UKUUG home


(the UK's Unix & Open Systems User Group)






Book Discounts

Other Discounts

Mailing lists






Web Mapping Illustrated Tyler Mitchell
Published by O'Reilly Media
367 pages
£ 28.50
Published: 5th July 2005
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the September 2005 issue (pdf), (html)

The short Preface to Tyler Mitchell's ``Web Mapping Illustrated'' is nicely judged. He recalls the magic of finding his Scout camp and detailed features of his home town on a topographic map, and how that map inspired him to get out and explore the area. This evocative introduction really captures the author's enthusiasm for mapping and motivates what is at heart a technical book.

This volume takes a very applied approach, but assumes no background in geographic information systems (GIS) on the part of the reader. What it does assume is a basic competence in software installation and perhaps web server administration. The text runs from top level concepts right down to the detail of how to compile MapServer and use the likes of grep and sed to extract information from map data files. This makes it a good purchase for the reader who only wants to buy one book on the subject. If there is a theme, it is that understanding your geodata and its purpose is the key to effective mapmaking.

The focus is on using open source software to create maps in a variety of useful ways. Various packages are covered, from the popular workhorse MapServer to the OpenEV viewer and a range of useful libraries. 3D visualisation receives a basic treatment. There are chapters on sourcing map data, with plenty of ideas and URLs to get you started. Chapter 9 concerns creating and editing personal map data, and steps the reader through a complete data project, showing a large fire around the Canadian city of Kelowna in the summer of 2003, and how its extent threatened a particular home. This and the subsequent chapter on creating static maps is likely to fire the reader's enthusiasm for starting a new project.

This is all preparation for the later chapters which deal with mapping through the web. First we consider combining MapServer with Apache. Enter this chapter with a bit of background in web forms and CGI and you should leave it confident that you can implement a clickable, zoomable online map. From there it's a short step to web services; querying those which are out there and setting up your own. Final chapters concern the PostGIS spatial extension to PostgreSQL and programming the MapServer API with examples in Python.

Throughout, the book is very attractive, with rich colour maps on about half of the 350 pages. Its Open Source approach means that the emphasis is on using Linux, but the door is left open for Windows users with brief advice on most packages. UK readers may find the map data a little too oriented towards the US and Canada. However the principles are transferable.

For a comprehensive conceptual introduction to GIS there are likely to be better choices, but ``Web Mapping Illustrated'' is a solid buy for the web mapping beginner with an established technical background.

The visionary introduction of Mitchell's book is ratcheted up a notch in the Preface to ``Mapping Hacks''. This envisions a near future where location-specific data of every kind -- environmental, cultural, community (and spam) -- is integrated into a geoinformation space which reacts to precisely where you and your mobile devices are, whether you like it or not. The humanising concept is of stories told using maps, a narrative approach which runs through the entire book.

Like other entries in the O'Reilly ``Hacks'' series, the bulk of the book is made up of self-contained little projects which can be completed in no more than a single evening. These range from using online services to create simple street maps to mapping an entire fictional planet.

Chapter 1, ``Mapping Your Life'' has nice suggestions about giving geographical context to your holiday snaps, tracing flights using Sherlock and creating a distance grid in Excel. The delightful ``Will The Kids Barf?'' compares point-to-point distance with actual road miles to evaluate just how curvy and hilly a particular route might be.

The scale then expands to the neighbourhood level, showing how to map wifi hotspots, health code violations, and how the neighbours are voting. Zoom further out, and we calculate distances between points on the globe using trigonometry, and experiment with projections to visualise the world in different ways. By the end of chapter 3 we're raytracing to create a 3D rendering of other planets in the solar system.

As soon as gadgets enter the picture, of course, all bets are off. Mac users can connect their GPS to Terrabrowser to allow monitoring of their position on an aerial photo in real time. Windows users can convert their tracking logs to a 3D visualisation of their route. And Linux users can add a geostamp to their audio recordings. Perhaps the ultimate hack in the book is number 62: ``Build a Car Computer - A project that will consume all your time and money, but make you the envy of your nerd friends.''

The final chapters encourage collaboration, and contributing to the ``geospatial web''. Many of the ideas here are mind-expanding.

Again there is a US emphasis, but this time the reason is explained: the US government is legally compelled to make its data available at only the cost of reproduction, whereas the Ordnance Survey in the UK is compelled to charge users for its data. The argument that this will slow down the development of geodata services in the UK is convincing.

As with other books in the series, one or two of the hacks seem more like sidebars than actual hacks. However with 100 of them compiled at a reasonable price, ``Mapping Hacks'' represents excellent value. Map geeks will delight in this catalogue of appealing ideas and projects. The rest of us will be educated and impressed.

Back to reviews list

Tel: 01763 273 475
Fax: 01763 273 255
Web: Webmaster
Queries: Ask Here
Join UKUUG Today!

UKUUG Secretariat
More information

Page last modified 02 Apr 2007
Copyright © 1995-2011 UKUUG Ltd.