and post 4 or 5 times a day (I tend to take it a bit easier at the weekends). That means I review four or five Google Maps mashups a day. This ensures that nearly everyone who submits a Google Map based site to me should get a mention. One of the things that I am keen to do is ensure that Google Maps Mania doesn't only review professionally produced sites. If someone has just started playing with the Google Maps API and has produced a map I want to give them an opportunity to promote their map.

This post looks at the top ten posts on Google Maps Mania in terms of traffic for 2009. If you look at the posts that get the most traffic you can see that I get a lot of traffic during times of natural disasters. This is mostly due to the fact that during emergencies a lot of people are searching Google for maps.

The USA provides by far the biggest readerishp of Google Maps Mania. But I aslo get a lot of traffic from other English speaking countries, e.g Australia, the UK and Canada.

If you don't mind me asking, how are you monetising that traffic?

The only money I get from Google Maps Mania is from the ads on the site. Occasionally I get asked by readers if I can find a map developer for them. Usually I recommend a professional developer who I think would be a good fit for their requirements but from time to time I'll take on the work myself.

How important is search engine traffic to Google Maps Mania and which search engine delivers the most users? Did you notice any impact of Microsoft’s Bing on the traffic?

Google is by far the largest referrer to the site - 62% of my traffic comes from Google searches. Last year I got over a million visitors from Google, compared to 11,998 referrals from Bing (the next highest search engine referrer). I think this is probably average and just reflects Google's dominance in the search engine market.

Bing however did replace Yahoo last year as the second largest referrer to Google Maps Mania.

I'm very interested in the growth of Bing Maps. As you can imagine I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for maps. In the last six months there seems to have been a huge increase in sites writing about Bing Maps which I think reflects the large strides Bing Maps have been recently making.

How do you see the role of Twitter or Facebook in building/ extending online presence?

I think blogs and websites can use Twitter and Facebook to build a community around their sites. It is an area that I really haven't exploited with Google Maps Mania.

I do have a Twitter account for Google Maps Mania - (with 633 followers). This just automatically Tweets the latest posts to Twitter. I also have a personal Twitter account - I do Tweet about some of the posts that I have written on Google Maps Mania but I also Tweet about non-map related things on this account.

Would you select Google's Blogspot publishing platforms again if you had the opportunity to start from scratch?

I'm not sure. I really like Blogger and think it is a great blogging platform. However, I also think WordPress is very impressive. One thing I would definitely do if I was starting from scratch would be to get a unique domain name for the site.

However since the blog is so well established it is too late so, I am stuck with

Google Maps Mania has a winning formula for content - short descriptions of ever growing number of Google Map applications. Do you have any plans to alter that formula or experiment with additional content?

One thing I am often asked is why don't I include other mapping platforms on the site. I think the clue is in the name. Seriously however, there are already a lot of websites and blogs dedicated to online mapping and I just happen to prefer focusing on one clearly defined area.

The style of the posts is fairly well established. I try to be descriptive rather than judgmental about sites. As I have already said I like to post about maps that have been developed by people who are new to the Google Maps API. Therefore I don't want to be critical about something that someone has spent a lot of time not only in making but in working out how to create.

At the moment I don't really have any plans to experiment with this formula or add additional content. One thing I would love to do is create a database for Google Maps Mania. The Google Maps Directory I created for Google Maps Mania is, to be honest, not very good, and I am very poor at keeping it up-to-date. I would love to have an online searchable database of all the maps that are submitted to Google Maps Mania. I think this would be a great addition to the site.

Writing daily posts can be quite a challenge. What is your secret to keep up with demands of regular posting!?

I am in the fairly enviable position of having paid off the mortgage on my house and need very little money to survive. At the moment that means I am not working full-time (except for Google Maps Mania). However the blog itself doesn't provide me with anywhere near enough income to survive.

At some point I will need to return to full-time salaried work. At that point the number of posts will drop sharply or I will need to get some help with the writing of the posts.

Actually writing the posts for Google Maps Mania isn't that time consuming. I probably spend more time scouring the internet for Google Maps mashups than in actually writing for the blog. However I am lucky in that Mike did such a good job establishing Google Maps Mania that I get a lot of people who contact me directly asking me to feature their map on the blog.

I have found Twitter a hugely important resource. I use a number of sites that provide near real-time search (largely using the Twitter API). These are very good at helping me find the Google Maps mashups that people are talking about at the moment on the internet.

During your time with Google Maps Mania have you spotted any significant trends in terms of visitor interests, type of applications being developed or specific functionality?

This biggest trend I think over the last couple of years has been real-time maps. This is partly due to the rise of micro-blogging sites such as Twitter but also due to developers now having much more access to real-time data from third party API's. I now see a lot of maps that are tracking in real-time the movements of buses, planes, trains and boats etc.

Google Maps Mania is not your only passion. What other projects get the most of your attention?

I still really regard myself as being on sabbatical from full-time work, so I am keen to enjoy the free time I have at the moment. I own a (small) boat and as soon as the weather improves in the UK I plan to spend a lot of time on the water.

I also spend a lot of time playing with the Google Maps API. One personal project I have been working on recently is a map of old photographs and videos called Back in the Day. The map compares old photographs to the same view as can be seen today in Google Maps Street View. The problem with this site is getting access to copyright free photographs and videos.

At the moment I've mapped about 100 photographs and videos but the project has been put on the back burner for a while whilst I search for other sources of historical photographs.

There are many aspiring publishers who would like to make a comfortable living from blogging. What’s your perspective on “living off the web”? Can blogging really offer a viable source of income or does one still need a “day job”?

I get a meager income from blogging. It is definitely not something that I can sustain at the moment as a career. However, that does not mean that there aren't professional bloggers out there. Personally if I wanted a professional career as a writer on the internet I think I would need to look at getting a job with a website with a larger audience.

I think it could be possible to use blogging as a platform to break into a career in journalism. Running Google Maps Mania has given me some opportunities in this area. I have written for The Guardian website and have been interviewed by the BBC because of my work with Google Maps Mania. These experiences would obviously help in putting together a resume for a career in journalism.

Thinking about it - perhaps that should be my next career move :-)

That is certainly worth exploring! Good luck with your endeavors Keir and thanks for your time and for openly sharing your thoughts!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Google Street View in 3D

What initially appeared as just another Google April fool's prank may actually be a real update to Street View imagery available on Google Map. By clicking on an icon of a guy with coloured glasses users can now activate 3D view option.

3D effect is created by converting imagery to complementary color anaglyps and thus requires glasses with red and cyan filters to view. The results are not very spectacular since the process to generate anaglyps was applied only to some of image tiles in the view and because many areas have only dull, low resolution images. Therefore, for majority of areas 3D effect is rather artificial. However, it works quite well for areas with the most recent, high resolution imagery. Above is a shot from one of my favorite places on Earth: Italian Amalfi Coast.

There is a renewed interest in 3D display capability sparked by recent success of 3D versions of popular movies, such as Avatar, and now even TV sets manufacturers are attempting to capitalise on the trend by bringing to the market 3D capable models.