Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Preparing for Operation Cowboy

If you haven't heard, there's a major mapping event about to happen. Dubbed Operation Cowboy, this will be the second event of its kind, the first being Night of the Living Maps which happened back in February. As described on the wiki, these events are kind of like a global LAN party for maps. For one weekend people who choose to participate will focus their mapping efforts on a common goal. This time the organizers decided to focus on the USA.

We of course have plenty of mapping to do around here. Cleaning up and updating the TIGER road import is kind of a never-ending task. In some of the sparsely populated areas of the country there aren't really any local mappers to speak of so there is ample work for "armchair mappers" to come in and do some map maintenance.

Considering the audience and the event, I decided to try and get a few things tweaked before Operation Cowboy goes down.

TIGER 2012 road name tiles

First up was improving the TIGER 2012 road name tiles being served up by the OSM-US tile server. They were originally set up by Ian Dees and are a great resource for tracing roads that were built since the original TIGER data was imported. The only issue I had with them is that they show the street name in the Census Bureau's abbreviated format. In OSM we prefer to use unabbreviated names because it reduces ambiguity. Does "St" mean "Street" or "Saint"? While that one might not be too hard to figure out and expanding "Ave" to "Avenue" might be trivial, there are a lot of abbreviations in the data and some of them are not easy to guess if you aren't familiar with the area.

Any guesses as to what the following mean? Brg. Cll. Natl Lkshr. Ofc. Pso. RM. BIA Rte? (see answer key at end of post) Most people in the US can probably guess some of them but there are definitely some regional ones in there that many people may not be familiar with. Then add in abbreviated directional prefixes. And now suppose you are a European trying to figure all of this out during Operation Cowboy. It's going to look like a secret code.

I won't go into the technical details in this post (might save that for another one after I clean up the process doumentation) but it did involve 27 GB of data in 3,200 .dbf files, about 10 different command line utilties and several large SQL queries. The end result was a mapping of 10.8 million line IDs (linearid field in TIGER speak) to fully expanded road names which I applied to the rendering database. The result can be seen on this tile preview page.

Imagery preset updates

Related to the road name tiles, I noticed that Potlatch2 had a TIGER road name tiles preset in the "Background" menu but it was still pointing at tiles with 2011 data in them. Thanks to the magic of github, I was able to get that fixed easily.

Then I noticed that the JOSM imagery sources page didn't have this tile set listed at all. That one was a little trickier to fix. It involved coming up with a simplified polygon of the US border to define the available extent of the tile layer as well as putting a base64 encoded image into an XML tag on the JOSM wiki. The image+base64+XML+wiki thing seems a little nasty but the JOSM functionality that this enables is actually pretty neat. If you download OSM data inside of the US, it will pop up a notice that informs you that that there is additional background imagery available and lets you add it to the "Imagery" menu with a single click. The base64 encoded image is displayed next to the menu option. In this case it is the TIGER logo:


TIGER tag removal

The TIGER road import put some tags on imported objects that weren't really necessary. As people edit roads, some of the tags become even less useful as the information from the tiger tags diverges from the "normal" OSM tags. Some of the tags were useful at the time for the upload process itself but are now just annoying bloat that confuses new users.

Back in July I started a mailing list thread about having editors automatically drop some of these tags like they already drop the created_by tag. Out of that discussion came a JOSM trac ticket and patch that does exactly this. Right before uploading, JOSM checks to see if any of the modified objects it is about to upload have "discardable" TIGER tags on them and removes them.

In September, I opened a ticket against Potlatch2 with the same feature request. Since nothing had happened with that ticket and I already had the Potlatch2 repository cloned from the tile URL change pull request, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had never so much as glanced at ActionScript but fortunately P2 was a breeze to get running in a development environment. The developer documentation page on the wiki got me up and running in a matter of minutes. Although I did have to give ant more PermGen space to get through compilation. I should probably update the wiki with that tidbit...

After a little over an hour I had another pull request fashioned which Richard was kind enough to merge the next day. I believe this went live on within the last few hours. So now every way that is touched during Operation Cowboy will help to clean this clutter out of the database without the user having to do anything.


So that's how I prepared for Operation Cowboy. Unfortunately the actual event will take place over the Thanksgiving weekend which means I will be in Nebraska with very limited internet access so I won't be able to participate much with actual mapping. I will probably manage to hang out in the IRC channel a bit to try and field some questions if they come up. Please join me! (#opc2012 on

Answer key for TIGER abbreviations:
Brg = Bridge
Cll = Calle (Spanish)
Natl Lkshr = National Lakeshore
Ofc = Office
Pso = Paseo (Spanish)
RM = Ranch to Market Road
BIA Rte = Bureau of Indian Affairs Route

1 comment:

  1. Till now already 101 mappers contributed :)