GIS & Web Mapping Services

Web Mapping Services are more than maps on websites; they provide georeferenced maps generated from GIS databases that can be used interactively.  Google Maps is the obvious example (of sorts) but many more exist.  Municipalities and regional districts often give the public access to some of their geospatial data via web mapping services.  These are both fun (if you’re of a certain disposition) and sometimes quite useful for citizens or anyone curious about a certain area.  Such services vary wildly in complexity, data and tools but at a minimum you can usually search for a property to return assessment info, zoning details, garbage pickup and so on.  The City of Castlegar offers such a service: Castle Map.

City of Castlegar Online GIS Tool 'Castle Maps'

City of Castlegar Online GIS Tool ‘Castle Map’

Castle Map is actually quite decent; you can view orthophotos, elevation data, all the city zoning and Official Community Plan zones, utilities and more.  These features are accessible as layers, as in ArcGIS, and you can also buffer features, measure distance and area, create and save a view bookmark, add text and output a view as a PDF.  The Regional District of Central Kootenay offers another public GIS portal with which to contrast the Castlegar example.

RDCK Interactive Mapping Service

Similar to the Castle Map but incorporating a larger territory, the RDCK’s Interactive Property Information and Mapping System  seems to have a few more feature choices on more layers but is essentially the same in scope of tools, access, etc. A somewhat more impressive example is the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s Interactive Mapping System.

RDKB Interactive Mapping SystemCreated, in part, by Selkirk College’s Geospatial Reseach Centre (SGRC), this Web Mapping Service has some extra bells and whistles like the option to open your own Shapefile or CSV, Batch Geocode, change layer symbology and more.

One last example is the stupefyingly layer mad City of Vancouver Public VanMap.  Among other layers, you can choose to view such things as:

  • Crime Data, by year and type
  • Location of poster cylinders, rooftop gardens, public art, homeless shelters, drinking fountains (and more)
  • All sorts of transportation related features
  • Car share locations
  • Public washrooms, libraries, hospitals, etc.
  • Graffiti locations (marked by little spray cans!)

Vancouver's VanMap

Web Mapping Services can provide the public with a lot of useful geographic information accessible from a single portal.  The capacity to interactively choose whatever layers are useful and thereby tailor the map is excellent and much more efficient than creating a lot of different static maps.  In considering them, it’s easy to wonder if they qualify as ‘proper’ GIS and the answer is far from clear.  They do allow for the display and querying of geographic data but this is limited when compared to a product like ArcMap. Moreover their analysis functions are basically non-existent and this in particular likely invalidates them a real GIS, at least from the vantage of the specialist GIS community.   And of course, WMS have a lot of limits: what data you can view, how you can view that data, what you can export, etc. That Web Mapping Services are so heavily derived from GIS, however, should probably take some of the certainty from any denial of their GIS status. Perhaps it’s better to not get buried in the details of just what GIS is. Perhaps a great strength of GIS is it breadth and versatility, its aversion to vector-crisp definition a sign of its robustness. I’d prefer to think of WMS and Arc-like programs as, respectively, the bicycles and automobiles in the higher category of ‘vehicles’ that represents ‘GIS. ArcMap and cars might be faster and have more features but they’re pricey and can be hard to use; bikes and WMS are fun and cheap and serve a serious purpose.


Sel-Kirkbride College

Now while I think Selkirk College is just peachy, I couldn’t help but notice it has the floor plan of a great many 19th century lunatic asylumsSelkirk College Castlegar (in the parlance of those times). Let’s have an overhead look at old Selkirk…Note prominent central building flanked by radiating subsidiary wings. Note the school’s isolated setting and sprawling grounds. Now let’s consider the archetypal Kirkbride Plan on which the bulk of 19th century American psychiatric facilities were constructed. Named after their advocate Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, these structures are all variations on a MarylandKirkbridetheme characterized, like Selkirk, by a ‘linear plan’ in which a central admin building anchored long and rambling ward wings.  It was also specified tht the hospitals be located in peaceful, isolated settings with the hope that a pleasant setting in nature would have a beneficial effect on patient health.  But that’s about it as far as similarities with Selkirk. Many of them are (or were) profoundly beautiful buffaloStateHospitalstructures though and if you’re interested in a) ornate architecture, b) creepy abandoned buildings, or c) the history of psychiatric treatment (or abuse in many cases), you’ll probably find these old heaps as mesmerizing as I do.

Check out


An Interview With the Creator of a Python Geotagger

Robert Park

Robert Park

I met my friend Rob Park long ago and while we bonded for years over our mutual love of photography, Rob has gone astray in recent years, embarking on the dark road of computer programming.  However, he managed to redeem himself by using his self-taught Python skills to build a photo geotagging program when unable to find an extant program that met his needs. Here is a brief interview between myself and Rob, conducted in the hot tub at Halfway River Hot Springs on October 6, 2013.

Alex: What is GottenGeography?

Rob: GottenGeography is an application for the GNOME desktop that allows you to geotag your photographs.

What is the significance of the name GottenGeography?

The name was chosen because it’s an anagram of Python geotagger.

Well obviously you’re very witty; how difficult was it to make this program?

The program took about two years of effort in the evenings and weekends.

Did you find you were able to write the program fairly handily or did you have to improve your knowledge of python a lot as you worked?

I certainly learned a lot as I went. But Python is one of the easiest languages

Ha ha! Whatever you say… So it geotags photos.  Can you outline how that works?

Well the way it works…Well first of all, it’s specifically aimed at people whose cameras don’t have a built in GPS. Because if you have a GPS built into your camera such as in a camera phone the photos can all be geotagged as they’re taken and my application does nothing for you.  So specifically this is aimed at people who have cameras and GPS units that are separate and don’t communicate with one another.

So the way it works is when you take pictures you would bring a GPS unit with you and you’d record your location. Of course you must be very careful to make sure the clock on your camera is set accurately because then what happens is after you’ve taken the pictures and you get back to your computer you load the pictures and the GPS data into the computer and my program will cross reference the time stamps between the photos and GPS trace and it will interpolate…. Because quite often what happens is the track points in the GPS trace will not correspond perfectly to the time stamps on the photos so some interpolation is necessary. So it does that and places the photos onto a map and the program then displays a map with the photos directly on it and saves the data into the actual photo metadata and that uses a standard EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) format so if you then uploaded those photos to something like Flickr it would recognize the geotag and it would display the photos on the map and display it to your friends as well.

GottenGeography Interface

GottenGeography Interface

And what maps are used by the GottenGeography program?

Open Street Maps.

Tell me more.

Well OSM is a collaborative mapping effort. The best way to think of it is Wikipedia for maps. Because it’s all user contributed mapping data.

What was your motivation in making GottenGeography?

Well the motivation was that I had some exposure to a similar program called PhotoLinker, which is a mac application, and I wanted to switch to GNOME because I was a bit sick of some of the limitations of the mac OS. But I investigated the market and I could not find any comparable apps for GNOME.  Of course, there were geotagging apps but many of them were very low quality.  For example, there was one of them written in java that was a very archaic unmaintained version of java that was difficult to run.  Then there was one that, although it could cross reference your GPS data with your photos it didn’t actually display a map so you had no idea if it was doing an accurate job. So there were all these limitations I saw and instead of messing around with someone else’s code I thought a fresh start was appropriate.  And thus is just started from scratch using thetools I knew which were Python and GTK.

This is a big undertaking that took a lot of effort. Did you not mind doing it for free; was it a labour of love?

Definitely a labour of love.  I did it out of my own needs for such a tool.  Ironically, I don’t even use my own program anymore because now I’m just using my phone which has a built in GPS. So it’s obsolete in my own eyes.  But I still maintain it; there are still others out there who use it.

Do you know how many use it or have downloaded it?

I don’t have any hard stats on that. I’ve had two people actually contribute code. And I’ve had a few dozen people report bugs.  And as rule of thumb for every one person who reports a bug there’s supposedly a thousand people who used it and didn’t bother to report the bug.  So by that highly unscientific assumption we can approximate that I have about 12,000 users.

Does it bother you that smartphones have minimized the need for such a program?

No, I don’t mind at all. I think that smartphones are really interesting. I think they’ll continue to innovate. I mean, it’s somewhat lamentable that the quality of the camera is a bit lower, but as many photographers have said, the best camera is the one you have with you. A low quality camera phone is more useful than an SLR you have in the closet.

Yes, amen.

GottenGeography website:

Robert Park’s photography website: Exolucere

College in the Kootenays

My move to the Kootenays remained murky right until I arrived in Castlegar and started classes at Selkirk College. I knew I wanted to learn more about GIS, and to work in the general geospatial industry, but beyond that the whole scheme seemed a bit outlandish. That’s what happens when you return to school after a long lull and too many years in Edmonton. Three months in, the experience is resolving to a mostly positive picture and I can honestly say I’m glad to be here, though the impending X-mas break will be a relief.

Swinging into the Slocan.

I’d had my doubts about coming to Selkirk. It was a hard choice between here and COGS in Nova Scotia or Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo and I’m nothing if not a ditherer.  But a warm September and the area’s ample bounty of stupendous swimming helped win me over.  It’s a real treat having all these hills and mountains and rivers and views that you just don’t get in central Alberta. Castlegar could use a bit more bustle, and an extra bridge over to Selkirk, but the Kootenays as a whole are a very agreeable mix of striking and comfortable, weird and familiar.