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“Unless you do something, you wont become better at it” – Me

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Enroute to Ladakh

My travel plan for the summer, from Coorg to Kashmir

After dillydallying between the Northeast, Utarranchal+Nepal and Sikkim+Bhutan, i finally decided on Ladakh. It was initially supposed to be just me and my two roomates from NID backpacking all the way, but seeing the lucrative destinations on offer, the gang has now grown to seven with two girls thrown in.

My initial budget estimate was 5k end to end, but now my roomate who is sitting in Delhi tells me he’s booked some super luxury volvo bus to manali costing a bomb. If things go this way, i dont think i’ll be left with anything to pay rent next month. Guess there wont be much backpacking after all 😐

The essential Chennai rail transport map – looking back

I have always been irritated by the transport services in India ever since i started living here from 2005, more because of the information blockage than the poor quality of the service itself. Atleast if somebody could tell me reliably that this is the route you had to take to get to your destination, thats half the pain gone. This was one of those factors which pushed me into this addiction of making urban transit maps for India, hardly anyone has attempted to make them, and the few attempts that were made looked like ass and was just as helpful to plan your trip.

Cutting a long (and interesting) story short, the chennai suburban rail map was my very first attempt at making a transit map. What i ended up creating was my best understanding of the info from the southern railway online suburban timetable. The weird division of the services managed to confuse me successfully which is quite evident in the end result. At this time i had still not used the trains in Chennai 🙂

My first rail map. Made in 2005 and can still be found on the IRFCA server

The accuracy didnt matter much, cause after posting it to a few places online, it became quite popular, for nobody had seen such a swanky looking map for a rail system in India.  Its even been ripped off in numerous local publications. Something that came to my notice when i had met the PR head of the southern railways to explore the possibility of having  schematic maps in the trains, and he told me these kind of maps were already done by somebody, promptly showing me a page from a local guidebook from his drawer. Not the first time i had somebody show me my own work, but i found it amusing nonetheless. Read More…

So the sea speaks

Possibly one of those most relaxing things you could do in Chennai is to head to marina beach, clear away some plastic from the sand and park your bottom next to a catamaran for a few hours in the evening. Sitting alone in the beach and listening to the waves is somehow very soothing, ive done that numerous times, even attempting to prepare for my sem exams there because i was too distracted at home. Maybe its the fact that you can see upto the horizon, and in some metaphorical way, makes you far sighted, allowing you to see beyond the boundaries one is used to in the city.

I have always thought of the sea being this one mighty being that humans have still not tamed. Disturb it slightly, and it swallows 200,000 people in a *ploosh*. So it was quite interesting for me to see my good friend Shillika’s attempt at communicating with the sea by tossing in a bunch of alphabets and seeing what the sea spelt out. Definitely quite a novel attempt which you can see in this short movie that was subsequently made.

What i find most interesting is how we seem to perceive the planet as some frail being that is being destroyed by us. The beachgoers in the video guess that the sea would spell out words like “help” “enough” and other sos-y stuff. But to be quite honest, isnt it us humans thats crying for help?

Mapping a new way forward for Openstreetmap in India

It was not something that i was confident about. I had been nominated by mappers from the Indian openstreetmap(OSM) community for the travel scholarship to attend the the State of the Map(SOTM) 2009 conference on OSM at Amsterdam. I was eventually one of those selected for the scholarship which i guess had a lot to do with my efforts in promoting opensource geographic data in Chennai and taking OSM to the state transport departments and the Chennai Corporation to show them what could be done with free software and community mapping. My dream bus route mapping project for chennai eventually did see the light of day in the form of BusRoutes.In , although its still in its infancy and still only a fraction of what i had hoped to accomplish, it gathered massive attention quite quickly, thanks to the osm maps that we used that were more detailed than google’s for many areas. I have been quite fortunate to know so many good people who have helped me whenever i had a problem, from coding, hosting, organizing meets, and even spreading the word. It just goes to show that all you need is enthusiasm, vision and great social community, and suddenly your empty wallet is no longer a hindrance.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) my call letter from National Institute of Design came soon after and i would have to stall all my activities in Chennai and shift to Bangalore for the next 2 years. I had hoped to continue such efforts in Bangalore, but sadly it hasnt happened yet, thanks to coursework and my infamiliarity with the local language that makes it hard for me to approach government officials. I was in Bangalore, looking forward to the openstreetmap conference in amsterdam, where i would have to share these experiences of mine using OSM in India to an audience whose only knowledge of India would be ‘Slumdog Millionaire”. This would also be the first time i would be exposed to the international GIS and openstreetmap community. Find out how they use opensource maps and the kind of ideas and solutions that are in development abroad.

At SOTM, im behind the white Tshirt guy in front

Attending SOTM was an enriching experience in terms of the cultural exposure as well as technical knowledge. Especially inspiring is talking to so many individuals who speak passionately about their projects and dreams. I still remember a great conversation with the guys behind GeoMajas which was a bedroom project then, and now its being incubated by OSGeo.  Looking at the kind of interest that GIS companies and software developers were showing at the conference in openstreetmap data, its quite apparent there’s huge amounts of money involved in this business. But then why wasn’t any of this happening in India? Nobody here knows about the openstreetmap project, or care two hoots about why its needed. After all, you do have googlemaps for everything, and its free anyway.

To be quite honest, inspite of all my efforts trying to create awareness about the free geographic data and the openstreetmap project, the response has clearly not been satisfactory. I have been speaking about OSM at numerous unconferences, Chennai barcamp, Bangalore World Usability Day, Bangalore Mobilicity, gosh we even managed to set up a stall for OSM at OSI Tech Days in Chennai with the help of NRC-FOSS, but nothing sizeable has come out of it. People still ask me if i work for OSM, and to be fair WIkipedia in India is in the same boat too. Half the people ive asked still dont know that they are allowed edit wikipedia, let alone edit a map of their neighborhood on openstreetmap.

One of the problems is that the development of OSM is still west-centric, after all thats where all the active mappers are and thats where the money is too. India is more of a sleeping giant, we still dont get that we are sitting on a giant pot of gold, we have enough people to crowdsource data, only that nobody knows why it should be done or how it can help them. I left Amsterdam thinking about a new direction of promoting OSM, by putting openstreetmap data into action and let others do the talking.

There was lot of cleaning up to do in the current India data itself, before letting others jump into it. For one, the Mumbai map data was extremely messed up after the AND import, i went around trying to attempt a cleanup of the major road network and the railway network and its almost done. This should hopefully start as a good reference point for someone to add data to Mumbai. As an example of showcase, i attempted to create a tourist map of southern Mumbai with an emphasis on the railway lines, a work still in progress.

I figured out that this was a better way to generate public interest in the osm project, letting interested people discover for themselves what osm is about, an approach i hope would bring more genuine users become active in the project and let  developers see the potential of this project for themselves.

Lately however, i have been exploring opensource GIS tools like QGis and GRASS, and have been totally blown over by the power of it.

All it took was a couple of Xapi requests from the openstreetmap server to get the railways and forest cover areas to make this. Even the Indian railways dont have a GIS system for their network but OSM has it, thanks to tracing from landsat imagery, the entire Tamil Nadu railway network was added in two days. Expect more maps in the days to come.

Thank god for the community

This particular post (and a revival of my blog) was probably long overdue. It has been one of my biggest regrets not writing about what i’ve been through, learnt and experienced in the past one year. Ever since i embarked on the Chennai bus route mapping project and my subsequent dive into OpenStreetMaps, things have been a bit of a roller coaster for me. Its my mapping work that has got me where i am today, a postgraduate seat in Information Design at National Institute of Design Bangalore, a rare opportunity for someone with absolutely no professional work experience.

I’ve had a ball of a time during my 4 years in Chennai, where i promptly put my electronics engineering course at SVCE in the backburner while following my real interest in trying to set up an information system to aid people using Chennai’s buses and trains. The numerous days that i spent running around the Chennai Corporation’s EDP cell, Bus Route Road department and the rundown offices of the MTC and SETC trying to make sense of the public transportation system and hunting for information that did not exist.

But thank god that even though we have a government system with huge voids and roadblocks, there’s a community that exists and can make the difference if we want to. Those numerous days that i spent running around and my greased up collar from the Chennai sweat did not go to waste. Maybe i’ve not reached where i wanted to go yet, but what i have gone through has only made me aim higher.

ping

hah, id actually forgotten that i even had a blog. i’m in my final sem of engineering and ive been vacationing big time, so much so that i think i need a break from my vacation.

for all those who havent been following my twitter updates, ive had quite a few things happening around me lately. whenever i think i should write about it, something new pops up and me todo list only gets bigger. its about time i started pruning that list and finished off all my pending tasks. a whole bunch of emails and comments that need replying will be attacked first. incase i havent followed up your mail within the next 2 days, i’d appreciate a reminder since ive lost track of it all and more 🙂