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Monday 30 May 2011

Take a little, give a little more back

Water tower hunters are incredibly grateful for the modern tools of online maps and user-contributed maps available today. In the old days, desk-based research consisted of painstakingly poring over paper maps grid square by grid square, noting any instance of 'wr twr' with the certain knowledge that many towers that were marked therein didn't exist any more and many more towers stood majestically but entirely unmarked.

The reasons for this are varied; sometimes they were simply misclassified or missed by the cartographer when the photo survey took place. Or their omission was for reasons of security of the public water supply or that their presence indicated activity which someone would prefer the public knew as little about as possible. Besides their appreciation, unimpeded access to accurate data on water towers has been the raison d'être of BWTAS.

To find towers in the first place, there is now a dizzying array of resources such as Geograph, Flickr and Panoramio that enable people to post for example their travel photos and pin them to a map with exact coordinates. These sites have thousands, perhaps millions, of water towers images as they never seem to fail to attract attention of photographers however, there is the drawback that such user-generated content does vary in quality.

The iconic water tower in Thorpeness, Suffolk known as 'The House in the Clouds' is variously marked up to a quarter mile from its actual location and by many names such as 'The House in the Sky' and, though a minor detail, it is often described as a converted tower when it was purpose-built to be a home that happened to have a huge tank on top. Such mis-information then gets parroted by other web-hunters and also makes its way into printed tourist guides and becomes a 'meme' that is impossible to correct.

What's still missing from the web though is some way of recording all the other 'meta' data about a water tower along with its location and images of it from various viewpoints. BWTAS are not aware yet of a resource - except for Britain's listed structures - that allows recording of all the pertinent details of British towers that could be searchable by form, date of construction, materials, designer, owner and so on along with its location coordinates and images. It would be very handy to have something that could hold all the various kinds of water tower data, from addresses to the ISBNs and reference numbers of sources. If you know of such a tool, please comment or get in touch as many people in the water tower fraternity think Britain's water infrastructure deserves an online database like the Defence of Britain Project.

In the meantime, the BWTAS committee would like to encourage our members and the world at large to show gratitude for the availability of these free resources and so when we take a little, to give a bit more back by contributing to what's out there. As there are so many resources, a bit of discrimination should be considered as to what is worthwhile to support. In the UK the site Geograph has a 'critical mass' of water towers and so new towers should be added there as it is quickly becoming a definitive list.

If you know of a water tower-related museum, heritage site or a water tower open to the public, it would be helpful to get it listed under 'attractions' in the databases Sat Nav manufacturers pre-install such as the Tele Atlas GPS POI database. POI databases are becoming more and more important all the time and have become the de-facto Yellow Pages ® while people are on the move.

The process is easy, just point your browser to the multi-language Tele Atlas Map Feedback web site and follow the 3 easy steps to somewhere listed or have an incorrect listing changed. This site allows you to enter a location by coordinates or post code but the coding of the point of interest for a water tower is limited to 'other'. One drawback on this site is that it doesn't provide much evidence for locating the precise location. You can drop a pin anywhere on the map but it's best to already have the location coordinates written down before you use the site to enter them.

While you’re adding a heritage site to Tele Atlas you can also add it to the NAVTEQ POI Database too. This site has a lot more detail and the maps can switch between satellite images and graphics so you can be sure you are pinning the right place. At the time of writing only one water tower at King Faisal St, Al Foutah, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was listed there.

And, if your community is plagued by HGVs getting stuck in narrow lanes because of reliance on the driver's sat nav, (which is common issue vexing parish councils in Suffolk) then you can record the actual road restrictions on the NAVTEQ site as well, which should re-direct inappropriate traffic away in the future.

Although you are basically working for free for entity who are profiting from your effort, if you have a vested interest in water towers in some way, then it's well worth the trouble to let other people know exactly where these points of interest are.

For more esoteric data, perhaps purely to record the existence of a structure which the OS Map has omitted, an extremely useful resource is OpenStreetMap, a free editable map of the whole world. It allows you to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on Earth. This site is hosted in London at the UCL VR Centre for the Built Environment.

Here is an incredibly nifty video showing how quickly mapping of the Earth has been done by crowd-sourcing since the project began in 2004.

OSM 2008: A Year of Edits from ItoWorld on Vimeo.

At the time of writing this there were only fifty or so towers marked on the Open Street Map, mostly in the USA. Whilst the learning curve to be a map contributor here is steep, it is a short hill. Most importantly, this resource has enormous credibility and is being used in developing countries and by governments to assist all manner of planning and development which mapping for would otherwise be impossible and unaffordable. Just as the reigns of power were snatched from his hands, erstwhile prime-minister Gordon Brown released the British Ordnance Survey base map to OSM to enable the mapping of the United Kingdom.

Water tower fans should be contributing OSM because people are able to use the data in print publications and websites for free whereas it typically costs £50 to license OS data in a small leaflet or website. So for a body wanting to publish a pamphlet of a local heritage trail, that cost, in practise, rather impeded such initiatives.


Anonymous said...

I am currently plotting water tower locations on Google Maps using a variety of sources for ascertaining the locations. I doing this because I enjoy visiting and photographing water towers but it dawned on me that other people might be interested in the maps. Primarily I am using a copy of Barry Barton’s Water Towers of Great Britain, I am also using online sites mostly BWTAS (obviously), Geograph, Streetmap and Each water tower is marked with an icon and also a link (where one exists) to a website with info, which is usually the relevant Geograph page. I am plotting the locations on separate maps for each county (tried the whole country as a whole but it soon became unmanageable). If anyone is at all interested in these maps just say and I’ll send you the addresses.

Nat Bocking said...

that would be a great help, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have just had to strip all the hyperlinks off the maps in order to convert them to POI files for the sat nav. I'll gradually replace them once all the POI files are created so bear with me!

Nat Bocking said...

Are you using Garmin. There's a website that converts Google maps into GPX that loads into your Garmin. I only have a basic Nuvi 1340 but it works pretty well.

Pie Master said...

Hi I have been doing something similar, but with Microsoft AutoRoute so I don't need a web connection...

I've also been loading my TomTom up with water tower locations as I research them - I've over 500 extant and about 60 demolished towers so far.

If you would like to get in touch, email us at bwtashotmail,co,uk - replacing comma's with periods and with @.