I recently took a hike carrying a Garmin GPS loaded with some unusual topographical maps, notable not only for the detail they showed but for how they were made. The maps, which cover all of California, are based on data from the U.S. government―but what makes them unusual is that they were produced not by a commercial company, but by a hobbyist with no formal training. I found the maps online, free for the downloading, and as far as I can tell, they are perfectly legal. The maps I had been using, Garmin’s Topo U.S. 2008 series, show contour elevation lines at 150 foot intervals. The new maps show the contour lines every 20 feet, a level of detail that makes them more useful for the kind of off-trail Sierra backpacking I like to do in the summer.
Free maps of better (well mostly better, I’ll get to that) quality is a nice combination, and to figure out how that happened, I contacted the woman who generated the map set, first for her own use, and ultimately for anyone with a Garmin GPS and an interest in the California outdoors. Laura Sanborn volunteers for search and rescue missions with the California Rescue Dog Association. If a hiker were to get lost, she would be assigned an area to search, relying on her dog to sniff out other people nearby. Her GPS of choice: a high-end Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx.
“When we do our wilderness searching, we are completely off the beaten track most of the time, often in dense forest―so it’s very advantageous to have a good mapping GPS,” she says, as well as the best mapping data available. The difference a detailed topographical map can make is most apparent when you set foot off the trail. Sanborn says it’s important to be able to relate the mapping contour information with what you see around you, as well as with the more detailed paper map you are carrying as well. “With a 150-interval map, you can hardly relate the map to anything. We’re often off the beaten track and looking at small drainages and other details in the woods. If you look at the GPS, often you can see, say, a drainage that shows up at 20 foot intervals but doesn’t show up at all on 150-foot intervals.”
Garmin now offers more detailed topographical maps, but at the time, no commercial alternatives existed―so Sanborn browsed the Web in hopes of building a better digital map herself. She wound up using two sets of data, both created and put online by the United State Geological Survey. The first set shows elevation data of various resolutions―but sufficient to display contour levels at 20-foot intervals. The second shows roads and trails, along with power lines and bodies of water. The combined data surpassed the commercial maps for detail, though they lacked labels, vegetation types, boundaries, and man-made structures. With her maps, you can see a Sierra lake on the map, but you won’t know its name.
For years, people on online GPS forums asked how they could put third-party maps on Garmin’s popular outdoor GPSs. For years, the answer to that question was: you can’t. The format was proprietary and had not been reverse engineered until Stan Kozicki made his command line cGPSmapper program, which creates vector maps that can be uploaded to a Garmin device. The program, which is available in freeware and fee versions, uses Kozicki’s XML-like Polish format before compiling to Garmin-compatible .img files.
Sanborn is a chemical engineer, not a mapping specialist―and she emphasizes that her approach to processing geographical data was an amateur’s attempt. But in doing so, she has demonstrated just how far the data, desktop and Web-based tools, APIs, and communities have come in the last few years. The candidate term for this new age of mapping tools―and mapping enthusiasts―is “neogeography,” (though it’s still too early to tell if the term will stick.) The best known neogeographic tools are Google Maps and, especially, Google Earth, which, even in its fifth version, can still astonish each time you run it. Less polished but more Web 2.0 is the OpenStreetMap project (Pacific Connecton, September 2008), which is aspiring to be the Wikipedia of cartography. Beyond that are a group of enthusiasts, some with professional interests, others strictly amateurs, who are going where only GIS (geographic information systems) specialists once tread.
Sanborn is among them. She began by converting USGS digital elevation model (DEM) data for the San Francisco region, then extended her work to the rest of the state―downloading 23 GB of data in more than 300 files from the USGS’s National Map Seamless Server (seamless.usgs.gov). She used a freeware conversion program, GPSMapEdit, to set display characteristics and add some trails where she does her training. She abandoned another freeware program after encountering a bug, and wound up using a $300 commercial program, Global Mapper, to convert the USGS’s preferred format, spatial data transfer standard (SDTS) into the Polish format. Finally, she used cGPSmapper to generate a Garmin-compatible .img file. Generating the contour maps required two or three PCs “crunching numbers nearly around the clock for several weeks. The raw data and intermediate files consumed more than 100 GB and yielded an IMG file of just over 1 GB. “In hindsight, I could have used Global Mapper to do more of the file conversion ahead of cGPSmapper,” she says. “But by the time I realized it, I'd already completed the contour maps.”
Online maps: ready to download
I first encountered Sanborn’s maps on the website GpsFileDepot.com, operated by Dan Blomberg, a U.S. Air Force civil engineer based in Anchorage, Alaska. “She did it out of the goodness of her heart,” Blomberg said, referring to Sanborn’s project. “My only contribution to the map of California was to make it easier to install on PCs and Macs.” Like Sanborn, Blomberg became interested in higher resolution maps because of his experience off the trail. “I was rock climbing and realized I was on the wrong side of a ravine,” he recalls. “The ravine was only 140 feet deep so there wasn’t a contour line between me and the other side―so I had to go all the way down and around.”
Blomberg has worked to ensure that the maps on his site are particularly easy to download to a Garmin GPS. Not surprisingly, North American maps dominate his collection. “Darryl Atkins of Ibycus.com has created a very dense, very good topo map of all of Canada that beats what Garmin has to offer,” he says. There are also maps of Iraq and Afghanistan. Without being too specific, Blomberg says that military personnel go to his site and download the maps to their own GPS units. The small Garmin receivers, he says, are quite popular. Free maps for other regions, including Japan, are hit-and-miss―because the data itself isn’t released. “For example, for a lot of countries in Europe, the data for the maps is not available for free,” he says, which may be why the open source map project OpenStreetMap received its initial interest there. On the other hand, there are good maps of the Caribbean, because the USGS did a satellite pass over it.
GpsFileDepot.com also contains a nine-part tutorial for generating Garmin topo maps. Suggested tools include GPSMapEdit, a shareware program, and Global Mapper, the $300 commercial program ultimately used by Sanborn. “Global Mapper is what most people choose because it has a lot of power behind it,” Blomberg says. As the “recipe” for do-it-yourself GPS mapmaking gets better known, the number of maps is increasing, with new contributions to the site coming in each week. “For example, two people followed my tutorial and recently posted both Illinois and Washington State. Now, we almost have the entire Western U.S. covered.”
It’s hard to gage just what effect all this activity has on Garmin. The company resells mapping data from NAVTEQ, which along with Tele Atlas, is a dominant supplier. So while a growing crop of free user-generated Garmin maps could hurt the company’s digital map sales, it also helps keep Garmin the manufacturer of choice among the most passionate GPS enthusiasts, and their verdict influences others.
Would an open GPS platform attract more hardware sales? Rich Owings, who runs the website GPSTtracklog.com, wrote in an email exchange that that the DeLorme PN-40 GPS “is siphoning a little market share from Garmin among high-end handheld buyers and early adopters,” in part because of its ability to handle aerial imagery―which could be the next big leap for outdoor GPSs. “Garmin clearly has built the capacity into its new Oregon and Colorado series. I suspect the holdup with Garmin has been coming up with a system to deliver the imagery, rather than device limitations.” Garmin and ASUS are also co-producing the mobile Nuviphone, and Owings says to keep a look out “for hybrid devices: phones designed to double as a backcountry navigator with aerial imagery, or phones that double as a golf GPS.”
One of the epicenters for the new era in geodata is the website FreeGeographyTools.com, which was launched by Leszek Pawlowicz in 2007. With a PhD in material science and engineering, coupled with a love of the outdoors, Pawlowicz bought one of the first commercial GPS units, a Motorola TrackStar, “which was heavier than a brick, used 6 AAs and had a three-hour battery life and only gave you your current position. I connected it with a boating antenna that I put on top of my car and created one of the very first in-car GPS systems.” Over the past decade, Pawlowicz has also worked with consulting companies that do cultural resources management, which factors archeology into determining land use. He is also the author of MOAGU―(Mother of All GPS Utilities), a well received program that creates raster maps, including aerial images, for Garmin devices.
FreeGeographyTools.com tracks the surge in online maps back to around 2002, most of it from government agencies. “In the U.S., we are particularly lucky in that a lot of the government agencies, both federal and state, feel there is a mandate to make this data available, free of charge. That access then gives you an impetus to figure out what can you do with it. Obviously, one answer is to buy a GIS [geographic information system] program, but even the cheaper ones cost about $300 and the more expensive ones, like a full-blown version of ArcGIS will run you thousands of dollars when you figure in the cost of all the extensions.”
Pawlowicz says that while the applications on his site don’t match the power of their commercial counterparts, they are highly useful nonetheless. “I don’t think there’s a single free GIS program that does everything that an ArcGIS does, but you don’t always need that.” In many cases, he says, free or nearly-free software, including single-purpose specialized utilities, will provide sufficient functionality for your purposes.
Applications on FreeGeographyTools.com include programs that do metadata for data sets, analysis of satellite and aerial imagery, and geospatial statistical analysis. “There’s also the more highly specialized stuff that only does one specific function, but is fully open source.” Some of these applications come out of academic settings, others from hobbyists, and a fair amount from the U.S. government. Pawlowicz estimates that about 60 percent of the visitors to his site are from homes, 40 percent from businesses. “Based on which of my posts gets the most visits coming in from search engines, the interest would seem to be overwhelmingly from hobbyists who are outdoor people, primarily using a GPS, as well as Google Earth.
Pawlowicz says that USGS’s National Map Seamless Server (seamless.usgs.gov) is a model for how governments can make geographic data available to the public. “You can pull in topographic maps, road maps, fire maps, wildlife maps, and drought maps -- a whole host of scanned map and raster data, and aerial photos for the entire country. In addition, most U.S. states now have a GIS department and most of those states have a website where you can access maps that show property lines, vegetation types, mining areas, and geology.”
In looking at Google’s geographic resources, Pawlowicz argues that Google Maps has been “a far more important development than Google Earth. Google Maps has had a community almost from the very start of people who figured out how to mash in data from other sources and use it. The first ones, like a Chicago crime map, were basically done on the fly. Then Google created an API that allowed other people to do that as well.”
Pawlowicz also credits Stanislaw Kozicki for his work on cGPSmapper. “He’s been working since the early 2000s, adding additional features and making it faster. A community has sprung up around the tool who use his and others’ tools to generate their own maps.”
OSGeo: the Open Source Geo Consortium
While not all tools listed on FreeGeographyTools.com are actually free, Pawlowicz pointed me to OSGeo.org―the Open Source Geo Consortium, a clearing house launched in 2006 for coordinating efforts for open source development of new geography tools. Executive director Tyler Mitchell, based a few hundred kilometers north of Vancouver, wrote the book “Web Mapping Illustrated, Using Open Source GIS Toolkits” (O’Reilly Media; Japanese translation available). Commercial sponsors include Autodesk, which also offers its own GIS tools, as well as Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Institute for Ecological Research) and the open source database company Ingres.
"Over the last few years, we've seen a lot of developers come into the field who don't really know about the historical context of GIS, but are developing new tools that help visualize geospatial information,” Mitchell said. The site links to a number of open source tools and development projects, including Web mapping, geospatial libraries, and desktop applications. The ongoing work is international in scope. "We've had some good advocates from Japan from the very beginning, adding multi-byte character support for MapServer and several other desktop applications.”
Mitchell says that most of these projects reflect the kind of "virtuous circle" that has propelled other open source development. A developer will begin by fixing a bug or extend a capability. A few successes lead to community recognition, which leads to more contributions. Many of the programmers, both professional and hobbyists, are coming from the Linux side. Indeed, in its small size, the open source geospatial community resembles Linux's earlier days.
The building blocks on the site are the geospatial libraries. These APIs include Feature Data Objects (FDO) and the Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL/OGR), both C/C++ libraries that can access geospatial information in multiple formats, from Google Earth KML data to ERSI Shape files. Dozens of formats are supported, including both raster images and vector line data. Java is supported in the comparable GeoTools API, and GDAL has bindings for other languages through the SWIG (Simplified Wrapper and Interface Generator) tool. The GEOS (Geometry Engine, Open Source) library, also Java-based, does data manipulation using Open Geospatial Consortium specifications.
The site’s Web mapping tools, such as MapServer (http://www.mapserver.org/) allow people to serve their own geographic data on the Web, as well as mash it with data found on Google, Yahoo!, and elsewhere. "It's going to be interesting to see how some of the geospatial information people are collecting gets fed back to a wider audience,” Mitchell says. “Some of our projects can use that data as well, and load them into desktop applications, Web maps, or metadata cataloging applications. Any push for people to create data ultimately will help our projects, too.”
If history is any guide, this mix of open and commercial development will serve neogeographers well. It’s worth noting that Laura Sanborn, my California topo map provider, ultimately concluded that a commercial application, Global Mapper, was well worth the $300 its developer charges. The cost of free software is never free―because you always have to factor in the cost of your time. More than a decade after Eric S. Raymond wrote his famous essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, comparing closed and open source development, the road to creating successful applications leads to both.
Sidebar: The Galapagos and a Final Pacific Connection
In researching this final installment of Pacific Connection, I’ve also been planning a Pacific Ocean trip―to the Galapagos Islands, about a thousand kilometers off the Ecuadorian coast. So I began to wonder: what geographical resources are available online? A few years ago, the answer would have been: pretty much nothing. Now, there’s Google Earth, which has stunning images of the island chain―including an aerial photo of the largest island, Isabella, that looks eerily like a sea horse. On another site, TravelByGps, I found a .gpx file―the XML-based exchange format―with a variety of Galapagos-related waypoints that I can download to my GPS. Using Garmin’s MapSource software, I also generated a Google Earth “mash-up.” Once you know where to look, the process is remarkably easy. If I keep the GPS on during the trip, I can add a track and waypoints to this map that shows were we went.
I also found and loaded a topographical map of the islands linked at http://gpsmapsearch.com.
So yeah, the GPS and its surrounding software has become a personal obsession, in part because it not only involves technology, but gets me outdoors. But not everyone approves of this combination. A couple of summers ago, my friend Chris Timossi and I stood at a Yosemite trailhead comparing the readouts from our respective GPSs. That day, we would leave the trail and navigate our way “cross-country” to camp at a high mountain lake―and we looked to our GPSs to help make sure we arrived safely. But a passing hiker didn’t see it that way. He looked at the surrounding forest and granite walls, the place where Ansel Adams took many of his famous photographs. Then he looked at us gazing at our devices. And he pronounced us crazy.
One of the things I’ve learned in writing Pacific Connection for the past 14 years is that one person’s appropriate technology is another’s definition of insanity. Since 1995 when I began, a lot of technology and websites have been invented that, depending on how you look at them, are either indispensible to your life or a distraction from it. And that leaves us all with decisions to make. Do you join Facebook (launched in 2003)? Twitter (2008)? Carry a BlackBerry (1999) or an iPhone (2007)―or maybe a netbook (2007). Should you subscribe to a hundred blogs using an RSS reader? Or follow a YouTube (2005) channel? Should you buy a PlayStation (1994), xBox (2001), Wii (2005)―or all three? Maybe you should life blog, or read someone else’s. Or edit Wikipedia. Or participate in a forum. Or learn about a new Google gadget?
I’ve read about hikikomori, in which, typically, a male teenager seldom leaves the house. The word is Japanese and the phenomenon is associated with Japan, but all of us who love technology risk catching the milder form of this disease. Every new technology presents us with a trade-off. On one hand, there’s the potential to save time, connect with friends and colleagues, and learn new things. But each provides yet one more reason to stare at a screen, and these days, there are more screens to stare at. We have all become great multi-taskers. But as every software designer knows, there are times when you must shut off the outside world and concentrate on the problem at hand. As Dalton Conley, author of “Elsewhere U.S.A.," put it in an interview with Salon.com: “The challenge for most of us is to manage these buzzing, beeping demands on us while being part of the mainstream economy. And at the same time preserve some things we value outside that sphere.”
As a two-time visitor to Japan, part of what I love about your country is that it seems to embody both the yin and yang of this dilemma. To risk over-simplification, Tokyo seems like the ultimate multi-tasking city, while Kyoto, at least in its gardens and temples, is a monument to what single-minded concentration can do. Other examples of Japanese single-mindedness: the Kodo taiko drummers and the Living National Treasures (人間国宝).
So let’s define appropriate technology as the technology that works for you―not simply because someone else thinks you need to have it. As a programmer, appropriate technology is what keeps you competitive your job―without interfering from the main task of doing the best development work you are capable of. As a human being, it’s what enriches your life without interfering with it. As an adventurer, it is the technology that helps point the way, but doesn’t stop you from going places, physically and mentally, that aren’t on the map.
Thank you for sharing this adventure with me. From one side of the Pacific to the other, I wish you the best possible connection to your life’s work―and to your life’s journey.