Atlastory: Mapping the history of the world

Certain ideas are “inevitable” over time. Paul Graham calls them “[squares] in the periodic table” — if they don’t exist now, they’ll be created shortly. It’s only a matter of when, not if.

I believe that Atlastory is one of those ideas. The following is a long post about a project I’ve been passionate about for some time now and am currently in the process of winding down.

The Idea

Atlastory is an open source project to create an interactive map that chronicles the history of life on earth. It’s a “Google Maps” for history. The ultimate goal is the ability to see what the world looked like 50, 200, 1000+ years ago. It was inspired by OpenStreetMap & Wikipedia: combining historic maps with cultural & statistical data.

Atlastory map in action

I started Atlastory at first because I’m a fan of both history and good data visualizations. I was surprised something like this didn’t already exist and thought that it would be an amazing educational tool.

Maps are one of the best ways to clearly show an enormous amount of information. Since everything in the past took place at a certain time and location, maps are an obvious choice to visualize that knowledge. Understanding history requires seeing changes and interactions over time, and a four-dimensional map allows this.

To envision information—and what bright and splendid visions can result—is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, art.” — Edward Tufte

Good design will be a key aspect of the final product. Good information design can communicate a huge amount of knowledge in a small window of time or space. Great information design has a high amount of density and complexity while remaining completely understandable.

The Vision (version ∞)

Atlastory’s purpose is to improve understanding of the past by organizing and visualizing historic knowledge.

My vision for Atlastory was that one day it would become a tool like Wikipedia that’s used regularly around the world. A journalist could use it to go back 20 years to see the geography and timeline of a major world event. A student could use it to go back 20,000 years to see the expansion of human culture across the globe. A climatologist could use it to visualize the historic overlap of population growth with changes in global climate patterns.

Wikipedia organizes information by creating a searchable network of interconnected articles that combine text and other multimedia. Atlastory can be the first medium that allows completely visual navigation, displaying information at a much higher density and level of interactivity.

1937-WORLD

Imagine students in a classroom learning about World War II. You’d be able to see the country borders of Europe as they existed in 1942. Drag the timeline, and see the borders change as the years go on. Turn on an overlay of population density or GDP per capita and see the flow of activity throughout the war. Zoom in and see the troop movements of a pivotal battle.

The visual interactivity would make it much more enticing for people, young and old. Almost game-like in terms of exploration and discovery.

Eventually, the timeline could go back far enough that you’re able to see continental drift and other pre-historic geographic or environmental changes.

Map content

Maps can be broken down into a few different types:

  • Physical — shows the physical landscape including mountains, rivers, lakes.
  • Political — sovereign, national and state boundaries, with cities of all sizes. The typical world map you see will be political with some physical features.
  • Road — shows roads of various sizes along with destinations and points of interest. Google Maps & other navigation apps fall into this category.
  • Statistical — shows statistics about human populations such as economic stats, population density, etc.
  • Scientific — thematic maps that can show climate, ecological regions, etc. (see the climate map below)
  • Events — shows how a specific event played out geographically, like WWII or Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Climate patterns

Any map type that has enough data to span long periods could eventually go into the Atlastory system. Event, thematic, statistical, and scientific maps could all seamlessly layer on top of the main “base map”.

Base map

The Atlastory base map should be an elegant combination between 3 map types: physical (basic landscape features), political (sovereign and administrative boundaries), and cultural (see below). Major roads and infrastructure would be added only after a worldwide “structure” of the base map was created.

Importantly, map creation should be top down, from global to local. The purpose of an Atlastory map is not navigation, it is understanding of history. Creating a global structure will also provide context and make it easier to interest other users/contributors.

Cultural cartography

Most world maps made today (of the present time or of the last few hundred years or so) are of the political variety. But what happens when you go back a few thousand years? What about areas of the world where, even now, aren’t necessarily defined by geopolitical boundaries?

The solution is mapping cultural regions. Culture, in this case, being human societies with common language, belief systems, and norms. “A cultural boundary (also cultural border) in ethnology is a geographical boundary between two identifiable ethnic or ethno-linguistic cultures.”

A cultural map would have different levels, just like political maps: from dominant cultural macroregions to local divisions between subcultures or classes within a society (blue collar vs. white collar, etc.).

Combining cultural cartography with typical map types allows for a much better understanding of both modern and ancient history. Culture plays a major role in world events & limiting the map to only defined borders paints an inaccurate view of history.

Cultural regions

(Notice any overlap between cultural regions and the climate regions in the map above it?)

The Tech

The technical infrastructure behind Atlastory has a few basic components:

  1. A database of nodes (latitude/longitude points) organized into shapes, layers, types, and time periods.
  2. An API that manages, imports and exports data from the database.
  3. crowdsourced map editor interface (like iD for OpenStreetMap, but designed specifically for top-down time-based editing).
  4. A map rendering service that turns raw map data from the database into vector tiles that can be styled for viewing.
  5. The map itself: a web interface to view and navigate the maps.

Most of the components would be built from existing open-source tools created by organizations like OpenStreetMap, MapBox, and CartoDB. There has been a lot of technical innovation in this field over the past few years which is one of the main reasons something like Atlastory is now possible to build. (Although given what I known about the requirements still very challenging.)

Read more about the technical requirements…

The current status and future of Atlastory

I’ve been working on this as a side project for more than 3 years now. Originally I imagined being able to quickly find a way to profit from the service. But as development dragged on and other commitments began taking up more of my time, I realized I’d never be able to finish it alone.

Earlier this year I joined Mashgin, a startup in the Bay Area, as a full-time “Generalist.” My spare time completely dried up and I decided everything needed to be completely open sourced and distributed to anyone interested in the project.

Due to personal time constraints, I can’t continue with it so I’m looking for others who are interested. This could mean taking over / adapting the codebase or using other means to pursue the idea. See below for more details on what’s currently done. Although many of the back-end components are functional, the infrastructure is in a rather unusable state right now.

Please contact me or leave a comment below if this strikes your curiosity or you know anyone else who would be interested. I’m happy to answer any questions.

Resources

4 Interesting 13F Buys (Q1-08)

I’ll try as much as possible to keep this tradition up every quarter. Today is the day that the 13F’s are released for funds managing over $100m. Below is a list of 4 picks that I find interesting:

WellCare1. WellCare Health Plans (WCG) — Pabrai Investments, Fairholme Fund — I don’t know much about healthcare companies, but Wellcare seems like it might be a very low risk, high uncertainty situation. Recently, a summary of Pabrai’s thesis on Wellcare was posted on the Value Investing Congress Blog. Using the last quarter with information available, WCG is trading at an EV/EBIT of about 1.8x (!).

2. EchoStar Corp. (SATS) — Greenlight Capital, Fairholme Fund (spin-out) — Spun off from Dish Network (formerly EchoStar) back in January. Has multiple holdings, including a set-top box business, SlingMedia, and 7 satellites. SATS could be extremely undervalued if you add up the valuations of its separate companies. See the VIC Writeup for more details. Charlie Ergan, Chairman and major shareholder, is extremely smart and should never be underestimated.

WellPoint3. WellPoint Inc. (::yahoo(“WLP”)::) — Springhouse Capital, Greenlight Capital, Fairholme Fund, Berkshire Hathaway, Baupost Group — Quite the lineup. Another beat-down healthcare company, but with less uncertainty. If you net out cash and unrelated investments, enterprise value is about $16B. Pre-tax income in the past year was $5.3B. So, even if WLP has lower earnings going forward, it’s trading for only 3x EBIT. It may pay to find out. (By the looks of it, healthcare companies must have a thing for logos with little swively waves in them.)

4. American Woodmark (::yahoo(“AMWD”)::) — Stadium Capital, Akre Capital, Fine Capital — A manufacturer and distributer of wood cabinets. Trading at about 8x TTM pre-tax free cash flow. It looks like they haven’t done well in the last few years, but if they can get back on track this is a very cheap stock. I don’t know a lot about wood prices, but it looks like gross margins have fluctuated widely in the past.

13F buys archive: Third Quarter 2007; Fourth Quarter 2007
Related link: Search for filings on the SEC website

Disclosure: We own a small position in SATS. This is not a recommendation to buy or sell any security.

Dr Pepper Snapple: Spin-off Bargain?

Dr Pepper Snapple

On Wednesday the 7th, Dr Pepper Snapple Group (::yahoo(“DPS”)::) officially began to trade. Its $25 price tag is lower than many expected after the soft-drink maker was spun-off of its parent company, Cadbury Schweppes.

Because spin-offs in general beat the market (and can make for excellent hunting grounds), I’m always looking for potential purchases. DPS stands out because of its well recognized brand names, competitive advantage, and unique spin-off situation.

Cadbury, its prior owner, trades on the London Stock Exchange. But when DPS was spun-off, it traded on the NYSE. This is a problem for mutual funds and institutions in the UK that owned Cadbury. They can’t or don’t want to hold a foreign-traded security. So more than likely (this may have already started), these institutions will sell their newly received DPS shares without regard to price.

Some of the brands of DPS include: Dr Pepper, Snapple, 7 UP, Motts, Sunkist, A&W, Hawaiian Punch. This post isn’t meant to be a complete analysis of the investment, just my initial thoughts on a potential opportunity.

Comparisons

The table below compares DPS with other soft-drink and consumer goods companies. Continue reading “Dr Pepper Snapple: Spin-off Bargain?”

Idea: ValueVision Media

ValueVision Media (VVTV) – $5.58

ShopNBCAlthough I planned on writing up my entire thesis for VVTV, things got a little busy and I never ended up finishing it. Thankfully, someone over at Value Investors Club has done my job for me. Click here to see david101’s writeup on ValueVision (available via a 45-day delay).

I would also reiterate that under $6 per share this is a very “heads I win, tails I don’t lose much” type of investment. There is uncertainty surrounding a few different aspects of the investment (like cable distribution costs, the transition to digital, new internet ventures) but little to no downside based on hard assets and cash. If a few things go right ValueVision could be worth 2-3x its current price. In addition to the information provided in the above writeup, I’ll add a few of my thoughts below: Continue reading “Idea: ValueVision Media”

HSN: A Future Bargain?

There have been a lot of articles and blog posts recently regarding the split-up of IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI). Basically, IAC is an internet/retail/media conglomerate that has been trading at a discount because of its complexity. Last Monday, Barry Diller announced that IAC will be splitting up into 5 separately traded public companies. I won’t go into too much detail as it has been discussed more thoroughly elsewhere. (A few good descriptions can be found here and here).

The two divisions that I’m most interested in as businesses are HSN and Ticketmaster. Below I go over HSN in more detail. Out of all five, I think that (depending on timing) HSN, Interval and LendingTree will have the most downside pressure once spun off.

I don’t know much about LendingTree. But with what’s going on in the housing and mortgage sectors right now, investors will probably dump it in favor of IAC’s more desirable properties. Namely Ticketmaster and the IAC internet properties.

Home Shopping Network

HSN

The Home Shopping Network (HSN) is the largest division of IAC in terms of sales. Out of the businesses that IAC currently owns, HSN was also the first to be acquired by Barry Diller. It sells a variety of products over the air, 24 hours a day, in over 89 million homes across the world. HSN has a 30% share of the home shopping market, with QVC(owned by John Malone/Liberty Media) and ShopNBC accounting for the other 60% and 10%, respectively.

Continue reading “HSN: A Future Bargain?”

Investment Idea: MAIR

MAIR Holdings (MAIR) – $5.17

MAIR is a very low risk / high uncertainty opportunity that has identifiable catalysts to unlock value in a reasonable amount of time. MAIR is a holding company that at the moment owns a very small regional airline (Big Sky Airlines) but is a majority cash and investments. It previously owned Mesaba Airlines, which went bankrupt in 2005, and was subsequently sold to Northwest Airlines (NWA) in April of this year. The current valuation numbers are below: ($Millions)

Cash & investments 61.44
Receivable from Mesaba 13.50
Payable to Northwest (shares) (11.07)
Restricted cash (see below) 13.11
Total 76.98 ($5.13 per share)

I look at this value as the downside, assuming management doesn’t do something stupid with the cash. There are two activist investors (owning over 14% of the company) pushing MAIR to distribute excess cash and sell Big Sky, so I’m hoping this helps things out a bit. The restricted cash account is collateral for a plane hangar MAIR guaranteed to Mesaba bondholders. As long as MAIR finds a sublessor for the hangar by March 2008, the $13mm will be released. Continue reading “Investment Idea: MAIR”