Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why Apple Maps Doesn't Matter

It's official: Apple is challenging Google's so far uncontested flagship product Google Maps. The move was foreshadowed long ago by its acquisitions of Poly9, Placebase, and C3 Technologies. Ever since the blogosphere has been growing hot meticulously comparing features of Apple Maps side-by-side with Google Maps and arguing over future development potential. A few of the best 'street view' articles are listed at the bottom.

We want to take a step back again and look at the issue from a 'flyover' perspective and answer a big question raised by F. Manjoo from Does Apple Maps matter?
"Is Google worried that Apple’s defection will substantially reduce its user base, and, consequently, the advertising revenue it gains through maps? Does the search company fear that it could lose its place as the online mapping leader, a position that has long been one of its competitive advantages? Is it concerned that Apple might build a better, more useful maps app?" 
  Our answer is: IT doesn't matter! Here is why:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prepare for the Apocalypse!

All this talk about zombies in the US has got me thinking.  Are we really ready for a zombie apocalypse?  On October 26, 2007, the city of Austin, TX, released a report that sought to, "determine the sites of zombie resurrection, prepare for the movement of zombies and the subsequent zombie transformations and multiplications, and to determine areas of extreme concern."  To accomplish this, they used GIS, of course!

Where the zombies will come from...

To accomplish such an awesome report, the city states that:
  • Cemeteries were selected from the Land Use 2003 data set.
  • Zombie movement buffers were created by calculating zombie speed & distance from cemeteries.
  • Population density was determined by dissolving Census 2000 block groups into Census 2000 tracts. The population density was then calculated for each tract.
  • Areas Of Extreme Concern (see map below) were located by intersecting 1 hour cemetery buffers and the top 5 most populous tracts in the city.

Are you in an area of danger?

While these maps are Austin-specific, you can extrapolate their thought process, buy your own local map, and start making some gruesome discoveries about how much longer shorter you might have left to live once "brainzzzzzz" become the menú del día.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

GIS in Warfare Agent Detection (Part II)

The theory sounds great: Whenever a building permit is issued, part of the due diligence on part of the building contractor is to figure out, if the grounds first must be searched for unexploded ordnances (UXOs). A central authority maintains and updates a state-of-the-art GIS to classify regions as potentially dangerous. The GIS also specifies a 'bomb horizon', a maximum depth in which aerial bombs are expected to be buried depending on the soil conditions. In other words, suspect sites are defined in 3-dimensional space.

Companies specializing in locating UXOs surveys employ a variety of technologies to scan suspect areas. The most convenient and least costly above-surface screening methods, however, are only able to reliably detect warfare agents that are buried a few meters under the surface. Bomb horizons often reach into depths of more than 15 - 20 m necessitating the use of more intrusive scanning methods. The most common technique is to drill a vertical hole with a small diameter of, say, 10 cm and insert a magnetometer, which "takes real time readings of the amplitude of the Earth’s magnetic field. Buried ferrous items [...] are manifested as anomalies in the data that are invaluable for locating buried metal objects such as tanks, drums, pipes or bombs." (see full article)

Magnetometer plot indicating a UXO or ferrous item at 3 m depth (source:

Here comes the chicken-and-egg problem: Do you first drill the hole and then scan it or do you scan first and then drill step-by-step each time reinserting the magnetometer? The latter practice allows you to only drill into grounds that have previously been surveyed and "signed free" by a field expert. In practice, however, this is a very time-consuming and costly process. Therefore, it is common practice for companies to drill the hole first, thereby risking that their drilling tools directly and unknowingly penetrate potential UXOs, and then insert their magnetometers in order to scan the surrounding building ground! In fact, since my company (Neidhardt Grundbau GmbH) is a leading provider of geotechnical engineering services, I have witnessed this practice many times first hand. 

German government authorities have long turned a blind eye toward the warfare agent detection methods employed in the private industry. 

The problem exacerbates when the circumstances become even trickier: In the rapid rebuilding efforts post WW2, buildings, tunnels, and bridges were erected without regard for the potential hazards buried underneath. Building projects in urban areas often require the intrusion of neighboring building grounds to install pipes, drill ground anchors, etc. Especially ground anchors, often measuring 30+ m in length, can reach far underneath adjacent building structures that literally sit on a ticking bomb. Traditional survey methods fail under these circumstances as magnetometric readings become too distorted by surrounding "noise", i.e. ferrous foundation plates. Until now, government has largely ignored the threat giving permission to building companies to carry out their tasks in spite of the apparent threat because no solution yet existed.

A new proprietary GIS technology that is supposed to circumvent this problem has for the first time been successfully tested on a site in Hamburg, Germany, last year. A GIS based detection device is introduced into the bore hole as the drilling tools perforate the building ground allowing for real-time uninterrupted scanning and drilling at the same time. The precise GPS coordinates are then automatically transferred to a warfare agent specialist on the site, who monitors the resulting readings and prompts for a production halt whenever a potential hazard is being discovered. The data is then fed to local authorities in order to update the governmental warfare agent mapping database.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

One of my favorite websites is  FlightMemory is a website that allows you to input every flight you've taken, then it maps out your flights and creates a list of interesting statistics about your time in the air.  It's a simple yet addictive way to see how your flights look on a world map.

When you log into FlightMemory, you get to view a map of all the trips taken yesterday by the website's community.  For example, here are all the flights taken by users yesterday, Tuesday, June 5, 2012:

All FlightMemory users' data for June 5, 2012 (source:

I was so excited when I first joined the website that I painstakingly entered all my flights in my life that I could remember into the database.  I even took out my old passports to double check dates of our family vacations.  It took forever, but I'm glad that I took the time to get my information correct so I could have the most accurate statistics about my life at 36,000 feet.

My USA map (source:

Some of the great average statistics FlightMemory gives me are:

Flight Distances
In Miles - 349,908
In Kilometer - 563,122
Earth Circumnavigation - 14.05x
Distance to the Moon - 1.465x
Distance to the Sun - 0.0038x

Flight Time 
Hours - 799:38
Days - 33.3
Weeks - 4.8

Total - 330

My World Map (source:

FlightMemory also ranks the top ten airports, airlines, and airplanes I've flown in/out/on:

My Top Three Airports
DFW Dallas/Fort Worth -  144 flights (21.8% of my flights)
BNA Nashville -  140 flights (21.2% of my flights)
ORD Chicago - 50 flights (7.6% of my flights)

My Top Three Airlines
American Airlines - 169 flights (51.2% of my flights)
Air Canada - 35 flights (10.6% of my flights)
American Eagle Airlines - 26 flights (7.9% of my flights)

My Top Three Aircraft
McDonnell Douglas-80 - 109 flights (33.0% of my flights)
Boeing 737 - 58 flights (17.6% of my flights)
Canadair 200 - 27 flights (8.2% of my flights)

In addition, FlightMemory gives crew members an easy way to track all their flights.  Every flight a pilot flies must be logged in a book by hand.  However, FlightMemory allows users to say whether the flight they took was for pleasure, business, or as a crew member - therefore eliminating the need for the pen and paper!

See more about my personal flying at

Sign up for your own account at

Monday, June 4, 2012

Living on Mars!

Well not quite yet, but looking for a place to spend the rest of your life (on earth) has never been easier. Are you retiring? Or are you a young couple looking for a suitable place for your kids to grow? Whatever your aspirations, you can use GIS software to find the ideal place.

Commercial real estate agencies and realtors are using GIS for mapping and analyzing state and local housing and community development data to determine where investments are being made. As GIS has evolved, it has been heavily used in government and science for land use planning, infrastructure management, and environmental research. In recent years commercial real estate companies are able to site-select locations, target and allocate resources, and review neighborhood statistics such as the locations of businesses or crime.

Regional and urban planning is one of the most common types of GIS applications. Planners use GIS to study roads and traffic patterns, education and other public facilities locations, utilities infrastructure and waterways, and zoning and housing areas. Combining this data with mapping data helps them analyze needs and plan for future development. In the commercial sector, business planners can use demographic data, business location data, zoning data, and transportation and utility data to determine the best location for a planned new business.

Because GIS techniques are very useful tools for regional planning, it helps in determining future growth of any metropolitan area. GIS has the ability to combine existing data and can overlay one type of data over another. And the most powerful contribution is that GIS can be used to display data for both presentation and analysis as well.

GIS allows you to better understand your community by assembling, organizing and providing tools to analyze its geographic data. In the long run, it is about knowing where something is, what is at, on, in, or around the location you choose to live.

Friday, June 1, 2012

When GIS Fails, Part 2

On February 25, 2009, Turkish Airlines flight 1951 from Istanbul to Amsterdam crashed just short of runway 18R while on final approach.  There were 128 passengers onboard the Boeing 737-800, the world's best selling aircraft.  Nine people died in the crash - including all three pilots and also three Boeing engineers.  Investigators were puzzled - passengers and witnesses said the plane dropped out of the sky.  Why did this happen?

The Boeing 737's fuselage cracked and the engines separated from the wings (Source: flyaway

The cause of the accident was determined to be a faulty radio altimeter on the captain's side of the flight deck (in total, the aircraft has three altimeters).  A radio altimeter is "an instrument that determines elevation, usually from mean sea level, by measuring the amount of time an electromagnetic pulse takes to travel from an aircraft to the ground and back again." [1]  The Boeing 737-800 has four external antennas to assist the altimeter readings - two that send out the signal and two that read the signal back.

At about 8,000 feet above the earth while descending, the captain's altimeter began to show a reading of -8 feet.  The pilots were obviously aware that this altimeter's reading was incorrect and ignored the warning horns that started going off in the cockpit to put down their landing gear.  So if the pilots were aware of the fault, why did they still crash?

There are two automated systems on airplanes that greatly assist pilots - one is the well known autopilot, that controls the yoke, and the other is the lesser known autothrottle, that controls the engines.  The autothrottle's altitude information is supplied by the captain's side altimeter.  Since this reading was showing the plane to already be on the ground, the autothrottle brought the engines power to idle.  Following the instructions of their air traffic controller, the pilots (captain, first officer, and a third pilot assisting the training of the new first officer) were at a stage in their descent where they would have needed the engines to be near idle.  This is not typical of most descents, but it is typical at busy Amsterdam, where ATC tries to bring the airplanes in faster by requiring a quicker/steeper descent.  Because of this unique approach, the pilots did not realize that the autothrottle had actually kept the engines permanently at idle.  With the loss of engine thrust, the airplane kept losing speed and at 460 feet above the ground, it stalled.  The pilots were unable to recover the throttles in time and the Boeing dropped from the sky into a muddy field.

Above is the episode from the show Mayday that discusses Turkish Airlines flight 1951.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

GIS in Warfare Agent Detection (Part I)

True story: I was running my first project site as a young site manager for my family-owned business ( in Warsaw, Poland, when a strange sight caught my attention. A corpulent Polish machine operator (120kg+) had just decided to abandon his 45-ton excavator and was hastening  toward his supervisor's site office. Puzzled but amused by the extraordinary athletic effort by a man otherwise known for his "efficiency" at work, the reason for his sudden change in temperament was relayed to me by our Polish client: a 250 lbs relict from WWII had just surfaced. Even more disturbing to me was the resolution that was taken by our Polish colleagues: a different machine operator appeared in a matter of ca. 45 min, elegantly hoisting the explosive with his machine and dumping it onto the next sand pile, from where it was trucked off along with the other excess ground material.

On German territory, such matters are taken quite seriously. In fact, the discovery of a 1.8 ton wartime bomb in the Rhine riverbed in November 2011 triggered the immediate evacuation of ca. 45,000 people of the city Koblenz. Still today, more than 65 years after WWII, an average of 15 wartime explosives, most of them dormant aerial bombs, are discovered in Germany per day! The danger is still imminent. Accidental discovery in the course of construction works killed a roadside worker near Frankfurt in 2006 (USA Today).

A 1.8 ton RAF bomb dropped by the Royal Air Force between 1943 and 1945 was successfully defused by specialists (Source: BBC)

Thanks to detailed aerial photo documentation of bomb dropping sites before and after air raids by the Allied Forces, a vast number of dormant warfare agents could be spotted and defused by German disposal teams. This is made possible by the use of modern GIS software that allows the overlay of different photographic images (see example). However, due to the density of bombings identifying unexploded bombs in the midst of explosion craters caused by successful hits in urban areas was not always feasible (see Spiegel Online article for more info). Moreover, with many of the main dropping sites (e.g. Hamburg, Dresden) being located along waterways, analysis of aerial photographs could not spot hidden explosives in riverbeds or harbour basins.

The German government uses these aerial maps of bomb dropping sites to classify potentially dangerous regions where inactive warfare agents are still likely to be hidden. Consequently, if a new building permit is issued for a property that lies in a suspected area, the building ground has to be screened and signed free by field experts. Once an area has been scanned the results are reported to the supervising government agency in order to update its GIS database, in essence turning 'red' or potentially dangerous sites into 'green' or 'safe to build' areas.