The Blue Mountains Revealed

In October 2011 I presented a paper at the SVG Open conference (Cambridge MA) describing a web-based terrain visualization interface. This exploratory prototype was an illustration of how a web browser can render a high quality vector-based depiction of an area of land that the user has chosen from a familiar 2D map interface. Various depiction styles were explored and the ability to move between differing zoom levels implemented.  The prototype used a UK (Ordnance Survey) mapping API and data recently released under the UK’s Open Data Initiative (headed by Sir Tim-Berners Lee and Prof. Nigel Shadbolt). The aim of the project was to reveal the form of the land in the most aesthetically pleasing and communicative way (and to test browser rendering options).

Given my current location in Sydney, the recent release of Geoscience Australia’s elevation data set, under Creative Commons Licence, and the popularity of the Blue Mountains National Park near Sydney I am busy exploring future developments of this concept.  This project has timely significance given the fact that 2013 is the bicentenary of the first recorded European crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813, an event significant in the development of the Sydney area.

Below is a raster screenshot of an initial output, rendered in the browser (Google Chrome) from a set of vectors. As this is parsed set of vectors, they can be restyled and transformed on the client side or printed locally at a high resolution or large format.

The view is of a large area centred on Mount Solitary. The image shows projected profiles overlaid with a set of vector cross-sections tinted with respect to distance.  This aerial perspective is similar to the approach adopted by cartographic depictions of terrain such as the incredible panoramas in Baedeker’s 1893 guides shown below.

Source:  Baedeker K. 1893, Switzerland, Dulau and Co.

Further test outputs can be seen on Flickr as can photographs taken on a research trip earlier in 2012. More outputs from the project will be posted here until a project site is established.


Physical browsing and passive discovery

I am a big believer in stumbling upon things; being in an environment where something catches your eye that you were perhaps not exactly looking for, but which takes you off to discover other things / stories. This is different to active search. This is great to do by physically wandering around areas of a new environment with particular attributes, say, the cultural quarter of an unfamiliar city. I have also been keen to investigate how digital technology can assist, but not remove, the element of serendipity in discovery. Sometime ago I supervised an Honours Dissertation looking at mobile, passive resource discovery, (Stabeler, 2006), and I revisited this with another Honours Student (Harding, 2011) who looked at digital navigation across physical objects in similar and differing contexts. Both interesting, digital, geospatial search prototypes.

When I arrived in Sydney, my first exploration of the area I am staying in was to walk down the main street (Norton Street in Leichhardt) and to call into various shops and cafes. After walking into Berkelouw Books, I realised there was an extensive second-hand department upstairs. As I have started research for a terrain visualization project related to the Blue Mountains National Park (the project itself came from a serendipitous discovery in book from 1815, shortly before I left the UK), but did not have any fixed view on what I was looking for yet, I thought I would see what I could find.  One of the first books I saw was “Landscape Art and the Blue Mountains”, by Hugh Speirs, this turned out to be a good reference to start with when looking at the history of the visual depiction of this region.

The human search engine of physical browsing and passive discovery is a useful tool when it comes to making unintended but often useful discoveries. There are still many interesting areas to explore when looking at improving search in a digital geospatial context.

Marble Maps

One hudred and thirty four years before Captain Cook landed on the south side of Botany Bay, the Dutch Captain Tasman plotted a good portion of the coast of Australia. He did, however, not show Tasmania (which he named Van Diemen’s Land) as an island, he joined the north coast of Australia with Papua New Guinea and sketched in the unknown east coast. The header image of this blog is part of a photograph of a 4 x 5.5 m marble reproduction of the map, located in the Mitchell vestibule of The State Library New South Wales. This is an impressive physical representation of a key cartographic tool which assisted the explorers that followed Tasman’s pioneering voyage.