Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Using the OsmAnd app to find earthen roads in Nebraska

Background Info
Turquoise = earthen road

In previous posts I mentioned that I have building a downloadable collection of the earthen roads in Nebraska.  If you've not read the previous posts, "earthen roads" refer to those roads classified as minimum maintenance roads (MMRs) and primitive roads. Finding them while riding a bicycle or a motorcycle is often a treat because they tend do be in a condition that tests your riding skills and take you where few other tend to go, which is why they are unsurfaced.  Here in Nebraska, you might find abandoned homesteads, giant washouts, small graveyards, expanses of never-tilled pasture, and a wide array of wildlife. Consequently, when out on my bicycle or moto, I like to find and ride as many of these as possible.  Unfortunately, they often extend only one or two sections at a time and are not linked, rendering the discovery of one somewhat deliciously serendipitous, but at the same time frustrating. 

Fortunately and major thanks to the Nebraska Department of Roads, I am slowly but surely building up a collection of routes that can be downloaded and imported into any number of GPS navigation devices from a Garmin to the multitude of phone-based apps. If you do this, you'll be able to easily  locate these roads.  I will cover using this data to create continuous routes maximizing the use of earthen roads in another post.

A little technological context:
The files:
The .gpx file is compatible with more apps, but the .kml file is Google's format - Keyhole Markup Language and works with Google Earth, both on the desktop/laptop and in the mobile version. Because I find Google Earth to be my preferred tool for managing data related to location, my process often involves "Saving Place" as a .kml file then using GPSBabel to convert the .kml to a .gpx that can be imported to a wider variety of sites and apps.

The Android app I want to introduce to you today is called "OsmAnd" which stands for OpenStreetMap Automated Navigation Directions.

One of the coolest features is its use of vector-based maps from the OpenStreetMap project, which means that the maps can be used offline - no need for a data connection. Between that and the GPS chip in most modern phones, you've got a full-fledged GPS unit that's not going to run up your data bill.  To be fair, most apps of this type offer other ways of caching maps for offline use, but they involve the use of "tiles," which are graphic images that must be downloaded at a variety of magnification/size so that you are able to zoom in and out while in offline mode. To me, that seems an unnecessary use of space if the vector-based maps have the data you need.(More info: vector, tile/raster maps)

Putting OsmAnd to work
1 Download and install the app.  OsmAnd is the free version, OsmAnd+ is the paid version.  There is no difference in functionality and there are no ads in the free version.  The only restriction is that you may have only 10 vector maps downloaded at any one time.  This is not a big deal.  I have the paid version because I use the app all the time and it doesn't code itself. 

Download the Nebraska and World overview map
2 Start OsmAnd > Settings > Manage Map Files
You will see a link "Click here to download or update offline map files".  There is a search at the top of the screen. Type in the names of the maps to locate them quickly. The vector maps are based on OpenStreetMap data and are updated about every two weeks.  Recommend regular updates.

Download the Earthen-Roads-2014-10-20.gpx file.  This link is a share link. In working with these map files, I have found the easiest way to load and export data to be by using cloud storage, specifically Google Drive and Dropbox. So here are the options:
  1.  Use your laptop to download the file to whatever cloud storage you use and which is installed on your mobile. Google Drive and Dropbox both work well.
  2. On your mobile, open the cloud storage app, find the .gpx file, select it and you will be prompted to select an app to open it. Choose OsmAnd.  
(If you are accustomed to connecting your mobile to your desktop/laptop via a usb cable, you can also drag and drop the .gpx file into the net.osmand.plus/files/osmand/tracks/import folder on your mobile.) 

After selecting OsmAnd to open the file, you will be taken to the map view in OsmAnd and you should see a bunch of small turquoise lines.  These lines are the stretches of road that are classified as "earthen."

 Configure the interface
Preferred settings in bicycle mode.

Although OsmAnd does turn-by-turn directions, that's not how I like to use it. I prefer to set a destination and then have an indicator that let's me know if I am going in the general direction of my destination. It seems to allow a bit more freedom exploration on the way.  These types of apps are incredibly configurable because the people that use them have such varied purposes, so if you don't like something, the app probably does it the way you want, but you have to figure out how to set it. My prefs:
In the lower left of the screen or from one of your menu buttons, you can open the menu. Select

Configure screen
These are the ones I have checked:
Street name
Where am I
GPX recording
Show destination direction
Display position always in center
Show cycle routes

I also like the lines to be shown with more contrast. They are easier to see at a glance.
Under the heading of Map rendering:
select Map style > Touring view

  • Return to the map.  
  • Press near one of the earthen roads. A little bubble will appear with location info, press that and select Set as Destination.
  • Return to your current position by pressing the location icon (circle with blue dot) in the upper right corner of the screen.
  • You'll see that the checkered flag (your destination) has the distance to the spot beside it and that there is a red triangle pointing in its direction.
  • Now set your compass view.  Your options: fixed, north always up, direction of travel, or compass. I prefer north always up.  It seems to help me keep a mental map in my head as I travel around. 
  • If you want to record your track, press the button under the destination flag in the upper right corner. 
Now, go try it out.
While you're out traveling, press in any spot to create a waypoint . There are a few different kinds. If you want the waypoint to be added to the track you're recording, choose "Add GPX waypoint."  If it's a spot you want to return to frequently, consider adding it as a "Favorite" which you can locate under "My Places" in the future.

Where to go from here:
Ok. That seems like a lengthy tutorial to just open a single file. It is, but like I said before, these types of apps are quite powerful and used for diverse purposes, so they have quite a lot of options. Play with it, put questions in the comments, and I'll keep posting about various features and uses.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Where the Gravel Ends

Google Earth screen capture of the earthen roads of Otoe and Cass counties. 
I mentioned the county maps previously in discussion the Stream Crossings project, but this post will discuss them in more detail.  In Nebraska, there are three classes of  "dirt" roads: gravel surfaced, unimproved, and primitive.
Legend excerpt from county maps.
Primitive and Unimproved types are generally referred to as "MMR's" or minimum maintenance roads and are denoted in Nebraska with caution type signage.

Photo from "Where are the Plastic Animals" blog.

This summer I have been studying the county maps and making routes in the following fashion: My process was to take the PDF's of the county maps, use a digital high-lighter, mark the MMR's, then use another colored high-lighter to draw a route which maximized the usage of MMR's. I would then recreate the route in Google Earth to get a digital file that I could use with my mobile's GPS app.

MMR's marked in yellow, route in purple.
The process was effective, but tedious, but because I couldn't afford a copy of MicroStation, a CAD-like application, in which the county maps are built, there wasn't a way for me to digitally extract the data layers I needed. Finally, late one night I noticed the following at the bottom of the map downloads page:

Please let us know how you use the maps and what would be helpful for you.
Although we can't promise anything, we will make every attempt
to reasonably meet your county map needs via this site"

So, I did.  I explained what I was doing and what I needed in the web form and the next day received a phone call from Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR).  Could I explain in a little more detail?  Of course. Stop me when you've had enough.

A few days later, I received an email.  The attachment was a .kml file, which is Google Earth's file format, containing the "earthen"  roads of Dakota, Dixon, and Cedar counties.  In a few clicks I was able to import this file directly to my mobile.  I was pretty much ecstatic.  With this file type, I didn't even really need to create routes anymore. I could simply load the file, set my ultimate destination, and hten take MMR's as they came into view in my mapping app.  This allows for a more free-form exploration of the countryside.  Since then, I've received a few more counties and each time, I add them to a single Google Earth layer.  This is enormously helpful to me and I cannot express enough thanks to NDOR which has taken on the tedium.  While not needing to use a highlighter or recreate lines, MN at NDOR has graciously cleaned and tidied the files.  If you look at the legend again, note how the MMR roads are dual lines, not a single line.  I think this means that MN is taking the time to go into the file and delete the extra lines for each and every length of MMR.

So, what I am I going to do with this data?  Well, I have this idea of a route around Nebraska that parallels the scenic byways, but maximizes the use of MMR's. I plan to include good places to camp, recommended restaurants and pubs, and other things of interest.  All this information will be available in a few easily downloaded files.  In future posts, I will get into more detail about how to use these files and which apps I am finding most useful. If this is of interest to you and you have routes you like already, or wouldn't mind doing some testing, please do let me know.

If you already know your way around .kml files, then you may enjoy playing with these two:

Edited: 10/24/2014 to fix broken links.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Using photo geotags to document bicycle infrastructure issues

Much of what is said about the geo tags in photos relates to privacy and concerns how to turn off the feature in mobile-based cameras.  However, judicious use of this tool can leverage the power of mapping and crowd-sourcing to to identify patterns and document issues.
Keeping track of trail deterioration can be challenging, but the ease of taking a photo combined with geotags could simplify the process.

For example, on my commute this morning, I took two photos.  The first to attempt to capture the beauty of the swath of cosmos flowers gracing the Antelope trail in the morning sun, the second to note how the concrete west of the Holdrege pedestrian bridge is sinking and cracking.

If you click on "Photo Details," the photo metadata will be displayed along with the location data. You can see how a large collection, documented by many riders, could help give a much improved understanding of bicycle infrastructure issues.  Additionally, taking pictures where negative car/bike interactions occur could also lend insight to where outreach or infrastructure changes may need to be done.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Nebraska Bridges and Meandering Streams

In August, a friend and I pedaled over to Henry's on South for dinner.  Afterwards, we noticed Iron Tail Gallery had a magnificent photo of a country bridge in the window.  It was the final day of a photo exhibit and we stopped in. The show was Michael Farrell's Stream Crossings.  Accompanying each photo were blocks of text taken from Farrell's essay, "Stream Crossings: Where the Relentless Rationality of an Applied Physical System Intersects with Our Meandering Prairie Watercourses." In this essay, he discusses the impact of overlaying the natural layout and boundaries of the land with the one-mile square grid system that facilitated the parceling out and settling of property.  In particular, Farrell notes how this has impacted the public's ability to view, enjoy, and protect its waterways.

Image: Michael Farrell, Stream Crossings
"If our water is considered to be a resource owned by the public, what of these complex river systems? How can we divorce our watercourses from the life-giving water that runs through them? Isn’t a river, creek, or stream an integral natural system overflowing with all manner of life and complexity—including our own?

Does a river or stream, as a complex living habitat, have a kind of integrity that should be considered to be inherently something other than private property? We know more now, and our attitudes have evolved from what we understood or assumed in the time of Jefferson or Lincoln—or the bully Roosevelt boys—or even Richard Nixon, signer of the Endangered Species Act, for that matter.

If a corporation can now have legal standing to speak out and influence laws or elections, what standing accrues to a river or stream, without whom none of us can live?

And, if so, who among us will be empowered or emboldened enough to dare to speak out or to act on behalf of our essential yet increasingly vulnerable watercourses?"

In reading the essay as I moved through the exhibition, I noticed the background image of the paper.  It was a replica of one of the very county maps I had pored over in making my plans for my first multi-day gravel-road moto tour and an idea was sparked.

I would contact this Farrell fellow and see if I could get the GPS coordinates of the bridges. Then, I would take the moto and go take my own photo.  I have since learned that some call this "geo-picting," and it is akin to geocaching.

Farrell graciously shared a set of coordinates with me and MFD and I packed a picnic lunch and went a-seeking.

At each find, we stopped and explored, discussing this or that about the bridge or the stream area it spanned.
The day sped by and when we finally turned and headed for home, it occurred to me that it might be cool if others could easily download the coordinates, find the same locations, and also take pictures of the same bridges. Moreover, what if everyone's pictures were collected in one place so that one could view a bridge in different light at different times from different angles - a sort of group exploration of a particular subject?  In this case, bridges, property rights, etc., so I've set about figuring out ways something like this could be done without anyone choking on the technology.

For me, barreling down those grid-straight country roads then stopping to contemplate the bridge over the natural meandering stream barrier made the content Farrell's essay more real than it had seemed upon first encounter in the gallery. I find myself thinking about it whenever I see one of these pony truss bridges.

Since then, I've spent a great deal of time identifying and getting the technological processes down, or at least nearly so, (I still need to test iOS apps) and I am putting together some ideas which I'll share at a later date.

Many of Nebraska's bridges are not only out of service, but they are not documented as being out of service on its county maps or downloadable map data.  Frequently, explorations down little traveled roads end in something like this.

Ferrell, Michael. 2014. “Stream Crossings: Where the Relentless Rationality of an Applied Physical System Intersects with Our Meandering Prairie Watercourses.” Prairie Fire - The Progressive Voice of the Great Plains. http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2014/07/stream-crossings.

Laukaitis, Algis J. 2014. “Nebraska’s Rural Bridges Are in Desperate Need of Repairs, Officials Say.” JournalStar.com. http://journalstar.com/news/state-and-regional/nebraska/nebraska-s-rural-bridges-are-in-desperate-need-of-repairs/article_1acd244c-cc33-56e9-8ddc-1a2a22711cdd.html.

“Truss Bridge.” 2014. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Truss_bridge&oldid=625454178.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Long time no posting, so I will bring you up to speed

Last time I posted, I was all on about my Mere Cats and Femmtastics, the men's a women's fantasy cycling teams I selected this year.  If you recall, I considered two of my Mere Cats possibly good deals. "On Sale Andy" Schleck didn't pan out, but Contador did, and it was surprisingly satisfying to see him take the Vuelta so soon after the TdF crash out. Unfortunately, the Mere Cats sit at 672nd among the 972 men's teams.  I will need to learn a lot more about non World Tour races to get the kind of points it takes to be in top 100 teams.    After a blistering start to the season, the Femmtastics have fallen to 68th, so no prizes for me there.  Oh well, I've been busy with a great many other things.

First, the dissertation. Done. Finally. I was officially recognized for my dogged persistence with a PhD in May.  I thought I would immediately get back on the bike and back into that routine, but it has not been the case.

Instead, I've been completely engaged in work projects and using everything I've learned every day, all day.  I love it, but at the end of the day, I'm shot - mentally that is.  So much so, that often the bike felt like a chore, so I put it back down, picking it up only to commute or when riding sounded and felt fun.

Instead, I've been spending my leisure time learning about GPS, GIS, and mapping along with riding my XR650L, a dual-sport motorcycle that I purchased last year.  The two hobbies go well together since the moto is most fun when zipping down gravel or earthen roads.  However, finding those roads intentionally is more of a challenge than you might think - only the Nebraska county maps differentiate the different types of unpaved roads and roads .
My 2007 XR is the one of the left.  MFD's ride is a 2012 Triumph Tiger.
There are three: gravel, unsurfaced, and primitive.  The latter two are referred to as "earthen."  Sometimes this is even a bit of a misnomer because they are covered with grass, having only the barest hit of trail.  Additionally, they often lead to a washed out or broken bridge.

Bridge to a bean field.
I've been testing a lot technology related to maps and GPS and will be describing what I've learned and posting links to different tools in upcoming weeks.  I have multiple aims.  One is to develop an earthen road route from east to west across the state, another is to understand ways that GPS apps can be used in classrooms to increase the relevancy of course content for students.  If you enjoy gravel grinding, geo-caching, or geo-picting (I learned this word today), stay tuned.

This was a good find. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Femmtastics (and the MereCats)

Number 4! Numer 4!  Woo hoo!  Way to kick @$$, LADIES!

Wtf, you say?

Since I've not allowed myself to train the last few months and may or may not doing any more racing, I've scratched that itch virtually by playing FSA's directeur sportif game sponsored by Podium Cafe, which does a great job covering women's racing.  Yes, that's right.... a fantasy cycling league.  When you sign up, you get a certain number of points that constitute your budget, then you have to hire a certain number of riders. You only get to do it once - no trades, no do-overs.  You're stuck with who you picked and can only cheer or groan accordingly.

The riders are priced according to the previous year's ranking, so as you can imagine, top racers are incredibly expensive and one realizes the budget is woefully inadequate in about 30 seconds.  I decided to play at the last minute and selected both a women and men's team in a couple of days.
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to The Femmtastics  who a currently ranked 4/308.  YAY!  My Mere Cats (709/917) are much lower, but Contador did take his second Tirreno-Adriatico stage this morning, so I have hopes.   Who knows?  Maybe even "On-Sale Andy" will pay out later in the season, and you'd think anyone with "Steel" or "Stig" in their name should at least win one race this season.

The Femmtastics
Country Trade Team Rider Price Prev Score ↓
1. GBR DLT Elizabeth Armitstead 20 1126 780
2. SWE GEW Emma Johansson 60 6104 690
3. USA ALE Shelley Olds 20 1437 275
4. GBR GIW Lucy Garner 6 336 200
5. NED RBW Thalita de Jong 1 310 170
6. USA SLU Carmen Small 14 1276 0
7. USA DLT Megan Guarnier 10 562 0
8. AUS LBL Amy Cure 6 786 0
9. AUS GEW Gracie Elvin 4 90 0
10. GER WHT Charlotte Becker 2 315 0
11. LTU RVL Inga Cilvinaite 2 195 0
12. GBR WHT Laura Trott 2 90 0
13. USA TIB Amanda Miller 1 55 0
14. AUS WHT Peta Mullens 1 0 0
15. GBR WHT Joanna Rowsell 1 100 0
Total: 15 riders 150 12782 2115

and The Mere Cats
Country UCI Team UCI Cat Rider Price Prev Score ↓
1. SVK CAN PRT Peter Sagan 40 3580 240
2. USA BMC PRT Taylor Phinney 14 552 100
3. ESP TCS PRT Alberto Contador 16 904 80
4. FRA BEL PRT Jonathan Hivert 2 160 40
5. GER TNE PROF Paul Voss 1 80 15
6. GBR MOV PRT Alex Dowsett 4 195 2
7. GER GIA PRT Marcel Kittel 20 1150 0
8. USA BMC PRT Tejay van Garderen 16 875 0
9. LUX TFR PRT Andy Schleck 8 15 0
10. COL GRS PRT Janier Acevedo 6 330 0
11. UKR AST PRT Andriy Grivko 4 431 0
12. GBR OGE PRT Simon Yates 4 140 0
13. POR GRS PRT Andre Cardoso 2 145 0
14. USA BMC PRT Peter Stetina 2 100 0
15. ESP EUK CONT Carlos Barbero Questa 1 70 0
16. BEL LTB PRT Stig Broeckx 1 30 0
17. USA UHC PROF Ken Hanson 1 80 0
18. BEL OPQ PRT Iljo Keisse 1 50 0
19. GBR GRS PRT David Millar 1 50 0
20. KAZ TRK CONT Andrey Mizourov 1 100 0
21. SLO LAM PRT Jan Polanc 1 70 0
22. COL CAN PRT Cayetano Sarmiento 1 20 0
23. BEL TSV PROF Stijn Steels 1 50 0
24. AUS GRS PRT Steele Von Hoff 1 45 0
25. USA OPM CONT Tom Zirbel 1 100 0
Total: 25 riders 150 9322 477

Selecting the men's riders was difficult because points can be earned in minor races too, so you really have to know not just the pro tour guys, but everyone to do well.  In any case, I enjoyed watching racing before, but the emotional investment of selecting someone for "my" team has rendered it even more entertaining.