Football and Facebook Meet GIS in GeoWeb 2008

13 Apr, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Conference hosts debut student contest.

In Dallas, Texas, Bryan Chastain, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, is building a Web-based mapping application that lets high school football teams select neutral sites for playoff games. About 1,200 miles north, in Toronto, Ontario, Ryerson University student Eric Chang is working on a collaboration platform that lets people in different locations share the same GIS application. In June, Chastain and Chang's programs, along with dozens of others, will be forwarded to a committee of GIS industry leaders as entries for a student contest at the GeoWeb 2008 Conference (July 21-25, Vancouver, BC, Canada). If they both make it to the conference, Chastain and Chang might actually meet, confirming the tagline for the conference: "Everything is connected."

Play Ball
Apparently, finding neutral ground for a football playoff takes quite a bit of wrangling. Chastain, who is as much a fan of the game as he is of geospatial technologies, explained, "Coaches from the competing teams would come together to pick a neutral site. Ideally, they won't want the venue to be advantageous to one team or another. It should be the middle ground, roughly equal distance from both schools. It shouldn't take too much driving time to get there for either side."

The size of the teams is also a consideration. Depending on the number of students enrolled in a semester year, a Texas school falls somewhere within the official 1A (smallest) to 6A (largest) rating system. A six-player team on the lower end of the scale, for example, would typically play in an 80 x 40 yard field; an 11-player team generally requires a 100 x 54 yard field.

"A 5A-rated team would need a standard playoff stadium, whereas a 1A team can just play in a high school stadium," Chastain observed.

Chastain estimates the total number of high school football teams in Texas to be 1,500. His database accounts for 1,517., a free resource portal for fans of Texas high school football, reports, "On Friday nights during the football season, it is understood that as many as one in 15 Texas residents are attending, playing, coaching, or taking part in activities at a high school football game. In rural areas, this number is much greater."

Click for larger image
Bryan Chastain, a contestant of GeoWeb 2008's Student Contest, is working on a Web-based aplication powered by Google Maps to help Texas football coaches select the best playoff sites. (Click image for a larger version)

Chastain had previously developed a version of his application in ESRI's ArcGIS. But he realized the football coaches will not likely have a GIS application installed on their desktops, nor would they know how to navigate the complicated interface.

He also discovered a flaw in his previous setup. "I used a straight line to calculate the travel time and distance between the school and the playoff field," he explained. "But in certain areas, especially rural areas, the roads aren't straight."

So he went back to the drawing board. This time, using JAVA scripts and the KML markup language (used by Google Earth and Google Map), he developed a program that taps into Google Map's open application programming interface (API). This way, his application can take advantage of Google Map's existing geospatial data to compute the travel time and distance to the playoff venue.

"It's has a Web interface, so anyone anywhere with a browser can get on it," he pointed out.

Chastain had since learned quite a bit about how football coaches think. "One of the items they consider when selecting a site, which I hadn't thought of, is whether they've played on a particular field before," he revealed. "Players' familiarity with the venue can give them advantage."

He's now working on incorporating the newfound information into his application. For stadium locations, he used the data found at as the starting point. He geocoded — and corrected — the addresses listed as needed.

NetMeeting for GIS
Chang describes his program, currently named GeoLink, as a collaborative 3D GIS application. Simply put, he's developing the geospatial equivalent of Microsoft NetMeeting.

"Just like in NetMeeting [where people share and work on Office applications remotely via the Web], globally dispersed team members will be able to share their 3D GIS environment [on GeoLink]," he explained.

As required by the contest, Chang uses open-source programming languages, including JAVA, JAVA 3D, Xj3D, Jgroup, and Jade.

"The first phase of the prototype is complete," Chang said. "We're into the second phase, where we're testing out [the application] to make sure that people can not only share the environment simultaneously but work in it collaboratively."

Eric Chang is developing a collaborative environment in which users can share a 3D GIS application, as they would with Office applications in Netmeeting.

Furthermore, Chang is introducing certain social networking dynamics found in sites like Facebook to GeoLink. "The main idea we borrowed from social networking sites is the way [the users] know what the others are doing," Chang said.

On Facebook a user can choose to enable a "newsfeed" option, which notifies him or her with the latest updates about what the people in his or her network are doing. For instance, when someone in the user's network adds a new friend or posts a new photo, the user gets a notice about the activity. In Chang's application, a similar feature informs team members of the decisions and operations made by the others that may have an impact on the project.

The theme of the GeoWeb conference this year is "Infrastructure: Local to Global." This is also the first time the organizers are hosting a student contest, which challenges participants to "materially advance the development of the GeoWeb with either a theoretical solution or a piece of software." All software must be open source and free of any royalties or "other encumbrances." Chastain and Chang have two more months to fine-tune their codes and put the finishing touches on their applications.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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