Review: ArcMap + ShuttleXpress

Synopsis: If you do a lot of editing in ArcMap, you could probably benefit from using a Contour ShuttleXpress (about $60) . You will have to configure it because there are no ArcMap presets, but that’s very easy to do.

I searched the Web for tips on how to set my Shuttle up for ArcMap, and found NOTHING. It is a great tool so I am writing it up here.

The Contour ShuttleXpress is a USB device that has 5 buttons, a jog control and a scroll wheel. Contour provides software for Mac and Windows. I use it with a Mac. (From now on I will just call it the “Shuttle”)

ArcMap is a popular GIS program from ESRI. If you are reading this I assume you know that already.

Contour also makes a bigger device with way too many buttons on it to be useful, the ShuttleXpress Pro.

I bought the Shuttle years ago thinking it might be useful with ArcMap. At that time the only heavy edit sessions I was doing were for City of Corvallis, where I was not allowed to installed the required software. I ended up throwing the Shuttle into a drawer until this week when I dove into a big project.

The current project required doing quality control on point files, each containing 15k-100k points. The task was to check for and correct missing, misplaced, or duplicated points against aerial photos.

Many trees and many dots.
Many trees and many dots.

Using the Shuttle helped me streamline the edit workflow. I programmed the controls to work as follows. Each control on the Shuttle can be set up to generate keystrokes and ArcMap has a wide range of keystroke shortcuts, so you can program it to do many many things in ArcMap. These were my choices.

  • Button 1 : Copy (Ctl-C)
  • Button 2:  Edit (letter E)
  • Button 3: Toggle layer (spacebar)
  • Button 4: Delete (Forward delete key)
  • Button 5: Paste (Ctl-V)
  • Jog left : Previous Extent (< key)
  • Jog right: Next Extent (> key)
  • Scroll wheel: not set yet, currently same as mouse scroll wheel

For most edit operations, I keep three  fingers resting on buttons 2-3-4. When replicating big blocks of points, I tap the Copy and Paste keys with my pinky and thumb. (It’s all much easier than it sounds.)

My hand on ShuttleXpress

Configuration via the Contour Shuttle app was easy, I won’t go into it here except to show you a screenshot here.

Contour Shuttle screenshot

After programming my Shuttle I put labels on it, because in a month or two I will have forgotten how I set it up.

ShuttleXpress with my labels
ShuttleXpress with my labels

What the controls do:

Cut and Paste: I think you already know what Cut and Paste do.

Edit mode (E keystroke) When in an edit session, the E key will flip between two edit modes. Normally it will flip between Create Feature and Select Feature. This makes it easy for me to switch between adding new points and deleting or moving existing points without moving my hands around. There are some wonky things with this control in ArcMap (see next section.)

Toggle layer (spacebar) Typically I set things up so that I can toggle the aerial on and off. This command is wonky too.

Del:  I put a Delete key onto the Shuttle because my computer is a Mac Book Pro and it has NO delete key. Apple mislabels the backspace key as “delete”. To generate a delete (aka “forward delete”) requires holding down the “fn” key, so I have to use two hands. Getting a working Delete key was the main motivation to try the Shuttle. (I also use an external Mac keyboard sometimes, but that’s clunky because it takes lots of desk space.)

Jog wheel: I developed a work flow where I pan across the image when zoomed to 1:1250 and then zoom into an area of interest (1:500) to do some edits, and then zoom back out and continue panning. I found the mouse scroll wheel works well for zooming in and out, but that being able to go back to the same extent at 1:1250 to resume panning over the workspace was important. I needed to be able to get back to the same spot. That’s where the jog wheel comes in.

I keep my fingers on the buttons as mentioned above, but my thumb rests on the edge of the jog wheel. After editing points at 1:500 and possibly panning around at that level, I bump the jog wheel to the left with my thumb until I see the 1:1250 extent again. Then I resume panning. If I spot something as I am zooming out, I bump the jog wheel right to go forward in the extent stack so it’s handy to be able to jump either to previous or next extent with the jog wheel.

Scroll wheel: This control is set at its default, so it works like the mouse scroll wheel. You can put a finger in its detent and make continuous circles either direction.  I don’t use it yet. Soon I suppose I will think up something to do with it. Suggestions? Tell me.

ArcMap wonkiness

As mentioned above there are a couple oddities you have to adjust to when using these keystroke shortcuts. The problems exist with the Shuttle or the keyboard; they are ArcMap bugs having nothing to do with the Shuttle.

In ArcMap there are problems with the “E” and “spacebar” shortcuts that you have to live with.

E toggles, but you have to “prime” it with what it toggles, by using the mouse to flip between a create template and the Edit select arrow. Until you have flipped between two commands it does not know what two things to toggle between. Once you have primed it then tapping E will flip between Create and Select. If you pop out of ArcMap for example to read help docs in a Web browser, you will probably have to re-select the tools with the mouse to get back into the right state in ArcMap.

You will be able to tell when it is primed correctly, because the cursor will change on each E keypress.

Spacebar only works in the Table of Contents. This is probably the most annoying thing here.  The workflow would be pan with mouse – spacebar toggle – pan –  toggle… but every time you click in the map window to pan, the map becomes the active control and it ignores the spacebar. So each time you want the spacebar toggle to work, you have to click somewhere in the Table of Contents control to reactivate it. It is still much easier than aiming the mouse cursor at the little checkbox on the layer, but I wish spacebar worked in the map. It would be easier.

The best thing about spacebar toggle is that you can be flipping the layer on and off with your left hand while your right hand moves the mouse cursor to a spot you need to edit.

One last glitch. Once you have activated the Table of Contents by clicking in it, the E shortcut won’t work for you. If you have a layer that starts with letter E and you hit the E key (on Shuttle or keyboard) instead of doing the edit toggle, it selects the layer. You have to live with this. You have to click in the map or on a map control before it will become the active control again. I usually click on the Edit toolbar select arrow.

MacBookPro + ESRI ArcGIS ?

I find the combination works quite well. ArcMap runs only in Windows, but I use Parallels to run Windows 7. It works great; the Shuttle seamlessly passes keystrokes from the Mac to Windows. I use  Parallels because it has a much better video driver than either VMWare Fusion or VirtualBox.

The only problem I encounter with using the MacBook with ArcGIS (and many Windows apps) is that it really requires using the right mouse button. On the Mac side I use “control + mouse click”. On the Windows side, this does not work, and double tapping the tablet control is too clumsy.  I deal with this by keeping a small travel mouse in my laptop bag and pull it out whenever I use Windows apps. I find the mouse is a better tool for GIS than the built in tablet anyway, so it’s a small thing.

Conclusion

If you don’t do a lot of edits in ArcMap using the mouse and keyboard shortcuts will be fine for you. But when you are pushing hard on a big project with a deadline looming, having this gadget might make things go a little bit faster for you. So it’s well worth the $60.

Disclaimer

I have no connection with the manufacturers of anything mentioned here. I just like their products and use them.

Relevant external links

Contour ShuttleXpress: http://ergo.contour-design.com/ergonomic-mouse/shuttlexpress

Parallels: http://parallels.com/

Mac on kitchen table
Mac on kitchen table

CartoDB test

I am testing various web-based mapping services now. Today I am testing CartoDB.

Using CartoDB at the free level I uploaded my datasets and created a map. I published it. I found a few bugs along the way.

The biggest problem I have seen so far in all the tests is that none of the services let me zoom in to a parcel level scale. Look at my test maps and you will see what I mean. For this map to be useful, I need to be able to see the irrigation valves and the zones.

One of my polygon layers did not display, saying it has a SQL error.  I had changed the name in “metadata” and apparently that change not just metadata but also the name of the table.

The short link is Willow Court map

I don’t know how to embed an iframe in my wordpress site so I stuck it here to test it in my Wiki. Wildsong Wiki CartoDB page