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March 11, 2010

Bike directions

Filed under: Mapping,Road cycling — mtbguru @ 10:16 pm

Great to see bike directions on Google Maps – this has been overdue, but as I can imagine implementing this must have had its share of challenges, as outlined in this post on LatLong.

The first thing I did with it was to enter my commute and see what it came up with (screenshot of the partial route below).

Bike directions

It doesn’t quite match with the route I prefer – for instance, it sends me along Lawrence then follows a Manhattan-like pattern parallel to Foothill Expressway rather than taking Foothill itself. I would never take Lawrence, even though it has a pretty wide shoulder: having traffic zip by you at +50mph is highly annoying, and there are too many intersections and lots of right-turning cars. Bollinger + de Anza is a highly preferable alternative, there you have less and (somewhat) slower traffic. I do like Foothill on the other hand, even though you have the same problems as Lawrence (traffic zipping by at high speed) but this is offset by a very wide shoulder giving you an increased sense of safety. And the stops and intersections are fewer and a bit safer – the Manhattan pattern alternative would slow you down quite a lot.

I guess this simple example outlines the difficulty in coming up with a good algorithm: there is a huge space of parameters which rather than digital (suitable to bike or not?) have an entire grayscale range of values, which, to make matters worse, also have a subjective quality to it, making it very hard to come up with an optimal solution. But, at least using the new bike directions will give you a good first-order stab at a decent and safe route – so far in cases where I was on the bike in a non-familiar area I’ve tried the ‘walking’ directions, which not always led to desirable results.

Interesting to note is the collaboration with Rails-to-Trails, to identify trails – it seems for instance a number of trails in Rancho San Antonio park (left in the screenshot) are included in the database.

However, there are a couple of things in the LatLong post we feel the need to strongly dissent with.
I quote:

l don’t know anyone who enjoys biking up a hill, especially when you’re trying to get somewhere you need to be. Going uphill is worse than simply being much slower; it’s also exhausting and can take a toll on the rest of your ride.

Mmh, there are plenty of cyclists – yours truly for instance – who like a good climb!
But it gets worse:

Many cyclists will tell you that going downhill is annoying for a different reason: you may have to ride your brakes all the way down.

I don’t know what kind of crack those guys are on. Who doesn’t like a screaming fast downhill? Just get off the brakes.

More seriously, this bike directions algorithm is a nice feature. Since long Open Street Map (to which we contribute on occasion) was pretty much the only global online map with decent bike routes – though with strong variability in coverage depending on the region – besides of course local maps such as the VTA map for Santa Clara county; good to have another effort now (and a bit of competition?).

February 24, 2010

MTBGuru tracks as seen through Google Fusion Tables

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Mapping — mtbguru @ 9:02 am

Our friends at Google have been busy as always – you may have noticed their launch this past summer of Fusion Tables, a cloud-based collaborative database application. This description probably doesn’t do much justice to what it is and can do but follow the link for more details – it basically allows people to work with structured data stored in the cloud. Or simplier said: it’s to things like MS Access or SQL a bit like Google Docs is to MS Office. An API has also been released to allow developers programmatic access to the data.

Now the Fusion Tables team is launching some new and pretty cool features, enabling new ways to visualize geocoded data on maps. It quite surpasses what one can do with regular gmaps. To illustrate these new features, data from MTBGuru (public trips) have been used to demo these visualizations. Check out the embedded (live) maps to get a taste for what it can do. The map above shows tracks from public trips in the map area, which are all overlayed as polylines – a huge amount of them – it’s pretty cool to see patterns arise of popular or much-traveled routes and trails (I particularly like the Henry Coe cobweb!)… moreover the polylines are clickable and will show you an infowindow with links to the original trip page etc. The data, which lives in a Fusion Table, can be filtered and manipulated as one can expect in a database environment, and the visualization will be adjusted accordingly.
The map below gives you a ‘heat map’ view, giving you an idea of the density of tracks in a certain area.

More details are announced on the Google LatLong blog.

From our side, we’ve been exploring the API and see how we could use Fusion Tables and its new geocoding features on MTBGuru. We thought it would be great to have a layer with these polyline tracks overlayed on the map on our home page, so that is what we’ve started implementing. The screenshots below show you how the maps on the home and trip pages now look like: on the home map, a ‘track layer’ displays tracks originating from all public trips in the map area – its visibility can be controlled by the check box labeled ‘Show All Tracks’ circled in green on the screenshot. Moreover, when you’re logged in, you can choose to display only your own tracks, using an additional checkbox labeled ‘Show My Tracks’. The overlay works with all map types, so you can view the track layer on MyTopo maps, Open Street Map (OSM) etc.

To avoid making things look like a mess in areas with a dense population of trips, the trip icon checkboxes are now unchecked by default – which means the trip icons are hidden by default. If you do want to get the old view back, check the trip icon boxes and uncheck the ‘Show Tracks’ boxes.

On a trip page, by default only the track representing the trip is shown (as was the case before), but right above the map you now have controls to display the track layer. Again, when logged in, you can choose to display either all public trips or only your own. To be able to discern the trip from the other tracks, it is now being plotted in blue instead of red (see final screenshot).

Note that the polylines from the track layer don’t have as high a resolution as the polyine representing the trip, so the red traces will appear a bit rougher. Also, we plan to use the API to periodically update the Fusion table with the newest uploaded tracks – we’re still testing this so for now the most recent tracks may not show yet. And by the way, private trips will never be displayed, as they are not uploaded to the Fusion Table (private is private!).

Finally, we’ve created a Google Code project with sample code illustrating how we used the API to work with Fusion Tables and create the table with trips.




February 5, 2010

MyTopo topographic maps

Filed under: Mapping — mtbguru @ 7:48 am

The topographic map type you can select on MTBGuru uses map data freely available and served up by Microsoft Research Maps (MSR Maps), the former Terraserver. The data originates from the USGS, is in the US public domain and the fact that it is readily available online is a great service by both the US government and MSR Maps. In fact, in most other countries there is hardly any free (both in the copyright and the political sense) topographic map data available.

The USGS data is recently now also accessible and served through an API by mapping company MyTopo.com. MyTopo.com has its own rendering of the map data, featuring generally nicer looking map tiles and using more recently updated data. So we thought it would be a good idea to offer it as a new map type on MTBGuru’s pages. You can check out the difference in the screenshots below; first, the MSR Maps/Terraserver map:

MSR topo map

And this is the MyTopo version:

MyTopo map
(Quite a bit easier on the eyes and the shading gives a nice perception of depth.)

Both MSR Topo and MyTopo will be available as a map type for the time being – but over time we may want to phase out the former altogether. The MyTopo maps come with a smaller number of zoom levels though but that doesn’t seem to be much of a drawback (it’s basically only the highly zoomed out levels which are missing).

Since we’re talking USGS data, topographic data for other countries generally still won’t be available – however, in this regard MyTopo does offer another fine improvement: it additionally offers map data from Canada (originating from NRCan):

Topo maps Canada

July 5, 2008

Topo maps (US)

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Mapping — mtbguru @ 7:05 pm

We’ve added a new map type, ‘Topo Maps’ – you can select this type using the selection buttons in the top right corner of the trip map:


Selecting this map type will serve you USGS topographical map data, with a scale determined by your map zoom level. Thanks to the USGS (US Geological Survey) for providing this great and free service. Unfortunately, only topo data of the US is available – we’re not aware of any similar open online databases like this for other areas in the world (if you know some, please let us know).

An example of how it looks like:

December 25, 2007

Map links

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Mapping — mtbguru @ 1:09 am

A happy holiday to everyone! No white christmas here in the San Francisco Bay Area; though it’s rather chilly, it actually looks like we have perfect mtb conditions (forecast is sunny, trails are tacky-dry).

MTBGuru’s Santa brought some Virtual Earth / Live Maps support as mentioned in the previous post. To view your trip there, you can follow the link that we’ve put underneath the trip map.

We’ve actually brought a number of links together in that spot (‘map links’), so you have all the trip essentials in one space without need for searching or scrolling: links to the GPX and KML files (for download, or to open in Google Earth), the link to Virtual Earth and the one to Google Maps:

Map links

Virtual Earth / Live Maps

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Google Earth,Mapping — mtbguru @ 1:04 am

Google is of course not the only game in town – Microsoft’s Live Maps and Virtual Earth have made a lot of progress. The latter will even run in 3D from within your browser; only on Windows PC’s though.

Virtual Earth features some nice 3D models (for instance, the Golden Gate bridge, see the example and comparison with GE below) and the fact that it runs in the browser (IE and Firefox) is compelling, though I still prefer the user experience and overall feel of Google Earth (and the vast amount of content available in the latter).

Thanks to the fact that Live Maps/Virtual Earth have recently started to support the KML format, we’ve implemented a way to view your MTBGuru trips in them: look for the links to Virtual Earth right underneath the trip map and in the ‘Share your trip’ section.

VE Golden Gate
Golden Gate bridge and Marin Headlands in Virtual Earth

GE Golden Gate
Golden Gate bridge and Marin Headlands in Google Earth
December 13, 2007

New ‘Terrain’ on the map

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Mapping — mtbguru @ 11:23 pm

You may have noticed the new ‘Terrain’ feature on the trip and home maps. Under this name Google Maps is now serving pretty cool looking shaded relief maps displaying physical features. This has also become available through their maps API, so we’ve enabled it on MTBGuru: now you have yet another way to visualize your trips!

As an example, this is how an Amasa Back ride in Moab looks like in ‘Terrain’ mode:

‘Terrain’ screenshot on MTBGuru.com

September 25, 2007

More ways to look at your trips

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Mapping — mtbguru @ 8:27 am

When you create trips on MTBGuru, GPX and KML files are being generated and available for download through links in the sidebar. You can for instance configure your browser so that it automatically opens the KML file in Google Earth when you click it.

But KML files can also be read by Google Maps. That’s why we’ve added some links on the trip page that allow you to view your trips directly in Maps: one in the ‘Share your Trip’ section and one below the main map called ‘Large map’, which, as the name indicates, opens up a large map with your track on it in a separate browser tab – see screenshot below. This is useful for those cases when you want to have a full screen map view of your trip without any other clutter. This will only work for public trips.


Follow the ‘Large Map’ link underneath the map on the trip page and you get:

Large map

April 5, 2007

Google’s My Maps

Filed under: General MTBGuru stuff,Google Earth,Mapping — mtbguru @ 1:56 pm

Lots of buzz today about the release of a new feature on Google Maps, called My Maps, allowing users to annotate and save maps with their own content: placemarks that may contain links, photos or text (any html really), lines, routes and shapes. GigaOM even talks about the ‘smashing of maps mashups’ and the impending doom it may bring to existing third party web apps, as Google’s own offering now seems to take away the wind out of the sails of many of these mashups and mapping startups.

We don’t worry about this but are actually rather excited about it: Google uses the KML format to save the data and feed it back into the Web. This makes for a nice and closer alignment between Google Maps and Google Earth (potentially leading one to become even more philosophical about the future of the Web and the advent of geobrowsers) – for us it means in particular that all KML files generated on MTBGuru are now also available on Google Maps.

As an example, let’s assume we’re interested in bike rides at Skeggs point near Woodside (one of our own local favorites). When we go to Google Maps and type in ‘Skeggs, Woodside CA’ in the main search box, we get the following result (screenshot below, click the image for a larger version):


The content in the left sidebar consists of Google’s featured links (typically these are local businesses that paid to be listed here). Below these, you can see a link titled ‘See user-created content’ (encircled in red). Clicking on this will now lead to a web search for KML files, relevant to this location and search, with the following result (see screenshot):


As MTBGuru creates and publishes KML files on the Web for each public trip and geotagged picture, you may find MTBGuru links appear in the sidebar, with corresponding placemarks on the map, as is the case here.

Click now for instance on the first placemark (‘Skeggs Point – Manzanita Overview’) – this points to an ‘overview’ KML file that contains the route, see the next screenshot below:


You can now save these routes and placemarks in Google’s My Maps – click on the placemarks and you’ll see a link appear titled ‘Save to My Maps’ (two examples below):



This basically enables anyone to save and catalog public data on MTBGuru in My Maps, and annotate it with their own content (overlayed routes, additional commentary or pictures), and we’re all in favor of that!

It would become even nicer if Google could give the ‘User-created content’ link a more prominent position in the sidebar upon a search, so it would be easier for people to browse the rich KML content out there on the Web.

January 12, 2007

Mapping at Macworld

Filed under: Google Earth,Mapping — mtbguru @ 12:21 am


Steve and friends were in town again, and they made sure everyone, in particular those attending CES in Vegas, would hear of it – we went for a quick visit to the Moscone Center to see if any interesting things are happening in the Mac world related to GPS and mapping.

Garmin of course announced the OS X version of Training Center, which was being showcased at their booth.
Garmin booth
Unfortunately, Training Center is the only thing available on OS X, for the much more useful MapSource there is still a wait.

Google had a pretty large booth, entirely focused on Google Earth and 3D drawing tool Sketchup:
Google booth
The Mac version of Google Earth was celebrating its first birthday here.

In pre-Google Earth times, 3D Weather Globe & Atlas by MacKiev Software was the ruling 3D mapping software – they’re still around, and offer for a yearly subscription a real-time data stream that contains for instance current weather information.

Garmin competitor Globalsat was showcasing a number of soon-to-be-released devices, one of which looked very much like Garmin’s Forerunner 301/305 model, a wrist watch GPS device targeting outdoor sports and fitness folks. They were teaming up with software makers Routebuddy, who’ve created a nice mapping tool for OS X – it would even be nicer if it would support a standard output format such as GPX; they promised me that was coming soon.

There was of course only one star on this show:

iPhoneiPhone demo 2
The iPhone’s excellent screen looks perfectly fit to display maps. In fact, it looks so good that I’m quite disappointed that the thing doesn’t have a GPS built in – as I was getting a bit carried away imagining this:

iPhone on bar

Endo’s could become expensive though…

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