Archive for October, 2008

Open Source Geo Stack

There’s a need for a good, high level description of the alternatives within in the “gently settling” stack of open source geoweb application development.

The OpenGeo Stack is the epitome of clarity, breaking down their tool set in a nice executive summary. But the OpenGeo stack only covers their tools, not all the available options. So I’m going to make a quick first pass of a high level overview. It’s useful for me, maybe for others. If you think I’ve done a poor job, help improve it in the comments, or on some wiki somewhere.

OpenGeo breaks things down into FrontEnd, Tiling, ApplicationFramework, Database. I’ll add Rendering, since in other tool sets this is split into different packages.

the slippy map

* OpenLayers the Ajax gold standard
* ModestMaps for mind blowing Flash, ala Stamen
* Mapstraction don’t want to tax your mind? it looks just like the Google/Yahoo/Microsoft API

be nice to your database or WMS and cache map images into tiles, just like Google and friends

* TileCache simple bit of python
* GeoWebCache same thing in Java
* mod_tile it’s kinda OpenStreetMap specific, but an apache module is a good idea too

make pretty maps

* Mapnik looks beautiful. getting somewhat less painful to install.
* Mapserver does it all. also a pain to configure. looking better.
* GeoServer

where the the main logic of the app goes. MVC. CRUD. etc.

* GeoDjango making great progress on a complete package.
* GeoRails more a bunch of plugins than a package, but definitely useable
* GeoServer the standard for open geo standards. Java.


* Postgres + PostGIS
* MySQL sure, it has spatial extensions too. just not as fast or fully implemented as PostGIS

Random notes, other good sources

Architect your interfaces on Geo RESTful services. Andrew breaks down the formats and approaches for Neogeography and the GeoWeb in this presentation and book. For Ajax smooveness, use jQuery or prototype. Paul Ramsey has a good deep overview of open source GIS. Mecklenburg County GIS is a nice example of an instance of the stack.

There really is a need for a new book on this stuff, the O’Reilly trio of paper geo titles are great but out of date, and the landscape of osgeowebappdev is stabilising. Of course, no one wants to write it.

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Serve Your Country Food!

Last Sunday Serve Your Country Food had it’s big debut, with a little feature in the NYTimes Style Magazine on Food Fighters.


Severine is a tireless and inspiring leader of a new movement The Greenhorns .. young, first generation farmers leaving standard urban and suburban living (but not always leaving urban and suburban land) to grow food, care for the land, and feed us! Farming has been a shrinking and devalued profession, despite the growing recognition of the supreme value of what we put in our bodies. If we care for ourselves and our own health, we need to care for the people and the land making our food. says it better than I can.

One of the Greenhorns greatest tricks is to make farming look cool. Following the conceit of Bruce Sterling and Viridian. Farming is cool!

So who is this growing movement of young farmers? Where are they, what are their victories and challenges, and how can we help? That’s what this first generation of the site aims to answer. It’s a publicly accessible census of new farmers and collects a variety of economic, demographic and cultural information about these greenhorns. Digital recognition and support of this movement.

The site is hand drawn. We wanted to reach out with an aesthetic that connects with the people we’re engaging. On the whole they’re pretty tech savvy, many are evening internet addicts with nothing else going on the farm. But they put in a lot of work, with their own hands. Brooke Budner of the Victory Gardens drew the map by hand, made all the illustrations, and wrote out all the labels. Many commendables! I scanned and processed and georectified. Lots of work. If we get a chance to work more on this, first thing will be to make a “Brooke Font” so she doesn’t need to write out page after page of labels. Other further ideas, if resources come through, are bringing in the great collection of relevant American maps Severine found and animating the growth and change of young farmers over time.

The site itself is rails, coded by Shoaib and Kashif of Nomad Labs.


The site more or less officially launched at the greenhorns rabbit roast, a weekend camping event of farm geeking at the absolutely lovely Glynwood Center. The high point was definitely Severine’s evening “workshop” on slaughtering rabbits. Severine raises rabbits for food .. they’re highly energy efficient for food production, a growing specialty item ($$$), relatively easy to care for .. and extremely cute, which cuts to the heart of our relationship of the food production process.

In front of a crowd of 25 rapt onlookers, Severine described and performed every minute step of the slaughter and skinning of this rabbit, including her own very physical reactions. She’s entirely self taught, and this was only her third ever slaughter. Everyone was absolutely fascinated .. most everyone had never seen an animal slaughtered before (except fishing) and the atmosphere was charged with the kind of surgical theater of the enlightenment age. Here’s a photo of a late stage of the process. I don’t eat mammals, but if I did I’d want to be fully aware of the life and death of what I ate. I would’ve sampled this one anyway, if the bicycle powered rotisserie had shown up on time!

The rest of the weekend was pretty fun too. Fascinating talk on the trouble of standard bee keeping practice and new anarchic bee keeping!. Rural Route Films and a bicycle touring, bicycle powered band, and lots of good foods.

At the rabbit roast, I jokingly talked about starting a dating service for isolated farmers (not too many cool young people out in the sticks). No joke, Farmers Only does exist.

That was good to discover, it confirmed an unconfirmed hunch I’ve had about social media tools and farming. We talked about food at WhereCamp, and the one thing we agreed on is the leverage power of more information on and engagement with food production. It seems to me the best way to unearth that information is by connecting with farmers themselves. But with so many other laborious tasks to tackle, how to bring farmers to the table.

As with any social media, self interest is key. At Where 2.0, I was immensely impressed by Patients Like Me. From a purely selfish viewpoint, the tools to track the course of disease treatment are useful. But on top of that, there’s the opportunity to network with people nearby, and afar, who have the same illness, to compare notes and build support. And again on top of that, large scale studies of self-reported treatment results are undertaken. Beautiful melding of the selfish and the social.

What’s that have to do with farming? I envision a social site for farmers that works on all three levels. Easy tools to track the course of farming .. from sowing to reaping. Extremely light weight, no big forms, twitter style, smart text parsing .. to pull out detailed stats on how things go. Tools to draw and plan the the farming area. Entirely self serving .. tools to help track how the farming goes. There’s detailed, highly complex farm tracking processes for industrial farming; so we’re looking to neo-farming informatics approach. Making this information socially accessible brings another level. New farmers and other farmers in the area can learn how different crops fare in the area, share knowledge on how to build, pool resources. Finally, all this personal, direct information can attracts buyers and consumers, who want a direct connection with the people and source of their food. Social software for farmers. That’s the idea, where we’re going .. how can we do this?


More in the pursuit of Geographic Democracy

I wasn’t at all satisfied with yesterday’s results. GeoWeb San Francisco has 3d buildings, oblique views, streetviews, yelps. 6 out of 10 demo maps feature San Francisco. I made that up. But really SF has to be the most digitally mapped place on the planet. That’s why I tend to focus my efforts on the other side of the world .. does SF really need another map? I guess so. None of that glitz adds anything to democracy, and yes maybe it’s worthwhile paying attention to your own backyard.

San Francisco Electoral Districts

So I did something about it. Finder didn’t turn up anything, so searched and found shapefiles from the state and the city. Processed. And uploaded to GeoCommons, and made a map of San Francisco Electoral Districts: City Supervisors, State Assembly and Senate, and Congressional. All in one map. Bravo GeoCommons!

I mean, it could be better of course. The path is not as smooth as it could be by a long way. I’ll complain below. And the result is a little hard to visually parse .. though that’s the nature of overlaying polygons. Anyway, by toggling layers, it’s easy enough to compare two sets of district boundaries, and see that the differences make no sense whatsoever. Where’s the revision history?!


Really the primary issue is how much can reasonably be done on the web. GeoCommons needs to address a wide non-professional audience, without the burden of GIS. What kind of operations can commonly be expected and incorporated into a simple workflow, and what is left off the 80/20 cliff.

When I first uploaded the assembly district boundaries to Finder, and viewed in the map, there was nada. Turned out the shapefiles are in a California State Plane projection, and Finder doesn’t notice or complain. There’s no way to submit a “.prj” file .. yet. So I had to do the transformation myself. Used OGR.

ogr2ogr assembly_districts_4326.shp assembly_districts.shp -f "ESRI Shapefile" -t_srs EPSG:4326

I then tried uploading again. It works! But dang slow. 80 detailed assembly district polygons in California. But I’m only interested in the two overlapping San Francisco. And I don’t want to simplify .. the precise boundary is crucial in this application. Couldn’t I just tell Maker that for my map, I’m only interested in features in this particular view? Seems simple enough to explain to the user, and generally useful. But not there yet.

Finally the styling. It’s maybe impossible to style four polygon layers in such a way that they’re all discernible in a single view.


But yea, GeoWeb! Here’s an interactive web map, with reusable data, without any programming required, just tools. We’re on the right path.


Geographic Democracy in the Physical Heart of the GeoWeb

Or in San Francisco it’s only slightly easier to get maps of representative districts than in Mumbai (one of our core motivators for OSM in India).

Start with a simple question. Who are my representatives from the local, to state, to national levels. Yeah, I don’t know, cause I’ve lived in England for four years, and I’m not around here much anyway. When I launched OpenStreetMap Brighton 1.0, the excellent WriteToThem identified my local councilor, MP, and MEP (even though I couldn’t vote for any of them) and I duly spammed them with invites to our party (the mayor did show up!).

For the US, one of the first hits was Project Vote Smart (awesome, are there others?). My zip code confusingly listed multiple representatives for the US House, and State Senate and House. (And nothing for local councilors). Turns out my zip is districtly schizophrenic.

state senate districts unclear

The State Senate turned up this unfriendly tabulation. This PDF confirms that 94114 is in both State Senate Districts 3 & 8 (at least as of 2002. you’re screwed if you stumble across a 1992 pdf without knowing better). The image exported from their GIS is totally unhelpful, I live somewhere below the “O” in Diamond Heights Blvd.

state senate districts, a little better

This PDF is almost there, looks like the district border is a couple blocks over. Maybe. What if you live on the border street. Different representative from your neighbor across the street? Why the dip to Castro Street to take us into the West side of SF? We’re should clearly be on the East, not with the Westside!

State assembly districts, unclear

The State Assembly is no better for an overview.

state assembly, clear

Close up, we have some clarity and a somewhat more logical choice of division boundary in my neighborhood at Twin Peaks Blvd. There are twice as many Assembly districts than Senate districts. Why not some confluence? What logic are these divisions based on? What tortured debate possibly made Corbett Street the dividing line for the Assembly districts.

House of Reps, unhelpful

US House of Reps is equally unclear. CalVoter doesn’t tell me if it’s 8 or 12, Pelosi or Speier, and doesn’t care at all about coastlines or any identifiable geography.

National Atlas Fails too

The “National Atlas” fails too.

Raccoon Drive bummers

GovTrack finally seems to answer the question. For me at least. The folks on Raccoon Drive don’t only have marsupial problems.

So even for me, pretty competent in searching the web, searching the web for geodata and maps, extremely familiar with the local terrain and streets, and experienced interpreting and scrutinizing maps, it took time and effort and puzzling and uncertainty. Spread over numerous websites, some official and some not, in different geographic styles, scales and precision. And I didn’t even try to find the data, to try and do a better job independently. Seems like one of the most basic things government and civil society should get right, and we’re not.