Thursday, 26 March 2009

When is a walk not just a walk?

....when it's a blog post!

A week or two ago we decided to take advantage of the unseasonal sunny weather to get out for a walk on the North Downs followed by a late lunch at the nearby pub. The sun was shining, I was spending time with my friends and the promise of a pint at the pub was really helping to keep me going so I did what every self respecting blogger would do and turned it into an opportunity to test out the GPS capabilities on my iPhone.

The app that I'm using is MotionX-GPS which I trialled using the free Lite version but wanted more functionality so I've paid the £1.79 to get the fully-featured version. For this bank-breaking price you essentially get the features of a £350 handheld GPS like the Garmin Colorado 300; standard location, speed & altitude info, compass navigation, waypoint/geocache navigation as well as route tracking and the ability to display location and route onto both streetmaps or terrain maps. The other nice touch which will be welcomed by iPhone owners who have tried to use Google Maps GPS is that you can cache maps that you have previously viewed so that if you go out of range of your phone service you can still see the maps of the area since they're stored in the phone rather than downloaded on the fly, plus the maps are from OpenStreetMap which means it keep being updated with more and more details.
It's worth noting that the free Lite version of MotionX-GPS will actually do most of this with the exception of the visual mapping and a limitation of only storing one saved track.

I set the app running as we left the carpark so that it would track our route and also provide us with a handy compass-style pointer to later direct us back to the starting point, shoved it in my pocket and got on with the walk. I pretty much ignored it until we came to a point when our directions let us down and we got a little bit lost... so it was iPhone to the rescue! While it obviously didn't know where we were trying to go to it did show us where we'd been and also where the nearest footpath was. I could feel that beer getting closer!

This software is also suitable for geocaching as you can manually add a waypoint with the cache location and then it will navigate you towards it. The output from the app are .kml and .gpx files which it gives you option to email from your iPhone. These can then be used in Google Maps, Google Earth, Yahoo Pipes and any number of other applications. I've uploaded my route onto my Google account so you can see where we went.

Since I had my camera with me and had been snapping away throughout the day while the GPS app had recorded my position I took the opportunity to geo-tag my pictures. The free GPicSync software isn't pretty but it does the job it needs to, namely, matching up the timestamp from my photos to the time logged in the GPS route files and then writing the location back into the EXIF information of the photos.

Sites like Flickr and Google do a great job of visually displaying their photos overlayed onto world/location maps, allowing you to search images geographically as well as by name or keyword.
This software has a another trick up it's sleeve by letting you create a custom .kml file with location markers showing the photos and their location. I've imported this into Google Maps as well so you can see the camera icons and image links that are generated.

If you're interested in customising .kml files for use in Google Earth, Maps or any of the other places you can import GPS information then I'd recommend looking at the Google tutorial on the subject. The files are essentially just XML so they take you through the process of defining the look and feel of tracks, placemarkers and anything else you might want to overlay onto a map including 3D geometric shapes which I could imagine being useful for architects. If there's enough demand from readers then I'll write a how-to guide to simplify the process!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Lo siento mucho

I owe the painfully solitary readers of this blog a bit of an apology.

I know that it's not a huge thing in the scheme of things, and if you take the big picture it's barely important at all, but it's important to me.

So here it is. My confession. Mea Culpa.

It's nearly a month since I posted on my blog. Instead I've been micro-blogging on Twitter so there's plenty I could have been writing about but it's been condensed into 140 character chunks and spat out into the Twittersphere so I thought I'd do a little re-cap so that you don't think I've just been sleeping for the last four weeks.

A little while ago I posted about the trial of The Pirate Bay which has been carrying on in the background since then, in the process popularising the phrase "King Kong defence" in reference to their argument that it is the users of The Pirate Bay and not the operators that are breaching copyright laws. One of the surprising offshoots of the trial is that a new style of facial hair has swept Sweden emulating Gottfrid Svartholm.
A verdict is expected on the 17th April which will hopefully give a decisive legal answer to a long standing debate.

I'd also meant to post about the Digital Britain report, written by Lord Carter to set out a roadmap for the future expansion of the digital infrastructure of our country, but no matter how many times I started writing I couldn't get enthused about it.
In fact I've realised that my apathy towards it was a direct result of the report itself - where they could have taken the opportunity to put forward a proposal with bold and far reaching ideas, instead he describes some obviously needed network expansion and suggests that the national standard of broadband access should be set at a speed most of us are already feeling frustrated with.

Twitter came into the news recently after it was reported in the national news that the micro-blogging service had played a part in the search for two missing skiers in the Alps. Jason Tavaria and Dolphin Music founder Rob Williams became separated from their group in a blizzard, with Jason relaying his location to rescue services from his GPS enabled iPhone. Another member if the group, Alex Hoye, sent out a much retweeted message asking for Rob's mobile number so that they could get in touch with him too. I was one of many users who retweeted the request and so it was all the more poignant when we later heard that he'd tragically died in the accident.

I'm sure there were other things that I meant to post about but it's getting late and I can't remember them - follow me on Twitter if you want to get the regular updates but I do promise that I won't leave it this long between blog posts again.

I'll leave you with a link to a blog that Melanie Seasons (a friend of a friend) writes called Fake Plastic Noodles. It's normally a good read and her comments on the new facebook design perfectly echo my own thoughts so rather than rehash them I thought I'd point you in her direction.