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March 28 2012

14:00

Colorful City Tracking Maps Launch Under Creative Commons

Maps.stamen.com, the second installment of the City Tracking project funded by the Knight News Challenge, is live.

These unique cartographic styles and tiles, based on data from Open Street Map, are available for the entire world, downloadable for use under a under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, and free.

takes deep breath

There are three styles available: toner, terrain, and watercolor:

  • Toner is about stripping online cartography down to its absolute essentials. It uses just black and white, describing a baseline that other kinds of data can be layered on. Stripping out any kind of color or image makes it easier to focus on the interactive nature of online cartography: When do different labels show up for different cities? What should the thickness of freeways be at different zoom levels? And so forth. This project is the one that Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso is hacking on at all hours, and it's great to be seeing Natural Earth data get more tightly integrated into the project over time.
  • Terrain occupies a middle ground: "shaded hills, nice big text, and green where it belongs." In keeping with City Tracking's mandate to make it easier for people to tell stories about cities, this is an open-source alternative to Google's terrain maps, and it uses all open-source software like Skeletron to improve on the base line cartographic experience. Mike Migurski has been heading up this design, with help from Gem Spear and Nelson Minar.
  • Watercolor pushes through to the other side of normal, bending the rules of traditional legibility in order to explore some new terrain. It incorporates hand-painted textures and algorithmic rule sets into a design that looks like it's been done by 10,000 slaves in the basement, but is rendered on the fly. Geraldine Sarmiento and Zach Watson did the lion's share of the design and development on this one. This design is a mixed bag for me: I'm delighted to see it out in the world, but it's the thing that's pretty much kept me from looking at anything else for the last month and a half.

The code that runs Toner and Terrain is available for download and use at the City Tracking GitHub repository; we're going to wait on watercolor a little while until we can get some of the kinks ironed out. We talked about waiting to launch until watercolor was all buttoned up, but what with all the attention that Open Street Map has been getting, we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it.

We'll follow up this week with some posts on how everything works and how the sausage is made, and I've got a lot more to say about what I think this implies for what can be done with online maps and data visualization.

In the meantime, have you seen how awesome Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., the Forbidden City, Massachusetts Bay, Key West, London, New Orleans, New York, Versailles, and every other city in the cotton-pickin' world look when you point this thing at it? Holy heck.

Los Angeles

Washington, D.C.

The Forbidden City

Massachusetts Bay

Key West

London

New Orleans

New York

San Francisco

Tokyo

Versailles

July 20 2011

14:31

Dotspotting + Embeds = Great Maps of Prisons, Crime, Pavement Dots

There are three basic parts to working with online representations of urban civic data in Dotspotting: collating the data, manipulating it, and then sharing and publishing it. Up until now, we've been focused on the first two, which makes sense. Obviously you need to be able to gather and work with the data before you can share it.

Today we're announcing the inclusion of the project's most requested feature: embedding the maps that people make into sites of their own.

Dotspotting makes tools to help people gather data about cities and make that information more legible. It's the first project Stamen released as part of Citytracking, a project funded by the Knight News Challenge.

Dotspotting's "embed/export" feature has been reworked to include the ability to generate HTML code that you can configure to your own specs, depending on how your site is formatted. Basic embed code is available in default mode, which will generate a map that looks pretty much the way it does on Dotspotting:

California state prisons on Dotspotting

There are a couple of different options in embed; so, for example, you can swap out the normal toner cartography for Bing's new (awesome) map tiles:

California state prisons on Dotspotting

We've been working with Mission Local, a news organization that reports on our home base of the Mission District, to find ways to take the lessons learned from the Crimespotting project and give this ability to local publications and advocates. The crime theme we've developed with them lets you generate maps that look like the one below, if you provide a "crime type" value in your data:

Crime June 21-28 updated on Dotspotting

And my favorite so far is the photo theme, which takes a "flickr:id" or "photo_url" field from your data (say, a set on flickr) and generates a visual mapping of where the photos are:

Dots on the pavement from flickr on Dotspotting

We're planning on releasing more of these as time goes by; if you've got ideas for a theme you'd like to see, please upload some data and get in touch!

February 09 2011

21:10

'Data and Cities' Conference Pushes Open Data, Visualizations

When I entered Stamen's offices in the Mission district of San Francisco, I saw four people gathered around a computer screen. What were they doing? Nothing less than "mapping the world" -- not as it appears in flat dimension, but how it reveals itself. And they weren't joking. Stamen, a data visualization firm, has always kept "place" central to many of their projects. They achieved this most famously through their crimespotting maps of Oakland and San Francisco, which give geographical context to the world of crime. This week they are taking on a world-sized challenge as they host a conference that focuses on cities, interactive mapping, and data.

As part of a Knight News challenge grant, this conference is part of Stamen's Citytracking project, an effort to provide the public with new tools to interact with data as it relates to urban environments. The first part of this project is called dotspotting, and is startling in its simplicity. While still in early beta stage, this project aims at creating a baseline map by imposing linkable dots on locations to yield data sets. The basic idea is to strike a balance between the free, but ultimately not-yours, nature of Google Maps and the infinitely malleable, but overly nerdy, open-source stacks that are out there.

dotspotting crop.jpg

With government agencies increasingly expected to operate within expanded transparency guidelines, San Francisco passed the nation's first open data law last fall, and many other U.S. cities have started to institutionalize this type of disclosure. San Francisco's law is basic and seemingly non-binding. It states that city departments and agencies "shall make reasonable efforts" to publish any data under their control, as long as the data does not violate other laws, in particular those related to privacy. After the law passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors (no small feat in this terminally fractious city), departments have been uploading data at a significant rate to our data clearinghouse website, datasf. While uploading data to these clearinghouses is the first step, finding ways to truly institutionalize this process has been challenging.

Why should we care about open data? And why should we want to interact with it?

While some link the true rise of open data movement with the most recent recession, the core motivation behind this movement has always been inherent to the nature of a citizenry. Behind this movement is active citizenship. Open data in this sense can mean the right to understand the social, cultural, and societal forces constantly in play around us. As simultaneously the largest consumers and producers of data, cities have the responsibility to engage their citizens with this information. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research), and I wrote more about this, in our 2010, year in review guide.

Stamen's Citytracking project wants to make that information accessible to more than just software developers but at a level of sophistication that simultaneously allows for real analysis and widespread participation. Within the scope of this task, Stamen is attempting to converge democracy, technology, and design.

Why is this conference important?

Data and Cities brings together city officials, data visualization experts, technology fiends, and many others who fill in the gaps between these increasingly related fields.
Stamen has also designed this conference to have a mixture of formats, from practical demonstrations, to political discussions, and highly technical talks.

According to Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen's founder and CEO, "This is an exciting time for cities and data, where the literacy level around visualization seems to be rising by the day and we see huge demand and opportunity for new and interesting ways for people to interact with their digital civic infrastructure. And we're also seeing challenges and real questions on the role that cities take in providing the base layer of services and truths that we can rely on. We want to talk about these things in a setting where we can make a difference."

Data and Cities will take place February 9 - 11 and is invitation-only. In case you haven't scored an invitation, I'll be blogging about it all week.

Selected Speakers:

Jen Pahlka from Code for America - inserting developers into city IT departments across the country to help them mine and share their data.

Adam Greenfield from http://urbanscale.org/ and author of Everyware. Committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of interaction design to the specific problems of cities.

Jay Nath, City of San Francisco
http://www.jaynath.com/2010/12/why-sf-should-adopt-creative-commons, http://datasf.org

January 20 2011

17:37

Dotspotting Expands to Track Homicides, Food Vendors, Road Trips

Since my last post, we've been busily working on extending the functionality of Dotspotting, the first project in our larger Citytracking project aimed at helping people tell stories about cities. It's still, as my colleague Aaron puts it, very much in a "super alpha-beta-disco-ball" state -- which mainly just means we don't want anyone to put data in there that they expect to keep -- but it's getting there.

A few things have happened that I want to update you about:

  • Import has been expanded from only accepting .csv files to include .gpx, .json, .kml, .rss and .xls files. Various people around the studio use a variety of GPS tracking software. I use Trails for the iPhone, Julie uses Mytracks for Android, and so on. We've been starting with those formats as a baseline, using the files that different applications export and pulling them into Dotspotting.
  • Export has been expanded to include all of the above file types, and also includes .png files. We're hoping this is going to be particularly useful for journalists who want to include images of geographic content in their articles but don't want to use the screen-capping-a-google-map-and-hoping-the-legal-department-doesn't-catch-on technique. So these kinds of images become easy to export out of the system.
  • Search is coming along. This report from DataSF about 311 activity in District 6, where the studio is, has 392 dots, showing the wide variety of calls for service that the system handles in a week. You can now search these kinds of reports fairly comprehensively, so it's now possible to make maps of only those requests having to do with Catch Basin Maintenance, graffiti, or tree maintenance. These are the kinds of queries that we want to enable journalists and others to make when telling stories about city data, and they're the kind of thing that lots of current city data services don't report, so it's gratifying to see those come together.
  • Search is also working in a limited fashion relative to position, and PDF export is next on the list. More on these next time.
  • We've squashed a lot of bugs related to importing and exporting, and found a bunch more of course. We're keeping track of these on the project GitHub account; if you find one, please let us know.
  • Uploads are starting to trickle in from outside the studio walls: Homicides in Richmond, New Food Vendors in Vancouver, and trips along the coast of California are a few of what we've seen. We're in conversations with a couple of cities and other groups, more on that next time.

Onwards!

December 02 2010

16:50

Dotspotting Launches to Make City Data Mappable

1288311519955

Dotspotting is the first project Stamen is releasing as part of Citytracking, a project funded by the Knight News Challenge. We're making tools to help people gather data about cities and make that data more legible. Our hope is to do this in a way that's simple enough for regular people to get involved, but robust enough for real research to happen along the way.

There's currently a whole chain of elements involved in building digital civic infrastructure for the public, and these are represented by various Stamen projects and those of others. At the moment, the current hodgepodge of bits -- including APIs and official sources, scraped websites, sometimes-reusable data formats and datasets, visualizations, embeddable widgets etc. -- is fractured, overly technical and obscure, and requires considerable expertise to harness. That is, unless you're willing to use generic tools like Google Maps. We want to change this. Visualizing city data shouldn't be this hard, or this generic.

So the first part of this project is to start from scratch, in a "clean room" environment. We've started from a baseline that's really straightforward, tackling the simplest part: Getting dots on maps, without legacy code or any baggage. Just that, to start. Dots on maps.

More Than Dots

But dots on maps implies a few other things: Getting the locations, putting them on there, working with them, and -- crucially -- getting them out in a format that people can work with.

We've had several interactions with different city agencies so far, and while the situation has changed alot in the last few years, we've realized that, for the foreseeable future, people aren't going to stop using Word and Excel and Pages and Numbers to work with their data, or even stop using paper. It's made us think that if this stuff is really going to work out in the long run, we need to focus our thinking on projects that can consume as well as export things that cities and people actually use and use now. This is instead of going with projects that have to rely on fancy APIs or the latest database flavor.

It's great that San Francisco and New York are releasing structured XML data, but Oakland is still uploading Excel spreadsheets (it's actually awesome that they do), and the Tenderloin police lieutenants are printing out paper maps and hand-placing colored stickers on them. At some point, if this really is the way things are going, we're going to need to meet the needs of actual functioning city agencies; and while APIs are great and necessary, for now that means Excel spreadsheets and Word docs. It also means being able to easily read in data that people have uploaded to Google maps, interface with SMS systems like those that Ushahidi are pioneering. And it means being able to export to things like PowerPoint and Keynote, scary as that may seem.

What we've launched with is the baseline work that's being done to make this stuff internet-native. There's a login and permissions system that pretty much works. Uploading .csv files full of dots works. Each dot has an HTML page of its own, for example, like they do on Crimespotting. Collections of dots (we're calling them sheets) work, and you can export them. And there are dots on maps.

Easter Egg

What's up with the funny map, above, you ask? That's an undocumented Easter egg that allows you to change the default base map for Dotspotting on the fly using a templated URL. If that last sentence sounds like gibberish, just think: Fun! And a bit dorky. But fun!

Speaking of which, the code for Dotspotting is available for download on Github, and licensed for use under the GNU General Public License. We're planning on releasing the code as we work on the project, in the hope that working in this kind of transparent manner from the beginning will both benefit the project and serve as an example of the way we'd like to work with foundations on this kind of work.

June 17 2010

18:00

Knight News Challenge: Winner wants to create tools that are “beautiful, interesting, accessible”

The biggest winner in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, City Tracking, wants to give cities an open framework to tell their stories and for users to easily share and discuss them.

Eric Rodenbeck, of the San Francisco design firm Stamen, wants to build data visualizations that are as compelling and user-friendly as photos or videos. “We want visualizations to be as easy to share and move around as a photo on Flickr,” Rodenbeck said. He hopes cities, journalists and locals will all use the end product.

Rodenbeck thinks there is both a great need for communities to better tell data-driven stories and a need for an open platform tool to tell them. He wants his tools to be “beautiful, interesting, and useful.” Google Maps is great, but it’s not in the public domain. “We’re finding that a lot of the tools that were out there are either really techy, or somebody else owns your data,” Rodenbeck told me. “We wanted to find that middle ground.”

To get an idea of the type of work that could come out of this new platform, take a look at Crimespotting. It’s a project Stamen started in Oakland that pulled public crime data into an interactive map. The city of San Francisco decided to create it’s own version. The tool lets users sign up for RSS feed updates and email alerts about their local communities. It also tells a bigger story about crime by plotting incidences on the map. It’s also nice looking and user friendly. “Tackling the kind of design aesthetic that a project like Crimespotting has, and extending it, is a huge part of it,” Rodenbeck told me in describing City Tracking.

Rodenbeck gave a more hypothetical example as well. An acquaintance of his wants to measure a local river’s temperature at various points, using input from other locals. Right now, there is no simple tool to power that project. It’s the kind of thing Rodenbeck would hope City Tracker would allow non-techies to do easily.

Like other Knight News Challenge winners this year, City Tracking is about presenting public information in a compelling, interactive format, rather than creating new news per se. At it’s core, the project is about engaging a community and getting residents thinking, talking and sharing. “I think we also want to encourage other kinds of conversations. Conversations about trees. Conversations about cabs. Conversations about pollution,” Rodenbeck said.

By that same token, Rodenbeck is eager for discussion while building the project. “What we don’t want to do is develop this in isolation. We want to announce it in small pieces. We’re really hoping to encourage the participation of other developers in the project. We don’t want to just be working away alone in our room, nerding away on our map projects.”

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