Drone Imagery from the Seventeenth Century

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If ever you are visiting the city of Lille in northern France take some time out to visit the basement of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, home to fourteen relief maps of  fortified French cities. These intricately detailed maps (really they are scale models and almost works of art in their own right) are a regional collection that was donated to the city of Lille in the 1980s from a larger collection housed in the Hôtel des Invalides military museum in Paris.

Think of them as the seventeenth century equivalent of aerial imagery collected by drones.

The collection was originally commissioned by King Louis XIV  in the 17th century as a military information system but quickly became a demonstration of royal grandeur.  Their building continued until the time of the Emperor Napoleon III and continued the tradition of previous centuries particularly  of the 15th and 16th when they were used by Italian military engineers as an aid to  fortification design.

 

 

The relief maps are of considerable size – the map of Lille itself is 18 sq m and stretches across ten tables.  And this is all that remains of the original 60 sq m! Generally the maps are of an extent that the viewer is placed at the range of cannon fire into the centre of a city. Naturally as cannon range improved so the maps got larger in extent.

The models were built on to  maps drawn from field surveys which were stuck on to the tables with suitable annotation to let the model builders know what went where. The buildings were made from wooden blocks covered in sheets of decorated paper to depict finishes such as stone, brick, wood, tile and thatch. Much more architectural detail was added to the more important buildings. Gardens and fields were represented with coloured silk and trees from wire wrapped in silk thread. The detail is exquisite.

The relief maps have survived the centuries well thanks to loving restorative care and are sensitively displayed and curated. They remain an important part of the history and development of mapping

If you want to see the real thing you can visit the impressive fortifications of the nearby Lille Citadelle built by the renowned French military engineer Vauban

Mapping a New Town being developed on a vanished national landmark

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It’s not often you get the opportunity to map a completely new town from the ground up, so mappa-mercia volunteers (all four of us)  descended on Houlton, next door to Rugby Warwickshire to do just that on a wet Saturday 1st December. Houlton is the name for a new town of 6,200  homes that is growing on the site of the decommissioned Rugby Radio Station, whose large antenna masts were long a major landmark on the journey north and south along the M1 motorway. Houlton had been marked as a construction site for some time in OpenStreetMap, but a trawl of local news sites suggested it was fast being developed with residents  already moving in – so time for some mapping action!

Its name mirrors the name of Houlton Maine USA , originally the other end of the transatlantic radio telephony and telegraphy circuit which received the very first transatlantic voice broadcast from Rugby Radio Station in 1927.

First opened by the General Post Office  in 1926, at its height in the 1950s it was the largest radio transmitting station in the world, with a total of 57 radio transmitters, a network of  820ft masts, 27 miles of copper cable in the suspended antennae covering an area of 1600 acres.

It used so many water cooled valves  that two reservoirs each with a capacity of about quarter of a million gallons of water were necessary  to feed a  heat exchange system.

Rugby set vast numbers of radio-controlled clocks in Britain  with the National Physical Laboratory’s time signal -but its strategic significance was the use of VLF transmissions to communicate with Britain’s submarine fleet

Technology marches on however and its functions were transferred elsewhere in the early years of the 21st Century and the station’s physical infrastructure dismantled. All that remains is ‘C’ building which is a protected heritage building and will form the nucleus of a new commercial town centre.

So big is the development that it will take almost 20 years to complete and is involving multiple development and finance partners. We spotted at least three development groups constructing houses on the site. There’s already a new primary school on site, together with  a community centre, visitor centre and an excellent restaurant – the Tuning Fork – named after an essential frequency tool.

In fact to walk round the completed section of the town  recording street names is to walk through a historical gallery of names famous in the development of radio: Marconi Close (naturally), Maxwell Road (naturally),  Walmsley  Road(senior Post Office engineer), Hughes Drive (inventor of the microphone and the printing telegraph),  Angwin Avenue (senior Post Office Engineer and first Chairman of Cable &Wireless),  Faulkner Road (senior Post Office engineer), Shaughnessey Way (senior Post Office engineer)

We decided to survey in a team rather than individually – it was less efficient but more sociable. We discussed and agreed as we went round that it was better to tag Houlton as a separate town rather than a suburb of Rugby (no objective criteria- it just felt right) and it enabled Rob to explain the  structure of the electricity distribution network. It also enabled us to establish the restaurant as excellent as we had to retreat there mid-morning to escape the cold drizzle and sample their coffee and cake!

The site is well-provisioned with cycle paths and what will become a network of footpaths along linear parks. What we didn’t see were any bus stops so it’s either going to be a car-centric development or there are just not enough occupied homes yet to make it worthwhile to run any bus services.  It was tempting to walk past the open barriers on what was a slack working day to explore more of the road network that is under construction, but we thought it would be prudent to observe the safety warnings- maybe at a later date  we can gain permission to survey beyond completed sections.

There’s another large infrastructure project underway, adjacent to Houlton, across the A5 trunk road with a massive expansion of the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.

Judging by the number of nearly finished homes, the site will be changing rapidly so we’ll be revisiting at regular intervals to map the progress of the new town. in the meantime anyone who’s passing and can map will save us work and further demonstrate the power of crowd-sourced mapping  to keep a map up-to-date.

UK Defibrillator Map

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Over the last few days there has been significant national press attention to a project to create a map of the locations  of public defibrillators. The project is a collaboration between the British Heart Foundation , Microsoft and the NHS.  One of the pilot areas will be the West Midlands Ambulance Service.

OpenStreetMap already has a large database of the locations of these devices, and in fact devoted one of our UK Quarterly Projects to the theme. Of course there is a map to visualise the data. There is also a useful set of tools and information to help mappers

Taginfo returns a total of 1765 defibrillators mapped in the UK in OpenStreetMap

We sincerely hope the the project speeds its delivery by building on our data and using OpenStreetMap’s crowdsourcing network of volunteer mappers.

The streets they are changing

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The streets they are a changing

 

The view along our streets is about to change thanks to the mobile phone and OSM mappers are presented with a vast new challenge.

BT are scrapping half of the 40,000 phoneboxes on our streets over the next five years, citing  a drastic drop in useage.  One third of phoneboxes never have anyone make a call from them, and BT measure call volume from all kiosks at a mere 33,000 a day. Phonebox numbers reached their peak in 1992, when there were 92,000 of them.

Reducing the estate  will save BT £6m a year in maintenance, mostly repairing vandalism and removing graffiti. More than half of phoneboxes lose money and the number of calls is declining by more than 20% per year. However, phoneboxes are still used by people who can’t afford mobile phones, and in emergencies when mobile phone batteries are dead or there is poor mobile phone coverage ( in many rural and mountainous areas)

7,000 of the  phoneboxes are the  world-famous red phone boxes designed in the 1930s by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed  Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Battersea Power Station, and Bankside Power Station (now the Tate Modern).

Many of the red phoneboxes which have already been decommissioned have been re-purposed  as mini-libraries and art galleries or to house defibrillation machines, information centres, shops or exhibitions.  About 2,400 are preserved by Historic England as Grade II listed buildings.

The rules of the government regulator Ofcom govern  how BT may remove phoneboxes, and addionally there may be planning regulations from local authorities to satisfy. If there are two kiosks within 400m walking distance of a site, BT is allowed to remove one, as long as there is one left. But if BT seeks to remove the only phone booth on a site, it must inform the public and consult with the local authority which has 90 days to object, which is known as a local veto.

According to taginfo data there are 18,000 phoneboxes (amenity=telephone) in the UK, so we’ve managed to map about 50% of them, taking 14 years to do so. So our data is set to degrade over 5 years as the estate shrinks and we need to keep up to date with which ones are being removed (and also of course to map those that are missing!)

To add to the scale of the challenge  1,000 phoneboxes will be replaced in major UK cities by  new structures called Inlinks from InLinkUK. Each InLink provides ultrafast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

The services are free because they’re financed by large digital screen advertising on the structures.

As well as the challenge of locating and mapping these structures is the tagging challenge. Which or all of these?

amenity=telephone

wifi=free

internet_access=wlan

advertising=screen

amenity= device_charging_station

tourism=information

Inlinks have been rolled out already in London and Leeds, and are scheduled for Birmingham in 2018. If you want to find the locations they’ve been provided here by InLink. Because they’re provided using Google Maps the data is useless for OSM except for using as a guide to go out and map them. So I asked BT, via  Business Development, if they could provide me data that would be suitable for adding to OSM. Here’s the  astonishing answer:

” Have heard back from the InLink (and payphone) team and they have a policy position – which is they don’t share locations of either Payphones or InLinks with mapping organisations as it would then make it easy for vandals and criminals  to determine the location of our estate and conduct attacks against it.”

Quite frankly this is a ludicrous position worthy of the fifteenth century when maps were regarded as military secrets.

Firstly, it’s discriminatory. Do they know they’ve already published an online map of Inlinks? Do they know that for several decades Ordnance Survey have published paper maps showing the location of phoneboxes in mountainous areas for emergency purposes?  Do they know that many local authorities publish online map service using Ordnance Survey data that locates every phonebox with the acronym TCB (for Telephone Coin Box)? Quite where this stands under competition laws is an interesting point, but way beyond our pockets to explore.

Secondly, it’s hardly a great method for letting potential customers know where to access the services.

Thirdly, what’s the profile of your average vandal? Someone who  is a node on the globalised corporate network and uses online resources and data  tools to ensure they optimise available resources for their campaign of  vandalism?  Why waste time wandering about looking for targets and forfeiting valuable vandalising time? Why waste valuable time going out to vandalise something that’s already been done by a rival crew? Or is it some antisocial human node with who-knows-what chemicals coursing through their brain, opportunistically trashing their local community because they’ve got neither the desire or means to travel.

I suggest BT planners look beyond the sphere of their corporate bubble with its group-think managementspeak and bring some appreciation of the real world (aka commonsense) to bear.

BT are now promoted to mappa-mercia’s Hall of Shame, along with West Midlands Fire Service and Severn Trent Water for refusing to provide data on the spurious grounds of protecting publicly visible infrastructure  against attack.

 

 

 

Birmingham is the Bus Stop Capital of Europe

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The city has more bus stops per kilometre than any other city in Western Europe according to an article published in the Birmingham Post.

The revelation comes from a press release issued by Transport for West Midlands which is responding to passenger criticism of  its recent decision to suspend 60 bus stops on major bus routes in a bid to speed up bus journey times.

There are more than THIRTEEN bus stops per kilometre in Birmingham, which  compares to  to three-and-a-half in Barcelona, two-and-a-half in Paris and less than one per kilometre in Berlin.

The three leaders according to the data presented are Birmingham (13.5), London (12.6), Manchester (9.9). Budapest is the closest European city, with just over eight.

It does have to be said that Birmingham and the West Midlands suffer  in comparison to other European cities from not having complementary rapid transit systems such as metro lines and tram lines (there is only one surface metro line in the West Midlands). Our main means of “rapid” transit remains buses which is probably why there’s such a large density of bus stops. Culling the number is an attempt to return the description “rapid” to our transit system which has to compete with the congestion from cars.

 

Mapping an Industrial Dispute

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Birmingham is in the grip of an industrial dispute by binmen which is causing rubbish to pile up on the streets due to missed refuse collections. Needless to say this is causing much consternation amongst the citizens and businesses of the city and the local media and politicians. The causes of the dispute are long-running  and its resolution looks to be long-running also.

We do however have a map of the effect of the dispute, based on a release of data by the City Council of where residents have complained about missed refuse collections. The map was developed in Carto, and hence based on OSM data, by Matt Cannon who is digital development editor at the Birmingham Mail, one of our regional newspapers.

Are there any other examples of industrial dispute mapping?

Updating bus stops in the West Midlands

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It has been 8 years since the original NaPTAN (National Public Transport Access Nodes) data was imported into the UK space of OpenStreetMap in 2009. It was done on a piecemeal basis and only in areas where it was requested, which was generally where there were active mappers. Since that time I am not aware of any organised attempts to bring that data up-to-date. There will certainly have been localised efforts based purely on surveys.


So when the local OSM community, mappa-mercia,  was approached by TfWM (Transport for West Midlands) with the offer of resources to bring the NaPTAN data up to date as TfWM was reviewing all their public map production and could consider OSM as a candidate for displaying this data, we leapt at the chance.
We had started out locally some 8 years ago with a lot of enthusiasm and surveyed bus stops crazily but given the scale of the task (some 12,000 bus stops) even a dedicated bunch of mappers is going to get bored – and so we did. Updates and confirmation of existing data languished outside of a couple of public transport enthusiasts and sporadic surveying by others when out surveying something else.
So two internal developers from TfWM and me set to work meeting every Tuesday afternoon in TfWM’s Birmingham head office to put matters right. Our aim was to get an accurate up-to-date map of Public Transport  data in the West Midlands using mostly NaPTAN data. We planned and documented and kept relevant OSM talk lists up to date with what we were doing.
Peripheral tasks were:
1. entering the location of all the new Swift Collector points – these are where passengers can upload new ride allowances into their Swift Smart Cards
2. entering West Midands Fare Zone data to all railway stations in the region
3. entering the proposed routes of all planned Metro tram lines
The first task was to clean up the existing OSM data. This involved moving bus stop nodes that were nodes on highways rather than to one side, identifying and tagging non-naptan bus stops  ( for example car park shuttle buses at the Airport, large campuses such as the National Exhibition Centre and personnel shuttle buses for multisite campuses, usually hospitals) and finally identifying, and resolving where possible,  what we dubbed “orphan” bus stops which were those surveyed by OSMers but with no NapTAN data attached.
The next task was to check the positional accuracy of the current 2017 NapTAN data against both aerial imagery and known OSM well-surveyed areas, as that would determine our approach. Sadly we found that the positional accuracy had not improved systematically over the 8 years. So any refresh of NapTAN data would have to rely on OSM position.
Our next step was to remove all those bus stops marked DEL, for deleted, in the NaPTAN data by removing the highway=bus_stop tag and adding a note to that effect and leaving the remainder of the tags. This was very much a belt-and-braces approach.
Next we updated all the bus stops that had a NapTAN identifier with a standardised naming convention preferred by TfWM and agreed by the local OSM community,  and with current route_ref information.
That left all the new bus stops that had been added in the intervening 8 years. This had to be done semi-manually in order not to remove any bus stops surveyed by OSMers and also to check the positional accuracy (OSM surveys always won!)
As CUS (Customary) stops do not render as there is nothing verifiable on the ground such as a pole we imported those first, as is.
Then any remaining “orphan” bus stops were checked against the new bus stops, relevant data transferred and positions moved before deleting them. We managed to remove nearly 300 of these but were unable to resolve about 50. Then the new bus stops with improved positions were imported. We could have automated this more, but preferred to adopt a more cautious , if laborious, approach of human review.
Finally, having achieved an accurate up-to-date bus stop estate we added shelter information: shelter=yes and shelter_ref=xxxxxxxx.
Loose ends are largely those bus stops still in existence on the ground with NOT IN USE displayed prominently on the pole flag, which NaPTAN treat as non-existent but OSMers can see and will map; and Ring and Ride bus stops which also were  not in the NapTAN data. There are also numbers of bus stops with poles that are still labelled as CUS in NapTAN.So we never achieved 100% accuracy but the percentage of errors/queries is of the order of <1%.
Next we have to agree with TfWM not to let our hard work atrophy by entropy  but keep the data up-to-date by agreeing a frequency of when we do it and a process of how we do it.
What we didn’t do: upgrade existing  and enter  missing bus routes as relations. Neither party was willing to devote the resources to entering these as relations. Which was a pity but maybe we have to realise that the easiest way of representing these given their quantity and volatility ( and the upcoming changes in the Bus Bill which will demand electronic submission of bus routes) is layering on the base map in a separate application.
The process in numbers

Item Approx number
Elapsed time 3 months
TfWM resource hours 30 hours
OSM resource hours 30 hours
Total  bus stops 12,500
Bus stops deleted 400
New bus stops imported 800
Orphans removed 300
Shelters added 5,000

 

Conclusion
TfWM have some great developers and we quickly developed a rapport together. We have built good relations not only at a personal level, but also as organisations.
If the state of our bus stop data in the West Midlands is typical for the UK then we have a lot of work to do to obtain an accurate UK-wide map of bus stops. If we were to  contemplate upgrading throughout the UK I would say it couldn’t be done without a dedicated full-time team and would consequently need some national sponsorship with a business case for devoting the resources necessary. A region-by-region or city-by-city approach would be more doable. So how about it OSM UK and DfT (Department for Transport)?

Massive Release of Highways Asset Data in Birmingham

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This month Amey released a number of  open datasets to Birmingham City Council, which has published them on its Data Factory site under an OGL licence

Amey maintains Birmingham’s highways under a 25 year Highways Maintenance and Management Service, which is Europe’s largest local government highways partnership.

It covers 2,500km of roads, 4,200km of footways, 95,000 street lights, 76,000 street trees, around 1,100 traffic light signals and over 1,000 bridges, tunnels and highways structures. Winter services involve gritting 1,200km of road every night during freezing weather, maintaining 1,265 grit bins and treating priority pavements in icy conditions.

The datasets cover: trees, traffic signals, streetlights and gullies (points where surface water drains off the highways) as at December 2016

The tree dataset seemed the most interesting to us, especially with relation to other datasets for air pollution that are being generated. A review of the data showed its positional accuracy to be pretty good: none of us have specialist knowledge about tree species so we are accepting the accuracy of Amey’s data.  Amey’s data contains details of the species, estimated age and shape of the trees as well as other identifiers.

Currently we’re engaged in importing the tree dataset which we’re doing on an area basis so that we can do a human review and delete existing trees which have been added from various aerial imagery sets. One of the benefits of  this method is to eliminate trees in the Amey dataset that are identified as “assets to be de-accrued” – these refer to trees that have been removed either because of highway improvements, storm damage, disease or safety.

It’s a great shame to pass a highway junction where you’ve just imported the trees to see the tree surgeons at work felling them all in preparation for a junction improvement!

We have of course raised with the Amey the question of how the dataset is to be maintained as open data. It would be such a shame for our hard work and their welcome initiative to degrade over time because there is no mechanism for updates of additions and deletions.

We’re not sure yet what to do with the other data. The traffic signal data is probably the next most interesting. We’ve taken a brief look at this and our current thinking is to import the data as untagged nodes and gradually manually transfer the UIDs to adjacent traffic signals, deleting the imported node. We’re pretty confident that with previous work we’ve done in collaboration with Birmingham City Council we’ve captured most of the traffic signals; and any way trees are going to keep us occupied for a few weeks.

We’ll keep you posted.

Mysterious Objects: no 7 in an occasional series

posted in: Observations | 2

It’s been a long time since I’ve found an object on my surveys that has left me perplexed. Neary two years actually. The cynical side of me thinks its probably I haven’t been curious enough or motivated enough to document it. And to my embarrassment, it’s on my daily walk to the shops.

Anyway, can anyone help with this one? It’s about 3 inches square and embedded in a pavement and doesn’t look like it’s  a lid that can be opened to something like a valve or switch. Also it looks like it’s brass which is unusual for street furniture of this kind.

There’s no map to look at in this blog- it’s secret!

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The attempts at secrecy surrounding the UK’s water supply became even more bizarre following my previous blog concerning the location of fire hydrants in the West Midlands, where making a map of fire hydrants is considered a threat to national security.

Now we have the local water utility company, Severn Trent Water, joining the West Midlands Fire Service in attempting to prevent mapping of water resources, using similar “national security ” concerns, although the phrase used by STW is “national critical infrastructure”.

As part of the current OSM UK quarterly project which is to improve mapping of any water features I thought it would be great to map the installation of the new pipeline paralleling the existing Elan Valley Aqueduct which is imaginatively named the “Birmingham Resilience Project”.

BRP is a massive  £242m  two-year civil engineering project and is designed to  provide resilience to the Edwardian aqueduct opened in 1904 which supplies Birmingham all the way from a reservoir in the Elan Valley in Wales.  This pinnacle of Edwardian engineering is  a 73 mile (117 Km) supply which requires no pumps, relying on gravity and siphons.

The Birmingham Resilience Project will provide a parallel supply for the last section of the aqueduct. It will run 16 miles (25 Km) from the River Severn at Stourport to the Frankley Reservoir to the West of Birmingham. It will be  a pumped underground pipeline. The best short online description of the project is here. There’s also an in depth presentation here  by the Head of Pipelines from the main contractor Jacobs

STW’s informative online pages about the project include a FAQ  where you can apply to look at the map of the proposed route(!)

Originally STW had published an online map showing the proposed route overlaid on an OpenData map from the Ordnance Survey (the UK’s national mapping agency). This would have made mapping it for OSM a doddle. However there was a statement on this map:
“This drawing is not to be used in whole or part other than for the intended purpose and project as defined on this drawing.  Refer to the contract for full terms and conditions.”

So I contacted STW to see if we could use the map as I couldn’t refer to the contract which isn’t a public document. (Remember all  UK public utilities, except the National Health Service and the BBC, and large swathes of central and local government are run privately with no accountability or information other than to contracted parties or shareholders.)

What transpired was a phone conversation which was quite stunning in its convoluted reasoning. I didn’t record it, but it was along the lines of:

“Yes we’ve published a map based on opendata but no you can’t use it”

“Why publish it, if we’re not allowed to use it?”

“We need to undertake public consultation, but the data can only be viewed not replicated as it concerns national critical infrastructure”

“So if I walk along public footpaths and roads and take photographs and gps readings wherever I can see this 16 mile civil engineering project and then make a map from my collected data, that woud be OK?

“Yes I guess so”

“So why not save me the effort and give me the data, which has already been made public, as the effect will be the same: publishing a map of a highly visible civil engineering project?”

“We can’t do that – it would compromise national critical infrastructure”

Repeat the last two statements ad infinitum.

Despite its absence from STW’s website and the medieval process of applying to look at it (and no doubt have your name recorded as a potential threat to national critical infrastructure); for those of you who want to see  a map of the proposed route, the online planning sites of each local authority that the new aqueduct traverses (Wyre Forest District Council, Wychavon District Council, Bromsgrove District Council, Birmingham City Council) provide dozens of very detailed maps, all of which are copyrighted however. So it doesn’t get us any further forward other than having to do a ground survey, but it makes a nonsense of STW’s attempts to make online access to maps difficult.

In STW’s parallel corporate universe you can have a two-year civil engineering project digging up 16 miles of the countryside with its attendant huge online archive of public planning documents all of which you can make invisible! Just as long as you don’t have an online opensource map!

Anyone feel like helping with the ground survey?

 

 

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