Hobbies and pastimes of technical writers everywhere

Hallo fellow techcomm folks! Do you have a hobby?

Mine is fairly pedestrian. I like to go walking in the bush. It blows away the cobwebs. Well, actually, I often have to blow away the cobwebs myself. They festoon the pathways in the early morning. It’s best to keep your mouth closed when strolling in the Australian bush, or you’ll find yourself spitting spiders.

Hobbies of technical writers

Sometimes a bird pops out and does something interesting, and I blog about it.

Of a dark winter’s eve I can perchance be found tickling the ivories. Perhaps significantly, other members of the household are usually to be found in the furthest corners of the house.

So fess up

What do you get up to when the pleasures of the pen pall? (Aside from avoiding sentences like that.)

For years I had a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon pasted above my desk. It showed Calvin’s father with a mangled bicycle, obviously the result of a bad stack. The caption read: “The secret to enjoying your job is to have a hobby that’s even worse.”

How to build a map using a spreadsheet and JavaScript

This week I published a post on the Google Geo Developers Blog describing the building blocks of Tech Comm on a Map. That post assumes some knowledge of the Google Maps JavaScript API, so I’ve decided to write a top-up post with a little more detail.

Tech Comm on a Map puts technical communication titbits (societies, groups, businesses and conferences) onto an interactive map, together with the data and functionality provided by Google Maps. You can grab a copy of the code from GitHub. The most relevant bits are the HTML that defines the web page (index.html) and the JavaScript that defines and interacts with the map.

Loading the Google Maps JavaScript API

The first thing is to get hold of a map via the Google Maps JavaScript API. An HTML <script> element imports the Google Maps JavaScript API library into the web page:

<script type="text/javascript"
     src="https://maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/js?key=[MY-API-KEY]
     &libraries=places">
 </script>

Now all the functions of the Google Maps JavaScript API are available to the web page, and I can call them from my own JavaScript. With just a few lines of code I get an interactive Google map, loaded with geographical data and offering the default set of user functionality: zoom, pan, the choice of map view or satellite view, and Street View. To get started, see the Google Maps JavaScript API documentation.

You may have noticed the libraries parameter in the above <script> element:

&libraries=places

I’ve added that parameter to request the Places library, which I use for the search box on the map as described later in this post.

Putting the map into the HTML page

The HTML file contains a <div> element, with an ID, to define a place to put the map. In this case, I’ve called it “map-canvas”.

 <div id="map-canvas"></div>

Now the JavaScript can refer to that <div> when inserting the map onto the page. In essence, the JavaScript consists of two sections:

  • A function, here called “initializeMap()”, that sets up the map options and then adds the map to the page.
  • A listener that waits until the page has finished loading, then adds the map by calling the “initializeMap()” function.

Below is part of the “initializeMap()” function. It creates the map object, google.maps.Map, passing it the <div> element that will contain the map, and a number of parameters that define the map centre, zoom factor, and other options:

function initializeMap() {
  map = new google.maps.Map(document.getElementById("map-canvas"), {
    center: {lat: 35.55, lng: 16.50},
    zoom: DEFAULT_ZOOM,
    panControl: false,
    streetViewControl: true,
    streetViewControlOptions: {
      position: google.maps.ControlPosition.LEFT_BOTTOM
    },
    zoomControl: true,
    zoomControlOptions: {
      position: google.maps.ControlPosition.LEFT_BOTTOM
    }
  });
}

And this is the listener that calls the function to load the map:

google.maps.event.addDomListener(window, 'load', initializeMap);
Great, now we have a map, and I can start adding the bits and pieces that make up Tech Comm on a Map.

Visualising tech comm data on the map

Tech Comm on a Map contains information of the following types, all related to technical writing and technical communication:

  • Conferences (purple circles).
  • Societies (yellow circles), which includes societies and associations.
  • Groups (pink circles) for smaller groups and regular meet-ups of technical communicators, either as part of a larger society/association, or as an independent group.
  • Businesses  (green circles) for commercial organisations specialising in tech comm, such as consultancies, recruiters, publishers, independent technical writers, and so on.
  • Other (blue circles), a grab bag to catch anything that doesn’t fit into the above categories.

The data is held in a Google Docs spreadsheet. Any changes we make in the spreadsheet are immediately reflected on the map. For details on setting up such a spreadsheet, and pulling the information into the map, see my post on the Google Geo Developers Blog.

The Place Autocomplete search box

The last piece of the puzzle is to let users search for a specific location on the map, so that they can zoom in and see the events in that location. The location search box on the map is provided by the Place Autocomplete widget from the Google Places API.
The HTML defines an input field for the search box:
<input id="place-search" type="text"
  placeholder="Search for a location">
The JavaScript adds the search box to the page, and creates a listener to react when the user starts typing in the search box:
var input = /** @type {HTMLInputElement} */(
    document.getElementById('place-search'));

var types = document.getElementById('type-selector');
var branding = document.getElementById('branding');
map.controls[google.maps.ControlPosition.TOP_LEFT].push(branding);
map.controls[google.maps.ControlPosition.LEFT_TOP].push(types);
map.controls[google.maps.ControlPosition.TOP_LEFT].push(input);

var autocomplete = new google.maps.places.Autocomplete(input);

// When the user searches for & selects a place, zoom in & add a marker.
var searchMarker = new google.maps.Marker({
  map: map,
  visible: false,
});

autocomplete.addListener('place_changed', function() {
  searchMarker.setVisible(false);
  var place = autocomplete.getPlace();
  if (!place.geometry) {
    return;
  }

  // If the place has a geometry, then show it on the map.
  if (place.geometry.viewport) {
    map.fitBounds(place.geometry.viewport);
  } else {
    map.setCenter(place.geometry.location);
    map.setZoom(AUTO_ZOOM);
  }
  searchMarker.setIcon(/** @type {google.maps.Icon} */({
    url: place.icon,
    size: new google.maps.Size(71, 71),
    origin: new google.maps.Point(0, 0),
    anchor: new google.maps.Point(17, 34),
    scaledSize: new google.maps.Size(35, 35)
  }));
  searchMarker.setPosition(place.geometry.location);
  searchMarker.setVisible(true);
});

What’s next?

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this project. We’ll continue adding data items to the spreadsheet. We technical communicators are putting ourselves on the map!

As far as the code is concerned, there are already a few ideas for new features:

  • Add marker clustering, so that it’s easier to read the map when there’s a large number of items in a small area.
  • Make it possible to share a link to a particular item on the map, for example by creating and storing a hash fragment in the URL.
  • Add a data type for training/courses.

Would you like to contribute? The code is on GitHub.

Documentation that developers need to do their jobs

A fellow technical writer asked me this week about the documentation that developers need to do their jobs. He was thinking not of the guides people need when they want to integrate their systems with another organisation’s systems, but rather the internal guides developers may write for themselves about their projects and tools.

That’s a very good question. I’ve thought about it over the last couple of days, and pulled together a list of the types of developer-focused documentation I’ve come across. If you have any to add, please do!

The list is confined to documents relating to the role of software engineer/developer. It doesn’t include more general information that all employees need, such as human resources and facilities.

Information about the project and system they’re working on

  • Who the people are: engineering team members, product managers, technical writers, stakeholders.
  • Customers: Who they are and what they do, or would like to do, with the system or application that the team is developing.
  • Goals: Mission, vision, goals for the upcoming month/quarter/year.
  • Product requirements document for the system, application, or major feature that they’re working on.
  • Design documents.
  • Architectural overview, preferably in the form of a diagram.
  • Comments in the code, written by their fellow developers.

Help with their development environment

  • How to set  up the development environment for the application/system that the team is developing.
  • Guides to specific tools, whether built in-house or third party, including the IDE of choice, build tool, source repository.
  • A pointer to the issue tracker used by the team.
  • Guide to the team’s code review tool and procedures.
  • Best practices for writing automated tests, and information about existing code coverage.
  • Links to the team’s online chat room, useful email groups, and other communication tools used by the team.
  • Where to go with technical and tooling problems.

Coding guides

  • Coding style guides for each programming language in use.
  • Guidelines for in-code comments: style; where to put them; how long they should be; the difference between simple comments and those that are intended for automated doc generation such as Javadoc; and encouragement that comments in the code are a Good Thing.
  • Best practices for code readability.

Sundry useful guides

  • Communication guidelines, if the developer’s role will involve significant liaison with third-party developers, customers, or important stakeholders.
  • A map to the nearest coffee machine, preferably reinforced by a path of glowing floor lights.

Too much information can be a bad thing. :) I spotted this sign on a recent trip to Arizona:

Too Much Information

How to stop your map from jumping around when info windows open – Google Maps JavaScript API

By default when an info window pops up on a map created with the Google Maps JavaScript API, the map pans automatically to ensure that the entire content of the info window is visible. If your map has a large number of markers that provide info windows on hover, this auto-panning can be quite disturbing for the user.

TL;DR: To disable the automatic movement of the map, set disableAutoPan to true in the properties on infoWindowOptions. See the documentation.

The automatic movement of the map, called auto-panning, can be very useful in some situations. It’s good to make sure people can see all the content of an info window without having to scroll the map themselves.

On the other hand, let’s say you have a large number of markers on the map, and have added some JavaScript to make an info window open each time the cursor moves over a marker. If auto-panning is enabled, the map can jig around as the cursor moves across it, repositioning the map each time an info window pops up. This can be quite disconcerting for the user.

My Tech Comm on a Map project suffered from that problem, until I disabled auto panning:

var infoWindow = new google.maps.InfoWindow({
  pixelOffset: new google.maps.Size(0, -10),
  disableAutoPan: true
});

The full code is on GitHub.

Tech Comm on a Map now includes businesses and groups

A month ago I announced my project called “Tech Comm on a Map”. The idea is to help us see what’s happening in the world of technical communication around the globeTech Comm on a Map puts tech comm titbits onto an interactive map, together with the data and functionality provided by Google Maps.

When first announced, the map included data types for conferences, societies, and a grab-bag called “other“, which currently contains a couple of historically-interesting morsels.

Now I’ve added two more data types:

  • businesses for commercial organisations specialising in tech comm, such as consultancies, recruiters, publishers, independent technical writers, and so on.
  • groups for smaller groups and regular meetups of technical communicators, either as part of a larger society/association, or as an independent group.

Any groups or businesses to add?

At this point there are very few businesses and groups on the map. Do you have one you’d like me to add? Please add a comment to this post, including the following information for each item. The information will be publicly available on the map, via an information box that appears when someone clicks on the relevant circle on the map:

  • Type: Conference, Society, Business, or Group
  • Name of the business, group, society or conference.
  • Description.
  • Website address (or an email address that people can use to get more information).
  • Street address (this is essential, to position the item on the map).
  • Start and end date for conferences, or meetup timing for groups (e.g. “First Wednesday of every month at lunch time”, or “Every Tuesday at 7pm”).

Note: Don’t add the names or addresses of any individuals, unless it’s your own name and address. We need to ensure we have people’s permission before adding their information in a comment on this post, or on the map. Any information you add here should be already publicly available on an organisation’s website or other publication.

Contributors to the project

Thanks to the following people who have helped me add data to the map so far: Sarah O’Keefe, Ellis Pratt, Stefan Eike.

Thanks also to Stefan Eike and Stephen Farrar, who have both contributed to the code on GitHub.

More coming

Excited? I am. :) If you’d like to know more about the project, check out the introductory blog post. Soon I’ll write another post with the technical details of the APIs and other tools involved. In the meantime, here’s Tech Comm on a Map.

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