Saturday, December 24, 2005

Vancouver Island maps

I live on Vancouver Island, and enjoy exploring the outdoors of this beautiful location. I'm a tech geek who loves gadgets, and I work at a job which lets me learn about geographic information systems.

Combine all of that, and somehow the thought of making digital maps about hiking and biking trails on the island becomes a persistent one.

I have a philosophical problem with the concept that mapping information should be protected for commercial purposes. In Canada, the government approach appears to be that all mapping information should be kept under tight restrictions, which is why it has been next to impossible to find freely available digital maps. Recently, however, good coverages of Canadian terrain, geographic names, and the road networks have been made available under an unrestricted license at Geobase. This now opens up the possibility of overlaying layers containing local information without having to re-create the base maps.

In the spirit of keeping with the free theme, I am thinking of building a system based on Fedora Linux, and GRASS which would enable me to present and create the maps. The difficulty there is that I'm not formally trained in GIS, and all of my work-related training is on ESRI software. That means that I'll have to learn some basics, and then a second GIS system. Not a discouraging thought, but a potentially time-consuming approach.

The local information would have to come from legitimately free sources, so I was thinking that the best way to collect it with good accuracy and a reasonable chance of completeness would be to use GPS systems in a tracking mode and uploading the waypoints to map layers. Since I couldn't possibly travel enough trails in a short enough time to be interesting, I'm thinking about how to allow user submissions. There are a significant number of geocaching fans out there who are pretty expert at using their GPS units. If I set up a membership system which allows contributions to be attributed to their creators, and track some measure of reliability of contributions, it should be possible to create interesting and useful maps in relatively short times.

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