About Atlas Quest
At·las,1 n. 1. Greek Mythology. A Titan condemned by Zeus to support the heavens upon his shoulders, often depicted as a standing or kneeling figure of a chicken holding the world on his shoulders.
at·las,2 n. 1. A book or bound collection of maps, sometimes with supplementary illustrations and graphic analyses. n. pl. at·las·es
quest, n. 1. The act or an instance of seeking or pursuing something; a search. 2. An expedition undertaken in medieval romance by a knight in order to perform a prescribed feat. v. intr. 1. To go on a quest. v. tr. 1.To search for; seek. 2. To letterbox. v. quest·ed, quest·ing, quests
In the Beginning...
...there was light. It came in the form of a lightbulb, directly over my head. It was an idea for a virtual logbook, a place where letterboxers could gather to record their planted and found letterboxes for the world to see. Many letterboxers already keep them on their personal websites, but wouldn't it be nice to collect them all in a single location that everyone can find easily? What a neat idea! But it wasn't something I had the time or inclination to do at the time, so I shuffled the idea to the back of my head where it lingered.
About a month later, I decided to implement the idea. I had two reasons to justify the time and effort: (1) If and when I decided I needed to get a tech job, having a great-looking, interactive website that I created could help boost my resume to the top of the pile, and (2) it would help get me back in the game of website design, a skill that had languished for two years as I traveled Central America and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. As a bonus, the intellectual challenge of getting a sophisticated website up and working was too much to pass up. I was thrilled with the prospect of spending countless hours in front of a monitor creating a website that would make the world a better place—or at least one small portion of it!
Thus, this website was born. I started reading about the latest web design techniques, programming languages, security issues, and anything else that I felt might be useful. And finally, I started to create the website.
A Change of Plans....
A month into my efforts, however, something happened. Something that would change the direction this website was heading. Amanda (of Amanda from Seattle fame) was entering a letterbox she had recently planted into the Letterboxing North America (LbNA) website and loudly complained about not knowing what county the letterbox was hidden in. She was quite annoyed at the time, and I understood exactly how she felt because I had suffered the same fate myself many times before. And it got me thinking—surely there was a better way to look up letterboxes than using the county/region system used by LbNA. I understood why that system was used, but surely, I thought, there had to be an even better, easier system.
Which is when it hit me: When I logged in to search for letterboxes, what I really wanted wasn't a region or county, but rather letterboxes in close proximity to where I lived. Specifically, I wanted a list of all letterboxes within 50 miles of where I stood. It didn't matter if the letterbox was in the next county or the next state, or even in a neighboring country for that matter. I just wanted a single list of all letterboxes within a certain distance of my location.
The idea kicked around in my head for several days, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In addition to avoiding the whole "county problem," it solved several additional limitations on LbNA. For instance, while living in Portland, Oregon, I needed to list six different regions across two different states to get a list of all letterboxes within 50 miles. A city-based system would cut it down to a single list!
But the even bigger benefit was that a city-based system could work very effectively internationally. Every country in the world has cities and towns! The county system was a kludge that worked for the United States, but that system doesn't lend itself well to an international scale. A city-based search system would! Finally, there could be a definitive website to go to for all international letterboxes!
Proof of Concept
This was a very exciting idea, and I was absolutely bubbling. But there was still one problem: Could it be done? Clearly, I needed to do some research. I needed to learn the latitude and longitude coordinates for every supported city, and how the heck does one calculate the distance between two points on a round sphere using latitude and longitude coordinates?
The next couple of weeks I spent reviewing geometry and trigonometry, scouring the web for information about cities and towns around the world, and creating a Proof of Concept. I didn't need an industrial-strength application, but rather I just needed to prove to myself that I could actually get this hair-brained idea to work!
The Proof of Concept was far more successful than I had ever imagined. I located a data source for over 10,000 cities and towns across the United States. And with a little tweaking of the queries, it could sort through all those towns to pick out just the ones within ten miles of any point in the United States. And it could do it in just 0.03 seconds—on an old, obsolete computer to boot! I was shocked at the amazing results, and knew I was onto something BIG. Far bigger than I originally anticipated.
Imagine a world with hundreds of thousands of letterboxes. It seems like an incredibly absurd number, but letterboxing is a very fast growing hobby. In the three years since I started, the number of letterboxes has grown over ten times! At that rate, in another three years, it's possible that over 100,000 pieces of tupperware will be hidden around the countryside. Yikes! A city-based search might help manage the fast-growing number of letterboxes, and my initial tests showed the concept could handle tens of thousands of boxes without even breathing hard. My website could act as a 'safety net' in the event that Letterboxing North America couldn't handle the huge growth of letterboxes well. And for those people who may not like the Letterboxing North America website—they do exist, sad to say—it would give them an alternative website to use instead of turning towards geocaching or other alternative hobbies.
My simple virtual logbook was suddenly becoming a project of mammoth proportions!
Well, I decided, if I was going to create a city-based search engine, I may as well do a good job of it. I wanted to figure out: What is it people are actually looking for when they do a search for letterboxes? The obvious answer, letterboxes, was a bit vague for my purposes. Everyone has different kinds of letterboxes they like to find, and I wanted to create a customized search page to show only those boxes the user would be interested in. I wanted people to be able to search for letterboxes based on how long or difficult of a hike was involved, or if the box was wheelchair accessible, or if you could take your dog, or any number of other things.
Then it occurred to me that I still had this list of letterboxes that people have found or planted—the virtual logbook. I hadn't abandoned that idea, and now I could combine it with the search engine! Since the website could track the boxes you've found or planted, it could also remove those boxes from your letterbox search! After all, when I was searching for "all letterboxes within 50 miles of Portland," what I really meant were all boxes within 50 miles of Portland that I hadn't planted or already found. And since the website can track that information, it wouldn't be difficult to remove those boxes from the result set! Oh, what a glorious idea!
Creating this website has become a full-time job. I spend hours a day working on it, refining it, and tweaking it. And even when I'm not actually on a computer working on the website, I'm thinking about it. I've gone to sleep pondering issues and problems I ran against earlier in the day. One morning I woke up pondering what those with poor eyesight might think of the website and concluded they'd probably string me up for its small text. (Within hours, I updated the website to include a large-text version of the website.) Other times, excited about finishing a particular feature, I've stayed up late through the early morning hours trying to keep my eyelids open.
This website, in short, is nothing like I originally envisioned. My original idea for a virtual logbook didn't turn out quite like I had envisioned due to technical and political reasons, while new ideas I hadn't even considered at the start practically took over the website. But you know something? I've never had more fun designing and creating a website as I have with this one, and even if the website never flies with other letterboxers, even if it doesn't help with future job opportunities, it was worth the experience.
On another note, I plan to continue updating and supporting this website for a long, long time to come, and if you have any feedback—good or bad (especially the bad)—please fire an e-mail my way so I can make your experience here a better one. The website might be my baby, but it's for you, and its intended purpose is to make your letterboxing world a better, happier place. Sappy, I know, but true.