Tech stuff I’ve been learning about lately

I haven’t done one of these lists in quite a while, so I figured it was time for an update. Here are some of the geeky tech things I’m currently playing with/learning more about:

Facebook Connect
I’ve added support for Facebook Connect to ShareEdmonton, and was surprised at how straightforward it was. Little bit of a learning curve initially, but nothing major. I’m impressed with the way it works.

OAuth
Looking into this one for use with Twitter and Brightkite. I’m not very far along yet, but it also seems fairly straightforward. Check out this ReadWriteWeb article on how a recent OAuth security flaw was addressed by the community.

MSMQ
I’ve been using this since January, actually. It works great, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again. I want to explore some of the more advanced uses now.

OpenCalais
You might consider it a semantic web service, because Calais is all about giving meaning to data. I came across it via bit.ly, which uses Calais to automatically extract names, places, and other metadata from the links you shorten.

Google Maps API
Again, this one is fairly straightforward. Lately I’ve been looking into the non-visual services it provides. For example, geocoding and reverse-geocoding in the background, without necessarily having a map on the page.

Public Data Sets on AWS
This one I’ve looked into the least so far, but I’m keen to check it out. In particular, I’d like to explore working with the Freebase data dump. It’s still amazing to me that you can tap into such a vast amount of data with relative ease.

As you can probably guess, almost all of these are related to work I’m doing with ShareEdmonton. I should have an update on that soon.

Edmonton Transit (ETS) officially launches Google Transit trip planning

As you may have heard yesterday, Edmonton Transit (ETS) now officially supports Google Transit for trip planning. What that means is that you can enter an address in Google Maps and get directions using public transit to another address. You can look up trip plans from any device that supports Google Maps, including the BlackBerry and iPhone. This has actually been possible since late October, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Edmonton is the 8th Canadian city to support Google Transit. Councillor Don Iveson demonstrated the service today at City Hall. You can read the press release here, and you can check out the official ETS page here.

ETS Google Transit Press Event

You can see more photos and video from today’s event here.

So what’s new?

First and foremost, the data is up-to-date and accurate (more on this below). You generally don’t have to worry about relying on the data in Google Transit. Secondly, Google Transit now understands ETS landmarks. This means you can type your home address as a starting point and “Millgate Transit Centre” as the destination, and Google will understand what you mean. These are the two primary reasons that ETS didn’t officially launch this back in the fall.

How does it work?

ETS has an agreement with Google to provide them with up-to-date data once a week (this time period can be different for each transit agency). If there’s a change in the accuracy of the data, ETS must provide Google with an update. This means there may be a small window of time during which ETS has more accurate information than Google, but in practice that’ll only happen for emergencies as most changes are planned and announced in advance.

The data is transferred in a format called the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). It’s up to ETS to ensure the GTFS data they provide is valid. Now that the “preview” period is over, Google automatically fetches the most recent data from ETS servers and applies it to Google Maps.

Why is this service important?

The Google Transit service offers a number of benefits. It’s really easy to use – just enter a start and end address and click get directions. I think it’s great for attracting more ridership to ETS as well. Young people are already familiar with Google Maps, and the thousands of individuals walking around with smartphones now have trip planning with them at all times. Visitors to our city are another group that will benefit, as they’re likely already familiar with Google Maps and no longer have to figure out the ETS trip planner.

What’s next?

Marketing will be the biggest thing initially. This service is only useful if people know about it! Edmonton was just listed on the Google Transit site, and information about Google Transit was just added to the ETS site this morning. Presumably introductions to the service will be added to all of the ETS information and promotional materials as well.

Though ETS is working on improvements to its own trip planner (which originally launched back on June 21, 2004), they fully expect usage to decline as people switch to Google Transit. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t provide transit agencies with statistics of any kind, so ETS won’t know exactly how many people are using the new service. Both services will co-exist.

Can we get the data now please?

I hope access to the GTFS data will be made available soon. Now that ETS has sorted out the process for publishing the data for Google, hopefully it’ll be simpler to come up with a process for getting the data to the rest of us too. Many other municipalities already publish their GTFS feeds for public consumption. There are lots of resources available for developers too, such as the GoogleTransitDataFeed open source project. Access to the data is the first step toward building an API for Edmonton Transit (ETS).

In the meantime, trip planning in Edmonton is now faster and easier! Click here to get started.

Use Google Maps to find Edmonton Transit schedules and trip plans

Earlier today I stumbled across this thread on Connect2Edmonton which pointed out that Google Maps Canada now has Edmonton Transit schedules and trip planning features. I immediately jumped over to the website to check it out, and sure enough, it’s all there!

The ETS website has offered trip planning for quite some time now, of course (an average of 89,000 trips were planned each month in 2006). It works well enough, but it’s awkward to use. Everything you do seems to open a new window/tab, and it’s not the fastest service in the world. But the main drawback has always been that you have to know far too much information in advance.

When you need to get from point A to point B, you typically know the address of each, but you don’t know the bus stop number near each one and you certainly don’t know which bus to get on!

That’s where Google Maps absolutely destroys the ETS website. Here’s an example.

I need to get from my apartment building to the current Questionmark office in the west end. I live at 10350 122nd Street, and the office is at 11434 168th Street. Let’s start with the ETS Trip Planner:

  1. Date and time of travel are no problem. The “arrive by” feature is particularly nice.
  2. Enter Starting Bus Stop # or Choose a Landmark. Uh oh, what’s my bus stop number? I could go outside and look or I could try to look it up. Let’s look it up.
  3. Okay not bad, enter my address and click Get Bus Stop #. Okay wow, now I have to choose from 14 different stops! I’m not entirely sure which direction I want. The office is northwest from my house, but do I want a westbound stop or northbound? I’ll choose the first one, heading west.
  4. Now I repeat the same thing for the office address. This time I have a list of 7 stops. Again, I’ll choose the first one.
  5. Now I can get my trip plan! Or not…some sort of error just popped up – “Error in Trip Solution Results”. Excellent. Honest I’m just doing this as I write.
  6. I’m really not sure why I got that error, but I did the whole thing again and after about 30 seconds or so, I got my trip plan – six different route options. Shortest time is 46 minutes.

Now let’s do that with Google Maps:

  1. I enter my home address.
  2. On the pin that comes up, I click “From Here” and enter the office address.
  3. Next I click “Public Transit” on the left pane.
  4. That’s it! I have three suggested routes. Shortest time is 34 minutes, and each one includes walking directions too.

If you want, you can do a few more advanced things as well. Clicking “Show options” will let you choose the “Depart at” or “Arrive by” times, just like the ETS website.

directions

And it gets better! There’s no way for me to get back to that trip plan I made using the ETS Trip Planner. Unless I printed it right there, I’d have to do it again. With Google Maps however, my plan has a permalink! Very nice.

I would love to see ETS link to the Google solution. Competition might be a concern, but it’s probably a better use of resources to help Google improve their system than to continue building an inferior one. I think it’s funny that the “Local agency information” link at the bottom of the results pane is broken. You can thank the new Edmonton.ca website for that!

Of course, the Google Maps solution isn’t yet perfect. It doesn’t seem to contain as much information as ETS, nor does it include Strathcona Transit or St. Albert Transit (as Michael Wilson pointed out to me).

Still, if you need to look up transit information in Edmonton I’d highly recommend you look at Google Maps before trying your luck with the ETS Trip Planner.

UPDATE: Found the official list of cities with transit information at Google Maps. Edmonton is not on the list yet. The currently listed Canadian cities include Vancouver, Fredericton, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Starbucks in Edmonton – My Maps

Post ImageLast last night Google launched a new mapping feature called My Maps. Basically it makes it dead simple for anyone to create a “mashup” using Google Maps. Here’s what product manager Jess Lee had to say about it:

You can add placemarks, draw lines and shapes, and embed text, photos and videos — all using a simple drag and drop interface. Your map automatically gets a public URL that you can share with your friends and family, or you can also publish your map for inclusion in Google Maps search results.

I figured I’d take it for a spin, so I created a map of all the Starbucks locations in the Edmonton area:

I chose not to add licensed stores, such as the ones you find in Safeway. My map contains 30 locations, including 1 in Spruce Grove, 3 in St. Albert, and 2 in Sherwood Park. It also includes at least four locations that aren’t even listed on the Starbucks.ca site!

Take a look, and let me know if I’ve missed any stores!

Read: Sbux in Edmonton