Friday, April 23, 2010

TMAP International

I initiated the Smith-Kettlewell Tactile Maps Automated Production (TMAP) project in late 2003. The original idea was to create a web-based tool that would allow blind and visually-impaired people to independently download and print out (emboss) tactile street maps of any location they might want. The project web site went live in late 2004, with support for all graphics-capable Braille embossers, a variety of Braille labeling options, variable scale selection, page-size options, and a bunch of other really cool and flexible features.

The user simply specifies an address or intersection and the tactile map is generated according to the various user preferences. The embosser-ready file is then downloaded and sent to the "printer." I have never been a big fan of swell paper because of its texture, high per-sheet cost, soft Braille, etc. For this reason I have not put much effort into a swell paper driver, but I could be convinced.

Incidentally, you might be wondering why you haven't been downloading and printing out all kinds of street maps over the last 6 years since this web site has been available. Well, the actual TMAP site is still something of a secret. This is because I am still essentially the only person on the project, and I have almost no time to support users. I allow high-end, savvy users access to the site because I know most of them can eliminate non-TMAP problems and ask me only about problems that are my fault. I have avoided a general announcement of the site's location simply because I don't have time to help people troubleshoot their embosser setup, networked printer sharing, Internet connectivity, etc. My dream is to have someone offer to give TMAP a good home in a service-oriented non-profit or AT company. A research organization like Smith-Kettlewell simply isn't set up to provide the kind of support required.

This is all by way of bringing you up to date just in case you haven't been following the TMAP project from the beginning. Since we started, we have had a number of major improvements and milestones. These include

  • changing the map data from free Tiger Line data from the US Census Bureau to much better TeleAtlas map data courtesy of Mike May and Sendero (2006)

  • a collaboration with Touch Graphics, Inc., to create a system for the automated production of TTT-based audio/tactile street maps. You can buy one here if you have a TTT. (2006)

  • A collaboration with the San Francisco LightHouse where they use the TMAP web site to emboss tactile street maps for free upon request (non-Californian clients must pay a fee). (2007)

  • a collaboration with ViewPlus, Inc., to allow their IVEO product to work with TMAP's scalable vector graphics (SVG) output format(2007)

  • use of the google maps API for amazingly robust geocoding (2009)

Now you're mostly caught up on TMAP and we can get to the meat of the post: until now, TMAP has only included street data for the United States. While that's nice for us Yanks or those who plan to visit us, it doesn't help the millions of blind people outside the U.S. much. With the kind permission of Mike May and the Sendero Group, TMAP will soon be able to produce well-formatted tactile street maps for a large number of additional countries. We will start with English-speaking countries (e.g., Canada, Australia, England, Ireland) so that I have time to deal with multi-lingual Braille translation issues. In case you're interested, I use NFBTRANS as the Braille translation utility for TMAP text and labels. Once the multi-lingual Braille translation is in place we can open the system to include any of the data supported by TeleAtlas. This includes a big chunk of the world's wealthy nations, and many of the less wealthy nations as well.

One of the really interesting issues this is going to bring out is the fact that cities in the U.S. are new and tend to be laid out on something of a grid pattern. Of course there are notable exceptions to this like Boston and North Berkeley, but for the most part, city streets are organized on a simple orthogonal grid. The TMAP labeling scheme (I'll do another post focusing on this some time) uses abbreviated braille labels around the perimeter of the map where the streets hit the edge. This tends to work nicely with grid-style cities. It also works reasonably well in sparse, non-grid environments like American suburbs. It does not work that well in dense, unruly cities like Boston and North Berkeley. Older cities such as are the general rule in places like Europe and Asia will be more difficult to accommodate with this labeling scheme and we may find that we will need to introduce some alternative labeling approaches for these older cities. Of course, as you zoom in (increase the scale) this problem is reduced as the density of streets goes down. It may simply be that we will need to recommend larger scales for such twisty cities as London and Madrid.

Since one never knows what problems one might encounter along the way, I hesitate to set a date for when I expect TMAP to be internationalized, but it should be relatively soon -- within months of this posting. I'll let you know!

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