Mapping where Edmonton’s kids live and learn

On Friday evening, an interactive map I worked on with Edmonton Journal education reporter Sarah O’Donnell went live. Sarah’s first story based on the data was published in the paper today. Here’s our introduction to the project:

With five schools closing in Edmonton’s core and nine new suburban schools opening in September, education reporter Sarah O’Donnell wondered, “Just where do children live?” Local programmer Mack Male worked with The Journal to create an interactive map showing at a glance where children live and where they learn.

Here’s the map we created:

You can also see the map on ShareEdmonton here.

We showed a little of this at MediaCamp a few weeks ago, citing it as an example of traditional media and new media working together to tell a story. Newspapers like the New York Times often publish interactive story elements of course, but this is fairly new for the Journal. And I think it’s just the beginning!

I wanted to share a few notes on how the map was built:

It was an interesting experience for me! We had to double-check the data many times, and had to make decisions about how much/little to show. In that way, it was more like writing words than building a map. Thanks to Sarah for working with me on this!

Here’s what Sarah wrote in her story:

Nine new suburban schools will open next September; like Sister Annata Brockman, some will be close to capacity from the moment they open their doors. One look at a map of where children live shows why.

Most neighbourhoods with the highest number of children are on the city’s fringes. Those are the communities where the new schools are opening.

I was hoping the map would result in some discussion, and it has. Beth Sanders blogged about it this afternoon. She tackles the issue, highlighting as others have that city planning doesn’t “just happen”, rather its the result of many decisions made over time. We need to align our decisions – City Council and EPSB need to be on the same page! Beth finishes with some thoughts on open data:

The City of Edmonton, in creating and providing open source data, is providing a critical feedback loop for Edmontonians to understand how the city we are creating works. There are exciting conversations ahead in Edmonton’s future.

I agree completely. Kudos to the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Public Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools for making the data available for this mapping project. I’m positive it is just the first of many tools to come that will help Edmontonians better understand the data and contribute to the future of the city.

If you have any feedback on the map, let me know!

Where am I?

Though I consider myself a netizen, I don’t live online (yet). I remain tethered to the real world, in real physical space. The lines are beginning to blur somewhat however, thanks to the increasing popularity of location-based online services.

A good example of this is Brightkite, a service I’ve written about a couple of times. In a nutshell, Brightkite gives you a way to say “here I am in the real world!” For example, when I get to work in the morning I “check in”. You can see this action in two ways: on my profile (or at any service that sucks in my profile, such as FriendFeed) and on the place itself. Each place inside Brightkite has a unique ID which means every real world location has a corresponding digital representation. That’s powerful!

The problem with Brightkite is that I need to manually check in. This is where Google Latitude comes in. The service was launched on Wednesday:

Latitude is a new feature for Google Maps on your mobile device. Once you’ve opted in to Latitude, you can see the approximate location of your friends and loved ones who have decided to share their location with you.

Ready to share your location? If you have a mobile smartphone, visit google.com/latitude on your phone’s web browser to download the latest version of Google Maps for mobile with Latitude.

It’s annoyingly basic, but it works. I’ve got it running on my BlackBerry so my location is updated in real-time everywhere I go. That means that Google Latitude knows I am in the office before I actually get on the computer to check in on Brightkite.

Obviously it would be better to have Latitude and Brightkite work together. The Brightkite team have said on Twitter that they’ll look into it as soon as Latitude has an API. I hope that happens relatively soon!

Why does all of this matter? Because location is vitally important. Today it might seem geeky to broadcast your location on the web, but in the not-to-distant future, I’m betting it’ll be completely ordinary. Your social graph and location-aware services will be the first beneficiaries of this information, but others will follow. It’s exciting to consider!

In the meantime, feel free to add me on these services. I’m mastermaq@gmail.com on Google Latitude, and mastermaq on Brightkite.

Brightkite is now public, but still seems empty to me

brightkite I first wrote about location-based social network Brightkite back in May. At that time the service was still in invite-only private beta. Today, Brightkite went into public beta:

Invitations are no longer required and sign up is now open everyone. In addition, you can now invite your friends to join Brightkite without restriction.

Even though we are announcing the public beta today, keep watch over the next few weeks for a significant iPhone update, additional mobile support, additions to our API and a host of new features and improvements.

Ignoring the fact that they’re still calling it a beta, I think this is good news. I hope it means that more users will join the service, because it still seems pretty empty at the moment, at least for an Edmontonian like myself! Looking at “People Near Me” page shows only seven people in the area (4000 meters) and only three of them have been active in the last day or so.

Maybe opening up to the public won’t be enough to get people to join though. Perhaps Brightkite should add support for the newly launched Facebook Connect? Or heck, maybe Twitter should acquire and integrate Brightkite. That would make me happy!

My favorite way to use Brightkite at the moment is via the relatively new iPhone/iPod touch native app. It’s fast, and works quite well. The only way it could be better is if it ran in the background and could check me in automagically.

The issues I noted in my previous post still exist:

  • SMS doesn’t work in Canada, so I can’t update with a text message.
  • Mobile email is picky about format, both subject and body.
  • I can see all the places I have visited and how many times I have visited each one, but I still think it would be neat to see a route for a given period of time.

That said, they’ve got a pretty good API now, they support Fire Eagle, and they’ve made a bunch of nice improvements to the UI. Brightkite seems to be growing and improving, albeit slowly.

If you’re curious, I’d invite you to sign up and give Brightkite a shot. Be sure to add me as a friend when you do!

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.

Brightkite is cool so far

brightkite The latest shiny-new-toy that people seem to be playing with is Brightkite, a location-based social network. You can think of it as a sort of Twitter for location information. I’ve been using it for the last few days and so far I like what I see.

Brightkite started as a TechStars startup, and they recently closed a round of funding. CNET posted a decent writeup on the company today which includes some good background information, so check that out if you want to learn more about them.

To get started with Brightkite, you need to “check in” at a location. You can do this by specifying an address, business, or a “placemark”. Placemarks are like saved locations, so you could create a placemark called “Home” with your home address. In my testing thus far, searching for addresses is excellent but searching for businesses never returns anything.

Once you’ve checked in, Brightkite will show you people who are near you, and you can look at people who have visited that location in the past. You can also post notes (like a status update) and photos at your location. In case you’re wondering, Brightkite actually has really excellent privacy control options, so you can choose who can see your location and to what level of detail.

Like Twitter, I think Brightkite is something you need to use to truly grok. Here are my favorite things about the service thus far:

  • I think they’ve nailed the basic concepts. Placemarks make sense, and checking in at a location isn’t as cumbersome as you might think.
  • They use Twitter and Satisfaction for customer service. They’re also bloggers.
  • Just yesterday they launched a wicked iPhone interface. I love it!
  • I find the main web interface friendly and easy-to-use.

Of course, Brightkite is far from perfect. Some things I’d love to see improved:

  • The SMS interface doesn’t work in Canada. Brightkite would be a million times more useful if I could update via text message.
  • You can update via email, but it’s really picky about not having signatures and other content in the body.
  • Brightkite will show you the places you’ve visited and how many times you’ve visited them, but I think what would be really useful is the ability to see your routes on a map.

Another huge item for me is an API, and the only reason I left it out of the list above is that I know they’re actively working on it. I think Brightkite usage could explode if they do the API right, a la Twitter.

Of course, a social network is really only useful if there are people on it and that’s definitely one thing that is keeping me from truly experiencing Brighkite. There are a few Edmonton people on the service, but not enough that I’ve been close to anyone yet! I have four invites left if you’d like to join 🙂

I am eager to see how Brightkite improves and grows. With a few more features and some tweaking, it could become extremely useful for me. There are a bunch of location-based services out there, but so far Brightkite is the first one I’ve really liked.

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

Geotagging at Flickr

Post ImageJust came across a pretty neat feature that Flickr launched on Monday! You can now geotag your pictures, meaning you can assign them to a physical, real-world location:

Adding location information on Flickr is done through the Organizr, under the Organize tab.

Users can search for photos by location in the Explore area. Set the map to a location (world down to street level) and type in a search query. Markers will appear on the map with photos that contain that query in the tags or description of the photo.

I just tried it out with a few of my pictures, and it seems to work pretty well. It’s all Ajax powered, so it feels pretty natural. You can check out my Flickr map here.

Read: TechCrunch

Google Maps Pedometer

Post ImageI came across a really cool tool this afternoon (via Penmachine) – Gmaps Pedometer! Basically its a tool that someone named Paul cooked up that lets you draw a route on Google Maps and it will calculate the distance for you.

I started playing with it and found myself getting addicted! So you have been warned, this tool might lower your productivity as you try to figure out the distances of all the little routes you take. For example, the route I take to the office from home is about 14 KM, while the route from the office back home (I go a different way) is about 12 KM. The tool only displays distances in miles, so I converted them using Google’s calculator.

Give it a shot! You might discover that the route you take is longer (or shorter) than you think! I am not entirely certain how accurate the results are, but they seem pretty reasonable to me.

Read: Gmaps Pedometer