Making New Map Tracks with Google Earth (Shallow Thoughts)

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

Wed, 17 Aug 2016

Making New Map Tracks with Google Earth

A few days ago I wrote about track files in maps, specifically Translating track files between mapping formats. I promised to follow up with information on how to create new tracks.

For instance, I have some scans of old maps from the 60s and 70s showing the trails in the local neighborhood. There's no newer version. (In many cases, the trails have disappeared from lack of use -- no one knows where they're supposed to be even though they're legally trails where you're allowed to walk.) I wanted a way to turn trails from the old map into GPX tracks.

My first thought was to trace the old PDF map. A lot of web searching found a grand total of one page that talks about that: How to convert image of map into vector format?. It involves using GIMP to make an image containing just black lines on a white background, saving as uncompressed TIFF, then using a series of commands in GRASS. I made a start on that, but it was looking like it might be a big job that way. Since a lot of the old trails are still visible as faint traces in satellite photos, I decided to investigate tracing satellite photos in a map editor first, before trying the GRASS method.

But finding a working open source map editor turns out to be basically impossible. (Opportunity alert: it actually wouldn't be that hard to add that to PyTopo. Some day I'll try that, but now I was trying to solve a problem and hoping not to get sidetracked.)

The only open source map editor I've found is called Viking, and it's terrible. The user interface is complicated and poorly documented, and I could input only two or three trail segments before it crashed and I had to restart. Saving often, I did build up part of the trail network that way, but it was so slow and tedious restoring between crashes that I gave up.

OpenStreetMap has several editors available, and some of them are quite good, but they're (quite understandably) oriented toward defining roads that you're going to upload to the OpenStreetMap world map. I do that for real trails that I've walked myself, but it doesn't seem appropriate for historical paths between houses, some of which are now fenced off and few of which I've actually tried walking yet.

Editing a track in Google Earth

In the end, the only reasonable map editor I found was Google Earth -- free as in beer, not speech. It's actually quite a good track editor once I figured out how to use it -- the documentation is sketchy and no one who writes about it tells you the important parts, which were, for me:

Click on "My Places" in the sidebar before starting, assuming you'll want to keep these tracks around.

Right-click on My Places and choose Add->Folder if you're going to be creating more than one path. That way you can have a single KML file (Google Earth creates KML/KMZ, not GPX) with all your tracks together.

Move and zoom the map to where you can see the starting point for your path.

Click the "Add Path" button in the toolbar. This brings up a dialog where you can name the path and choose a color that will stand out against the map. Do not hit Return after typing the name -- that will immediately dismiss the dialog and take you out of path editing mode, leaving you with an empty named object in your sidebar. If you forget, like I kept doing, you'll have to right-click it and choose Properties to get back into editing mode.

Iconify, shade or do whatever your window manager allows to get that large, intrusive dialog out of the way of the map you're trying to edit. Shade worked well for me in Openbox.

Click on the starting point for your path. If you forgot to move the map so that this point is visible, you're out of luck: there's no way I've found to move the map at this point. (You might expect something like dragging with the middle mouse button, but you'd be wrong.) Do not in any circumstances be tempted to drag with the left button to move the map: this will draw lots of path points.

If you added points you don't want -- for instance, if you dragged on the map trying to move it -- Ctrl-Z doesn't undo, and there's no Undo in the menus, but Delete removes previous points. Whew.

Once you've started adding points, you can move the map using the arrow keys on your keyboard. And you can always zoom with the mousewheel.

When you finish one path, click OK in its properties dialog to end it.

Save periodically: click on the folder you created in My Places and choose Save Place As... Google Earth is a lot less crashy than Viking, but I have seen crashes.

When you're done for the day, be sure to File->Save->Save My Places. Google Earth apparently doesn't do this automatically; I was forever being confused why it didn't remember things I had done, and why every time I started it it would give me syntax errors on My Places saying it was about to correct the problem, then the next time I'd get the exact same error. Save My Places finally fixed that, so I guess it's something we're expected to do now and then in Google Earth.

Once I'd learned those tricks, the map-making went fairly quickly. I had intended only to trace a few trails then stop for the night, but when I realized I was more than halfway through I decided to push through, and ended up with a nice set of KML tracks which I converted to GPX and loaded onto my phone. Now I'm ready to explore.

Tags:
[ 17:26 Aug 17, 2016    More mapping | permalink to this entry | comments ]
(Commenting requires Javascript from ShallowSky.com and Disqus.com, and a cookie from Disqus.com.)
blog comments powered by Disqus