Letterboxing as an Introduction to Navigation and Location

Letterboxing is an old activity, somewhat related to both geocaching and orienteering. It involves navigating from a given starting point to a cached box containing a log book and a rubber stamp. Navigation consists of anything from following riddles and printed clues to compass directions and distances.
The low-tech nature of letterboxing is one of its attractions. You do not have to have a GPS device or any specialized equipment. A compass is really all you might need.
Once a letterbox is found, the letterboxer uses the stamp in the box to mark his log book and marks the box’s log book with his stamp. Each letterboxer also comes up with a trail name. The trail name coincides with your stamp identity and allows others to follow your hunts. Here is a picture of the stamps I made with the family. The cat is our family stamp and the snake is one my son drew for himself. I carved both of them out of a $1.26 art gum eraser.
homemade letterboxing stamps
Many letterboxers carve their own stamps. Here are my not so artistic attempts
Once my seven year old son caught on that letterboxing was like going on a treasure hunt, he was easily convinced to learn the skills necessary to find the boxes. It only took him a minute to learn how to shoot a rough azimuth with my compass. I wrote out some basic directions including azimuths and number of paces from point to point throughout the house. He was successful in navigating through the house and finding a couple of baseball cards I had hidden for him.
I see letterboxing as a great way to introduce my younger children to the world of land navigation and location awareness. It might help them later to appreciate geocaching and orienteering which I would love to get them involved in.
The best place to find out more about letterboxing is Letterboxing.org. The site details history, etiquette, materials needed and rules of the game. More importantly it provides a list of letterbox cache sites and the instructions to find them. If there are no locations for your area, by all means go out and create some.

5 Nifty Mapping Sites From StumbleUpon This Week

StumbleUpon is a great site for finding web sites and blogs you might not otherwise come across. Of course many well known sites are there as well.

In my perusals I came across the following five mapping/GIS sites that I thought were interesting.

FlashEarth – Here is a nifty little satellite imagery viewing application. Flash Earth is refreshing because it does not look like Google Earth. Yes, it is flash based and it pulls its imagery data from Microsoft and Yahoo.

Picture of the FlashEarth.com home page

Wikimapia – Yep, it’s a Google Map powered wiki. Launched in 2006 there are over 15,000,000 places already marked. You can use the site for free and anyone can upload information without registering.

Picture of the WikiMapia.org site with North American extent

Maps Of War – Another flash based map site Maps of War is a collection of maps having to do with wars and war related subjects.

IRIS Seismic Monitor – The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology is a consortium of universities that aquire, manage and distribute seismological data. The Seismic Monitor is the geospatial mapping application they use for the distribution. The application is not perfect. You can only zoom to a small scale view of an area but the information is interesting. Play around with it and see what you think.

Picture of the Seismic Monitor map
Worldology.com – Interactive geopolitical maps focused largely on Europe. While the site does not yet cover a large portion of the earth, the site’s creator intends to expand his project worldwide.
Picture of the worldology.com site


Please Don’t Be “The Map Guy”

It never ceases to amaze me how many GIS professionals feel the need to brand themselves “The Map Guy”. If you could collect a business card from everyone at a GIS conference you would find maybe a quarter of them with “The Map Guy!” printed below their name. It’s not a bad tag line for someone who makes maps but for goodness sake, it’s been done.

Of course it does no good to complain about something unless you can come up with an alternative. Here are a few business card ready tags you can use to show yourself to be a unique member of the GIS community:

  • The Ace of Maps
  • The Map Ninja
  • The CartoWarrior
  • The GeoGiant
  • Not To Scale
  • The Carto Kid
  • The Human Projection
  • Thematic and Proud
  • The Mad Mapper
  • CartoManiac
  • And my favorite – The Original Geographer

There, see? Now there are no more excuses for following the crowd. Now go out and be someone different, and no, “The Map Man” Doesn’t count.

6 Ways to Squeeze More GIS Juice From Your Budget

We all love working for an organization with deep GIS pockets. When there is a fat budget you can afford to buy more toys, upgrade the toys you already have and generally keep up with technology.

Our current economy, however, has impacted even the biggest budgets like that of the Federal government and most state and local ones too. Private companies have not been immune either.

Dollar Bill


There are ways to grow your geospatial program though. You just have to become a little more creative in how you approach your acquisitions. Following are six ways an underfunded GIS team can thrive in a down economy.
  1. Ask your software vendor for an upgrade. Most software companies work to constantly improve their products. When they compile enough changes they will release a new version. Find out if your current maintenance schedule already includes new versions. Even if your maintenance agreement has expired or you never had one, you might be entitled to an upgrade to the next version after the one you bought.
  2. Learn scripting to automate your processes. They say time is money. If this is true then learning a relevant scripting language can be worth its weight in gold. One useful and popular language in the GIS world is Python. Python can be used not only for scripting but for full blown product development. It is easy to learn and there are plenty of resources out there to help you utilize it. ArcGIS 10 is probably the most widely used GIS platform supporting Python but the free and open source Quantum GIS does as well.
  3. Speaking of free and open source…. If your organization is open to open source software and free products on their network, you should definitely look into it. If you can only afford to maintain a few paid seats of ArcGIS you could augment your holdings with the previously mentioned free and open source Quantum GIS (QGIS). QGIS can read and write Shapefiles and PostGIS data, both of which can be utilized in ArcGIS. Products such as Google Earth, MapQuest, and Open Street Map can also be powerful geospatial tools and can either augment your current software or in some cases replace it. Some of these software products even provide development APIs to create your own custom tools. It all depends on what your mission is.
  4. Ask your local college for help. Do you need to be freed up to pursue important projects that have been languishing? Utilize your local GIS students for digitizing, GPS location and more. Talk to the head of your local college GIS program about hiring students as interns. You can typically pay them a lot less than a regular hire but still get great results. They get the benefit of experience; you get the benefit of accomplishing more in budget.
  5. Mine the internet for free data. There is always the fear that data from the internet is inaccurate or outdated. That is certainly true in some cases but there is plenty of quality low cost or free data to be had. A few examples of quality (usually) data providers include federal, state, county and city governments, special districts such as utilities and university data repositories. Check to see if the data has associated metadata available. This will tell you if you are working with quality or if you should be looking elsewhere for your needs.
  6. Buy used equipment. If you are in need of new data collection equipment (GPS receivers or survey equipment), data manipulation equipment (computers), or data output equipment (plotters and printers) eBaycould be your answer. The online auction site is still going strong and offers just about anything imaginable. Try creating a custom search for the items you are looking for and keeping watch for great deals. You can determine the price you are able to spend and then start bidding. This might take a little longer than traditional purchasing methods but the cost savings can be worth it.
Even if your GIS team is on a shoestring budget there are many ways to maximize output and proficiency while staying on top of current GIS trends. As shown above, open source and free products are widespread and in many cases perform just as well if not better than their proprietary and fee based brethren. There are also plenty of ways to find help and equipment at prices lower than you might normally pay. Do you have suggestions of other ways to save money while growing your GIS presence? Leave a comment and let me know.