Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Use Free Software to Enhance Your History Projects

by Harry Tunnell

Maps and photos are often used to compliment history instruction and research. However, procuring custom maps can be costly. Fortunately, many people already own technology that allows them to create their own custom maps.

This is an article about using free tools to create maps, do basic photo editing, and merge the two efforts. This article describes creating a custom map that shows routes between the History Center and Little Turtle Memorial.

Before sitting down to create a map, it is good practice to check the proposed route. There might be changes, such as a new traffic pattern due to construction. So check first, whenever possible. Geospatial data identifies a location and characteristics of the location. It is the type of data that is used to create maps. You can collect geospatial data at the same time you check the route, which simplifies map making significantly.

The Technology
A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a software or service, consisting of a computerized set of tools that allows users to create or manage geospatial information. GIS software can be expensive to purchase. Fortunately, free versions can be downloaded from the Internet.

The hardware and software used for this article is a Nokia Lumina 925 smartphone with a Windows Phone 8.1 operating system, Run the Map smartphone app, Google Earth, Photo Gallery, and a Dell personal computer (PC) with a Windows operating system.

Get the App & Collect the Data
The first step is to download and install a smartphone GIS app that captures route data (which is different from the apps people use to navigate from place to place). I used Run the Map, which is a free app for Windows Phone.

The next phase is to drive the route. The data is captured within the app as you drive. Once the data is captured it can be viewed on a map within the app, or shared with another GIS. Figure 1 shows the collected route information.

Figure 1: Interface for Run the Map Windows Phone app

The app is very easy to use. When I was in the parking lot of the History Center, I simply started the app, drove the route to and from the Little Turtle Memorial, and the app did all of the work. I paused the app at the memorial so that I could get out and take pictures. The pause is indicated by the notation “2 recorded sequences” in the upper left part of the app interface. You do not have to pause the app to take pictures. However, if you plan to walk around it is a good idea to pause it so that your movement data while walking is not recorded.

I like the Run the Map app because it includes a free sharing feature so that I can email or text the geospatial data without incurring a fee (some apps do this as a pay service). I emailed the data to myself as a KML [Keyhole Markup Language] file. After downloading the email, I used Google Earth (a free desktop GIS) to manipulate the data on a PC and create the final map.

Pictures of landmarks and the memorial were taken with the Nokia Lumina 925 camera. Like the KML file, I also emailed the images.

Create the Map
KML is a file format for geospatial data that was developed for Google Earth (Figure 2). It is a popular format that works with many types of GIS. Once you have Google Earth installed on your PC, double-click the KML file and the data will load in Google Earth. You can also open Google Earth first, and go to the “File” tab on the menu, select open, and select the KML file.

                Figure 2: KML file for the route between the History Center and Little Turtle Memorial

After the data is loaded, you can edit it in the map and add notations, images, and other information. I made changes so that the endpoints were easy to identify and the different routes to and from the memorial stood out (Figure 3). You can see that the History Center and Little Turtle Memorial are clearly marked. The route to the Little Turtle Memorial is green while the route to the History Center is blue. Google Earth maps also show geospatial information—look in the lower right corner and you will see latitude, longitude, elevation, and the date of the imagery.

Figure 3: Finished map that shows routes to and from the Little Turtle Memorial

Data from the app is included in the map. The Run the Map app captures time, distance, speed, and elevation changes for a route (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Map showing additional route data captured by the Run the Map app

Landmarks help people navigate. Sometimes, it can be important to identify them, especially when visiting obscure locations. This sign is visible when driving north along Spy Run Avenue.

Figure 5: Sign for the Little Turtle Memorial, a good landmark for people who are not familiar with the area

GIS maps are interactive; more detail is available by clicking or scrolling. You can also add non-geospatial data to them. When additional data is added, it may not be fully displayed all of the time because it will obscure part of the map. There is usually some indicator though—if you see a jpg file icon, camera icon, or something similar, this means there is additional information.

I added a photo of the sign as a landmark and a note describing the route. (When the photo is collapsed it is represented by a camera icon.) Notice that this version of the map shows the route from the History Center to the Little Turtle Memorial. The nice thing about interactive maps is that information can be hidden if the map becomes cluttered. In this case, I hid the route back to the History Center.

Figure 6: Photos and notes can be incorporated into the map

All images for this article were edited using Photo Gallery, a free photo editing software from Microsoft. People sometimes use the apps that come with a smartphone to edit images. These lightweight apps typically have fewer functions than software that is available for PCs. Photo editing on a PC also tends to be easier because a PC offers more control (e.g., mouse, stylus).

The photo of the memorial plaque is a good example. Here it is before editing.

Figure 7: Photo of the memorial plaque before editing

The photo is fine for many purposes, but it can be improved. The photo was straightened, cropped, and enhanced using the features in Photo Gallery. Photo Gallery also allows retouching so that minor imperfections can be removed. I removed several imperfections on the rock and plaque—including a nasty little bug (Figure 8). 

Figure 8: Nasty little bug on the memorial plaque

The edited photo (Figure 9) is easier to read and now that it has been edited, it can be imported into the map, used for presentations, or incorporated into documents. More refinements are possible, but they can be tedious and require a lot of fine tuning.

Figure 9: Photo of the memorial plaque after editing

There are a few things to be cautious about whenever using a free GIS. Sometimes the systems are not as accurate as software that you buy, because the intended use (and user) is different. For example, a close up of the route shows that it cuts across street and building corners in ways that are not passable by cars. This happens because of how the software processes data. Some software collects fewer data points and uses less powerful algorithms than commercial or professional software, so the data is not refined to the same degree of accuracy. The bottom line is that you need to check on the capability of the software if you require a high degree of accuracy.

Figure 10: Close up of the route showing flaws

As you learn more about free GIS and free photo editing software, you will find myriad uses for them. This article just scratches the surface of the software’s potential. For example, GIS can be used to manipulate (or recreate) the incorrect data shown in the close-up, so the representation of the driving route is accurate.

Google Earth also allows users to input their own data into the system and draw routes. You do not have to drive a route and collect data with a smartphone app. If you are sure of the route (i.e., you drive it every day) or you want to create maps of a historical event (in which case, the route may no longer be passable), there is no utility in trying to drive, walk, or bike the route.

Photo Gallery has a host of features in addition to what has been described in this article. For example, you can create slideshows, share photos on social media, and tag, caption, and apply effects to photos (e.g., using a sepia tone effect to create an antique look), among other things.

Hopefully, this article shows that you can do a lot with free software to improve your history projects. The benefit of making your own maps is that they can be enhanced by photos, notes, and other items of information that you desire, unlike maps that you buy or find online.

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