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Map Ninja

There was a time when the road to Map Ninja-hood was long and perilous.  It entailed arduous journeys to spend years studying with monks in temples on Tibetan mountaintops.  Advancement came through fierce, deadly battles against Map Ninjas who ranked above you, precariously fought in windswept mountain passes or on rickety suspension bridges over precipitous chasms.

Or maybe you just had to be able to map temples on Tibetan mountaintops, windswept mountain passes and precipitous chasms.  But it was still pretty tough.  It used to take some serious hard work and dedication to become a Map Ninja.  These days, though, it’s pretty much a walk in the park.  As I discovered this morning.

This morning, my buddy Jake and I went out into the woods to map some property he owns.  We had done so once before (something like eight years ago).  Since then, one of Jake’s neighbors had had a survey done that disagreed with what we thought about their shared boundary.  Today we went out to see who was right (as it turns out, they were).

The last time we did this, I went prepared with a compass, maps, and a Garmin.  We spent an entire day gathering data.  I then spent hours (possibly even days) squeezing the data out of the Garmin and turning it into something I could use to draw a pretty map.  Today, it went like this:

The equipment I used was much the same.  A compass and maps (items I always bring into the woods with me).  Instead of a Garmin, though, this time I just took along my smartphone, which runs the Android operating system.  I installed two apps into my phone in preparation for today’s festivities.

The first one is called GPS Status and Toolbox.  It’s a very nice little nuts-and-bolts kind of GPS utility (and it also has a donation-ware version that I strongly recommend).  It tells you a ton of stuff about your location and status, includes a compass, and even has a level bubble to help you keep your device perpendicular to the planet when you’re taking a bearing.  It doesn’t allow you to store waypoints, but it does allow you to share your current location.  The second app makes this amount to the same thing as waypoint storage.

The second app is Evernote.  If you’re not familiar with Evernote, you should take steps to correct this.  It has been one of the world’s most useful utilities for years, and taking it along in your pocket makes it virtually indispensible.

Armed thus, we set out for adventure (I also tracked our progress with My Tracks, just because I could).  It was a beautiful day to be out on a mountaintop, and the data acquisition process turned out to be deliriously simple.  I started GPS Status and Toolbox running at the outset.  Any time I wanted to save a location, I simply shared it via Evernote (adding any necessary notes to myself in the process).  Since we were miles away from any form of connectivity, Evernote stored the data locally (i.e., in my phone).

Three hours later, Jake and I climbed into his truck and headed back to my house, armed with our newly acquired data (as well as a bonus slew of geo-located photographs).

This is where it goes from deliriously simple to insanely easy.  When we get back to the house, my phone connects to my wireless network.  Immediately, Evernote syncs from my phone to their servers, which in turn immediately syncs with my computer.  So by the time I walk upstairs and into my office, my computer already knows all the data I gathered in the field (if I had had connectivity while in the field, my computer would have received the data virtually as I recorded it).  I then sit down at my desk and open Evernote.  Each note I recorded in the field contains the latitude and longitude of where I was standing when I recorded it but – thanks to GPS Status and Toolbox – the notes also contain links to the exact locations marked on Google Maps.

So I open a browser and sign in to Google.  Then I go to Google Maps and create a new map under ‘My Places’ called “Jake’s Land”.  Then I click on each link stored in Evernote in turn, adding each one to “Jake’s Land” from within Google Maps.  Inside of five minutes, I have a new saved map containing markers at every point I marked while in the field.

From there it’s a simple matter to export the map as a KML (if you don’t know how to do this, it goes like this:  click on the ‘Link’ icon [the one to the right of the ‘Print’ icon].  A window will open with a link to your map already highlighted.  Copy it and paste it into the location bar of a new browser tab or window.  Add ”&output=kml” [without quotes] to the end of it and hit ‘enter’).

And now I have a KML including all the waypoints I chose to record during our outing.   Since we’re dealing with a property boundary here, there is an obvious desire to connect the dots.  There are a variety of methods to employ toward bringing this about.  For the uninitiated, there is the simple expedient of Google EarthGoogle Earth has line and polygon drawing tools built into it, so it’s a quick and easy matter to open our KML file and draw lines connecting our waypoints.  If we prefer, we can draw the entire plot of land as a polygon.

Depending on our mapping needs, we could be done at this point.  We gathered our data, drew our map, and now we have what could be considered a finished product already packed into a portable and easily shareable format (KML allows for a great deal more ‘finishing’ if we so desired).  We could send our KML attached to an email, and any recipient could open it up in Google Earth (or even Google Maps in a browser) and play with it to their heart’s content.  And there are many other applications out there that can read KML (in fact, KML is based on XML.  If you change the name of your file from ‘myfile.kml’ to ‘myfile.xml’, Excel can open it).

There are a slew of GIS applications that can read and manipulate KML files and – being the Map Dork that I am – I will use one or more of them to trick out our gathered data and produce a final map for Jake.  But the fact is that within a half hour of my arrival home I was easily able to produce a passable map.  Given another hour (and using just a little basic knowledge of KML and HTML) I could have attached a decent amount of bells and whistles to it.  And all without dipping into any of the deeper mysteries of Map Ninjutsu.

Not exactly a pitched battle on a rickety suspension bridge, but hey – I’m getting a little old for that kind of thing anyway.

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