Old Maps online workshop

Old maps online launched some months back and has been quite a hit.  It essentially is a catalogue of old maps from library collections around the World.  However, it is much more than just that. Old maps online allows users to make spatial searches for maps rather than having to rely on fields such as Title, author and published date.  This is not the information that springs to mind when you want a map.  Place-names, regions and coordinates are more logical search terms.

As part of the Old Maps Online project, the  team are putting on workshops and i attended the Edinburgh event on Thursday 13th December. Edinburgh is steeped in mapping history and has one of the largest map library collections in the World.  Whats more, a significant percentage of the National Library of Scotland’s collection has been scanned and made available online for free.  The NLS have recently updated their catalogue interface and it is even easier to search and view maps.  This is a huge resource and has sparked the interest in many researchers who have utalised the old maps in their research.

The NLS site is uses software from Klokan Technologies, a small Swiss company run by Petr Pridal. Petr has put a lot of effort into improving the searching and discovery of historic maps online and it was for this contribution that he received the Bartholomew’s Globe. The Bartholomew’s Globe is an award from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) and is awarded in recognition of an exceptional contribution to cartography, mapping and related techniques in Scotland over a long period of years. The award was presented by Bruce Gittings, RSGS Vice Chairman.

Bartholomew’s Award 2012

The rest of the event focused on how historic maps, and historic geographical data in general, were being used in researchers. The flavor was, as expected given the location, generally Scottish, but it also brought together a mix of academic researchers, commercial organisations and enthusiastic amateurs.  Presentations that stood out included:

Alice Heywood (NLS) who described a project that got School children to develop content for mobile apps that provided historic tours of their home towns. The pilot had been run in Elgin and the children had produced some excellent narratives explaining their local historical sites and traditions.  This kind of partnership between the NLS and schools seems like an excellent initiative. Perhaps it could link in with organisations such as VisitScotland to create apps for tourists visiting Scotland. More information about the Great Escapes project can be found on the NLS website.

Chris Speed (University of Edinburgh) who discussed the “blue dot” concept.  This is really that a mobile device will represent your position as a blue dot, but using historic maps and data you can allow the user to travel back through time at a particular location. Chris has had publicity with his Walking through time app, a project which was supported by JISC and EDINA. This allowed users to view historic maps of Edinburgh and embark on guided tours through history via their mobile phones. Chris want to expand this to Glasgow, arguably a more dynamic environment which might reveal more startling change to users. I am not sure I entirely agree with Chris’ comments about connecting with individual objects such as trees which have persisted in green spaces while the build environment has changed around them.  Trees on maps tn to be representative rather than an absolute record.  However, if you are in a greenspace and faced by a tree that is clearly over 100 years old and trees are marked on the map you can believe that the surveyor stood there and added it to the map all those years ago and that tree is a link to the past environment.

There were 2 talks on mapping old transport links.  David Simpson had tried to locate roads marked on Roy’s Maps, Roy’s Roads. David found that bridges were quite reliable features of Roy’s maps and by locating these on the ground and modern maps you could then find the old road features. Many of these bridges are being lost, used only by farmers to access fields but represent an important part of Scotland’s history.  Neil Ramsay (Scotways) was working to display old path networks on modern maps.  Discovering old routes and posting them online is one way in which Scotways in encouraging people to get out and discover their local area. It was noted by a member of the audience that there was an apparent lack of paths connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh. Neil noted this and mentioned that it was certainly on the list of places to investigate, perhaps enthusiastic walkers could lend a hand.  Just go to the NLS maps page and scan through the maps to see if a path exists in your local area that is missing from the modern OS maps, then get out an see if it exists on the ground. Take a look at Scotways excellent Heritage Paths site.

There was a very interesting presentation on using Historic maps as a tool for place-name research given by Jake King (Ainmean Aite na h-Alba). Jake had used the NLS historic maps to investigate the changes in spelling of Gaelic place-names through time.

Bomb Sight

Bomb Sight

Humphrey Southall and Andrew James (The National Archives) deputised for Kate (bomber) Jones (University of Portsmouth) who was unable to travel to the event.  The Bomb Sight project maps the bombs that fell on London during the first phase of the blitz. This project digitised and mapped records held by the National Archive. These maps were previously only available for the public to view in the reading room at the National Archive.  Users can view the location of bombs and display attribute data such as the date, bomb type and, in most cases, view “nearby memories” such as audio and pictures from the archive. Users can switch between the modern map and the 1940 Bomb maps. These maps are a bit grainy and it would be great to see some crisper historic mapping in there.  The Bomb Sight project also has a mobile app that allows users an augmented reality view of the blitz. The project has done incredibly well and attracted a lot of publicity. This demonstrates the power of fusing historic maps with archived data that has never been displayed digitally.

This really summed up the event.  There is public interest in historic data and making it accessible in a digital format is the key.  Once those interested in historic data can get their hands on the digital data, they can turn it into useful information that others can enjoy or even re-appoint for other uses such as education and tourism.


OSGIS 2012 – Part 1

OSGIS is now in it’s 4th year and has really become one of the main events that brings together users and developers of open source geospatial tools.  The nice thing about OSGIS is that it attracts an even spread of delegates from the commercial, the public and the academic sector.  This cross-sector mixing is, in my opinion, very healthy for the geospatial sector.

Jeremy Morley at OSGIS 2012

Day One of OSGIS 2012 featured workshops where users could get hands on experience of software under the guidance of expert tutors.  The morning session saw an introduction to GeoNetwork, a geospatial catalog service, and and overview of the OSM-GBproject which has made in-roads in topologically correcting OSM data. These workshops are integral to the ethos of OSGIS as they are designed to empower both novices exploring the potential of open source software and the expert users looking to refine their skillset and discuss technical problems.

After lunch I opted to attend the session looking at the educational use of OSGeo Live. For those of you that have not heard of OSGeo Live, it is a bootable DVD which allows you to investigate OSGeo software without having to instal and configure it on your own computer. This is an excellent way to explore the functionality offered by the numerous packages such as uDIG, QGIS, Openlayers and GeoServer.

Barend Kobben of ITC in the Netherlands outlined how OSGeo Live was used in teaching and why it solved many issues.  Increasingly universities are assuming that students will want to use their own laptops rather than relying on open access labs.  This means that the tutors have no control of what computer students will use to complete course work. Supporting multiple operating systems and system configurations is virtually impossible.  Using OSGeo Live removes the necessity to configure systems. Just put the DVD in the computer,reboot and go. Well, most of the time.  Not all computers are set to boot from the DVD drive, users would have to access their BIOS to set their boot sequence. Running the OSGeo Live from a USB stick or on a virtual machine potentially reduces the hassle of dealing with boot sequences.

Jeremy Morley of Nottingham Geospatial Institute echoed Barend’s experiences.  Jeremy had used Oracle VirtualBox and then taken snapshots on a Storage Area Network (SAN) to ensure that students work was backed up.  This looked promising but didn’t scale when 20+ students tried to access the SAN. Unfortunately, the snapshots were tied to a single machine ID, students would have to use the same machine eachtime they accessed their work.  This was not an acceptable solution. Jeremy switched to running OSGeo live from a USBstick and this was an improvement, but again, was not without it’s own issues.  The FAT32 format reduced the usable space on the 8 Gb drives to just under 5Gb and cheaper USB sticks were prone to burning out and failing.  But, the solution was acceptable and Jeremy was able to deliver the course to to the students. Next years course will be refined in light of discovering these issues.

As an aside, Jeremy flagged the potential need for more Geographic Information Systems courses to support the wide and varied technical applications which require in depth knowledge of computing.  There has been a trend of Geographic Information Science courses over recent years where students are taught how to apply GIS to solve scientific problems.  However the maintenance of systems and interfaces which allow data to be published and interacted with is important but forms the base of only a handful of course at the moment.

During the discussion of these two papers, it ws suggested that a Cloud Space to run GIS would be useful, if you could configure what tools you wanted.  A figure of 4Gb was suggested as a reasonable workspace.  This would allow users to analyse data but would have to carefully manage their space.  You could always “do with more space” but you could teach with about 4Gb of space.

The first day closed with a presentation by Jiri Kadlec of Aalto University, Finland. Jiri, by his own admission , was new to open source GIS and set himself the challenge of managing and translating data in differing coordinate systems. Projections and coordinate systems are always a challenge.  The theory is that you should be able to get from any “system” o any other “system” by passing through WGS1984.  Jiri found QGIS to be the bet of the bunch but it was not perfect.  Juiri also put together a neat little projection comparison tool which many of the audience thought would be an excellent aid when teaching students about projections, or for showing representations of land areas in different projections.

The day finished with a drinks reception and a visit to some of the sights of Nottingham. Fortunately, some of the best historic sites just so happen to be pubs and the Jubilee Campus is the site of the old Raleigh bicycle factory.

Historic Site


The Venus Transit – NASA Video

Well i was up in time to find the skies above Scotland giving it the full 8 Octas this morning.  So no transit viewing for me and I am unlikely to see it again given that we will have to wait another 105 years for the next transect.

If you missed it then you might be in interested in watching the truly amazing video posed on NASA’s YouTube channel.  This compresses the 7 hour transit into 39 seconds of jaw-dropping video.

Transit of Venus

From the NASA website: The Venus transit as seen in the 171 wavelength. This channel is especially good at showing coronal loops – the arcs extending off of the Sun where plasma moves along magnetic field lines. The brightest spots seen here are locations where the magnetic field near the surface is exceptionally strong.

If you don’t know why the transit of Venus is so important to the development of science then you should check out the following links: