Getting Your Bearing In A Digital World

There is no doubt we live in a geospatial age. We are inundated with location based data wherever we turn. While some mapping applications like OpenStreetMap appeal to targeted users, others such as Google maps, Bing Maps, Yahoo Maps and MapQuest are main stream and are accessed by millions of users every day. But are people any more spatially aware of surroundings even with these tools and GPS units in every car and smartphone?
North is up there
I run into people all the time who can follow a GPS that says turn right on Smith street but couldn’t tell you what directions Smith street runs to save their lives. It could be said that we are actually losing our directional abilities. Google maps doesn’t even give bearing throughout your route. There is only one bearing at the beginning of the directions. The rest of your route is made up of “Left”, “Right”, and “Take Exit…”
Okay, so what? If we have the tools to get us from point A to point B, why should we care if our driving map has a compass rose on it? Well, here are three reasons I think directional aptitude is still important:
  1. Mapping technology is unreliable. Online maps are only as good as the data human beings put into them.
  2. Data may not always be available. Even with mobile technology there are times when digital maps and directions will not be at your fingertips. Batteries die, charging cables are forgotten and phones are left behind on counters.
  3. Having your bearing is a safety issue. Knowing your location relative to another location can be a matter of safety. Emergency services can find you easier if they know you are north or south of a particular intersection.
Map meeting
So how can directionaly challenged individuals build back their sense of bearing? Here are three things that might help:
  1. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Knowing just this piece of information can help a person get their bearing for a good portion of the day. Face a rising sun and west is behind you , north is to your left and south is to your right. With practice, directional orientation will become second nature.
  2. In town, pay attention to N,S,E,W on street signs. That paired with increasing or decreasing block numbers will give you a direction.
  3. Get in the habit of using paper maps. You will remember street names and landmarks in relation to a map’s compass rose.
Modern computer mapping has revolutionized our world today. While the internet and geospatial technologies are indispensable in much of our daily lives they have also taken away some of our ability to think for ourselves. Fortunately it is not difficult to reclaim that lost territory.

Using Pinterest to Catalog Online Maps


What is Pinterest?Cartographers and GIS users are often visual by nature. Pinterest is a tool that allows the visually minded to capitalize on images posted throughout the web. In a nutshell, Pinterest allows a user to “pin” images, found on the web, to virtual pin boards. These pin boards are organized by topic and the images you save to them link back to the original page they were found on.

Pinterest geospatial pin boards
Here are a couple of my pin boards I use for geospatial images and maps


Pinterest is sometimes thought of as a social network for women interested in home décor or fashion or recipes. To be honest, I first head about the site from my wife who has a food blog. When I saw what you can do with the site, however, I knew I had found a great resource for organizing, saving, and enjoying maps found online. Of course I don’t use it only for maps. I use it to inventory anything of visual interest that I come across including food, clothing and various hobby interests. That, incidentally, is how the site got its name. Users pin their interests.
The social aspect of Pinterest comes with its follow and re-pin functions. This allows you to view images saved by others with similar interests. I have searched Pinterest and while there are a few maps here and there, the geospatial and cartographic communities have yet to really discover the site.
How to Use Pinterest
As of this blog post Pinterest is available as an invite only network. If you know someone who has an account you can get them to send you an email invite. Otherwise, you can use the Request an Invite button on the log in page.

Pinterest request invite button
You can request an invite at


After receiving an invite and signing up for the site you will be prompted to install a “Pin It” button extension for your browser. When you are visiting a page with images on it, you can click the Pin It button which gives you the option of pinning some or all of the images found. You can add the images to any board in your Pinterest profile or create a new custom board right then. In addition to the image you are asked to provide a description of the pin.
Users are given several default boards when they sign up. These can be deleted or renamed and new boards can be created. This benefits the cartography connoisseur by providing a framework in which to categorize and link to maps found while perusing the web.
The goal of most social networking communities is to interact and converse on topics of interest. Pinterest is no different and is perfect for those of us with geospatial interests. I have only just begun to utilize the site and hope to see my virtual pin boards grow throughout the year. Let me know what you think of Pinterest as a tool for geospatial users. If you decide to join you can
Follow Me on Pinterest Button

The more I use Pinterest and engage with the community, the more geospatially oriented folks I find including  Big Map Blog who recently started following my pins.

The KidsRuby 1.0 Adventure

Today my seven-year-old son and I embarked on a mission to learn how to program with KidsRuby 1.0. Before ever hearing of KidsRuby my son had expressed interest in programming so he could create games.

I use Python on a regular basis and had considered using the language to teach programming basics. However, there are few resources specifically for teaching Python (or any language) to kids out there. Those resources that do exist for kids are not well developed. That is why I was very excited when I discovered KidsRuby through Twitter (@kidsruby).
The KidsRuby 1.0 environment seems like a great way to get started with the Ruby language. It includes a code editor, a help tab with Ruby lessons and an output area where you can interact with your code.
This was my first experience with the Ruby language so as I go through the tutorials with my son I will be learning too. So far I am encouraged that my son has put in several hours learning with KidsRuby and keeps asking to do more. I have to pull him off the laptop so he can take a rest. As we get further into our studies I will post updates on our progress.

Add Custom Color Ramps To ArcGIS From The ESRI Mapping Center

**This post references ESRI ArcGIS Desktop 10.0. While the steps listed might work in previous or future versions of ArcMap, it is not guaranteed. There is an updated version of this post here.**
When you have a continuous raster such as a DEM in ArcGIS, you will likely want to adjust its color ramp to better highlight elevation changes. The default color ramps suffice for a majority of situations, however, your choices are still limited. To expand your list you could create your own color ramp or you could import a new .style file containing ready-to-use color ramps and symbols.
The ESRI Mapping Center provides a set of color ramps to help further depict raster surfaces. The ramps are divided among four styles which are Hypsometry, Hillshades, Events and CartoEffects. Following are the steps you take to add the new color ramps:
  1. On the ArcGIS resources page of the Mapping Center choose the Styles tab and click on ColorRamps2.0 to start the download.
  2. After you download the file, unzip it. Inside you will find four .style files and a .txt file describing the styles.
  3. Copy the four .style files to C:\Program Files\ArcGIS\Desktop10.0\Styles.
  4. Open a map document.
  5. Click the customize dropdown and select Style Manager.
  6. On the right side of the Style Manager click on the Styles… button. In the Style References window that opens click Add Style to List….
  7. Navigate to C:\Program Files\ArcGIS\Desktop10.0\Styles where you placed the .style files and select the first one. You might have to repeat this step once for each style.
  8. After all of the styles are shown in the Style References list, make sure they are check marked and click the Set as Default List button.
  9. Click OK and you should see your styles on the left side of the Style Manager. Close the style manager. At this point you can go to the symbology tab of your Layer Properties for a given raster and select one of the new color ramps.
Tip: Right Click on the color ramp dropdown and uncheck Graphic View to see the text descriptions of the ramps., Social Networking for the Geospatial Community?

A new GIS centered web site called launched yesterday. According to the site’s mission statement its purpose is simply to promote “geospatial solutions” and provide a multi-use platform to showcasing GIS projects.
The site tries to pack a lot into its pages. It attempts to provide tools and services such as social networks, job boards, resource searches, news feeds, promotional challenges and project submission platforms. The social networking aspect itself is quite involved. There is a Facebook-like “wall” that you can post updates to, a blogging interface where you can create your own blog within the larger site, a file upload area, a photo gallery, a professional networking page where you can have a LinkedIn-like profile and a project collaboration area where you can work with others on a geospatial solution.
It will be interesting to see how the geospatial community reacts to a centralized site like this that combines multiple aspects of already established social media services in a GIS centered environment. As with any application that claims to be a social media platform, its value will be revealed by the users who engage with it. If the GIS user community has a need for what GISnation is attempting to provide, it could do well.
I will be interacting on the site in the coming days and will try to report my findings. Meanwhile, if you sign up for access to the site, leave a comment here and let me know what you think. Do you think it has a future?
Update: Apparently GISnation didn’t have much of a futre. The site doesn’t seem to be in existence any more. It’s probably just as well since ESRI already has established forums and GIS communities are already created on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.

What is in Your Office Desk Drawer?

So the other day I took a look in the top drawer of my desk at work. I’m not talking about the glance you give when you throw something in that you might need “someday”. I actually looked at what was in there. It was kind of scary what I had let accumulate. Here is a partial list of what I found:
  • Box of pushpins
  • Obsolete Autodesk, ESRI, and Trimble trial software and drivers from 3 years ago.
  • Short, flathead screwdriver
  • A Spaceghost Christmas ornament
  • Organic white tea bags (about 6 of them)
  • 12 inch ruler (I actually use this from time to time to measure margins, boxes, icons and other elements on printed maps)
  • 2009 statistical abstract of the United States
  • Four USB cables from unknown hardware purchases
  • Engineering ruler
  • Box of plastic forks
  • Bottle of instant Krazy Glue
  • More than eleven pens from geospatial conference vendors
  • Scissors
  • 12 volt power supply to something I probably threw away in 2010
  • Crossword puzzle book
  • Seven lip balm containers (Six were empty)
  • PS/2 to USB adapter
  • Sunscreen
  • Some flashy button thing from a conference
  • Various sizes of sticky note pad
Contents of my desk drawer
This was just the top drawer. I’m kind of afraid to get into the bottom two. It looks like I am going to have to do some winter cleaning pretty soon.

I am sure there are plenty of more interesting desk drawer content lists out there so leave a comment and let me know what’s in yours.

Social Media Speaks and the Government Listens

The idea of social media command centers is not a new one. The best known centers might be from Gatorade and Dell who each use theirs for brand monitoring. But businesses are not the only ones accessing large amounts of social media data. Carahsoft, a private government solutions company currently markets the InTTENSITY Social Media Command Center, by the InTTENSITYCorporation, to the US Government intelligence community. According to InTTENSITY, their web based SaaS product officially launched in September of 2011, has the capability to anticipate and measure events as they happen or even before they happen, based on social media monitoring.
It could be like a real life version of the TV show Person of Interest. With this software, upcoming events mentioned in the social media cloud could be monitored and even interrupted as they occur. If your tweets and updates happen to be tagged with a geospatial reference (address, city, lat/long) social activity could be pinpointed with precision.
Since much of social media is by definition public communication (as opposed to a private phone call or email) there doesn’t seem to be a barrier to a government entity watching what flows through Twitter to monitor actions, speech or ideas it doesn’t approve of, then affecting it in some way.
InTTENSITY claims its software is capable of tapping into the entire Twitter stream as well as Facebook and blog sites and can monitor in up to thirty-two languages. Is software like the InTTENSITY Command Center just TweetDeck on steroids? Is it an innocuous use of social media technology? Or does its potential as a social monitoring tool pose a threat to individual and community liberty?
I am not suggesting that our government is using or will use this software for anything other than monitoring real threats to the American people. However, as our government is further enabled to follow our daily personal lives, we the people must follow them even closer.

Just Another Haphazard Recording Studio Thrown Together Using Parts from eBay and Craigslist

I spent weeks meeting strange people from craigslist in parking lots all over town, searching eBay and cruising garage sales to find the best (read: whatever I could afford at the moment) equipment for putting together a sound recording studio at home. I don’t know exactly what prompted me to set up a studio. I guess initially I had thought I wanted a voice studio to read some of my own writing into an audio file for fun. I also mess around playing the banjo, Irish tin whistles and various other instruments and thought it would be interesting to see what I could do with a microphone and free audio mixing software.

When I wasn’t trying to buy equipment I was trying to figure out what the next piece I would need should be. I read plenty of how-tos on the subject of how to set up a studio at home. There were as many opinions about equipment as there were discussions. For that reason, this post is not about what to choose or how to choose it. Of course I will list out what I got and what I hope to replace it with, but I am just a hack at this so don’t take what I did as a serious recommendation.  So here is what I have:
Along with those purchases came a Radio Shack dynamic mic and an MXL 990/991 condenser mic set. I might try to use the MXL 991 to pick up the banjo. I decided to put it in the closet under the stairs since it is a small space and wouldn’t take too much to soundproof it. I can tell there is a little echo off of the closet door so I might have to get some egg crate foam or something to glue to the back of it. I only hope now that I won’t lose interest in the project before I get something recorded. Since I originally bought all of this stuff six months ago and only just finished setting it up, that is a distinct possibility.
M-Audio FireWire Solo Interface
M-Audio FireWire Solo Interface
Dell Inspiron 6000 with M-Audio Interface
Dell Inspiron 6000 with M-Audio Interface
MXL 990/991 Microphones
MXL 990/991 Microphones
AT2020 with Voxguard
AT2020 with Voxguard
If I do get something recorded I will put it on the blog.

Going With the Flow at AU 2011

I am a geospatial analyst. I typically work with traditional GIS software like ESRI’s ArcGIS. However, Autodesk products are also heavily utilized in the office where I work. More and more, GIS and CAD are being integrated and it often falls upon me to work with our CAD analyst to explore interoperability between the two products. Over the last few years Autodesk has worked to develop a product called Map3D into a full GIS product to rival ArcGIS. There are those who will claim that Map3D has arrived at this goal but don’t let ’em fool ya. They can both be defined as a GIS but they are not equals. Autodesk is great at creating products that will make and manipulate geometries (think AutoCAD or Civil 3D). ESRI is great at making products that create points, lines and polygons, connect them in meaningful ways and then map them within geospatial coordinates.  Autodesk is slowly introducing more geospatial analysis tools into their Map 3D product but one will not find the depth of available tools that you will find in ArcGIS. I digress, however. The above argument goes on every day in places more appropriate than this. At the very least, it should be the subject of another post. Suffice it to say, I have to know both, work with both and integrate both into a workflow. To further this goal, I have been sent to this year’s Autodesk University in Las Vegas, NV.

After two days of the conference I can report mixed feelings about the value of what was there. The overarching valuable service that I could identify was free testing to become certified in a variety of Autodesk products including Civil 3D, Revit and plain old AutoCAD. As a Map 3D user, I have been disappointed to know that they do not currently have a certification for that products. I was told that one is currently being considered, though.

The hands-on labs and lectures have their place but of course you have to put up with a lot of information that is not relevant to your own situation. To be fair, that is the case with many of the conferences I attend such as the ESRI conference. I attended one lecture about terrestrial spatial scanning for integration into Building Information Modeling (BIM). It was interesting and relevant to what we are doing in our office but the first hour was taken talking about minor issues like making sure to carry a long extension cord and manipulating xyz data in MS Access.

Now on to the most important part of the conference – lunch. One is never sure what to expect when it comes to conference food. Some conferences do not provide meals at all. I am happy to report AU does. I was a bit worried about what would be served after I had gone through the line at their “Grab-and_Go breakfast” the first morning. Breakfast was meat, cheese and egg between sort of round croissant halves. Problem was, I couldn’t tell the croissant from the egg from the cheese. The meat was the only thing I could positively identify, so that was all I ate. Lunch, however, was surprisingly good. It included salad, Spanish rice, pinto beans, pork medallions and chili. When I was done I didn’t feel like my gut was going to explode. Nice job AU! The only issue I had was when lunch was over and another session was about to begin, some guy with a mic’d xylophone started banging out a tune that was so annoying it made people stamped out of the room. AU really knows what they are doing.

Between sessions we were treated to coffee, organic teas, soda and water. In the afternoon they rolled out the carts with fruit, desserts and chips. It was really quite good. The second day I skipped breakfast and ate lunch elsewhere but overall I was impressed.

Before I end I have to briefly touch on the vendor area. It was not as big as I thought it would be and the schwag was not as good. That being said, I did come away with some great information about the next generation of Oce plotters and some great Chinese trinkets that have no good use but keep my kids for about 30 seconds. If anyone has any interesting comments or stories about this years AU, please do let me know.

Amazing Discovery! Presidential Candidate Website Color Trend

I was visiting presidential candidate websites the other night in hopes of finding sentient thought in our nation’s leaders when I discovered something peculiar. On almost every major Republican presidential candidate website the background is blue. Okay, it might not sound that amazing when you first read it but it does cause you to think. Why is blue such a primary (Wow, multiple puns intended with that one) background color for these people? It makes them all look strangely like Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign websites. Was there some study done on the color of a candidate website or did everyone just think that it worked for him so it might work for someone else?

The colors blue and red are strongly associated with our two parties. Blue represents Democrats and red represents Republicans. So why are Republicans associating themselves so strongly with a color that practically screams Obama?  Perhaps they are politically suicidal? Perhaps they secretly want Obama to win so they can complain for four more years? If you watch their debates and how they give dumb answers to even dumber liberal media commentators (read: Anderson Cooper in Las Vegas) you might be convinced of this theory.

Whatever the case may be, I am going to keep digging into this and see if there is method to the color madness. In the meantime, take a look at the front pages for these guys and see for yourselves there is a major internet background movement afoot.