ToeBee, the Collector of Challenges

From bike riding to OpenStreetMap to Mapillary - read about the journey that has made our community member Toby ([toebee]( one of our most active photo mappers, and brought him to capture photos while paddling a kayak.

From bike riding to OpenStreetMap to Mapillary—read about the journey that has made our community member Toby (toebee) one of our most active photo mappers, and brought him to capture photos while paddling a kayak.

The beginning

“I’d been collecting imagery just for my own mapping purposes since 2012. It was after I got into bike riding. I got a Garmin bike computer which is how I got involved in OpenStreetMap... And then I got a GoPro camera and decided to take pictures just so that I wouldn’t have to make notes while I was riding the bicycle around Kansas,” reminisces Toby—by profession a computer programmer at the Kansas State University.

“So I started taking photos for my own mapping, and I always kind of thought—hey, it would be nice if I could share these photos so that other people could see them and use them to map. Then two years later, along comes Mapillary!”

Toby first heard about Mapillary in 2014 at the State of the Map US conference in Washington DC. He recalls that he played around with the app a bit in the beginning, but it took a while until he started uploading his backlog of tens of thousands of images from Biking Across Kansas (BAK) - an annual eight-day bicycle tour across the state of Kansas.

ToeBee Biking Across Kansas Photo Map At last the bicycle tours are on the map!

The way towards half a million images

“Ever since I just started taking more photos and when I ride or drive somewhere, I try to drive roads that have less or no coverage. I’ve done that with OSM too, just looking at roads that don’t have speed limits mapped. Where it looks like it needs more help, I try to route that way.”

But it goes beyond practical OSM purposes—Toby explains that his choice of route is also affected by the desire to get more complete Mapillary coverage. “It’s all kind of a big grid out here, so there’s about thirty different routes you can take to end up at the same place, so I’ve taken some of those. I originally started mapping in 2012 in OSM, but I’ve gone back and revisited some of those routes just to get them on Mapillary.”

Here’s one of Toby’s favourite sequences, which he has a story for as well. “It is from this year's BAK. It was the first day of the ride. Our destination for the day was Oberlin, Kansas. This area had a fair number of Swedish settlers back in the late 1800s. My Grandpa's family was one of them and he was born in Oberlin. The weather that day was a clear blue sky. And then along the sides of the road I noticed a lot of yellow flowers. Probably weeds, actually. But it made for a striking reminder of the colors of the Swedish flag as I was riding into my Swedish grandfather's home city.”

Toby was surprised to discover that capturing with 5-second intervals still meant a fair amount of things were missing on the images, so he tuned the camera to take a photo every 2 seconds instead. That of course increased the volume considerable and it was no wonder he was soon reaching 100,000, then 200,000, and by now, 474,000 images on Mapillary.

Obviously he uses the images a lot for editing OpenStreetMap, having the Mapillary JOSM plugin active almost always when he maps. But it’s not every man for himself (or woman, for that matter!). “I’m not the only one who’s uploaded photos in Kansas actually. I’ve done some mapping from other people’s photos that I would not have been able to do otherwise.” He’s been in touch with a couple of fellow mappers in Kansas, so on top of everything this is also a nice way to connect with likeminded people.

Photo Map of Kansas
Photo Map of Kansas by ToeBee

Spot the difference: total Kansas coverage on the left, Toby’s on the right

Tips from a Mapillary biker

Since Toby does a lot of his photo mapping on the bike, I of course asked him for tips on bike capturing. His first reaction was, “Always capture!” Next, he contemplated on the importance of finding a good camera-and-mount setting.

“I originally used the handlebar mount that came with the GoPro camera, but on my road bike there is so much vibration that the plastic actually disintegrated after a couple of hundred miles. The camera almost fell off onto the road but I caught it just in time. So I got a RAM Mount, a very solid mount. I mount it right above my front wheel, it’s almost a little too low to the ground sometimes, it’s nice to get photos higher up. But I think that’s the best location for me on the bicycle.”

Ready for biking and photo mapping

Ready to set off for the Biking Across Kansas tour in 2016

When using an action camera, he also suggests taking photos every 2-3 seconds instead of a video, because of the huge difference in image quality which he discovered once he had converted a 720p video to photos and uploaded them on Mapillary. “I think for mapping, photos are definitely better for high resolution. I mean you can’t even read license plates of cars that are right next to me in the video. So it makes it easy to blur things, because there’s pretty much nothing to blur...”

Collecting challenges

Speaking of blurring—I have to mention the tweet from about half a year ago, when Toby really challenged our manual blur approval process. Today this would not be so easy, since experienced blur editors get their submissions accepted automatically every hour. But the benefit remains just as great—besides fixing the blurs on particular images, Toby and other blur requesters have made a tremendous contribution to improve the Mapillary algorithms which use that information to learn and become better at automatic blurring.

Challenging the Mapillary blur editor As counterstrike, I now tried to challenge Toby with submitting 1,000 blur requests in an hour…

Another very noteworthy thing is the list of vehicles that Toby has used for photo mapping. Currently it contains: bicycle, car, tour bus, light rail, airplane, ski lift, kayak, and of course his own two feet. That is an amazing eight in total. He’s musing whether the next thing could perhaps be a real train, or his quadcopter.

Note that the kayak sequence that he recently added to the collection has been captured while alternating between paddling and holding the phone. Inspired from hearing about both this and the ski lift, I ask him if one of the next “vehicles” could also be skis, downhill! He hesitates a bit, but eventually we agree that in any case this should be with a chest mount and not holding the camera/phone in his hand…

Paddling and photo mapping - then photo mapping and paddling

We at Mapillary are really keen to see what Toby comes up with next (he will probably share it on his Twitter account). Meanwhile we’ll continue to be inspired and challenged by him—and you can do the same by joining Mapillary and starting to photo map the world!


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