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[ WROCC Home » Meetings » Past Meetings » July 2014 ]

Sine Nomine Software

July 2014 meeting – report by Peter Richmond

July’s meeting was given by Matthew Phillips – one half of the programming duo that is Sine Nomine Software from Durham. The main part of the demonstration was based upon RiscOSM, which brings the Open Street Map’s vector mapping to RISC OS.

Matthew explained that Open Street Map (OSM) is a global project, and he likened it to the “Wikipedia of Maps” since it has been collated by users all over the world and is an amalgam of their input from tracking details using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to add to the basic maps. All of this information has been collected into a giant database covering the whole world in varying degrees of quality and completeness.

Data conversions

Sine Nomine have created a conversion tool to turn the raw OSM data into a form that’s useful to RiscOSM, and are currently offering maps of the British Isles and the Netherlands. They are looking at putting the data for other European countries through the tool and some smaller countries may be offered soon; however due to the size of the raw data, Germany, France or the whole of Europe will have to wait for improvements to be made to the tool itself. Promised at Wakefield in April, a first release of the converter was made on Sine Nomine’s website shortly after their visit to the Club.

The converter has comprehensive functionality, which was demonstrated by showing the conversion of a file of data for the Isle of Man. Although the raw OSM data you can download from the web is in a vector format (as opposed to the bitmaps you get from Google Maps) it still needs to go through a conversion process to make it suitable for use with RiscOSM. This is because the points (known as ‘nodes’) representing each bend in a road, each bus stop, each corner of a building, and so on are listed in the file in the order in which they were added to the Open Street Map database.

When RiscOSM generates a map display, the points within the map area have to be retrieved from the data. While going through the whole list of nodes from start to finish to identify those that we want might be manageable for the Isle of Man, for the millions of nodes in the British Isles such a method would take a very long time. Therefore OSMConvert rearranges the data geographically so that RiscOSM can find the nodes quickly enough.

Currently only one directory of data can be used at once – merging data from a few sources may be available in future versions of the software, once Sine Nomine work out how best to do it! If you were to try to do the conversion of the data for the British Isles yourself, it would take fifteen hours on a Pandaboard with 1GB of memory.

If you were to use a board with only 512MB, it would increase that time quite considerably due to the amount of data that needs to be accessed in RAM and may give a conversion time of fifty hours – but that hasn’t been tested. Sine Nomine have CDs available for the converted data for the UK and the Netherlands, and the data may also be downloaded from the Sine Nomine web site. The UK data currently takes up around 600MB of disc space, although it can run from CD at a reasonable speed.

Finding your way

Once you have the map data in RiscOSM’s format, there are lots of ways of opening a new map. These now include using an Ordnance Survey grid reference, though often the easiest way is to search for a location from the comprehensive list of destinations. The program then builds all of the vector information needed for a drawfile ‘on the fly’, and displays it on screen.

It can run on most versions of RISC OS, although RiscPCs and other systems not running the 32-bit RISC OS 5 aren’t ideal as they soon run out of memory due to their restricted application slots. During the demonstration the amount of memory used was 35MB, which really precludes the use of RISC OS 4, 6 or Select for this purpose: it really does need one of the versions or RISC OS 5 to run usefully.

There are lots of features you’ll be familiar with if you have used Google Maps: such as double-click Select to zoom in, double-click Adjust to zoom out, changing zoom using the scroll wheel and dragging to pan around. The program has been designed to be responsive to you ‘changing your mind’ as the map is being drawn – you can drag it around or select a different area within the map to view at almost any time. The only exception to this is at the end of drawing the map when the text is added: this brings up the hourglass and you are then ‘locked out’ from moving the map for a short while.

One of the useful things about the Open Street Map is that some items are tagged so that you can find more information about them: such as a website or an e-mail address for a Golf Club, maybe with a postal address and a telephone number. Matthew mentioned that they have not used all the available data, since a bus stop could be tagged with public information and may have up to fifteen tags associated with it.

With the release of the converter tool, you can now choose for yourself what to keep and what to throw away. Some of the things that Sine Nomine threw out were details of shipping buoys, as they reasoned that most people would only be interested in the land sections of a map.

A touch of style

Of course, with RiscOSM being designed for use with RISC OS, it uses and outputs drawfiles – meaning that you can change any of the supplied map symbols, which are also drawfiles themselves, and save the new ones as part of your choices. One instance where this happened is that the supplied symbol for a cash machine showed a note with a dollar sign on it; one WROCC member then created the same symbol, but with a pound sign showing on the note.

RiscOSM can have different style sheets, and with maps being rendered ‘on the fly’ you can highlight some items and suppress others on your version of a map. There is a standard ‘style’, and Sine Nomine have put in another style which emphasises railways: this makes the roads grey so that they don’t stand out so much (as shown on the opposite page). You can go to different levels of detail using the provided data, and we were shown some electrified railway lines where there were differences in the voltage used to power the trains. The latest version of RiscOSM includes documentation of the style sheet language so that you can design your own map styles.

Recent changes to the software have led to support for paper sizes of up to A0, and the audience was invited to pass around such a map. If you don’t have such a large format printer you can use Sine Nomine’s free DrawPrint application, which allows you to use your A3 or A4 printer to make up larger sizes through various overlap and join options.

It is worth noting that by using the OSM data, you have to credit that the data comes from Open Street Map – RiscOSM makes this easy by automatically including a suitable credit on each map. In addition, this is the only requirement as unlike almost any other source of maps, there are no other copyright or re-use worries: you can use Open Street Map maps however you like.

Dynamic data

Next Matthew looked at Beeston, near Nottingham, where there are such avid followers of the extension to the Nottingham Tram system that they have been carefully adding the track to the Open Street Map as it is being put in. Tracks could be seen on both sides of a particular road that we looked at, but after a certain point there were just dotted lines to show the projected route which hadn’t yet been constructed. That’s about as dynamic a map as you can get!

If you want to look at other details, you could look at a bus-stop which has an I.D. number; clicking on that number makes a link to the bus times for the routes on that bus stop. This only applies in certain parts of the country, where such bus data is made available by local authorities and OSM users have recorded the bus stop details.

Next we went across (in a map way) to the Netherlands, and looked at a windmill. By Ctrl-clicking on it we were taken to a Wikipedia entry for the windmill, and with it being the Netherlands, you can also go to the windmill database, since they all have unique I.D. number.

On the map of the Netherlands there is also a database for roller-coasters, but at the time of writing, there was no such database for any of the roller-coasters at Alton Towers – so if anyone has a strong stomach and a GPS device, they would be welcome to sign up for an Open Street Map account and add the necessary information to the master database themselves. All improvements made to the original data will make it into the data distributed for RiscOSM by Sine Nomine each time they release a map data update – or you can take the DIY approach with OSMConvert.

If you do make a mistake changing options while creating a map, RiscOSM supports undo and redo and there is a history view to see what you have previously looked at. The software also has a bookmarking system, so that you can return to your favourite maps – not something you would have even thought of a few years ago.

GPS tracking

A new addition to the software since its launch at Wakefield allows for geo-tagged pictures from smartphones to be dragged to RiscOSM: it will then put points on the map where the pictures were taken. The accuracy of these locations does depend on getting a good GPS signal, so there may be some errors. Ctrl-clicking on the points will then allow you to see the pictures.

There is a type of file called a GPX file (an XML format GPS file), which is often available from a GPS devices and tracking software on GPS-equipped smartphones. If you drop such a file onto RiscOSM, it will work out which area of the country to display then plot the track and display some other relevant information, such as the time taken for the journey and elevation changes along the route, which may be useful for walkers, runners or cyclists. Some GPS devices allow notes to be made, and pin info will show on the map where and when the notes were made.

Another new feature is that RiscOSM now registers as a ‘geo’ URI handler so that if you click on a geo link it will start up and display the appropriate map. For example if you look up a town in Wikipedia using your browser (for some reason Wakefield was chosen for the demo), the page often contains a number of links to sources of map data including a geo-URI containing the latitude and longitude.

The geo URI feature can be used by other applications to instruct RiscOSM to open a map. Matthew demonstrated this with the Impact database (another Sine Nomine product): the latitude and longitude of a place were stored in a record in the database, and an action button then constructed and launched the geo URI into RiscOSM.

Co-operative mapping

Matthew then went on to look at some other mapping software. Thomas Milius has written some free software called MapView (see The WROCC 31.6) which also uses the Open Street map data – but rather than using locally-stored data and vector graphics it downloads rendered bitmaps from the OSM’s servers and displays them on screen.

MapView works alongside another tool from Thomas called We Know Where You Live – or WKnowWYL for short. This interfaces to Google’s geo data, allowing searches by postcode, country, town, street name and so on from the desktop. WKnowWYL allows its search results to be dragged out and dropped into another application, such as MapView, to display the location. Sine Nomine has now made RiscOSM work with Thomas Milius’s tools, so it too can display the search results with a simple drag-and-drop.

I think I can say that we were all quite impressed with the range of features within RiscOSM, and didn’t really realise how much information could now be obtained from electronic maps.

Product details

RiscOSM is available for £20 on CD, or £18 for a download. Sine Nomine also sell the Impact database and their website contains plenty of other software, both free and commercial. For more information, see sinenomine.co.uk/software.

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