Friday, October 5, 2012

Smart Educational Map Tool

I came across Gemma (Geospatial engine for mass mapping applications) by CASA at UCL.  Its a smart service well suited to educational use, it has three great functions available in order of priority:

  1. Easy to Build Mashups:  Enables the user to pull in useful thematic maps (from map tube) or other layers (from OpenStreetMap) and to create markers on top of them.  For example, you could map population density, show where tesco stores are and then tag interesting examples where tesco stores don't seem connected with high population.
  2. Greyscale Base Map:  One of my continual gripes about Google Earth/maps is that it isn't easy to avoid the visually busy satellite data/road base level data.  Gemma enables a greyscale map that allows location still to be seen but doesn't crowd out the view enabling the map producer to show more layers with clarity.
  3. Easily import in Mobile created data:  Its linked to an iPhone app so a student can collect data and easily feed it in.  I haven't checked out how this works but the idea is very promising.
The team deserves a big cheer IMHO.  I do have some grumbles:

  • Pull down options not search:  If its possible, I'd like to see the search option for OpenStreetMap replaced with a pull down menu as the default option, with a search available if you really want it.  Its a pain to have to guess what will pull up the right data, view the map, then go and delete the layer because it wasn't what you thought it was.
  • Layout:  I think the use of space could be more compact.  A lot of screen real estate is taken up by the header and the layers appearing at the bottom of the screen will also take up considerable space if you produce a number of them.  I found this old screenshot of Google Earth v4 (I think? - see below) which showed that their original design similarly lost screen real estate.  In the next version they abandoned the thick bottom panel after user comments.  

  • Simple Markers Needed:  The markers available are all complex visually with color grades and multiple colors.  This is OK for a few markers on a simple map but if you add in lots of markers then the screen will soon get busy visually.
However, overall its a great resource.  I notice that the project blog stopped in November almost a year ago, its a shame if there's no follow on funding to take it further and get it out of beta.

I usually promote Google Earth as the best tool for education, the three big pros of this project are something it would be great to see in GE in the future.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Crowdsourced Map Experiment

As reader's of this blog know, I am supervising a PhD student, Craig Allison (@theRedSorcerer).  He's investigating whether point collation techniques or heat maps can be understood by users or not. (previous post about the project)


examples of point collation and heat maps

We'd like to see which one is better from a usabilty point of view and we'll publish the results. With this in mind Craig has created a 10 minute test and questionnaire that would help us answer this question, it can be found at

Please have a go and pass onto others.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

GoogleIO Map Design Talk Response

Below you'll see a session on map design (called 'master class in map styling') featured at Google IO this year discussing Google Maps.

I think they make some excellent points and explain how to put their ideas into practise code via js code examples in Google maps.  In the introductory section they discuss the map design process as being one where you;
  • Think about what data to remove
  • Refine the data that's left (e.g. adding selective emphasis)
  • Test the map for multiple zooms
which I think is very sensible.  I've blogged about the value of removing data myself.

These are the points they make in the rest of the talk that I particularly liked;
  • Lowest Zoom first design the lowest zoom first then edit other levels afterwards by stripping out data as you zoom out higher.
  • Roads as Landmarks its handy to leave roads in for orientation (at 27:00).  
  • Width Editing The ability to edit the width of elements is a new API feature and they show how it can be used effectively at 27:25.
However, I differ with their opinions on a couple of points:
  • Ocean = White  At 25:54 they change the color of the ocean and harbour water from blue to white saying this has less visual impact.  A desaturated blue is better IMHO because it blends into the background better than white and people naturally associate blue with water.
  • Parks = Gray  Similarly at 26:01 they change the color of parks from green to gray.  Again, people naturally associate green with a park and a desaturated green would fade into the background sufficiently while being easily interpreted IMHO.
Data Density and Keys What I think they could have usefully added to their talk beyond the 3 major points they use above is discussion about coping with data density, i.e. the difference between a map mashup showing a few points and a map with hundreds of points.  At 28:46 they show a map mashup with some circles representing who likes cats or dogs at certain locations in San Francisco and at 29:00 they go on to dismiss the idea of using animal icons such as the ones in the image below (showing eagles and wolves from this post discussing icons) as being 'cheesy'.

They are quite right that A cat/dog icon could be naff but map icons have an inherent advantage over simple circles: you can work out what they mean without looking at a key.  You need extra information to work out that their red circle symbol = number of dog lovers.

That's not to say that simple icons like circles shouldn't be used, in fact they're very useful when there are hundreds of data points to plot (see above showing the location of Boris bike stations, further detail here), lots of icons on a map leads to the 'flock of sheep' problem (see below, the same Boris bike example)

So its worth using simplified icons when you need to show many data points even though they need a key to provide interpretation.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Animated Maps: The Way Forward?

I didn't make it to Google IO this year but have got a lot out of watching the Google maps talk videos.  One announcement they made was a new type of map element; 'symbols'. These enable developers to animate Google maps more.  Ed Parsons has bigged up the possibilities and I agree with him that animated maps have great potential and that there should be more use of animated maps.  At the moment they are nowhere near as common as simple map mashups.  I've been researching map animations recently so today I'll share some thoughts.

The potential of animation in Maps:   Any graphic or text needs to perform a number of functions:
  1. Catch the eye of the user
  2. Lead the eye around the graphic intuitively 
  3. Communicate effectively
  4. Produce a memorable and/or emotional response if possible

We can argue about how good this list is but I think its generally true (I've paraphrased it  from a book on graphic design 'White Space is not your Enemy').  

Movement always catches the eye (think blinking cursor) so map animations always do well at [1].  They can also be extremely effective at communicating effectively [3], the gap minder animation below is geographical information although strictly it isn't a map.  IMHO its very effective at communicating the story of how most countries have developed considerably in the 20th century and its also easy to pick out individual countries from the animation.

I also like this animation of the spread of post offices in the US (although its probably better watched at a higher resolution than I have here)

Downsides to Animation in Maps. However, there are a number of problems with animations.  

- Going, Going, Gone:  Unlike a static graphic, the information is only visible for a fixed amount of time so the user has to see the information, make sense of it and remember it before the animation moves on.  With a well designed graphic, such as Edward Tufte's diagram showing the development of storm clouds, all the information is available for review and elements are constantly visible.

one of the nice aspects of the post office map above is that it keeps the dots on screen after they've appeared which mitigates this problem somewhat.
- Pat Head, Rub Belly:  The kids game of trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time illustrates another problem known as split attention - we find it difficult to do or follow multiple things happening at once.  An example is the map based animation at 55 seconds in this clip showing rainfall and taxi location at once.

Solutions:  There are a few solutions to these problems:

- Simplify Icons/other symbology:  Animated maps need to be simplified as much as possible, an easy examples include making icons plain shapes such as rather than a more meaningful bike shaped icon.  The background map on which the data is being animated can also be simplified e.g. removing colored roads.  The post office map above is a good example of both of these things.
- Play Slowly:  In complex parts, slow down the speed the animation is playing at.  This needs to be done with clear signalling otherwise they could miss that it was happening. 
- Annotate:  If something interesting is happening on a screen full of changing data (the split attention problem) a labelled arrow drawing the user's eye to the correct location on screen can be very helpful.

Conclusion:  Map animations can be very powerful but they need to be implemented carefully with a user centered focus.  See this post for more detail and Mark Harrower's discussion

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Apple Maps and 3D

So since I last posted here there has been a lot of to and fro about 3D in mobile maps.  I won't get into discussing the Google vs Apple rivalry as this has been well discussed elsewhere .  What I'm interested in is what is the long term value of 3D on maps.  Consider this video

it shows two 3D features I want to discuss here, 3D full color and 3D grey blocks.   I've discussed these issues before but its worth revisiting considering the new Apple example.   The full color IMHO is just showy, I can't see people pulling up this kind of imagery on their mobile devices whilst on the move, its just too visually complex.  I think everyone is going to play with it when they first see it on a device and then revert to something more visually simple when completing navigation tasks.

The more interesting feature is the 3D gray blocks.  Of course these aren't an Apple breakthrough, they've been on Google maps for a while:

Gray blocks for buildings (either of the Google or Apple variety) are visually simpler than full colored buildings and so may form an extra layer of information which users can use to navigate with.  I think the simple Apple gesture needed to make 3D snap on or off is good, this may make it something users can turn on when they are on the move and think it could help them navigate.

However, I think the buildings examples used in the demo had distinctive shapes so the grey blocks view looks very effective.  The feature may be much less use in a more normal city scape where building shapes are squarer and much more uniform.  So for navigating around a city, I'm yet to be convinced 3D gray blocks are a game changer.  And of course, out of the city, the feature really loses its value as buildings big enough to act as landmarks are much rarer.

More interesting is when navigation moves indoors, then shape of rooms and corridors becomes much more important for navigation IMHO.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

GOV.UK and Maps

Posts have been thin on the ground recently because I've been busy teaching a new course at the Uni.  However, its all over bar the exam marking now so I'm hoping to be more active here.

A friend has been involved in putting together GOV.UK - a site that provides the public with information from the British Government and acts as a clearing house to councils and other public bodies.  I really like the site, one of the key characteristics is that the designers have clearly focussed on user's needs.  I've had a quick whizz around looking for ways maps are, or could be, implemented in the site and a few thoughts spring to mind:

One Map, Many Points:   In the neighborhood section of the map you can enter your postcode and find services around you.  The site delivers you a list of possible local services, in the example below, we're looking at computer training courses:

As you can see, you get an individual map for each location.  It would be much better to provide one map with all the suggested services as markers with a linked list to the left of the screen (much as Google Maps and other services already deliver search results) with your entered post code shown as well.  This would enable the user to see which service is closer or if its close to their work commute route.

A nice add on to this would be travel time estimation circles centered on the entered postcode as found on TFL's 'Why not Walk It' maps.

Map Wiki: I also noticed that the site doesn't link users to useful map wiki or VGI (Volunteered Geographic Information) web sites such as FixMyStreet.  This enables the public to easily alert councils in the UK to problems with public spaces such as fly tipping or potholes because they interface with a map which is much easier than filling in a form.  I suspect that the remit for limits their ability to have done this since they link out to councils sites for this sort of service and councils may or may not have chosen to use a site like FixMyStreet.  

Map as Spine:  The way GOV.UK is organized is centered around search and text based categories.  There's nothing wrong with this structure, I'm sure its what most people want to use.  However, I wonder if a map based structuring would add value as an extra way of organizing the data?  Instead of entering the site wondering how to answer a specific question, maybe people would like to mine the information to make broader decisions such as where in London would I like to move to?  A series of maps based on each area could be very useful showing people how well an area is serviced by the public sector and data from within the site could be used to populate the map.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Color Blindness and Color Blends

I came across these color blends in a post on the web today (to save blushes, I'm not linking) from a mapping developer.  Here's what they look like to the majority of us

and here's how 6% of the male population see it (via the excellent color oracle freeware)

clearly the bottom two blends will be very difficult for color blind users to interpret.

Color blindness is a lot more complex than I've explained here but generally blends from yellow to blue are much better than reds to greens.  More info on color blindness in maps here.

If you're interested in the more general uses of color in maps, the Haklay text book has a good couple of chapters.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Usability Problems with Zeros on Cluster Maps

Please excuse the lack of post recently, I've been particularly busy with teaching over the last month.

Some Experimental Results: My PhD student Craig has some results from a usability experiment on the UK Crime Maps site.  It's too early in the analysis to discuss in detail but one aspect is coming across very clearly: users are getting confused by the representation of postcodes with no crimes on cluster maps (explanation of cluster maps).

Problem:  When you zoom in on an area in the crime map, you are presented with a view as on the left.  The number of crimes in the last month is shown for each postcode as a number in a blob, e.g. for the postcode mid left (above Thurleigh Rd) there were 4 crimes.  The problem with this visualisation is that the boundaries of the postcodes aren't visible.  If you look on the right I've illustrated roughly where two of the postcodes are with dotted red lines.  The postcode on the left has 1 crime, the one on the right (Devereux Rd) has none and so hasn't got a blob at all.

When users were asked to pick out the postcode with the least crime on the actual crime map (left) they failed to understand that no blob = no crime and identified the blob with the lowest number as the postcode with the lowest crime.

Solution:  On collated point maps zero crime postcodes should be represented by blobs with zeros in them.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Colour in Maps

On my other blog I've previously touched on the use of color in maps:

In researching my currently running course on communicating with web maps I came across some other best practices, mostly via the chapter on color in Muki Haklay's book.

Background = Blue:  We evolved doing things like picking berries from bushes in Africa, its therefore not surprising that the natural background color of that African landscape, the blue of the sky, is one as one that we still naturally associate with background.  Note how the red water above comes forward compared to the blue version and swamps out the map detail around it (map courtesy OSM)

Color Wheel Opposites:  The color wheel is a representation of 'color space' with hue around the edge. When choosing colors for symbols (such as placemarks) that need to visually stand out from each other, choose colors opposite each other on the color wheel.  A well used variation of this is yellow and blue.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Basemaps and Learning Curves

I'm up against the wall in terms of time still so short blog post today on a couple of topics both via James Fee.

Subtle Basemaps:  one of the basic problems with mashups has been putting data over a map designed for route planning.  Recently with Google maps API v3 and tools like tile mill people have started de-emphacizing background maps so that the data stands out better against the background map.  I agree with James that the OSM bright minimal style is a interesting development in this line of work.

I'd love to see some user test results to see how people fared working with a mashup based on this base map.

Learning Curves:  Also via James I read a great quote about teaching OS mapping software to students.
"One of the trepidations I have with teaching mapping courses using open source is that it usually requires some modicum of programming which is always way beyond the scope of any beginner class about making maps.  In addition, open source tends to favor linux or unix based tool chains that require config/make/make install tap dance before starting anything. This is akin to telling folks that they will need to forge their tools before they can start building a dog house."
Amen to that (emphasis mine).  I'm teaching web cartography at the moment mostly using Google Earth because I want them to learn about color, symbology and chart junk, not some abstract javascript that they will forget a week after the course is over.

The rest of the post goes on to explain why Sophia thinks TileMill for windows is a game changer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Grids are good

Excuse the use of map inserts rather than screenshots, I haven't got much time at the moment.

Look at an old Ordnance survey map of the uk and you'll see it's covered by a thin, blue lined grid.  On recent map systems such as Google Maps and OSM there is no grid.  My discussion today argues that we should bring the grids back.

Grids No Longer Necessary?  To locate yourself on an old map such as OS a grid allowed you to use grid references.  Web maps produce points at the right place without such a grid so because a grid adds to the visual clutter of a map, we're best rid of them?


Landmarks and Scale:  A grid is helpful because it gives a sense of scale to the map.  If you're looking at part of the antarctic

View Larger Map

 you have no sense of the size of what you're looking at.  Fix a grid of 1km spacing over the top and you can immediately judge distances.

Point Landmarks.  To locate yourself on a map your brain looks for known features and fixes your position in relation to this point.  Here in London that means that Londoners often describe an area in relation to underground (=metro) stations because that's how most of us get around.  The problem with this is that in tests it's found that people tend to position points that they remember by a landmark too close to the landmark.  So if my house was 1 mile away from Clapham South underground station if I was tested I'd tend to draw it closer, say 3/4 of a mile.

Line Landmarks Another way we locate points is in relation to line features such as a major road or coastline.  This has problems too.  Consider the question, which is further west of these UK cities: Glasgow or Cardiff?

View Larger Map

 Glasgow is towards top of map in Scotland.  Cardiff is due west of London and Bristol, you may have to zoom out or in a little 

Without looking at a map most Brits think that Cardiff is further west.  That's because they have a mental map in which the East coast of the UK runs north south whereas it actually runs NNW-SSE and they warp space to accomodate this misconception.

Grid Solution Because a grid runs exactly north-south and east-west it gets over the Glasgow-Cardiff problem.  Also, it minimises the underground station problem as it represents a continuous set of landmarks rather than discrete points (although this point is worthy of more testing to prove this is the case).  So a grid can deliver both a sense of scale and a landmark system which allows people to fix positions on a map and remember their positions correctly.

When to use Grids: I suspect that its more useful to use a grid in an area without a strong set of landmarks (desert, tundra) rather than somewhere with good landmarks, if you put a grid over US cities with their right angled street systems I imagine users would ignore the map grid because the street system provides such a good system of landmarks already.

Friday, January 20, 2012

National Rail into Google Maps in the UK

In an earlier post on web transit maps in London I noted that when you used the public transport route calculator on Google Maps it didn't include national rail.  That wasn't too much of a problem itself (it's obvious they were working on whatever licensing/data issues were holding up getting that data in) but my criticism was that the map didn't make that clear.

The discussion has now become academic as I learn via Ed Parsons that national rail trains are now included in their route planner.  Good work Google!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Will Zooming Break the Map?

My PhD student Craig has been testing university undergrads on interactive web maps.  His results have revealed the fact that:

  • Despite being set tasks that require users to zoom in to search effectively, some users don't use the zoom control
  • One user commented that s/he didn't want to zoom in as s/he might 'break the map' and 'not be able to get back'
Digital Natives? What is most interesting about this result is that these are undergrads, supposedly the 'digital natives' we hear so much about.  The fact that some of them can't use basic map controls means we need to think hard about web map design when our audience will include people with generally low IT skills.  A static, non-zoomable map may be the solution to go for even if it is less elegant as a solution.

Web Browsing Skills:  Will this issue continue in the future?  There's a useful analogy in the development of user skills in operating web browsers: I remember teaching introductory ICT to mature students in 2000, lack of understanding about browser features such as back buttons and URLs was common at the time.  That general lack of understanding has now disappeared because most people use browsers regularly.  Use of web maps has been common since around 2005 but their use is (of course) less common than browsers so I wouldn't be surprised if basic skills associated with web maps were taking longer to spread through the population than web browser skills took.