Topographic Maps for Linux (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 27 Mar 2005

Topographic Maps for Linux

I've long wished for something like those topographic map packages I keep seeing in stores. The USGS (US Geological Survey) sells digitized versions of their maps, but there's a hefty setup fee for setting up an order, so it's only reasonable when buying large collections all at once.

There are various Linux mapping applications which do things like download squillions of small map sections from online mapping sites, but they're all highly GPS oriented and I haven't had much luck getting them to work without one. I don't (yet?) have a GPS; but even if I had one, I usually want to make maps for places I've been or might go, not for where I am right now. (I don't generally carry a laptop along on hikes!)

The Topo! map/software packages sold in camping/hiking stores (sometimes under the aegis of National Geographic are very reasonably priced. But of course, the software is written for Windows (and maybe also Mac), not much help to Linux users, and the box gives no indication of the format of the data. Googling is no help; it seems no Linux user has ever tried buying one of these packages to see what's inside. The employees at my local outdoor equipment store (Mel Cotton's) were very nice without knowing the answer, and offered the sensible suggestion of calling the phone number on the box, which turns out to be a small local company, "Wildflower Productions", located in San Francisco.

Calling Wildflower, alas, results in an all too familiar runaround: a touchtone menu tree where no path results in the possibility of contact with a human. Sometimes I wonder why companies bother to list a phone number at all, when they obviously have no intention of letting anyone call in.

Concluding that the only way to find out was to buy one, I did so. A worthwhile experiment, as it turned out! The maps inside are simple GIF files, digitized from the USGS 7.5-minute series and, wonder of wonders, also from the discontinued but still useful 15-minute series. Each directory contains GIF files covering the area of one 7.5 minute map, in small .75-minute square pieces, including pieces of the 15-minute map covering the same area.

A few minutes of hacking with python and Image Magick resulted in a script to stitch together all images in one directory to make one full USGS 7.5 minute map; after a few hours of hacking, I can stitch a map of arbitrary size given start and end longitude and latitude. My initial scripts, such as they are.

Of course, I don't yet have nicities like a key, or an interactive scrolling window, or interpretation of the USGS digital elevation data. I expect I have more work to do. But for now, just being able to generate and print maps for a specific area is a huge boon, especially with all the mapping we're doing in Field Geology class. GIMP's "measure" tool will come in handy for measuring distances and angles!

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[ 11:13 Mar 27, 2005    More programming | permalink to this entry ]