Author Archives: Steve Coast

Maps are dead, long live maps!

I’ve been struck by three new (new to me, anyway) maps which are all in dead tree format. They’re all different takes on making your average paper map more usable in some way and I’ll go through each now:


Panamap is 3 maps in one – neighbourhoods, streets and transit. As you rotate the map vertically, every 5 degrees or so a different map comes in to view. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to squeeze 3.2 billion types of data on to one map – this gives your cartographers some room for each map and some playful transitions between each map. I think Schuyler coined the term ‘red dot fever’ for all the crappy Google maps which sport nothing but banal cartography and a thousand red pins, one for every convenience store.

Panamap sidesteps that same problem in meatspace. By providing more than one map on the same piece of paper each individual map is less crowded. It gives room, for example, on the transit map to show entrances for subway stops without cluttering the street or neighbourhood map. Of course you could put these three on one (as the others below do) but then you could also carry around a camera, MP3 player, phone and laptop instead of an iPhone.

The tradeoff choices and cartography make this a marvellous product and the folks behind it, Urban Mapping in San Francisco have put effort in to the design that shines. To me, anyway.

The tech behind it is kind of interesting. A sheet of clear plastic is affixed to the paper which makes it much stiffer – somewhere between card and a compact disc. The plastic has ridges running in rows all the way down. Each ridge is probably something like a half a millimetre in height and depth so as you scratch your nail on the surface you can make high pitched noises with it.

Behind the plastic each ridge has three rows of image on the piece of paper. The light (say from the sun) refracts off the ridge, then the paper and reflects back, then refracts through another part of the ridge again, then hits your eye. As you change the angle, each ridge curvature sends the light to the right map slice so you see a completed whole. For more see the wikipedia article, and for bonus points fix it up because it’s not great.

Anyway, this stuff is all patented and as a side-effect of the plastic printing process the maps are much harder to get wet. Panamaps are available for Manhattan and Chicago and hopefully more one day soon. Where will they go from here? There is clearly scope for print on demand, more cities and more retail outlets. I can’t recommend enough getting hold of one of these and playing with it – I will get to use mine in anger in NYC in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to it.

Scrunchy maps

‘Scrunchy’ is not the official term I’m guessing, but I like it. Rand McNally (wikipedia:Rand_mcnally) is a 3,000 year old map publisher which makes these city maps printed on fabric material similar to a lens cloth. The animation I made above shows the scrunchy power of these maps, which are double-sided.

Why scrunchy? Ok well first they are officialy ‘fabMaps(TM)‘. Well, scrunchy maps aren’t going to get torn or soggy when it rains which makes them kinda useful in places like London which doesn’t have space for you to open your map and when you do, it might rain. The tradeoff for this map is printing resolution. You don’t get 1,200 DPI on fabric as far as I can tell. The text is bigger (and thicker), as are most features.

It’s a beautiful thing to hold, and scrunch, and throw around. As a bonus feature you can clean your laptop screen and glasses. Thermal features have been tested by using this map to pull things out of the oven with and it passes with flying colours.

The edge of the fabric/map is double or triple stitched or something so you can’t tear the edge easily, or at all if my tests are any good. The map is relatively cheap and Rand have gone to great lengths to put as many points of interest they can on there, down to every damn ATM.

The future? If you have maps on fabric then nappy maps and shirt maps are clearly on the horizon. No longer will you raise your arm to look at your watch, your cuff will be a printed map.

Origami ker-chow maps

Again not the official term. To the best of my knowledge these maps are trademarked and patented up to your eyeballs by vanDam of New York. vanDam have perhaps the most annoying flash intro website on the planet and it requires about 30 clicks to actually see a map.. so let me save you some effort.

As you see above as you open the map the super patented folds (folded by virgin squirrels in Tibet according to ancient practice) work magically to expand the map to something like 4 times it’s base area. It’s a marvel to sit around folding and unfolding the thing and there must be patents on the machine that somehow did it.

Tradeoff here is of course size. These maps conveniently pack a larger map in to a smaller space and you don’t need a PhD in paper mechanics to fold the thing back again. This specific map by popoutmaps in Bristol, England is super high resolution. On the back of each map (one on the left and right) is an index.

I’m making some logical leaps here, in that I know vanDam have patents on this. Either popoutmaps are licensing that patent or they’re infringing it, or something, but there is no mention of vanDam on the map itself so I may be entirely wrong.

The map is convenient, cheap and fun to play with and there must be more uses for this, and print on demand again comes to mind. You can make these a bit smaller like a business card and have them expand out to a set of info on your business, kind of like those mini-CD business cards which were also functioning CDs. These maps are widely available too, I found mine in Barnes and Noble.


In the course of writing about these three maps I happened to spill some Trumer Pils on them. The scrunchy map was found to be very absorbent and stopped most of the spillage, leaving a little moisture to the panamap which faithfully protected the origami map due to its plastic printing process. I kid you not.

Each map has made interesting uses of the patent system to differentiate and build something a little bit out there and fun. Each is great to play with and the next time you travel try to find one, because they’re useful too!

Map the Caribbean

Gervase Markham has set up a pledge:

“I will spend an hour OpenStreetMapping features on Caribbean islands from Yahoo! aerial imagery and will also donate £10 to the OpenStreetMap Foundation but only if 60 other people will do the same.”

The money will then be used to fly someone out to finish the map!

Google Want to be TeleAtlas

Google have launched MapMaker, a kind of faux OpenStreetMap where they own all the data and you’re only allowed to map in certain Freedom Of Speech Zones.

Like Knol, the mooted ‘wikipedia killer’, Google refuse to acknowledge existing communities, trample on their hard work and lack the mindset to engage with an open project.

But, this really doesn’t matter.

What’s fascinating is that they haven’t set themselves up against OpenStreetMap so much but rather TeleAtlas/TomTom, NAVTEQ/Nokia and AND. This is really a swipe at things like TomTom’s MapShare(TM) and ANDs Map 2.0. The question is now going to be, when do they switch on editing of existing data markets, if at all? Only those with intimate knowledge of the contracts will know.

The fundamental reasons for OpenStreetMap remain intact and if anything are now stronger. At first glance it sounds like OpenStreetMap, until you realise that Google own that data you give them, there’s no community and you are unlikely to see use of the data in ‘creative, productive, or unexpected ways’.

The terms of use are hilarious – the bottom line seems to be that Google ends up owning excusively the entire aggregate work, but it is your fault if anything goes wrong.

Some things MapMaker lacks might include our awesome open RESTful API (before REST was sexy), Osmarender (the open tile rendering distributed stack), cycle maps (showing how powerful community data can be), Community events list longer than your arm, dumps of all the data and of course Germans.

If you contribute to Google MapMaker, you are contributing to one single map view that looks how Google wants it to look. If you contribute to OpenStreetMap, you are contributing to a myriad of possibilities … most not even thought of yet. The cycle map is a good example.

Google very kindly sponsored our first conference (and you should come to our second which they didn’t) but if they wish to turn it in to an us or them, then it is us!

OSM for traffic data

Check out eworld, a tool which imports and visualizes OSM data and allows the adding of events that are interesting for traffic simulation, e.g. weather conditions or road works. All this data are passed to the traffic simulator SUMO and is used for traffic simulation.

Apple PND

If I get frustrated with Dash, can you imagine the abuse it would get from Steve Jobs? He must just throw the damn thing out the window, be it a Dash, TomTom or whatever.

Wouldn’t the iPhone make a perfect PND platform (if it had a GPS)? Roughly a good size, thin, onboard wifi and cell network. It gets it in the car, so more music playing / revenue for iTunes.

Copyright Easter Eggs

Commercial map providers have for years used ‘easter eggs’ or as cartographers know them ‘trap streets’. These are fake streets, churches and sometimes villages in maps that are put in on purpose. If you copy the map then the map owner knows it was you because you couldn’t possibly have mapped these fake features.

OSM has a large wiki page on the subject including this picture of an A-Z map:

Notice ‘Lye Close’ ? This pun has been put there as a trap street, there is no actual street there.

In the license process, the OpenStreetMap Foundation has recognised the need for a license not just based in copyright law. Like large commercial map suppliers we are moving toward a license based upon copyright, database and contract law. These ‘three pillars’ are the same foundations upon which many data sets are sold.

Similarly and in order to professionalise OpenStreetMap due to the increasing completeness and therefore value of the OpenStreetMap data we need to protect copyright. The OpenStreetMap Foundation has decided to begin a process of entering trap streets in to our data. These will be in out of the way places so that they are not noticed, but if that data turns up in a TomTom or similar device then we will be able to prosecute for infringing our data.

This process was decided on secretly at the first OSMF board meeting over a year ago and many hundreds of trap streets are now present. The OSMF has decided to go public now because we have completed an entire ‘fake village’ and placed it in southern Germany. These trap streets and the trap village are un-deletable in the API due to special code to protect copyright.

The OpenStreetMap Foundation Board feel this is a good compromise between on the one hand having only real streets and no copyright protection and on the other enforcing all downloads of data with DRM mechanisms which were found impractical. The community impact is now to be measured, now that these methods and tools are public.

The Board would like to invite discussion on this exciting new method of protection, and will follow comments to this post closely.

The OpenStreetMap Foundation Board.

Behind the scenes…

It’s been pointed out a couple of times that the Foundation hasn’t been super public in its activities. In some cases it just can’t be, say if it’s secretly negotiating a data donation or something but for the most part we can waffle on about our achievements. So what have we been doing? We have monthly phone board meetings which last 2-3 hours to go over everything. A lot of it is fairly mundane like responding to communications but others take somewhat more work, things like:

  • The conference. Andy, 80n and Steve from OSMF are working with NickB, cjb_ie and bigbro to put all of this together. This is itself taking an hour or so conference call per week and lots of background organisation. Expect a CFP and announcements etc in the next week or two.
  • The license. Steve, Andy and Richard have been working on this. We’ve met and talked to various people including Jordan who wrote the ODL and pushed a process through on talk-legal
  • xmas party, Brighton launch party and other social events
  • Local chapters, GPS Unit donations and other smaller initiatives

Your friendly foundation board is available to help on these things and more.