So we delayed this until release time. We are pleased to announce that Volume 5 has released. As the legendary Steve Jobs once said, "Real Artists Ship". Being able to release a fully completed volume is a big milestone for this project in its current form. Although we have previously produced some printed volumes of maps, they were neither as comprehensive nor as detailed as this new release, which is the first major release that incorporates both historical and current aerial photography based maps as well as diagram maps together in a format that is specifically designed for use on handheld devices. It is also, naturally, a big deal after spending many years working on this project, to actually embark on the first step of a journey that should see every single map, of which there will likely be an estimated 10,000 in total, released in 2020.
(To see the maps, scroll right to the bottom of this post for the link)
"Real Artists Ship" is a concept that addresses that a great many people start projects like this but never complete them. Our experience in the historical community in general is that many people have begun projects of historical research that have not resulted in a finished publication. This is likely reflective of the fact that such projects are extremely time consuming and for example, a publication may require many years of intensive research to complete for an output of perhaps a hundred pages or two. This knowledge has in turn informed the development of this project and the determination of the amount of external research that can or should be undertaken. This has been extensively streamlined with the assistance of Archives New Zealand to enable us to access a large number of historical NZ Railways files in a short time frame. Apart from that external resource access, we are proud of the fact that 99% of the remaining work of the project has been carried out from home. Releasing the finished project for public access is a great personal highlight and our timeframe for completion in 2020 reflects on the fact that we expect our personal resources will be shifted elsewhere after that time as we have been hard at work on NZ Rail Maps for the past 12 years exactly (one year for each volume on average) and it has to be completed sometime to enable us to move on to other challenges in life.
"Real Artists Ship" is also an appropriate concept for the fact that these maps are, in fact, artistic creations and reflect our own creative interests and experiences, The published map format and the contents of each individual map are carefully handcrafted with all the detail designed using the map symbology which is listed in the key for each map. Although the Qgis layout composer outputs the information stored in the GIS database more or less in a standardised way, each map still has to be checked to ensure it is legible and contains all of the useful information that people are likely to want to make use of with the maps. This is one of the reasons why during production we changed the map formats several times in order to present the maps in a way that makes it easier for us to speed up the production of them considerably due to the many challenges in integrating information from other sources such as the Retrolens historical aerial photos and the Linz Data Service downloadable layers. We expect to be able to speed up the production substantially in the other 11 volumes of the maps. The maps themselves are not as information dense as some other publications such as the Quail Atlas, which incorporate extensive hand customisation of the content of every single page. We could not produce such a large volume of maps if every single page had to be hand edited to change the positions of items or add specific notes or tables of information for just that page. The key reason there is such a large volume of maps overall is a design decision taken that in order to give access to as much information about the history of the New Zealand railway network as is reasonably practical, the maps will not have a scale smaller than 1:10000 in the online format and that many of the maps of individual railway yards and where necessary elsewhere in a particular corridor will be published at scales as large as 1:1000. Being able to publish the maps free of charge via the Google Photos cloud storage system is a big factor as well in being able to put a large number of maps into each volume.
To emphasise how valuable the new maps format is, we have previously commented that it is not financially possible to create a mapping website that provides the same kind of functionality that people can use in Google Maps or even Open Street Maps these days, especially on phones and tablets. And whilst there is something in existence called Open Historical Maps, and we have considered publishing to it as a platform, it still does not offer all of the functionality that is being made available in the format we are publishing in.
So if we cannot publish a full web based map service comparable with other web based map services, the next best thing we can do is to produce static maps in a form that makes it easy to navigate quickly between maps as one is actually travelling along a particular route, whether on a train or by road nearby. This became a desirable capability arising out of a journey by road / sea from Christchurch to Gisborne around 18 months ago and it is appropriate therefore that the map volume for the main line to Gisborne and its various branches is the first to be completed.
Whilst there are obvious limitations in the format we have implemented, which uses Google Photos to provide the map storage and the user interface, we expect end users to make use of other online maps in conjunction with our map volumes which have in them sufficient geographical information to enable a particular location depicted on a map to be easily located. Whilst it is obvious zooming in and out is not possible as in the Google Maps website, this in fact requires massive resources to produce and implement such as Google's own enormous collection of aerial photography taken by their own satellites and running in their massive world wide data center cloud so on that basis it is easy to understand why it is difficult for us to duplicate that kind of functionality. Whilst Open Street Maps is able to provide zoomable maps, they are only diagrammatic without any aerial photography which uses the most physical resources and costs the most to implement.
It is enough of an achievement for us to be able to generate these maps on purely a non commercial basis with very little money actually having been spent, mostly being a few hundred dollars on some of the early aerial photo scans (prior to the Retrolens site being established) and the web hosting for the nzrailmaps.nz domain name, which redirects to our free Wordpress site. Obviously there are day to day costs such as travel and accommodation in Dunedin to research the Otago Central Line and travel to Archives New Zealand's Christchurch office to research various railway lines in Canterbury. This project definitely could not have happened in its current form without either the free and open source Qgis software, or the freely available resources from or via Linz (the downloable data layers and contemporary aerial photography from the Linz Data Service website and the historical Retrolens aerial photography, which includes many surveys that were specifically undertaken for New Zealand Railways that are of a very high resolution). Another incidental expense for us has been around $2000 spent on our computer hardware over the last few years to have the processing capability and storage needed to assemble all the map resources. Free internet from our local community has also been very material. Of equal significance but perhaps less map specific has been the availability of the Linux operating system as Windows would have driven us crazy by now and it would have cost us unnecessary hundreds of additional dollars in license costs. Regardless of whatever personal prejudice or preference you may have over operating systems, it is a fact that Linux is used on many of the world's most powerful supercomputers and also on many lightweight low cost computers and its reputation as being highly capable for a wide range of different tasks is well earned. And need we mention it is also free and open source software? Because it is free we have not had to spend a single cent on any software for the project.
Volume 5 contains just over 1000 individual maps in six individual sets (photo albums). Each of these maps was individually created and checked visually from the GIS software and there have been numerous revisions and updates to produce the finished product. This can be appreciated by looking at the range of production dates and times that appear on the bottom left edge of each map, which in general show a range of about one month, from early January up to today. We are aware of a small number of issues with the maps that are now available and will be correcting these, but as far as we know the maps in each album are both complete and accurate. We have taken the opportunity to assemble map sets that contain both aerial and diagram maps in the correct sequence in the same set which required custom Python scripting to be developed alongside the production of the maps themselves. The user interface of Google Photos has its challenges at times, but it is fully capable of uploading the maps and assembling them into the correct order with the use of our scripting capability even when the maps are uploaded out of sequence and in a number of partial uploads. Thus it has been relatively easy to deal with instances of some individual maps failing to upload and having to be re-uploaded out of sequence. We now, however, need to develop a script to enable an individual map to be replaced, which involves copying the file modification time from the original version on the computer to its replacement and then uploading the replacement and deleting the original. This will be undertaken and tested over the next few days as the very first map in the PNGL Main Line set has an incorrect title and needs to be replaced. We also need to come up with a way to make the map key have an earlier file modification time than anything else in our Google Photos site so that the key will always appear at the top of every album set, even though it is shared across every album from one single source.
As we have previously stated, we are now ourselves going to take a few days' break to recuperate from what has been an intense few days of very hard work to reach this milestone. We are already planning the work on the next volume but it will not ramp up to a full pace until next week and we have to take a very good look at an appropriate time schedule for it to ensure we stay on track with our expected timeline for publishing the rest of the maps this year.
- God, the Holy Spirit and His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, who guide our overall direction of life and provide ever present and inexhaustible support for everything we do.
- NZ Rail Heritage Community Online Signalling & Interlocking Diagram Database
- Archives New Zealand, National Library, and DigitalNZ website.
- Linz Data Service
- Local Government Geospatial Alliance (Retrolens Site - hosted by Abley NZ)
- Chat Club Facebook Community
- Campaign for Better Transport Online Community
- NZ Rail Geography Online Community
- Railway Historical Group, NZ Railfans, New Zealand Locomotives and Locomotives of New Zealand Facebook Communities
- Watts Publications / Steve Watts
- NZ Railway and Tramway Atlas / Quail Map Co.
- NZ Railway and Locomotive Society
- Public Transport Users Association NZ (particularly Canterbury branch)
- Canterbury Railway Society
- Hillview Christian School
- C3 Church Christchurch
- Qgis Software Development Community
- Kiwirail Ltd
- Rail Heritage Trust