Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 03 Jan 2009

OpenStreetMap mapping parties

Latest obsession: mapping with OpenStreetMap.

Last month, OpenStreetMap and its benefactor company CloudMade held a "mapping party" in Palo Alto. I love maps and mapping (I wrote my own little topographic map viewer when I couldn't find one ready-made) and I've been wanting to know more about the state of open source mapping. A mapping party sounded perfect.

The party was a loosely organized affair. We met at a coffeehouse and discussed basics of mapping and openstreetmap. The hosts tried to show us newbies how OSM works, but that was complicated by the coffeehouse's wireless net being down. No big deal -- turns out the point of a mapping party is to hand out GPSes to anyone who doesn't already have one and send us out to do some mapping.

I attached myself to a couple of CloudMade folks who had some experience already and we headed north on a pedestrian path. We spent a couple of hours walking urban trails and marking waypoints. Then we all converged on a tea shop (whose wireless worked a little better than the one at the coffeehouse, but still not very reliably) for lunch and transfer of track and waypoint files.

This part didn't work all that well. It turned out the units we were using (Garmin Legend HCx) can transfer files in two modes, USB mass storage (the easy way, just move files as if from an external disk) or USB Garmin protocol (the hard way: you have to use software like gpsbabel, or the Garmin software if you're on Windows). And in mass storage mode, you get a file but the waypoints aren't there.

The folks running the event all had Macs, and there were several Linux users there as well, but no Windows laptops. By the time the Macs both had gpsbabel downloaded over the tea shop's flaky net, it was past time for me to leave, so I never did get to see our waypoint files. Still, I could see it was possible (and one of the Linux attendees assured me that he had no trouble with any of the software; in fact, he found it easier than what the Mac people at the party were going through).

But I was still pretty jazzed about how easy OpenStreetMap is to use. You can contribute to the maps even without a GPS. Once you've registered on the site, you just click on the Edit tab on any map, and you see a flash application called "Potlatch" that lets you mark trails, roads or other features based on satellite images or the existing map. I was able to change a couple of mismarked roads near where I live, as well as adding a new trail and correcting the info on an existing one for one of the nearby parks.

If you prefer (as, I admit, I do) to work offline or don't like flash, you can use a Java app, JOSM, or a native app, merkaartor. Very cool! Merkaartor is my favorite so far (because it's faster and works better in standalone mode) though it's still fairly rough around the edges. They're all described on the OSM Map Editing page.

Of course, all this left me lusting after a GPS. But that's another story, to be told separately.

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[ 12:00 Jan 03, 2009    More mapping | permalink to this entry ]