Visualizing Summer Travels Part 1: OpenPaths

This post is part of a series on visualizing data from my summer travels.

Oscar Levant once said, darkly, that “happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.” We humans have a way of constructing and reconstructing experiences and memories through the methods by which we recall them. The endlessly repeated anecdote from your vacation in Italy eventually becomes emblematic of the larger trip. The photograph on the wall from your wedding day becomes a synecdoche for the entire event.

I spent the past two months in Europe and documented my travels through a set of photographs which have become emblematic, for me, of packages of experiences from different places. However, they are often skewed and selective, telling only one deliberate perspective of a wider, richer experience. Another way to remember and reminisce about one’s travels is through maps. Where did I go? What path did I take? How did the parts of the trip fit together? The answers to these questions are useful in revealing another perspective of the larger experience.

Data Collection with OpenPaths

To that end, I am exploring several web mapping techniques to visualizing where I went and what paths I followed this summer. My location data comes from OpenPaths. This app uploads location data from your mobile device to their web site at a customizable frequency interval. You own your data. It is secure and protected and no one else can access it unless you explicitly grant them permission. Researchers can share project proposals with you, but it’s up to you to decide on a case by case basis if you’ll donate your anonymized location data to their cause. Furthermore, you can work with your dataset through the OpenPaths API or export it as a CSV file, etc.

I traveled through Europe with my unlocked Android phone (a Nexus 4, which works globally on GSM networks) on T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan, which includes unlimited free international data roaming in its $50/month price tag. The plan covers most European nations other than Albania and the former Yugoslav states, which I did travel through.

This means that OpenPaths was able to upload my GPS location data regularly throughout my trip, via cellular data, except while in these Balkan countries. There, my location data was only uploaded while I was connected to WiFi. The dataset I’ll be mapping contains approximately 1,800 time-stamped lat-long coordinate points and is available here. I discuss how I reverse-geocoded it here.

Goals and Next Steps

I’ll subsequently explore how to visualize this location data with two goals in mind. First, which tools and techniques work well for posterity’s sake? How can I remember and explore where I went and what I did on this trip, using location data? The second goal is to play with web mapping tools and evaluate them against each other. This learning experience can help inform the upcoming Urban Informatics and Visualization course at UC Berkeley this fall semester, for which I am the grad student instructor. Let’s dig in.

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