1. Accessibility of Welsh schools by public transport – visualised

    A commission from the Welsh Government has resulted in new functionality for Mapumental, which now has the capability to display multiple points and to produce RAW data compatible with GIS applications. Here’s how it happened.

    Bws Ysgol - Image by Aqwis via Wikimedia, CCHow accessible is your nearest school, post office, or GP’s surgery? In Wales, that’s not always a simple question: the country’s mountainous landscapes, rural populations, and sometimes infrequent bus services can mean that those without cars are rather cut off from public service provision.

    But of course, like any other authority, the Welsh Government has an obligation to quantify just how accessible their services are.

    For many years, they have done so using a number of different methods. Some of these involve literally millions of point to point calculations – so, naturally, when Bill Oates, Head of Geography & Technology, Knowledge Services at the Welsh Government, approached Mapumental, he was keen to discover whether we could simplify things.

    We were keen to try it, too – plotting multiple points would add a whole new slew of possibilities to Mapumental. Previously, Mapumental has been all about travel from a single point, and this functionality would bring new applications across all kinds of industries and users.

    There’s only one way to find out

    The sensible way forward was to pick a single service and see what we could do. One of the government’s open data sets showed positioning of all the secondary schools in the country, and would give us a very good indication of how manageable the task would be across all other provisions.

    So we set ourselves this aim: to display the shortest transit time to get to any secondary school in Wales, from any point in that country.

    This project was not like the map we made for the Fire Protection Association last year, with its postcode input and interactive sliders. It bore more relation to our static maps, but with the additional dimension that the single map would have multiple points plotted on it. Each point would display its own associated journey times, and where travel to one school was quicker than to another, it would have to override the data of the school that was further away.

    And here’s the (very pretty) result

    Welsh secondary schools travel times mapTransit times by public transport to secondary schools in Wales, with an arrival time of 9:00am.

    Time bands are in 15-minute increments, with red areas being those where schools are accessible within a 15-minute journey (the centres of the red dots therefore also represent the positions of the schools).

    Purple areas are those where journey time is between 1.75 and 2 hours, and the colours in between run in the order you see bottom right of the map. White areas (much of which are mountainous and sparsely-populated) are outside the two-hour transit time.

    But there’s more – data for GIS

    Plotting all the schools on a single map required quite a bit of modification to Mapumental, but there was another important part of the project that also had to be worked on, if the output was to meet all the needs of the Welsh Government.

    They needed to be able to export the raw transit time data to their own GIS tools – the tools that they use to feed into official statistics. This allows the transit time data to be  combined with other datasets, such as population density, for in-depth analysis.

    We added a feature which allows Mapumental to produce what is known as a ‘raster grid’ output – basically, an enormous matrix that gives every pixel on the map a travel time value. To do this, we used the open source GRASS format.

    What’s next?

    Bill Oates is keen to see where this project can go:

    “I’m really excited at the prospect of combining the power of Mapumental with our open data, and fully understanding how accessible Welsh public services are by public transport.”

     

    To him, the benefits are clear:

    “Mapumental’s approach is significantly quicker than our current methods, so this work will help save us time as well as providing a more engaging output.

     

    “We hope that future work with mySociety will give us a sustainable approach to calculating the accessibility of local shops, hospitals, post offices and other services on an ongoing basis to help ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our citizens.”

     

    We’re looking to build on our success, and offer this service to others – initially on request but via our API as soon as we can. We’ll keep you posted as to our progress.
    You can see multiple-point mapping in action, on our Mapumental Property project – now the tool allows house-hunters to take more than one person’s commute into consideration when choosing where to live.

    Who might use Mapumental?

    Now that Mapumental can plot transit times from multiple points, and provide RAW data for GIS applications, we have great potential for use by anyone interested in travel and accessibility. That could be in central and local government strategy, town planning, architectural consultancy, transport provision, large enterprises looking to save on parking, or start-ups in the green transport space…to name but a few.

    Could Mapumental help you with your mapping needs? If so, please do drop us a line at hello@mysociety.org.

    Photo of Welsh school bus (bws ysgol) by Aqwis (CC)

  2. Fire, fire! Mapumental and fire engine journey times

    Image by William Murphy Mapumental can turn vast datasets into visual tools that everyone understands. Faced with highly complex, yet crucial data from the Fire Protection Association, we had a chance to really put our technology through its paces.

    Just how quickly could fire engines reach a given postcode in case of a fire? It’s a question that’s pivotal to decisions made by both the emergency services and the insurance industry.

    But previously, it has been a challenge to present the data simply, because it involves so many variables.

    Every region has its own factors, each of which will impact on fire engine response time. The number of vehicles at each station, the hours during which the station is manned, and the response policy of each individual fire authority will all play a part – and that’s before you even consider how geography might affect things.

    Dr. Jim Glockling is Technical Director at the Fire Protection Association and Head of the Risk Insight, Strategy and Control Authority (RISCAuthority), an organisation for the advancement of risk management within the fire and security sectors. Jim approached mySociety with this question: how could we map this crucial, yet complicated data in a way that could be understood by RISCAuthority members at a glance?

    It was clearly a job for Mapumental. Our transit-time mapping software was originally built to visualise public transport journey times, but its beauty is that ‘layers’ of data can be swapped out, allowing it to be used for all kinds of purposes.

    Read more about mySociety’s data visualisation services here.

    Assessing a property or postcode

    How quickly could 4 fire engines get to AL10 0XR in 10 minutes and 10 seconds?

    How quickly could 4 fire engines get to AL10 0XR in 10 minutes and 10 seconds? (Click to enlarge)

    And here’s the result of our pilot project. The maps on the right answer the following questions (click each image to see it at full size):

    How quickly could 4 fire engines get to AL10 0XR ?

    FPA: arrival times one engine

    FPA: arrival times one engine (click to enlarge)

    How does that change if the severity of the fire just requires one fire engine?

     A user inputs a postcode, and can assess exactly how quickly a fire could be tackled in that area. The different levels of severity are measured by how many response vehicles are required, and changes in this number are immediately reflected on the map.

    Assessing the general area

    FPA  - what it looks like when you have no postcode

    Which areas can four fire engines get to within 9 minutes 30 seconds at midday on a Saturday?

    It’s also possible to assess the region’s overall response capability, without inputting a postcode. The user sets severity levels (number of fire engines, or High Volume Pumping or Aerial Appliance (ladder) is needed), the time and day of the week.

    FPA - aerial response arrival within 15 minutes

    Where can an aerial appliance get to within 15 minutes at 2am on a weekday?

    The FPA tool immediately highlights the areas that are accessible within the chosen parameters, drawing on the underlying data of journey times and information such as vehicle numbers and hours of operation for each individual fire station in the region.

    Simplicity itself

    With RISCAuthority, we tested the concept using data from one fire authority –  Hertfordshire. mySociety’s task was to create a usable, elegant web interface that was as simple as possible to use, while still giving insurers the key data they needed.

    The project called on everything we knew about clean design, usability and data structures. A key part of what makes Mapumental’s data visualisation so intuitive are its sliders: this enables the user to quickly explore variables on a map.

    A tool with purpose

    Dr Glockling explains: “Whilst not necessarily used as a component of insurance pricing, this information helps insurers administer risk control and fire protection advice to their customers in the context of what the Fire and Rescue Services will be able to achieve on their behalf.”

    The response time is just one factor that insurance surveyors will take into account when they are assessing a building. “Where response and arrival times are not coherent with protecting the viability of the business in the event of fire, additional forms of in-built protection and control might be recommended, such as the installation of sprinkler systems.”

    “In the longer term it is hoped such information will impact beneficially on the annual cost of fire in the UK.”

    Results

    The pilot tool was well received by the FPA community, and the plan is now to work with RISCAuthority to roll it out to more fire authorities shortly, and then nationwide.

    Dr Glockling explains the pilot study helped them to understand two factors:

    • Would they get buy-in from both insurers and Fire and Rescue services on the viability and usefulness of the project?

    • Was it possible to present such a massive amount of data in a format that was readily palatable to the intended audience?

    He says, “Mapumental’s team displayed an immediate understanding of our requirement. Delivery was to time and the result has perfectly satisfied the de-risking ambition. The working relationships were very good throughout and we intend now to extend the pilot to full UK rollout.”

    During this phase, we will be inputting still more detail to the data, including information on the types of fire engine available to each region, and the plotting of fire stations on the map.

    The tool will be a valuable resource for the FPA and the insurance industry, and we really look forward to the roll-out later this year.

    Mapumental specialises in visualising complex geographic data sets on intuitive, easy to use map tools. If you have a data visualisation project that will benefit from Mapumental, just get in touch. Or read more about mySociety’s data visualisation services here.

    Photo by William Murphy (CC)

  3. Mapumental Property – extra insight for househunters

    If you’re searching for a new home, give Mapumental Property a try. lt narrows property results down, only showing you houses that fall within a decent commute time from the places you visit regularly – like work, school, or the shops. Here, have a go – it’s fun.

    Mapumental Property screenshot

    Irritation is the mother of invention

    Several years ago,  some of our colleagues were looking for a house to rent.

    They weren’t set on a particular town. There were two important factors: that it was within a reasonable commute from central London, where they frequently attended meetings; and that the rent was affordable.

    Faced with these requirements, most of us would sift through property sites and cross-reference the listings manually with public transport information. It’s rather time-consuming, and slightly irritating, but hey-ho, it has to be done.

    But mySociety is in the business of building useful web tools, so when something irritates us like this, we look to see if we can solve the problem through the magic of code. In a stroke of good timing, it was at just around this time that the Department for Transport approached us to ask us to work with their public transport data – and Mapumental was conceived.

    Early days

    The key was to combine Ordnance Survey postcodes with the DfT’s data about journey times, NPTDR (National Public Transport Data Repository). This data set takes a  ‘snapshot’  of every public transport journey in Great Britain for a selected week in October each year.

    Sounds simple? The process was not without its challenges. Prime among them was the problem of displaying map tiles, plus the vast quantities of transport data, within a reasonable amount of time, no matter which postcode or zoom level the user chose. As we know, a  ‘reasonable amount of time’  for a page to load is a metric which is forever shrinking.

    By 2006, we had created Mapumental’s first iteration. Users could input a postcode and see all areas of the country that could be reached by public transport, divided into coloured travel-time bands. In 2009, Francis Irving, the mySociety coder behind Mapumental’s early endeavours, explained the technology he’d used. It was Flash-dependent, and a few years later, developer Duncan wrote about some of the technical hurdles he overcame replacing the Flash elements, in view of the rise of the iPhone, which famously doesn’t  ‘do’  Flash.

    Hoorah! Now our colleagues could type in a central London postcode and see everywhere that fell within a 40-minute journey from there. It wasn’t long before we added median house price data, too.

    Beauty is in the eye of the crowd

    We even added a ‘scenicness’ rating: if the beauty of your surroundings was important to you, you could rule out anywhere below a certain level of attractiveness.

    How did we assess how scenic every area in the UK is? By crowdsourcing the information – our ScenicOrNot website displays a random photograph from every square mile of the British isles, inviting people to rate them. It is surprisingly compulsive.

    ScenicOrNot from mySociety

    A showcase tool

    Mapumental may have been born from our own needs, but we knew from the beginning that it would have wider applications. It has always been the sort of project that got people excited, once they saw it in action.

    We wanted to show how elegantly Mapumental can handle all kinds of data, starting with houses for sale and rent – so we developed Mapumental Property. It’s not intended as a serious competitor to the giant property websites out there. Rather, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing demonstration of Mapumental’s strengths.

    In this case, the data is from the property website Zoopla, and you can narrow it down to show rental or sales property within your chosen price bands and commute distances. You can even add multiple destination points, so that households of two or more people can find their optimum location.

    Versatility rules

    But Mapumental is not just about property: swap out that Zoopla layer, and you could put in anything else you can imagine – hospital locations, supermarkets, schools, job vacancies… you name it.

    The beauty of Mapumental is that now we’ve done the really hard part, incorporating new data layers is relatively simple. Recent work for the Fire Protection Association and the Welsh Government, among others, has shown its versatility.

    Now how about you?

    We believe that Mapumental’s possibilities are pretty much endless. Have you got an unloved, difficult-to-navigate dataset that Mapumental could breathe new life into? Or would your stakeholders benefit from being able to see your data displayed on a map? Let us know.

  4. Mapumental’s Secret Sauce: A Map Overlay Rendering Technology You Might Find Interesting

    I am Duncan Parkes,  a developer for mySociety, a non-profit full of web geeks. One of the things we try to do well here is to take complicated data and turn it into really usable tools – tools which are attractive to people who aren’t web (or data) geeks.

    For some considerable time I’ve been working on Mapumental – a project that is about turning public transport timetable data into pretty, interactive maps featuring isochrones, shapes that show people where they can live if they want to have a commute of a particular time. You can play with the new version we just launched here. That particular map shows the commuting options to where the Queen lives. Slide the slider for full effect.

    There are a couple of hard problems that need solving if you want to build a service with an interactive journey times overlay like this. You need to be able to calculate a *huge* number of journeys extremely quickly, and you need to be able to make custom map layers so that it all looks nice. But what I think might be most interesting for you is the way in which the contours get rendered on top of the maps.

    It all started about three years ago, when the first version of the app – co-developed with the geniuses at Stamen – used Flash/Flex to draw contours on the maps, and to let people play with them. You can still play with a couple of versions of that technology from way back in 2007, that is, unless you’re using an iPad or iPhone, which of course don’t do Flash.

    Colour Cycling

    What was going on inside this Flash app was as follows. We needed to show the user any one of hundreds of different combinations of journey times (5 minutes, 12 minutes, 56 minutes, etc) depending on where they set the slider. Sending each one from the server as a tiled map overlay would be dead slow. Even Google – who have chosen to send new tiles each time – end up with a service which is surprisingly slow (try choosing a different time on this map).

    With some help from Stamen, we decided that the way of making it possible to show many different contours very quickly was send the client just one set of tiles, where each tile contained all the data for a variety of journey times. What does that mean? Simple: each colour in the tile represented a different number of minutes travelling on the map. So a batch of pixels that are colour X, all show places that are 15 minutes from the centre of the map.

    So, in this old Flash system, when you slide the slider along, the Flash app makes some of the coloured pixels opaque, and the others transparent. It was, in short, a form of colour cycling, familiar to lovers of 8 and 16 bit computer games.

    However, from about 2010 onwards, the march of iOS spelt the end of Flash. And that meant that we couldn’t launch a shiny new site based on this technology, as lovely as it was. We had to work out some approach that would use modern web standards instead.

    The Death of Flash Makes Life Difficult – for a while

    How do we replicate the experience of dragging a slider and seeing the map change like in the original Mapumental demo, but without Flash? One of the things that made the original Mapumental nice to use was how smooth the image changes were when you dragged the slider. Speed really matters to create that sort of organic effect that makes the demo so mesmerising.

    So as we started to tackle the question “How do we make this work in a post-Flash world?”. And the first thought was “Let’s do away with those map tiles, filled with all that journey time data!”. After all – why send any tiles to a modern browser, if it can just render nice shapes on the fly?

    So we had a go. Several goes. At first we tried rendering SVG circles around each public transport stop – but that was too slow, particularly when zoomed out. Then we tried rendering circles in Canvas, and whilst that was OK in sparsely populated places it sucked in the cities, where people would actually want to use it.

    Eventually, we decided that as wonderful and powerful as modern web rendering techniques are, if you exclude WebGL (on the grounds that so few people have it still), all the current techniques result in pages that just hammer your browser, whilst producing an experience which isn’t up to our previous Flash-based standards. To see this in action, see the wonderful Mapnificent site, developed by the super talented Stefan Wehrmeyer. He’s a great guy and a friend of mySociety, but the Javascript circle rendering just grinds, and that’s with far, far fewer data points than we have in our system. (Sorry for potentially crashing your browser there. This is in the interest of Science.)

    Back to Colour Cycling – Using Web Standards

    So, we thought, why not look again at colour cycling the pixels within pre-rendered map tiles? After all, there are some examples out there, like this waterfall, all in Javascript.

    So, I had a bit of a look at the waterfall. It seems to work by holding in memory a structure which has all the pixels which change and all the colours they should change to and when. This works beautifully for the waterfall picture, but only a limited number of the pixels in that image actually change colour, and the image is quite small. For a full screen web browser with a big map in, this didn’t seem promising, although I’d love to see someone try.

    Then I thought: browsers have always been very good at displaying images quickly – that’s sort of vital. Perhaps we could get our tile generating server to output PNG images where, as before, the colours represent travel times, but using a palette. Then by putting this in a canvas layer in the JavaScript mapping framework Leaflet, and by changing the palette of the images on the canvas as the slider is dragged, we could get our animation.

    Unfortunately, there is no way to change the palette of an image that you’ve put on the canvas. In fact, there’s no way to change the palette of an HTML img element: all you can do is assign it a new src attribute.

    But this gets back to the original problem – we don’t want to download new mapping for every different position on the time slider. We definitely can’t afford to have the client downloading a new image source for every tile whenever the slider is moved, so we had to find a way to make that src at the client end and get that into the src attribute.

    The Breakthrough – Data URIs and Base64 encoding

    So we started trying data URIs. For those of you not familiar, these allow you to put a whole object into your HTML or CSS, encoded in Base64. They’re commonly used to prevent pages having to make extra downloads for things like tiny icons.

    So I thought, “Here’s a way we can set an image src in JavaScript to something we’ve calculated, rather than something we’ve downloaded.” And this turned out to be the key insight that allows for the relatively smooth, attractive overlays you see in Mapumental today.

    My new plan was that the client, having downloaded each palette-based image, would make a Base64 encoded version of it, which it could then use to build a version with the right palette and assign this as a data URI of the tile.

    However Base64 encoding all these images in the JavaScript seemed like unnecessary processing to do there, so the final evolution of this technique was to do the Base64 encoding at the tile server end, and while we’re at it, not to bother sending over the parts of the image that we always replace at the client end.

    So in summary, what we built does this:

    1. The server calculates the journey times and renders them to palette-based tiles.
    2. It sends these to the client, encoded in Base64, and with the initial bits up to the palette and transparency chunks removed.
    3. At the client end, we have a pre-prepared array of 255 ‘starts’ of PNGs that we combine with the later parts of the ’tiles’ from the tile server to make data URIs.
    4. When you drag the slider it combines the appropriate ‘start’ of a PNG with the bulk of the tile that has been downloaded from the server, and assigns that to the src attribute of the tile.

    And that’s how the nice overlays on Mapumental work. But as so often in coding, the really interesting devil is in the detail – read on if you’re interested.

    Diving into Base64 and the PNG file format – The Gnarly Bits

    So – why are there 255 of these ‘starts’ of these PNGs, and what do I mean by a ‘start’ anyway?

    PNG files are divided up into an 8 byte signature (the same for every PNG file) and a number of chunks, where each chunk consists of 4 bytes to tell you its length, 4 bytes of its name, some data, and 4 bytes of cyclic redundancy check. In this case, what I call a ‘start’ of a PNG is the 8 byte signature, the 25 byte of the IHDR chunk, and the PLTE (palette) and tRNS (transparency) chunks. The PLTE chunk has 12 bytes of overhead and 3 bytes per colour, and the tRNS chunk has 12 bytes of overhead and 1 byte per colour.

    Base64 encoding is a way of representing binary data in text so that it can be used in places where you would normally expect text – like URIs. Without going into too much detail, it turns groups of 3 bytes of binary gumpf into 4 bytes of normal ASCII text without control characters in it, which can then be put into a URI.

    Why do we have 255 colours, rather than the maximum 256 which are available in a palette? Because we need the break between the end of the tRNS chunk and the start of the IDAT chunk in the PNG file to align with a break between groups of three bytes in the Base64 encoded image. We need the length of these starts to be a multiple of 3 bytes in the original PNG format, which translates into a multiple of 4 bytes in the Base64 encoded version, so we can cut and shut the images without corruption.

    Which just goes to show that even though web GIS technologies may feel like they are approaching a zenith of high level abstraction, there’s still some really gnarly work to be done to get the best out of current browsers.

  5. Mapumental Property Launches

    If you’ve been following mySociety for a while, you’ll know that we have been interested in making maps that show commuting times for several years.

    However, we’ve never made public a simple, free, useful version of our slidy-swooshy Mapumental journey times technology. Until today.

    Today we pull the wraps off Mapumental Property , a house-hunting service covering England, Scotland and Wales, designed to help you work out where you might live if you want a public transport commute of a particular maximum duration. Have a go, and we guarantee you’ll find it an oddly compelling experience.

    We think it’s a genuinely useful tool – especially since unlike some of the other players in this space, we’ve got all the different kinds of public transport, right across the whole of Great Britain. We hope that some of you will find it helpful when deciding where to live.

    However, this launch doesn’t mean mySociety is bent on taking over the property websites sector. Mapumental Property isn’t a challenger to the likes of Rightmove, it’s a calling card – an advertisement for our skills – which we hope will help mySociety to attract people and organisations who want beautiful, useful web tools built for them.

    In particular we’d like people interested in Mapumental to note that:

    • We like to build attractive, usable web tools for clients of all kinds.
    • We know how to use complex data to make simple, lovely things.
    • We can do some mapping technology that others haven’t worked out yet.

    If any of that is of interest, please get in touch, or read about our software development and consulting services.

    I’d like to thank quite a few people for helping with this launch. Duncan Parkes was the lead developer, Matthew Somerville ably assisted. Jedidiah Broadbent did the design. The idea originally came from the late Chris Lightfoot, and me, Tom Steinberg. Francis Irving built the first version, and Stamen came up with the awesome idea of using sliders in the first place (and built some early tech). Kristina Glushkova worked on business development, and Zoopla’s API provides the property data. I’m also grateful to Ed Parsons of Google for very kindly giving us a hat tip when they built some technology that was inspired by Mapumental.  Thanks to everyone – this has been a long time coming.

    We’ll follow up soon with a post about the technology – and in particular how we got away from using Flash. It has been an interesting journey.

  6. Mapumental Property – To Launch Thursday 8th November 2012

    After a great deal of hard work we are pleased to announce that Mapumental Property will be launching on the 8th of November 2012.

    Mapumental Property uses public transport open data from across the country to show you areas you can live that are an acceptable commute from your office, school or other destination. We have data on buses, trains, trams, tubes – so we look into all the combinations that might help you get to work quickly.

    We’ve built the site to solve a problem that these other big sites don’t quite get right – commuting. Nobody likes to commute a minute further than strictly necessary. But in a world of complex public transport networks, especially in our big cities, it can be highly unclear where you might be able to live and still get to work in 30 minutes. Mapumental Property will help, and it works anywhere in Britain. It works in Aberdeen just as well as Shoreditch.

    From next week people in Britain can easily see areas that are less than a specified amount of time away from a place of work, study or other importance, by public transport. So if you’ve ever thought “I wish I could see a map of everywhere less than half an hour’s commute from this office”, this is your answer.

    Look for more updates next week!

  7. Mapumental: mapping a new path

    Mapumental map showing travel times to the Royal Festival Hall

    It’s high time we updated you on Mapumental, our journey-time mapping project. For those who may not remember, Mapumental is based on a simple idea: to visualise transit times, by public transport, from or to any postcode in Great Britain.

    It all began in 2006, when the Department for Transport approached us to see what we might do with public transport data; in 2009 we won an investment loan from Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands which enabled us to build a beta tool – you might have played with it. If not, go on, have a go. It’s fun!

    It’s been quite a long journey to where we are today. Unlike many mySociety projects, funding for Mapumental’s development came from a commercial investment loan, with a condition that we set it up as a business. For that reason, it’s not enough that it’s beautiful and useful – we need to find ways for it to be profitable, too. All revenues are set to come back to fund our not-for-profit activities.

    We could tell from very early on in the project that Mapumental would be a sought-after tool for all sorts of purposes, from business to personal use. For example, you can see commute times at a glance, so it’s great for house-hunters and job-seekers. Consequently, it’s also great for the property and recruitment industries.

    “Your maps look amazing, such a great way of representing what could be really boring data, but isn’t.” – A jobseeker

    We can see loads of other possibilities too – like urban planning. This sort of analysis would have been far more expensive in the past; with Mapumental, planners can see at a glance how accessible a new development would be by public transport. Its potential uses are wide-ranging, answering questions for businesses, organisations, charities, and public facilities – especially those wanting to maximise accessibility or encourage use of greener transport options.

    “The maps are a fantastic, a great tool and should be used for every planning application. I will be using Mapumental for all of our projects!” – Lee Taylor, Veridis Design

    We’ve recently refined a product that’s pared down from the dynamic maps you may remember from that beta tool: static maps. These are simple, non-interactive maps which show transit time in bands. They’re flexible in that they can be generated for any postcode, with any maximum travel time, and depict travel at any given time of day.

    We can provide a one-off map for personal use, or batches of many thousands of maps – as we have done for estate agents Foxtons, who now have a Mapumental map on every property listing.

    As we generate more and more maps for different uses, showing different parts of the country, we’re really enjoying digging out all sorts of surprising facts – like how it’s quicker to travel from Watford to Westminster than it is from some parts of Harringay. Or how Cardiff University students might sensibly live at all points east as far as Newport, but will be stymied for transport in the west if they live anywhere other than Barry or Bridgend.

    In fact, our very favourite use so far has come from an individual who centred his map around his home postcode. He tells us he has printed it off and put it up by the front door, so that on his way out of the house, he can find a new and surprising destination for day-trips.

    Find out more on the Mapumental website – and please do spread the word among friends and colleagues who might benefit from a Mapumental map.

  8. Why we made the travel time maps service

    This project became Mapumental. Please visit that site for details of our travel-time maps services.
    The work was funded and supported by the Department for Transport.

    ——————
    We released our new service yesterday, which allows anyone to order personalised travel commuter maps for any location in Great Britain. Those of you who’ve followed this project for a while might be interested to know how we came to take this route.

    Having finished working on the backend and hosting infrastructure of the Mapumental technology last year, we started thinking about the products that should be built with it. To help us work this out, we talked to lots of people in sectors where journey times matter a lot: residential and commercial property, job search, tourism and public services. What we found is that while everyone loved the dynamic location search technology, there were many situations when people wanted to have a simple static map of commuting times.

    We heard that these maps would be useful to individuals looking for jobs or property – but also organisations, from property sites to providers of public services, businesses and entertainment venues who’d like a map to put on their website and brochures, or to use in internal analysis.

    At first we were surprised, but the more we thought about it, the more sense it made. Our search tool, which we are currently working on updating, serves a different purpose: it shows a combination of search criteria, including travel times, and lets the user play with different parameters interactively. But it did not provide a simple snapshot of travel times for a location, divided in bands which are very helpful in assessing commuting times. So we set out to make the map image service, which is what we launched yesterday.

    This was not particularly straightforward to make, and there were many things to consider: how exactly should the shop work, and what should it offer people? We have settled on four core options for the standard maps: total time mapped, direction of travel (whether the location is where one arrives at, or departs from), arrival or departure time, and custom map title. These maps are really easy to order from the website, and we can make them very quickly.

    Online ordering works really well for small quantities, but is not ideal for high-volume clients. So we also created a new API – a URL fetcher which allows to create maps in high quantities, as and when needed. These maps can be fully customised, from the choice of colours to number of bands and zoom levels.

    The the very first user of our API is Foxtons, the estate agent, who added commuter maps to their property listings last week. It is suitable for any property, jobs or hotels site who hold location information (postcodes, or latitude and longitude) for their listings. The API can equally be used by those needing maps for internal purposes, such as city planners, public services and businesses with multiple branches.

    We are really excited that the service has gone live, and we hope that it helps people and organisations in all sorts of ways. A big thank you to Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands, who have provided the commercial investment to enable the development of Mapumental technology and the new service.

    If you have any feedback or comments, we’d love to hear them.

    Sample map: travel times to Wembley Stadium

  9. First Mapumental-powered property travel time maps go live

    We’re delighted to announce that leading London estate agent Foxtons has become the first property player to use Mapumental maps on its website. Visitors to Foxtons.co.uk will now see that every property listed includes a travel time map, highlighted in Foxtons’ brand colours.

    Foxtons, whose website just won an award for Best Interface Design at the 2011 International Business Awards, were quick to see the value of travel time maps for house-hunters. Thousands of listings now display a simple, beautiful, map showing how long a commute to work or visit to friends will take on public transport – vital pieces of information to consider when looking for a new home.

    The property sector is not the only area of business that stands to benefit from Mapumental’s ground-breaking mapping technology. Mapumental is already talking to major players in the travel industry and recruitment sectors.  Virtually any business that needs to show users how much time it takes to travel to or from a given spot will find these maps very valuable.

    One of Mapumental’s core strengths is its  flexibility when it comes to volume – it can provide anything from a single map at a great price to tens of thousands at a significant volume discount.

    The service utilises travel-time mapping technology developed by mySociety, drawing journey data from the NPTDR dataset. The same data also drives mySociety’s newest project FixMyTransport.com, which launched just last week, and covers all modes of public transport within GB.

    For the maps service, our algorithm calculates journey times from any given point (postcode or latitude and longitude) to every other point in Great Britain. These journey times are displayed as a heatmap, on a background from OpenStreetMap.

    Foxtons has made use of the new Mapumental API which enables clients to define the maps’ appearance precisely according to their company preferences. Parameters for choice include:

    • maximum travel time
    • number of time bands to show
    • colour scheme
    • the direction of travel (to or from the chosen location)
    • target arrival or departure time
    • other information (such as title and legend) that goes on the map.

    The image is then automatically created and can be published on a website and/or included in printed materials. Website owners can publish the maps themselves, or we can create bespoke integration solutions for them..

    To find out more about how Mapumental might work for you, please drop us a line.

    Here are some samples of our maps:

    Travel times from a residential development in Sevenoaks, departing at 7am

    Travel times from St Pancras Reneissance Hotel, departing at 8am

    Travel times to reach Cardiff University by 10am

  10. Job Advert: Commercial Product Manager for Mapumental

    mySociety is looking for someone who loves building relationships, and who enjoys thinking about travel, property and what makes for a great day out.

    We are a non-profit group of staff and volunteers that builds websites that help people do things like find out how their politicians vote, or get broken street lights and potholes fixed in their road. We make most of our charitable money through commercial means, and to that end we’re setting up a spin-off called Mapumental Ltd that is building web mapping tools the likes of which have never been seen before. Watch this video to learn more.

    Mapumental’s underlying technology is now complete, and ready for user-facing products to be built on top. What we need is someone who can do the market research to work out what products we should build, and who can go out and sell them to clients of all shapes and sizes – from holidaymakers to property firms.

    Skills

    • Market analysis – to research what products we should and shouldn’t be building with Mapumental
    • Sales and marketing – to tell people authentic, convincing stories about how our products can help them, and sell the finished products
    • Good copywriting skills – and ability to work with designers to create marketing materials

    Experience

    • At least 12 months experience selling products or services, ideally to corporate clients.
    • Ideally, more than two years’ experience in product management, market research, or marketing
    • First degree in any subject
    • You’ll be able to tell us how you made tricky but successful marketing decisions

    Personal Qualities

    • Most important – you’ll need to be able to meet and collaborate with a diverse range of people, both colleagues and customers, in an amiable, confidence-inspiring manner
    • Preferably – an interest in maps and the internet.
    • You’ll have to be a self-starter who can work independently, and often in a location of your choosing
    • Enthusiasm for new things, new ideas, new businesses

    Location, Hours and Salary

    We can be flexible between a minimum of 3.5 days per week, up to full time. You can live and work anywhere in the UK, but your life will be easier if it is within a couple of hours of both London and Birmingham.

    We offer a salary of £33k+, and we are also offering a decent bonus tied to success at sales.

    Applications should be sent to hello@mysociety.org by noon of 13th September, with the tag msjob5  in the subject line. This is a re-advertisement of a previously advertised position, and previous applicants need not apply.