Category Archives: Nerdery

Townships and other hidden features in Google Maps

Recently, Google Maps has started returning search results for townships (probably since Google’s change to being their own geodata provider). As I love tiny dots on the map and obscure entities, this got me excited. In some cases, the township name will even show up as a dot with a link to the township’s Wikipedia article. I think this only happens when the township also has a town with the same name inside it. Townships can be found by searching by whatever uniquely identifies them, e.g. Chilgren for Chilgren Township, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota, Laona, MN for Laona Township, Roseau County, MN, or Lincoln, Marshall, MN for Lincoln Township, Marshall County, Minnesota.

The data for these features is coming from the USGS’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database. I’ve put up a unique interface that combines that database with a few others, including databases of Canadian locations, zip codes, railroad stations, and telephone switch locations, at Want to see the list of every named place in Washington State? Or every place in the US and Canada named Springfield? Or even every place named Springfield in Georgia? The GNIS database lists 9 Springfields in Georgia, though only one is an incorporated city. The rest are so small, most don’t even get their name on Google Maps at any zoom level.

Dots lets you dig into extremely obscure place names, and this lets me dig up other secretly searchable Google Maps place names. Townships are called minor civil divisions by the US Census and some form of MCDs exist in 28 states. MCDs have some sort of official government function (though often small) — they include urbanized areas (cities, towns, villages, boroughs), townships, New England towns, parish governing authority districts (Louisiana), magisterial districts (Virginia and West Virginia), election districts/precincts (parts of Illinois, Maryland, and Nebraska), supervisors’ districts (Mississippi), and “catch all” entities, when nothing else applies (assessment districts, gores, grants, plantations, purchases, road districts, and unorganized territories). I’m still exploring what MCDs, other than townships and cites/towns/villages are searchable in Google Maps.

The other 22 states are divided into census county divisions instead of MCDs. These were created with the cooperation of the census and the state governments and may only be used for census tabulation or may also be used by county governments, for example, as electoral districts. MCDs are also are searchable in Google Maps. That means that you can find the census division of Early Winters in Okanogan County, Washington by searching for Early Winters, Okanogan, WA (or just Early Winters, WA, or even just Early Winters).

In Canada, Google Maps uses the census division as the county is in the US. Census divisions correspond to a county or county-like entity in most provinces where those exist. This includes BC (regional districts and municipalities), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (counties), Ontario (upper-tier municipalities: counties, districts, regional municipalities, cities) and Quebec (municipalités régionales de comté). Elsewhere, census divisions do not correspond to local government. Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut, and the Northwest territories have named census divisions. Census divisions are simply numbered in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan (even though Alberta has some entities named “County”, they’re municipal districts and are treated like the rural municipalities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan). (Early in its history, Manitoba also had counties, though the names only persist in land records and in the name of the Dennis County Planning District. I was able to find the names and locations of counties from the 1880s in Manitoba statute books on Google Books, and used that to write up a Wikipedia article, a list of historic counties in Manitoba.)

Searching for Springfield, Canada will get Google Maps to display its most-expanded name (other times they’re shortened to City, Province or City, County, Province). Results include “Springfield, Division No. 12, MB” (the RM of Springfield, a local government unit, inside a nongovernmental census division), but also “Springfield, Woodstock, Carleton County, NB”, (a named place inside Woodstock Parish in Carleton County), and “Springfield, Swift Current No. 137, Division No. 8, SK” (a named place inside a rural municipality, inside a nongovernmental census divisions). The results from Google Maps appear mostly consistent with a search for Springfield at Statistics Canada.

For even more obscure geodata info, check out the Census’s list of county subdivision types, or their maps of MCDs and CCDs, by state. There’s also an even more obscure geographic subdivision not used by the census, the hundred, in Delaware. The hundred once also existed in the UK (where some Local Government Districts took the name of a hundred), and Australia (where they’re still used in land descriptions as as one of the cadastral divisions of Australia).

Radio Radio

Beach, North DakotaThe Story of my quest to photograph every town in North Dakota aired today on The Story from American Public Media. To hear my segment on the show, download the audio, and head to 31:00. I’m still busy posting all the dots I’ve shot to my Flickr photostream. I wasn’t sure which day the episode would air until I got an email from Flickr user ForgottenSpaces about my photographs. He also mentioned a photography project of his where he photographed billboard environs all over the Midwest. For more background on my Everydot project, read my interview. To see some dots, go to my Flickr photostream or Everydot page. Photos mentioned in the interview:

Municipalities and un-icipalities

Beach, North DakotaDots across the state of North Dakota. I plan to have photographed every town in North Dakota by the end of this summer. I’m currently in Jamestown, North Dakota, at a coffeeshop called Babb’s Coffee, “A Taste of Seattle”. There’s a 10-foot metal space needle in the corner, and the sandwiches are named after neighborhoods in Seattle. The coffee tastes like something I might have in Seattle, though not at Vivace.

I’ve spent hours driving to nearly unfindable places, like Three V Crossing, which somehow merits inclusion on the DeLorme map of North Dakota. Google Maps and MSN Maps both know where it is, but only MSN Maps actually bothers to give it a dot on the map.

The DeLorme North Dakota Atlas has become my official standard for defining “every dot on the North Dakota map”. If it’s on there, I will photograph it. The MSN maps are somehow even more detailed, but I don’t feel too bad about neglecting to photograph a place that’s too small for DeLorme or Google Maps. If I were feeling particularly meticulous, I’d also include data from my SPV railroad atlas. That, however, would probably double the time it would take me to finish this state. When finding all these tiny dots on maps, I’d originally assumed that they all came from the USGS place name database. What I’ve found, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be some master set — USGS might not have a place that MSN does, or vice-versa. Therefore, I get to look at five different places (DeLorme, Google Maps, MSN Maps, SPV railroad atlas, and the USGS database) if I really want to find every single dot.

Fryburg, North DakotaMissing municipalities. Checking my map near Beach, North Dakota, I noticed that the usually 6-mile-square civil townships that blanket much of the Midwest and Ontario were larger than usual, ten to twelve miles square. Then I noticed that some counties appeared to be missing townships altogether. It made me wonder just how relevant the township is in an area with a rural population density of 0.8 people per square mile. As it turns out, many townships in North Dakota have disappeared. The US Census Population Estimates Boundary Changes reports dissolution of six township governments and one city from 2000-2006. Five cities and thirteen townships were dissolved in the 1990s.

Now today, I find out that the county I’m photographing in is experimenting with ‘voting centers’ for today’s primary election. Instead of voting in small town(ship) halls, people vote in the larger city or cities in the county. It appears that one of the last visible functions of townships may be disappearing in North Dakota. In some ways, this makes sense, since these buildings are small, often quite cold on the first Tuesday in November, and an expense to repair. On the other hand, driving 60 miles round-trip sounds a lot less appealing with $4/gallon gas.

New Hradec, North DakotaUnincorporated dots. Nearly any dot on the map with more than a couple streets is an incorporated municipality, called a “city” by the state, regardless of size. I started wondering just how big a place could be and not be incorporated. One of the larger and better-maintained unincorporated communities is New Hradec. The town has a Catholic church, a Catholic school, and a Catholic workmen’s hall. It seems as though a large Catholic church ends up drawing enough people in to keep a tiny place surviving, as is also the case in Fried and Leo.

Dots, Crushes

Everydot: North Dakota. Earlier this summer, I drove to and from Minnesota. The route passes through North Dakota, of course, and so I had to work on my project of photographing every town in that state. I spent a solid day photographing dots on a diagonal path from Marmarth, North Dakota to Lemmon, South Dakota and North Lemmon, North Dakota. The most challenging dot to photograph was Petrel, North Dakota, which I reached by driving along US 12 in South Dakota, taking a gravel road back into North Dakota, and then walking half mile along a grassy path.

The next day turned out rainy, so I headed in the direction of home. On my eastward trip, I’d really hoped to find some big old brick hotel in some downtown where I could get a cheap room with a bathroom down the hall. I knew such a thing had once existed and figured it might still. I saw a brick hotel in Lewistown, Montana, but I didn’t feel much like quitting for the day when it was only 2pm. In Sand Springs, I saw a billboard for the Northern Hotel in Winnett, 44 miles in the opposite direction. I ended up driving to Miles City, since I new there was a big old hotel there, the Olive Hotel. I went to the counter and was delighted to find that they still had rooms available. I was less delighted when I discovered I’d be staying in the Olive Motel across the street.

On the way back to Seattle, I passed up an old wooden hotel in Scobey and passed by an old brick hotel in Plentywood that I only now discovered existed. Instead, I ended up a hundred miles down the road in a smoking room an icky 1980s hotel. The next night, however, I ended up at the Ryan Hotel in Wallace, Idaho, purely by chance. It was exactly what I was looking for, and was unrenovated except for the added convenience of a toilet and shower in the room (in place of the next room over’s giant closet perhaps?).

Touhey, Washington

Everydot: Douglas County, Washington. This past weekend, I drove across the Cascades into eastern Washington. I exited I-90 at George, Washington and drove northward. I was again on a search for old brick hotels, and this time I vowed to stop and get a room no matter how early in the day. Early in the evening I hit Waterville and came upon the striking Waterville Hotel. I met Dave and Amy, who run the place, and Dave gave me a tour of the place and directions to Alstown. On the way there, I passed a very dry cemetery surrounded by miles of stubbly fields. The next day, I photographed almost every town in Douglas County. I returned to the Waterville where I sat out on the porch, recalled the day’s adventures, and had some wine and cheese (all of which was a nice change from sitting on a smoky motel bed and eating a microwaved sandwich).

Another Secret Crush. Back in April I discovered a 20+ year old Orange Crush bottle inexplicably sitting in a flower box. This weekend, while looking to see if anything remained of Matthiesen, Washington, I found an old garbage dump. Whoever was dumping their garbage there was a fan of orange soda, and in particular, Orange Crush. I had to grab a fairly well-preserved Crush can just because it was such an odd occurrence.

Geodata. On my Douglas County trip, I brought along my old Garmin eTrex Legend handheld GPS unit. I hadn’t done anything with geotagging before, but I figured I’d haul the unit around and see if I could get anything out of it later. Before I left I went to the tracklog menu and saved what was already there, hoping that I might be able to get geodata from past trips where the GPS rode around in my car. A few days after I got back, I decided to pull off the tracklogs. What I ended up with was about 2/3 of my most recent trip timestamped and ready to be synced with my photos, plus the trips I saved (from 2003, as it turns out) sans timestamps. Rather counterintuitively, saving the tracklogs on this unit preserves some data while destroying others.

The timestamped tracklogs got synced perfectly thanks to Since I’d already uploaded the photos to Flickr, I synced those separately, with GPSTagr. This was great, because I ended up with all the photos I took on a map.

Now I wanted to do this for the other 6000+ Everydot photos I’d taken. I figured I’d be able to get geodata for them by connecting the tags I’d put on them with a place name database and adding that via the Flickr API. I downloaded the database from the USGS’s Geographic Names Information Service. For places in Canada, I used Natural Resources Canada’s Geographical Name Search Service. All this was glued together with a Ruby script, and before long, nearly all of my 430 or so Everydots were geotagged.


truly amazing. I haven’t updated this place in a month. wow. so, what’s going on? well, there’s another iopener-like device out there. it’s the virgin webplayer. they just stopped offering their internet service, so now tons of the things are up for grabs. also, i’m working on what i believe to be the world’s first ever toaster pc. details to follow.

more stuff from recycling

i went to recycling again. i got three more monitors. another 21-inch sgi. this one doesn’t need sync-on-green. and 2 17 inch monitors, an hp with 5 bnc connectors, and an ibm with a regular vga connector. plus i got a mouse (to match the keyboard i got last week) for jeff’s mac plus macquarium. i also got 2 200mb scsi hard drives to go in the ps/2 model 85 server. the hard drive was in there likes to die every time i send a print job (which isn’t a real good thing for a print server). so now it’s got mirrored drives.

my latest haul

ooh, i got all sorts of cool stuff from recycling. i got a microchannel ethernet card for our crazy novell server, a ps/2 85. now the the pay-to-print in middlebrook may finally work. but that’s boring. the fun stuff: a 21 inch sgi monitor. beautiful. but old. it was made in 1991. it needs sync-on-green, so i need an adapter or a card that will do sync-on-green. i also got a 17 inch sgi granite monitor. cool. the corners are warped and discolored. i’d should get one of those magnetic tools to fix it (or so i’ve heard). plus i got a 17 inch ibm monitor, i haven’t tried that one yet. it’s a nice workstation monitor though. plus a badly beat-up sgi personal iris. i also picked up a couple ancient ibm laptops, a thinkpad 360cs (a 486). and an ancient 386 pre-thinkpad: a black/white ps/2 note n51 slc (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ‘thinkpad’). unfortunately, the darling’s got a broken screen. it’s a real artifact though. it uses 30-pin simms, it’s got the microchannel bus, a black rubberized case, and is built like (and is as heavy as) a tank. obviously a thinkpad ancestor. much cooler than any of the other ps/2 laptops. (which were huge, white, and more brittle). pictures to follow soon!

hack the nic!

i tore my $199 nic (new internet computer) apart today. the motherboard is very cute, all-in-one, no slots or anything. plus it’s a super 7, so i think it can handle 500mhz k6-2′s even. unfortunately, the pads where the rca connector attach apparently don’t carry the tv signal. i went into the bios and turned on the tv out signal, and i soldered in an rca cable. i attached it to the video-in on the tv, but nothing. there must be something else that has to be done to the board. i don’t see anything missing on the board (unlike the mediaGX boards, which were missing an ic.) anyway, i’ve got more photos in the stupid hacks section.

old computer stores

i love old computer stores. really. like raymond commodore-amiga. i just wish i could find more like them. does anybody know of more in the twin cities? i’ve got the U recycling center too, but it just doesn’t have the personality of raymond commodore-amiga.


i added a link on the stupid hacks page to the legopc. how could i have forgotten!? also, for a fruitier version of the legopc, there’s a whole bunch of macintosh lego computers at (not lego actually, but mega block). a guy at netscape has a lego computer too (he used a lot more bricks than ben and i did). lego has bulk ordering now too. but it’s still not quite reasonably priced for building very large items out of legos (100 2×8 bricks for $8.99, not bad, but could be better). if anyone knows where I could get, say a big box, of generic super bloxx or some other lego copy, tell me! (