Monday, December 3, 2007

Moving ...

After struggling with the usability of Blogger, I also found myself wanting some user stats, which don't seem to be here on Blogger.

So, nothing against you, Blogger, but I've decided to move my blog over to WordPress. Why I decided to do this now, in the midst of all that's happening in my life, I don't know, but here I go ...

Look me up at

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Watch your packages traverse the country

It's that time of year when people are buying gifts and wondering where they are--will they get here in time? There are some interesting mashups that can help. Up on ProgrammableWeb, they list some map mashups that allow you to track your packages on a map and/or get an RSS feed alerting you when your package has moved.

PackageMapping: Tracks UPS, US Postal Service, Fedex, and DHL packages, and plots progress on a Google map. They also offer a KML version and an RSS feed. Screenshot of courtesy of ProgrammableWeb. Click to visit PackageMappingThere's a Google gadget, too, so you can track your package on your iGoogle page, but the gadget is just a listing of locations, not a map. The whole point is to see it visually on a map--why would you make your gadget without a map? Still, it's a useful service, and they offer a service (for a fee) for merchants to put on their web pages to help their customers track their packages.

PackageMapper: this one has a cleaner look, but I had a hard time getting it to work. It takes forever to load.

MoreMap: does package tracking, too, but only does Fedex and US Postal Service. I didn't have a Fedex or USPS number to try, so I can't report on how well this one works. I was a little frustrated that it didn't take my UPS tracking number, then discovered it doesn't take them when I clicked the dropdown box. It would be nice if they told you that up front. But MoreMap also allows you to map movies, earthquakes, weather, traffic, banks, radio stations, and interesting places. The movies feature is pretty useful--maps all the surrounding movie theaters. Clicking on one of the stars on the map gives you a list of movies at that theater, complete with movie times.

Isnoop: I found this one on my own. It offers package tracking on a map, too, in a very simplistic way. No fancy stuff, just put your tracking code in and it maps it. Oh, there's an RSS feed too, so you can track your package in your feed reader, and the RSS is formatted in a nice, readable format.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Faster prototypes, better specs

I ran across a tool called Lucid Spec that allows you to do rapid screen prototyping with clickthrough capabilities. They bill it as a tool for creating better specifications, which it would invariably be in the hands of a good user experience designer.

Enlarge Figure 2: Design mode, with user detail screen in the middle, and supporting panels on the sides.

It could also be a tool for making higher fidelity "paper prototypes", although that can backfire on you. When doing paper prototyping, it actually helps you get better user feedback if you have rough sketches that don't look too polished.

However, after the paper prototyping phase, this Lucid Spec tool could be quite useful for showing the developers what to develop and how it should work.

Resources on paper prototyping:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Are online maps usable?

I ran across an old (July 07) blog entry on GISMO (Geographic Information Systems and Mapping) about map usability which led to a couple really interesting items:

  1. User-Centered Map Design from the Usability Professionals Association(UPA) points out that:
    Many people find map reading difficult. The problem lies in translating an exocentric bird’s-eye perspective of traditional maps into an egocentric perspective of the human vision. The experiment presented here suggests that electronic egocentric map displays using real-time 3-D and GPS positioning technology are more efficient, less erroneous, and more user-friendly than traditional static maps or electronic north-up or head-up maps.

    Map-reading involves a shift in perspective from what we're used to. You look at most maps from above, yet most of us spend our days looking at the world from a sideways perspective. Why not make navigation systems that look the same as the world we live in? Of course it depends on the application. How would you show a population map or a land cover map from a human's ground perspective?

  2. With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking--an article from the New York Times. This one I'd seen before, but it's still interesting. It talks about the phenomena of the GeoWeb 2.0, which is enabling regular, every day folks with no geospatial training to make maps on the Web. With the wide availability of GPS units (and GPS on every cell phone–though many cell phone providers are still reluctant to let the user access their GPS coordinates) and simple map-building tools like Google Maps, the expertise level needed to build a map is no longer the private domain of GIS experts. In the article, Donald Cooke, chief scientist at Tele Atlas North America, states:

    “But you can also go hiking with your G.P.S. unit, and you can create a more accurate depiction of a trail than on a U.S.G.S. map.”
    Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the journalism school at the University of California in Berkeley, says:

    “The possibilities for doing amazing kinds of things, to tell stories or to help tell stories with maps, are just endless.”
So what does that mean?
The environment of the web is changing the way people interact with geospatial information, and it will continue to evolve towards more human-oriented solutions. Web users are becoming more and more used to:
  • Information delivered to their desktops. Users no longer have to go out looking for everything. They can subscribe to news and data feeds and get that info delivered right to them. That applies to location-aware data and maps just as much as it does to CNN news feeds.

  • Rich, interactive (AJAX) controls. They expect to be able to:

    • zoom in and out just by rolling the wheel on their mouse

    • pan by clicking and dragging

    • move sliders back and forth

    • draw boxes or polygons right on the map

    • enter a placename or address and zoom right to it

    • drag and drop map markers and other objects

  • Customization options for look and functionality. Users now have the power on many web pages to add or remove gadgets and change the look and feel of a page in a matter of seconds.

  • Direct manipulation. Users can easily add points and information directly to the maps they see on the web. They can pull in data from many sources and upload GPS points in real-time, from the field.

  • The ability to pull in and view/compare data (by dragging and dropping datasets) from more than one source:

    • without having to download or store anything on their own computer

    • without having to buy expensive, installed software
With the advent of Second Life, Google Earth, Virtual Earth and other virtual worlds, users now are even beginning to expect the ability to fly to their location and move the globe on a computer screen like a child moves a toy car or airplane.

Businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations today have to consider this new interactive paradigm and updated expectations of web users, which is very different than the paper maps of old. Those who can be innovative and deliver more human-oriented geospatial solutions will be successful. Those who stick with old, static models will be left in the dust.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Finally a Useful GPS Device for your Car!

Last year at the Where 2.0 conference, I first saw the Dash Express, a location-aware device that connects to the Internet to get information in real-time from your car. I just got e-mail from Dash that the testing phase is nearing an end and they're about to release a limited number of these handy devices in the first quarter of 2008.

As an owner of a Nissan Quest with a built-in GPS, I have plenty of frustrations with static GPS devices. The map on our GPS was outdated by the time we bought it--it actually routed us to a dead end one time, a place where an earthquake had destroyed the road and none had been built to replace it. It often shows us driving on blank map because it has no record of the road we're on, or gives false directions. On top of that, Nissan wants us to pay them for an update DVD (that will also be outdated by the time we get it). We have just given up and gone back to paper maps because they're more reliable and easier to use.

What's different about Dash is it's actually getting smarter as time progresses. Because it connects to the internet for information, not only does it have up-to-date roads, it's also got real-time traffic updates with the ability to route around traffic jams (how handy!) and a plethora of other information you might want when you're out and about. Things like "what live music events are happening in town tonight and where are they?", "how much do the houses in this neighborhood cost, and where are the open houses today?" are now doable from your car with this handy Dash device. It even has built-in theft protection. When I saw it, I immediately wanted one, as did just about everyone else in the room. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the guys to volunteer for the roadtest, they already had enough volunteers. Sigh. I would have loved to evaluate the usability of the device. I guess I'll just have to wait ...

Glenn on AnyGeo posted a couple videos that I've taken the liberty of repeating here. Be careful watching these: you may find yourself wishing you could get one right now, like me!

The video Glenn took:

and a video clip from the Web 2.0 Summit

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

GeoRSS in a Google Gadget

We've been playing with GeoRSS at work and I got the challenge of putting the GeoRSS feed we developed into a gadget that users could put on their iGoogle pages or web sites. I can't show you the one I developed at work because the feed isn't public (yet), so I developed another one using a publicly available feed (USGS volcanoes). This is a super-simple little gadget that uses Google Maps API and puts a little marker on the earth for each of the GeoRSS news feed items. I wish I had the ability to edit the items because the balloons get kind of big and unweildy inside the little gadget, but that's beyond my control.

Add it to your iGoogle page.
Add it to your web site.

I'm sure many of you already know all this, but for those that don't:

What's GeoRSS? It's a location-aware news feed. There are many types of GeoRSS feeds: homes for sale, USGS Earthquakes, flickr location-tagged photos, etc. I can imagine so many more excellent applications for it--how about best fishing holes, animal migration patterns, disease monitoring, best places to drink beer, ...

What's a gadget? If you haven't customized your Google page yet, you are missing out! Google allows you to add handy little gadgets (mini-web applications) that give you everything from the weather to the image of the day to google map search or e-mail in a small, compact little package so you can fit lots of them on your page, and move them around wherever you want them.

The whole thing takes about 30 minutes to put together, and then a bit of tweaking and testing. The best part is it doesn't require any programming! Just a little HTML and some XML.

USGS also has an Earth as Art gadget I helped with. This was my first experience developing a gadget: no geographic context, but it's a lot prettier.

Add to iGoogle.
Add to a web page.