Once upon a time, Streetmap.co.uk was one of the most popular Web Mapping sites in the UK, competing successfully with the biggest rival at the time, Multimap. Moreover, it was ranked second in The Daily Telegraph list of leading mapping sites in October 2000 and described at ‘Must be one of the most useful services on the web – and it’s completely free. Zoom in on any UK area by entering a place name, postcode, Ordnance Survey grid reference or telephone code.’ It’s still running and because of its legacy, it’s around the 1250 popular website in the UK (though 4 years ago it was among the top 350).

Streetmap 2014

So far, nothing is especially noteworthy – popular website a decade ago replaced by a newer website, Google Maps, which provide better search results, more information and is the de facto  standard for web mapping. Moreover, already in 2006 Artemis Skaraltidou demonstrated that of the UK Web Mapping crop, Streetmap scored lowest on usability with only MapQuest, which largely ignored the UK, being worse.

However, recently, while running a practical session introducing User-Centred Design principles to our MSc in GIS students, I have noticed an interesting implication of the changes in the environment of Web Mapping – Streetmap has stopped  being usable just because it didn’t bother to update its interaction. By doing nothing, while the environment around it changed, it became unusable, with users failing to perform even the most basic of tasks.

The students explored the mapping offering from Google, Bing, Here and Streetmap. It was fairly obvious that across this cohort (early to mid 20s), Google Maps were the default, against which other systems were compared. It was not surprising to find impressions that Streetmap is ‘very old fashioned‘ or ‘archaic‘. However, more interesting was to notice people getting frustrated that the ‘natural’ interaction of zooming in and out using the mouse wheel just didn’t worked. Or failing to find the zoom in and out buttons. At some point in the past 10 years, people internalised the interaction mode of using the mouse and stopped using the zoom in and out button on the application, which explains the design decision in the new Google Maps interface to eliminate the dominant zoom slider from the left side of the map. Of course, Streetmap interface is also not responsive to touch screen interactions which are also learned across applications.

I experienced a similar, and somewhat amusing incident during the registration process of SXSW Eco, when I handed over my obviously old laptop at the registration desk to provide some detail, and the woman was trying to ‘pinch’ the screen in an attempt to zoom in. Considering that she was likely to be interacting with tablets most of the day (it was, after all, SXSW), this was not surprising. Interactions are learned and internalised, and we expect to experience them across devices and systems.

So what’s to learn? while this is another example of ‘Jacob’s Law of Internet User Experience‘ which states that ‘Users spend most of their time on other sites’, it is very relevant to many websites that use Web Mapping APIs to present information – from our own communitymaps.org.uk to the Environment Agency What’s in Your Backyard. In all these cases, it is critical to notice the basic map exploration interactions (pan, zoom, search) and make sure that they match common practices across the web. Otherwise, you might end like Streetmap.

During the symposium “The Future of PGIS: Learning from Practice?” which was held at ITC-University of Twente, 26 June 2013, I gave a talk titled ‘Keeping the spirit alive’ – preservations of participatory GIS values in the Geoweb, which explored what was are the important values in participatory GIS and how they translate to the Geoweb, Volunteered Geographic Information and current interests in crowdsourcing. You can watch the talk below.


To see the rest of the presentations during the day, see https://vimeo.com/album/2475389 and details of the event are available here http://www.itc.nl/Pub/Events-Conferences/2013/2013-June/Participatory-GIS-Symposium.html

 

CHI 2013 and GeoHCI workshop highlighted to me the importance of understanding media for maps. During CHI, the ‘Paper Tab’ demonstration used E-Ink displays to demonstrate multiple displays interaction. I found the interactions non-intuitive and not mapping very well to what you would expect to do with paper, so a source for confusion – especially when they will eventually be mixed with papers on a desk. Anyhow, it is an interesting exploration.

E Ink displays are very interesting in terms of the potential use for mapping. The image  below shows one of the early prototypes of maps that are designed specifically for the Kindle, or, more accurately, to the E Ink technology that is at heart of the Kindle. From a point of view of usability of geographical information technologies, the E Ink is especially interesting. There are several reasons for that.

Kindle map

First, the resolution of the Kindle display is especially high (close to 170 Pixels Per Inch) when the size of screen is considered. The Apple Retina display provide even better resolution and in colour and that makes maps on the iPad also interesting, as they are starting to get closer to the resolution that we are familiar with from paper maps (which is usually between 600 and 1200 Dot Per Inch). The reason that resolution matter especially when displaying maps, because the users need to see the context of the location that they are exploring. Think of the physiology of scanning the map, and the fact that capturing more information in one screen can help in understanding the relationships of different features. Notice that when the resolution is high but the screen area is limited (for example the screen of a smartphone) the limitations on the area that is displayed are quite severe and that reduce the usability of the map – scrolling require you to maintain in your memory where you came from.

Secondly, E Ink can be easily read even in direct sunlight because they are reflective and do not use backlight. This make them very useful for outdoor use, while other displays don’t do that very well.

Thirdly, they use less energy and can be used for long term display of the map while using it as a reference, whereas with most active displays (e.g. smartphone) continuous use will cause a rapid battery drain.

On the downside, E Ink refresh rates are slow, and they are more suitable for static display and not for dynamic and interactive display.

During the summer of 2011 and 2012, several MSc students at UCL explore the potential of E Ink for mapping in detail. Nat Evatt (who’s map is shown above) worked on the cartographic representation and shown that it is possible to create highly detailed and readable maps even with the limitation of 16 levels of grey that are available. The surprising aspects that he found is that while some maps are available in the Amazon Kindle store (the most likely place for e-book maps), it looks like the maps where just converted to shades of grey without careful attention to the device, which reduce their usability.

The work of Bing Cui and Xiaoyan Yu (in a case of collaboration between MSc students at UCLIC and GIScience) included survey in the field (luckily on a fairly sunny day near the Tower of London) and they explored which scales work best in terms of navigation and readability. The work shows that maps at scale of 1:4000 are effective – and considering that with E Ink the best user experience is when the number of refreshes are minimised that could be a useful guideline for e-book map designers.

As I’ve noted in the previous post, I have just attended CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) conference for the first time. It’s a fairly big conference, with over 3000 participants, multiple tracks that evolved over the 30 years that CHI have been going,  including the familiar paper presentations, panels, posters and courses, but also the less familiar ‘interactivity areas’, various student competitions, alt.CHI or Special Interest Groups meetings. It’s all fairly daunting even with all my existing experience in academic conferences. During the GeoHCI workshop I have discovered the MyCHI application, which helps in identifying interesting papers and sessions (including social recommendations) and setting up a conference schedule from these papers. It is a useful and effective app that I used throughout the conference (and wish that something similar can be made available in other large conferences, such as the AAG annual meeting).

With MyCHI in hand, while the fog started to lift and I could see a way through the programme, the trepidation about the relevance of CHI to my interests remained and even somewhat increased, after a quick search of the words ‘geog’,’marginal’,’disadvantage’ returned nothing. The conference video preview (below) also made me somewhat uncomfortable. I have a general cautious approach to the understanding and development of digital technologies, and a strong dislike to the breathless excitement from new innovations that are not necessarily making the world a better place.

Luckily, after few more attempts I have found papers about ‘environment’, ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’. Moreover, I discovered the special interest groups (SIG) that are dedicated to HCI for Development (HCI4D) and HCI for Sustainability and the programme started to build up. The sessions of these two SIGs were an excellent occasion to meet other people who are active in similar topics, and even to learn about the fascinating  concept of ‘Collapse Informatics‘ which is clearly inspired by Jared Diamond book and explores “the study, design, and development of  sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity“.

Beyond the discussions, meeting people with shared interests and seeing that there is a scope within CHI to technology analysis and development that matches my approach, several papers and sessions were especially memorable. The studies by Elaine Massung an colleagues about community activism in encouraging shops to close the doors (and therefore waste less heating energy) and Kate Starbird on the use of social media in passing information between first responders during the Haiti earthquakeexplored how volunteered, ‘crowd’ information can be used in crisis and environmental activism.
Exploring a map next to Paire Lachaise
Other valuable papers in the area of HCI for development and sustainability include the excellent longitudinal study by Susan Wyche and Laura Murphy on the way mobile charging technology is used in Kenya , a study by Adrian Clear and colleagues about energy use and cooking practices of university students in Lancastera longitudinal study of responses to indoor air pollution monitoring by Sunyoung Kim and colleagues, and an interesting study of 8-bit, $10 computers that are common in many countries across the world by Derek Lomas and colleagues.

TheCHI at the Barricades – an activist agenda?‘ was one of the high points of the conference, with a showcase of the ways in which researchers in HCI can take a more active role in their research and lead to social or environmental change, and considering how the role of interactions in enabling or promoting such changes can be used to achieve positive outcomes. The discussions that followed the short interventions from the panel covered issues from accessibility to ethics to ways of acting and leading changes. Interestingly, while some presenters were comfortable with their activist role, the term ‘action-research’ was not mentioned. It was also illuminating to hear Ben Shneiderman emphasising his view that HCI is about representing and empowering the people who use the technologies that are being developed. His call for ‘activist HCI’ provides a way to interpret ‘universal usability‘ as an ethical and moral imperative.

It was good to see the work of the Citizen Sort team getting into the finalists of the students game competition, and to hear about their development of citizen science games.

So despite the early concerned, CHI was a conference worth attending and the specific jargon of CHI now seem more understandable. I wish that there was on the conference website a big sign ‘new to CHI? Start here…’

CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) is the premier conference in the calendar of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) studies. While the first paper that deal with geographic technologies within this conference was presented in 1991 (it was about User Interfaces for Geographic Information Systems by Andrew Frank and presented at a special interest group meeting), geography did not received much attention from HCI researchers in general, though the growth of location-based technologies made it a growing area in recent years. As I noted elsewhere, HCI did received interest in GIScience over the years, with more attention paid to spatial cognition and fundamental aspects of knowledge representation but unfortunately less on interaction design and exploration of user studies.

This sort of loose coupling between GIScience and HCI is also reflected in personal histories.  I was aware of CHI and its importance for over 15 years, but I never managed to attend one – until now. When Brent Hecht invited me to join a CHI workshop proposal on Geographic HCI (GeoHCI), I jumped on the opportunity. The process of working together with HCI researchers on coordinating and curating a workshop led to mutual learning about priorities and practices of work of the two different research communities – in the tone and style of position papers, reviews and ways of organising a meeting. The response to the call for position papers was overwhelming and demonstrated the interest from both geography and HCI communities to find opportunities to converse and share ideas.

The workshop itself was excellent, with coverage of many topics that are being actively researched in Geography and GIScience – and the papers and presentation cover crowdsourced/volunteered geographic information, use of geographic information in crisis situations, participatory mapping and citizen science, concepts of place and space, personal memories, and of course many interactions with maps.

My own talk focused on Geography and HCI, exploring the point of view of geography when approaching computing environments to represent and communicate geographical knowledge. I have used human geography and particularly the concept of space/place to highlight the contribution that geography can make. For example in understanding the multiplicity of interpretation of place by using both David Harvey critique of spatial sciences in the understanding of place, and Doreen Massey relational geography description of places as ‘stories so far’ in ‘For Space‘ as a clear example of different conceptualisation of what they are.

One particular point that I highlighted, following the first chapter of Introducing Human Geographies in which a differentiation is made between Geography as ‘writing the Earth': looking at human-nature relationship in the wider sense, versus ‘writing the World’ : looking at society-space relationships. For HCI audience I described it by rephrasing Don Norman’s differentiation between ‘Geography in the world‘ which is about the way people interact with the physical environment around them, versus ‘Geography in the head‘ which is the cultural, personal and social understanding of the place where they are and how they want to shape their personal activities, memories and interactions. Of course, Geography in the world is easier to represent in computers then the Geography in the head, and my personal view is that too much emphasis is paid to the first type.

Another part of the presentation focused on the importance of Cartography for geographical technologies, and why issues of map scale, media and task context are very important when designing geographic applications. For example, the value of paper as a media and understanding that maps are more about context then about ‘you are here’.

My position paper is available here . My presentation is provided below

In my view, the workshop was very valuable in opening new conversations. I have now a better understanding of the context in which HCI researchers in Google, Yahoo! and Pitney-Bowes Business Insight consider geography and what problems they have. The issue of place and the need to explore platial information came up several times, and we also experienced the multi-sensory engagement with place which are difficult to capture in digital forms. Most importantly, this was an experience in understanding the language and ways of expression that can help in bridging the two communities.

The Consumers’ Association Which? magazine  is probably not the first place to turn to when you look for usability studies. Especially not if you’re interested in computer technology – for that, there are sources such as PC Magazine on the consumer side, and professional magazines such as Interactions from Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

And yet…

Over the past few years, Which? is reviewing, testing and recommending Satnavs (also known Personal Navigation Devices – PNDs). Which? is an interesting case because it reaches over 600,000 households and because of the level of trust that it enjoys. If you look at their methodology for testing satnavs , you’ll find that it does resemble usability testing – click on the image to see the video from Which? about their methodology. The methodology is more about everyday use and the opinion of the assessors seems to play an important role.

Link to Which Satnav video

Professionals in geographical information science or human-computer interaction might dismiss the study as unrepresentative, or not fitting their ways of evaluating technologies, but we need to remember that Which? is providing an insight into the experience of the people who are outside our usual professional and social context – people who go to a high street shop or download an app and start using it straightaway. Therefore, it’s worth understanding how they review the different systems and what the experience is like when you try to think like a consumer, with limited technical knowledge and understanding of maps.

There are also aspects that puncture the ‘filter bubble‘ of geoweb people – Google Maps are now probably the most used maps on the web, but the satnav application using Google Maps was described as ‘bad, useful for getting around on foot, but traffic information and audio instructions are limited and there’s no speed limit or speed camera data‘. Waze, the crowdsourced application received especially low marks and the magazine noted that it ‘lets users share traffic and road info, but we found its routes and maps are inaccurate and audio is poor‘ (both citations from Which? Nov 2012, p. 38). It is also worth reading their description of OpenStreetMap when discussing map updates, and also the opinions on the willingness to pay for map updates.

There are many ways to receive information about the usability and the nature of interaction with geographical technologies, and some of them, while not traditional, can provide useful insights.

Image representing Google Earth as depicted in...

It is always nice to announce good news. Back in February, together with Richard Treves at the University of Southampton, I submitted an application to the Google’s Faculty Research Award program for a grant to investigate Google Earth Tours in education. We were successful in getting a grant worth $86,883 USD.  The project builds on my expertise in usability studies of geospatial technologies, including the use of  eye tracking and other usability engineering techniques for GIS and Richard’s expertise in Google Earth tours and education, and longstanding interest in usability issues.

In this joint UCL/Southampton project, UCL will be lead partner and we will appoint a junior researcher for a year to develop run experiments that will help us in understanding of the effectiveness of Google Earth Tours in geographical learning, and we aim to come up with guidelines to their use. If you are interested, let me know.

Our main contact at Google for the project is Ed Parsons. We were also helped by Tina Ornduff and Sean Askay who acted as referees for the proposal.
The core question that we want to address is “How can Google Earth Tours be used create an effective learning experience?”

So what do we plan to do? Previous research on Google Earth Tours (GETs) has shown them to be an effective visualization technique for teaching geographical concepts, yet their use in this way is essentially passive.  Active learning is a successful educational approach where student activity is combined with instruction to enhance learning.  In the proposal we suggest that there is great education value in combining the advantages of the rich visualization of GETs with student activities. Evaluating the effectiveness of this combination is the purpose of the project, and we plan to do this by creating educational materials that consist of GETs and activities and testing them against other versions of the materials using student tests, eye tracking and questionnaires as data gathering techniques.

We believe that by improving the techniques by which spatial data is visualized we are improving spatial information access overall.
A nice aspect of the getting the project funded is that it works well with a project that is led by Claire Ellul and Kate Jones and funded by JISC. The G3 project, or “Bridging the Gaps between the GeoWeb and GIS” is touching on similar aspects and we surely going to share knowledge with them.
For more background on Richard Treves, see his blog (where the same post is published!)

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