At the beginning of May, I gave a lecture at the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) seminar titled ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies – Overview and Research Challenges’. The talk was somewhat similar to the one that I gave at the BCS Geospatial SIG. However, I was trying to answer a question that I was asked during a UCLIC seminar in 2003, when, together with Carolina Tobón, I presented the early work on usability of GIS for e-government applications. During that talk, the discussion was, as always is in UCLIC, intensive. One core question that remained with me from the discussion was: ‘What makes geospatial technology special or is it just another case of a complex and demanding information system that you should expect difficulties with and spend time to master?’

Over the years, I have been trying to improve the answer beyond the ‘it’s special because it’s about maps‘ or ‘geospatial information comes in large volumes and requires special handling‘ or similar partial answers. In the book Interacting with Geospatial Technologies different chapters deal with these aspects in detail. During the talk, I tried to cover some of them. In particular, I highlighted the lag of geospatial technologies behind other computing technologies (an indication of complexity), the problems of devices such as SatNavs that require design intervention in the physical world to deal with a design fault (see image), and the range of problems in interfaces of GIS as were discovered in the snapshot study that was carried out by Antigoni Zafiri.

There was an excellent discussion after the presentation ended. Some of the very interesting questions that I think need addressing are the following:

  • In the talk, I highlighted that examples of spatial representations exist in non-literate societies, and that, therefore, the situation with computers, where textual information is much more accessible than geographical information, is something that we should consider as odd. The question that was raised was about the accessibility of these representations – how long does it take people from the societies that use them to learn them? Is the knowledge about them considered privileged or held by a small group?
  • For almost every aspect of geospatial technology use, there is some parallel elsewhere in the ICT landscape, but it is the combination of issues – such as the need for a base map as a background to add visualisation on top of it, or the fact that end users of geospatial analysis need the GIS operators as intermediaries (and the intermediaries are having problems with operating their tools – desktop GIS, spatial databases etc. – effectively) – that creates the unique combination that researchers who are looking at HCI issues of GIS are dealing with. If so, what can be learned from existing parallels, such as the organisations where intermediaries are used in decision making (e.g. statisticians)?
  • The issue of task analysis and considerations of what the user is trying to achieve were discussed. For example, Google Maps makes the task of ‘finding directions from A to B’ fairly easy by using a button on the interface that allows the user to put in the information. To what extent do GIS and web mapping applications help users to deal with more complex, temporally longer and less well-defined tasks? This is a topic that was discussed early on in the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and GIS literature in the 1990s, and we need to continue and explore.

In my talk I used a slide about a rude group in Facebook that relates to a specific GIS package. I checked it recently and was somewhat surprised to see that it is still active. I thought that it would go away with more recent versions of the software that should have improved its usability. Clearly there is space for more work to deal with the frustration of the users. Making users happy is, after all, the goal of usability engineering…

In March 2008, I started comparing OpenStreetMap in England to the Ordnance Survey Meridian 2, as a way to evaluate the completeness of OpenStreetMap coverage. The rational behind the comparison is that Meridian 2 represents a generalised geographic dataset that is widely use in national scale spatial analysis. At the time that the study started, it was not clear that OpenStreetMap volunteers can create highly detailed maps as can be seen on the ‘Best of OpenStreetMap‘ site. Yet even today, Meridian 2 provides a minimum threshold for OpenStreetMap when the question of completeness is asked.

So far, I have carried out 6 evaluations, comparing the two datasets in March 2008, March 2009, October 2009, March 2010, September 2010 and March 2011. While the work on the statistical analysis and verification of the results continues, Oliver O’Brien helped me in taking the results of the analysis for Britain and turn them into an interactive online map that can help in exploring the progression of the coverage over the various time period.

Notice that the visualisation shows the total length of all road objects in OpenStreetMap, so does not discriminate between roads, footpaths and other types of objects. This is the most basic level of completeness evaluation and it is fairly coarse.

The application will allow you to browse the results and to zoom to a specific location, and as Oliver integrated the Ordnance Survey Street View layer, it will allow you to see what information is missing from OpenStreetMap.

Finally, note that for the periods before September 2010, the coverage is for England only.

Some details on the development of the map are available on Oliver’s blog.

GIS Research UK (GISRUK) is a long running conference series, and the 2011 instalment was hosted by the University of Portsmouth at the end of April.

During the conference, I was asked to give a keynote talk about Participatory GIS. I decided to cover the background of Participatory GIS in the mid-1990s, and the transition to more advanced Web Mapping applications from the mid-2000s. Of special importance are the systems that allow user-generated content, and the geographical types of systems that are now leading to the generation of Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI).

The next part of the talk focused on Citizen Science, culminating with the ideas that are the basis for Extreme Citizen Science.

Interestingly, as in previous presentations, one of the common questions about Citizen Science came up. Professional scientists seem to have a problem with the suggestion that citizens are as capable as scientists in data collection and analysis. While there is an acceptance about the concept, the idea that participants can suggest problems, collect data rigorously and analyse it seems to be too radical – or worrying.

What is important to understand is that the ideas of Extreme Citizen Science are not about replacing the role of scientists, but are a call to rethink the role of the participants and the scientists in cases where Citizen Science is used. It is a way to consider science as a collaborative process of learning and exploration of issues. My own experience is that participants have a lot of respect for the knowledge of the scientists, as long as the scientists have a lot of respect for the knowledge and ability of the participants. The participants would like to learn more about the topic that they are exploring and are keen to know: ‘what does the data that I collected mean?’ At the same time, some of the participants can become very serious in terms of data collection, reading about the specific issues and using the resources that are available online today to learn more. At some point, they are becoming knowledgeable participants and it is worth seeing them as such.

The slides below were used for this talk, and include links to the relevant literature.

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