11 February, 2014
A special delight during my PhD research was to discover, at the UCL library the proceedings of the first ever symposium on GIS. Dr Tomlinson studied towards a PhD at UCL, and probably that is how the copy found its way to the library. It was fairly symbolic for me that the symposium was titled ‘environmental information systems’. See my earlier comment about the terminology: Geographic information or Environmental Information.
The Guardian’s Political Science blog post by Alice Bell about the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Natural Environment Research Council and Shell, reminded me of a nagging issue that has concerned me for a while: to what degree GIS contributed to anthropocentric climate change? and more importantly, what should GIS professionals do?
I’ll say from the start that the reason it concerns me is that I don’t have easy answers to these questions, especially not to the second one. While I personally would like to live in a society that moves very rapidly to renewable energy resources, I also take flights, drive to the supermarket and benefit from the use of fossil fuels – so I’m in the Hypocrites in The Air position, as Kevin Anderson defined it. At the same time, I feel that I do have responsibility as someone who teaches future generations of GIS professionals how they should use the tools and methods of GIScience responsibly. The easy way would be to tell myself that since, for the past 20 years, I’ve been working on ‘environmental applications’ of GIS, I’m on the ‘good’ side as far as sustainability is concerned. After all, the origins of the biggest player in our industry are environmental (environmental systems research, even!), we talk regularly about ‘Design With Nature’ as a core text that led to the overlays concept in GIS, and we praise the foresight of the designers of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database in the early 1980s. Even better, Google Earth brings Climate Change information and education to anyone who want to downloaded the information from the Met Office.
But technologies are not value-free, and do encapsulate certain values in them. That’s what critical cartography and critical GIS has highlighted since the late 1990s. Nadine Schuurman’s review is still a great starting point to this literature, but most of it analysed the link of the history of cartography and GIS to military applications, or, in the case of the volume ‘Ground Truth’, the use of GIS in marketing and classification of people. To the best of my knowledge, Critical GIScience has not focused its sight on oil exploration and extraction. Of course, issues such as pollution, environmental justice or environmental impacts of oil pipes are explored, but do we need to take a closer look at the way that GIS technology was shaped by the needs of the oil industry? For example, we use, without a second thought, the EPSG (European Petroleum Survey Group) definitions of co-ordinates reference systems in many tools. There are histories of products that are used widely, such as Oracle Spatial, where some features were developed specifically for the oil & gas industry. There are secretive and proprietary projections and datums, and GIS products that are unique to this industry. One of the most common spatial analysis methods, Kriging, was developed for the extractive industry. I’m sure that there is much more to explore.
So, what is the problem with that, you would say?
Fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – are at the centre of the process that lead to climate change. Another important thing about them is that once they’ve been extracted, they are likely to be used. That’s why there are calls to leave them in the ground. When you look at the way explorations and production work, such as the image here from ‘Well Architect‘, you realise that geographical technologies are critical to the abilities to find and extract oil and gas. They must have played a role in the abilities of the industry to identify, drill and extract in places that were not feasible few decades ago. I remember my own amazement at the first time that I saw the complexity of the information that is being used and the routes that wells take underground, such as what is shown in the image (I’ll add that this was during an MSc project sponsored by Shell). In another project (sponsored by BP), it was just as fascinating to see how paleogeography is used for oil exploration. Therefore, within the complex process of finding and extracting fossil fuels, which involves many engineering aspects, geographical technologies do have an important role, but how important? Should Critical GIScientists or the emerging Critical Physical Geographers explore it?
This brings about the more thorny issue of the role of GIS professionals today and more so with people who are entering the field, such as the students who are studying for an MSc in GIS, and similar programmes. If we accept that most of the fossil fuels should stay underground and not be extracted, than what should we say to students? If the person that involved in working to help increasing oil production does not accept the science of climate change, or doesn’t accept that there is an imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground, I may accept and respect their personal view. After all, as Mike Hulme noted, the political discussion is more important now than the science and we can disagree about it. On the other hand, we can take the point of view that we should deal with climate change urgently and go on the path towards reducing extraction rapidly. In terms of action, we see students joining campaigns for fossil free universities, with which I do have sympathy. However, we’re hitting another difficult point. We need to consider the personal cost of higher education and the opportunity for well paid jobs, which include tackling interesting and challenging problems. With the closure of many other jobs in GIS, what is the right thing to do?
I don’t have an easy answer, nor can I say that categorically I will never work with the extractive sector. But when I was asked recently to provide a reference letter by a student in the oil and gas industry, I felt obliged to state that ‘I can completely understand why you have chosen this career, I just hope that you won’t regret it when you talk with your grandchildren one day in the future’
29 January, 2014
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).
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.
10 December, 2013
There is something in the physical presence of book that is pleasurable. Receiving the copy of Introducing Human Geographies was special, as I have contributed a chapter about Geographic Information Systems to the ‘cartographies’ section.
It might be a response to Ron Johnston critique of Human Geography textbooks or a decision by the editors to extend the content of the book, but the book now contains three chapters that deal with maps and GIS. The contributions are the ‘Power of maps’ by Jeremy Crampton, a chapter about ‘Geographical information systems’ by me, and ‘Counter geographies’ by Wen Lin. To some extent, we’ve coordinated the writing, as this is a textbook for undergraduates in geography and we wanted to have a coherent message.
In my chapter I have covered both the quantitative/spatial science face of GIS, as well as the critical/participatory one. As the introduction to the section describes:
“Chapter 14 focuses on the place of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) within contemporary mapping. A GIS involves the representation of geographies in digital computers. … GIS is now a widespread and varied form of mapping, both within the academy and beyond. In the chapter, he speaks to that variety by considering the use of GIS both within practices such as location planning, where it is underpinned by the intellectual paradigm of spatial science and quantitative data, and within emergent fields of ‘critical’ and ‘qualitative GIS’, where GIS could be focused on representing the experiences of marginalized groups of people, for example. Generally, Muki argues against the equation of GIS with only one sort of Human Geography, showing how it can be used as a technology within various kinds of research. More specifically, his account shows how current work is pursuing those options through careful consideration of both the wider issues of power and representation present in mapping and the detailed, technical and scientific challenges within GIS development.”
To preview the chapter on Google Book, use this link . I hope that it will be useful introduction to GIS to Geography students.
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
26 June, 2013
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.
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.
Since early 2010, I had the privilege of being a member of the editorial board of the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers . It is a fascinating position, as the journal covers a wide range of topics in geography, and is also recognised as one of the top journals in the field and therefore the submissions are usually of high quality. Over the past 3 years, I was following a range of papers that deal with various aspects of Geographic Information Science (GIScience) from submission to publication either as a reviewer or as associate editor.
In early 2011, I agreed to coordinate a virtual issue on GIScience. The virtual issue is a collection of papers from the archives of the journal, demonstrating the breadth of coverage and the development of GIScience within the discipline of geography over the years. The virtual issues provide free access to a group of papers for a period of a year, so they can be used for teaching and research.
Editing the virtual issue was a very interesting task – I was exploring the archives of the journal, going back to papers that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. When looking for papers that are relevant to GIScience, I came across various papers that relate to geography’s ‘Quantitative Revolution‘. The evolution of use of computers in geography and later on the applications of GIS is covered in many papers, so the selection was a challenge. Luckily, another member of the editorial board, Brian Lees, is also well versed in GIScience as the editor of the International Journal of GIScience. Together, we made the selection of the papers that are included in the issue. Other papers are not part of the virtual issue but are valuable further reading.
To accompany the virtual issue, I have written a short piece, focusing on the nature of GIScience in geography. The piece is titled “Geographic Information Science: tribe, badge and sub-discipline” and is exploring how the latest developments in technology and practice are integrated and resisted by the core group of people who are active GIScience researchers in geography.
You can access the virtual issue on Wiley-Blackwell online library and you will find papers from 1965 to today, with links to further papers that are relevant but not free for access. The list of authors is impressive, including many names that are associated with the development of GIScience over the years from Torstan Hägerstrand or David Rhind to current researchers such as Sarah Elwood, Agnieszka Leszczynski or Matt Zook.
The virtual issue will be officially launched (and was timed to coincide with) at the GIScience 2012 conference.
As I cannot attend the conference, and as my paper mentioned the Twitter-based GeoWebChat (see http://mappingmashups.net/geowebchat/) which is coordinated by Alan McConchie, I am planning to use this medium for running a #geowebchat that is dedicated to the virtual issue on the 18th September 2012, at 4pm EDT, 9pm BST so those who attend the conference can join at the end of the workshops day.
At the State of the Map (EU) 2011 conference that was held in Vienna from 15-17 July, I gave a keynote talk on the relationships between the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community and the GIScience research community. Of course, the relationships are especially important for those researchers who are working on volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), due to the major role of OSM in this area of research.
The talk included an overview of what researchers have discovered about OpenStreetMap over the 5 years since we started to pay attention to OSM. One striking result is that the issue of positional accuracy does not require much more work by researchers. Another important outcome of the research is to understand that quality is impacted by the number of mappers, or that the data can be used with confidence for mainstream geographical applications when some conditions are met. These results are both useful, and of interest to a wide range of groups, but there remain key areas that require further research – for example, specific facets of quality, community characteristics and how the OSM data is used.
Reflecting on the body of research, we can start to form a ‘code of engagement’ for both academics and mappers who are engaged in researching or using OpenStreetMap. One such guideline would be that it is both prudent and productive for any researcher do some mapping herself, and understand the process of creating OSM data, if the research is to be relevant and accurate. Other aspects of the proposed ‘code’ are covered in the presentation.
Following successful funding for the European Union FP7 EveryAware and the EPSRC Extreme Citizen Science activities, the department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL is inviting applications for a postdoctoral position and 3 PhD studentships. Please note that these positions are open to students from any EU country.
These positions are in the ‘Extreme Citizen Science’ (ExCiteS) research group. The group’s activities focus on the theory, methodologies, techniques and tools that are needed to allow any community to start its own bottom-up citizen science activity, regardless of the level of literacy of the users. Importantly, Citizen Science is understood in the widest sense, including perceptions and views – so participatory mapping and participatory geographic information are integral parts of the activities.
The research themes that the group explores include Citizen Science and Citizen Cyberscience; Community and participatory mapping/GIS; Volunteered Geographic Information (OpenStreetMap, Green Mapping, Participatory GeoWeb); Usability of geographic information and geographic information technology, especially with non-expert users; GeoWeb and mobile GeoWeb technologies that facilitate Extreme Citizen Science; and identifying scientific models and visualisations that are suitable for Citizen Science.
Research Associate in Extreme Citizen Science – a 2-year, postdoctoral research associate position commencing 1 May 2011.
The research associate will lead the development of an ‘Intelligent Map’ that allows non-literate users to upload data securely; and the system should allow the users to visualise their information with data from other users. Permissions need to be developed in accordance with cultural sensitivities. As uploaded data from multiple users sharing the same system increase over time, repeating patterns will begin to emerge that indicate particular environmental trends.
The role will also include some general project-management duties, guiding the PhD students who are working on the project. Travel to Cameroon to the forest communities that we are working with is necessary.
Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.
PhD Studentship – understanding citizen scientists’ motivations, incentives and group organisation – a 3.5-year fully funded studentship. We are looking for applicants with a good honours degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum), and an MA or MSc in anthropology, geography, sociology, psychology or related discipline. The applicant needs to be familiar with quantitative and qualitative research methods, and be able to work with a team that will include programmers and human-computer interaction experts who will design systems to be used in citizen science projects. Travel will be required as part of the project. A willingness to live for short periods in remote forest locations in simple lodgings, eating local food, will be necessary. French language skills are desirable.
The research itself will focus on motivations, incentives and understanding of the needs and wishes of participants in citizen science projects. We will specifically focus on engagement of non-literate people in such projects and need to understand how the process – from data collection to analysis – can be made meaningful and useful for their everyday life. The research will involve using quantitative methods to analyse large-scale patterns of engagement in existing projects, as well as ethnographic and qualitative study of participants. The project will include working with non-literate forest communities in Cameroon as well as marginalised communities in London.
Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.
PhD Studentship in geographic visualisation for non-literate citizen scientists - a 3.5-year fully funded studentship. The applicant should possess a good honours degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum), and an MSc in computer science, human-computer interaction, electronic engineering or related discipline. In addition, they need to be familiar with geographic information and software development, and be able to work with a team that will include anthropologists and human-computer interaction experts who will design systems to be used in citizen science projects. Travel will be required as part of the project. A willingness to live for short periods in remote forest locations in simple lodgings, eating local food, will be necessary. French language skills are desirable.
Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.
In addition, we offer a PhD Studentship on How interaction design and mobile mapping influences participation in Citizen Science, which is part of the EveryAware project and is also open to any EU citizen.
Interesting talk from Mike Goodchild in a lecture at the US NSF entitled ‘From Community Mapping to Critical Spatial Thinking’. This talk is a good overview of VGI and links it to the understanding of spatial concepts and integrating them into teaching and research.
The interesting issue raised in the talk is the link between the ability of people to use spatial information and the development of spatial thinking. One vivid memory from the first State of the Map conference was a presentation from a person whowas trying to use a simple GPS receiver way beyond what it was capable of doing, and the tough questioning from the audience at the end, basically telling him that he got it wrong and needed to rethink his project. What was clear was that, for people who are engaged in active data collection and tools development, the critical spatial thinking and the understanding of the technology evolved. At the same time, the evidence from end-users of SatNav devices shows a reduction in spatial understanding due to the ‘tunnel vision’ that the user interface promotes.
Significantly, the number of the latter group is larger than the first group. So are we having shallow spatial understanding without critical spatial thinking?