Published on Sunday, 9 Feb, 2014
Nerd holiday documentation
Quite possibly my favourite thing about freelancing is the ability to control my own ability to take time off. In the last couple of years of being an employee I did some notable 6-8 month stints without a day off, and unsurprisingly it was really not very good for me. Spending time in other parts of the world is something that I really love, and one of my aims has been to make the most of being in charge of my own schedule.
People who know me well will also confirm that I like to document my life. Whether it’s mild OCD photos of the numbers on hotel room doors, or collecting business cards from restaurants, I like knowing where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I like that I have a catalogue of memories and “I’d forgotten about that!” prompts, and I also find it utterly frustrating having a memory of something that is missing key information, such as where things were. There are certain places with memories which don’t exist anymore and I’m sad I never took photos of them, and places I’m sad I’ll never find again because I didn’t capture that information at the time. I’m also sure that there’s a lot of brilliant things that have fallen out of memory in my haste to visit new places.
In addition to my own personal sentimentality, one of my other primary reasons for documentation is when I’ve come back from somewhere and return later, or want to give friends recommendations. “It’s a tiny bar, with no English writing, possibly down that road full of other tiny bars” doesn’t tend to be very helpful, yet a map location, a photograph of the exterior and a branded beer mat are. Having spent over an hour trying to find the 8-bit Cafe in Shinjuku (http://8bitcafe.net/ – 5th floor of a non-descript building, up a tiny staircase in case you’re wondering), this is the kind of information that I wish people would provide me.
For a long time, in advance of going new places I’ve always asked people for recommendations, as I love the personal suggestions that you can get from people who know you. Those, combined with things I’ve found online, tend to make it into my beloved notebook as a combined list, but the information is usually incomplete and fragmented. As with the 8-bit Cafe, on my first trip to Japan I stumbled across some amazing destinations, but they all fell into the above vagueness when trying to recall them. On my second trip I went armed with an iPhone with geotagging turned on, a notebook, and a street atlas which I scribbled notes on. This was pretty successful… up to the point of me recently trying to find said physical items, and deducing they must be somewhere in a box in my boyfriend’s company’s warehouse. This is currently hampering giving recommendations to a friend, and has been utterly frustrating.
Clearly it was time to make the leap to digital. In advance of a long weekend in New York at the start of January this year, I asked Facebook and Twitter for recommendations. The responses included an assortment of links and twitter accounts to follow. I collated everything into a public Google doc and invited select collaborators. You can view it here, though if you’re here for actual recommendations you may want to read on for a different format. We were based in Manhattan and were only there for a short break, hence why everything’s pretty central.
Crowd-sourcing my agenda was immensely successful. My holidays are never the typical tourist spots – I want comic book shops, arcades, gigs, bars and restaurants, and these are the kind of thing where first-hand local experience beats any online “city in 3 days” guide. I got loads of responses from people on Twitter, Facebook and directly, and ended up with far more than we could do in the time that we were there for.
From the Google doc, I made the (new to me and somewhat mind-blowing) discovery that you can make custom Google Maps. Taking the items I was most interested in, I made a map, added my boyfriend as a collaborator so we could combine our lists, and we created layers for the hotel, things to do, and bars/restaurants. The taxonomy was weak, but more layers cost money, and customisation of the icons was possible. Darker colours were a stronger desire, with weaker colours more of a “meh, as it’s round the corner…”. As we visited places they were turned grey (would have been better to put them on a layer and turn this off, but a lack of layers and no easy way to transfer pins between them without recreating them scuppered this). It was really useful to be able to keep a tab open on devices when we were offline – not everything would load up if it wasn’t already cached, but if you knew roughly what you were doing in a particular area it was great to have a map-based reference easily at hand. Comments can be added to each pin, and you can add images, which is useful for documenting references or shots of the exterior etc. I later found out that you can easily export everything to KML, and use this offline – see the end of this post. I’d been looking for ‘save this for offline’ or similar, and had missed the folder icon.
Google don’t really promote the custom maps very well, which could just be my lack of observation, or could be a red flag that this isn’t something that they intend to support long-term. For now, you can get to it by going to http://mapsengine.google.com, or through Google Maps, where it is known as My Maps. Note that the recent version of the Maps application has removed My Maps, so if trying this on a mobile you’ll need to use the MapsEngine link, or make sure that your phone doesn’t open the Maps app by default if going to it within a browser. You can view my New York map here.
You can access My Maps through the somewhat unintuitive method of selecting the search box, and choosing it from the drop-down.
From there you’re able to see a list of your current maps, or make a new one. The MapsEngine process is similar. Once in you’re presented with all of the points, plus your layers and customisation options in a side pane:
Foursquare is bemoaned by many, including my long-suffering boyfriend, but having visits to locations documented is again one of the main reasons that I use it (alongside the sense of self-worth and validation I get from their cute feedback messages and being a Mayor, obviously). We used it frequently in New York, mainly to find restaurant options around where we were, but it’s also great for linking you straight through to menus. I also like how it shows which of your friends have been places nearby – in my case a friend who I know has decent taste had visited some places, so I used that as an added mark of approval. One of the best things about the Foursquare data is that it’s structured, so when looking back you can easily search through your history. What was the hotel you stayed in for that trip? Search the hotels category in a location of New York. As with the Google Maps data, tips and comments can easily be added for a more personal reminder of whether something was worth revisiting or whether it’s rubbish.
As well as being a really useful guide as we walked around the city, I’m now left with some useful assets for future reference. My trip wasn’t that long ago so it’s all still pretty fresh in my mind, and I was able to give my friend Jed a recommendation to go to places. It made me happy to see this today…
…when only a few weeks ago I was doing exactly the same things.
Obviously my recommendations are nerdier than the average person would want, but I’m still hopeful that I can be more use to my travelling friends in the future. This all seems like a great excuse to head back to Japan to re-build up my notes…
As a final word of caution though, hopefully this is a set of memories which won’t get lost in a warehouse, but as I touched on above you never quite know when these services could get pulled. MapsEngine provides export functionality, so I highly recommend that you use it, just in case. From the file icon on the map, choose ‘Export to KML’ to preserve all of your information, or to be able to use it offline. There are also similar tools available for exporting your Foursquare data if you want to preserve it.