As I’ve noted, the AGI GeoCommunity ’08 was a great conference, but it was especially pleasing to end up with the paper that I wrote with Kate Jones being selected as runner-up for the best paper competition by the conference team (and I kept myself at arms length from the judging!). Maybe it is a sign that the message about the importance of usability and interaction is starting to gain traction within the GIS community, though I should also note that Clare Davies from the OS raised the issue in the AGI conference in 2005 – so it’s still one usability paper every 3 years!

While you can download the full paper from here, or look at the presentation below, the short explanation of the argument behind the large monitor is actually raising a very significant and overlooked aspect of interaction with GIS.

Inherently, the issue is that interaction with maps is all about the context. You can’t design the position of a telephone pole if you can’t see the other poles, and you can’t understand where you are in relation to a local tube station without seeing it. This is where the abysmal resolution of current computer monitors causes a problem. Because the information density (the amount of information that you can cram into a specific area, say a square inch) of a monitor is low – it’s 10 times lower than a printed map – it’s actually very rare that you can put all the information that the user needs on one screen.

This is why all GIS developers are giving too much attention to zoom and pan operations, as they are perceived as the solution to this problem. However, and this is the most important point – zoom and pan are never part of the user’s task. The user is not interested in zooming and panning for their own sake, but in manipulating the map so they can see the area that they need to perform their task (adding a pole to the map, analysing neighbourhood, etc.). In an ideal world, the GIS will ‘know’ what area the user is looking for and will show it so there is no need to manipulate the map. However, we don’t have this so we must use zoom and pan…

Here is where the productivity issue kicks in. An average zoom or pan operation in a GIS application can take up to 30 seconds. Over a working month, this can accumulate into many hours for a heavy user of a GIS. A larger monitor (24 inch or even 32 inch) will reduce the number of zoom and pan operations, and thus increase the productivity of the user. Considering that a GIS analyst’s minute is costing about £0.30 (a conservative estimation), the large monitor will return the investment within 2 months.

But even more important is the issue of GIS interface design – this analysis emphasises why the decision on how much screen assets are dedicated to the map should take into account the user’s task, and not assume that they’ll zoom and pan!

The AGI GeoCommunity ’08 is over – and it was a great conference. Building on the success of last year, the conference this year was packed with good papers and with 600 delegates. I found the papers from Joanna Cook, of Oxford Archaeology, about the use of Open Source GIS as the main set of products in a business environment, and from Nick Black, of CloudMade, on Crowd Sourced Geographical Information especially interesting.

What is especially good about the AGI in general, and the conference in particular, is that unlike other forums that cater for a narrow audience (say mainly neogeographers in Where 2.0, or academics in GISRUK), the AGI is a good forum where you can see vendors, commercial providers, veterans and new users all coming together to talk about different aspects of GI. Even if they disagree about various issues such as what is important, having the forum for the debate is what makes this conference so valuable Just look at the blogs of Ed, Adena, Joanna, Andy and Steven for such a debate to see that there are issues that people will argue about quite fiercely – which is a sign of a great conference.

I’m especially pleased with the success this year of bringing in people from the academic community who presented papers and attended the conference. This interaction is very significant as, through our teaching programmes, we are actually training the people who will join this crowd in the future, and we should keep an eye on the trends and needs of the sector.

For example, one of my conclusions from the conference is that the existing ‘business model’ of the M.Sc. in GIS programmes, which was, inherently, ‘we’ll train you in using [ArcGIS|Mapinfo|other package] so you can get a job’, is over. The industry is diverging, and the needs are changing. Being a GI professional is not about operating a GIS package.

We should now highlight the principles of manipulating geographical information, and, as Adena Schutzberg commented during the debate, train people how to ask the right questions, and to answer the most important ‘So what?’ question about the analyses that they are producing.

We should also encourage our students to participate in forums, like the AGI, so they continue to learn about their changing world.

Adena Schutzberg of Directions Magazine has written about the many announcements from GIS vendors about easy-to-use GIS products. She suggests that a lot of the problems with GIS are about confidence in using a product and hearsay from other users.

For me, it is noteworthy that, while she has been in the industry for many years, Adena’s analysis shows lack of familiarity with basic usability concepts such as satisfaction, error tolerance, learnability, memorability and others. This is not surprising as the GIS industry is willing to pay lip service to ease of use, but in reality it does not engage seriously with usability engineering and GIS. Actually, there is really no attention paid to or willingness to invest in usability testing or integration of usability expertise in the design process. One of the best examples of this is that, even though ESRI has a usability engineering section on its site (http://www.esri.com/software/usability/index.html), a search by Google shows that no other page is linked to it!
At AGI GeoCommunity ’08 conference I’m going to talk about usability and GIS, so I hope to have some interesting conversations about the ‘usability culture’ of the GIS industry…

AGI 2008 logo

As in 2007, I am a member of the Association of Geographic Information (AGI) conference organising committee. Judging by the 2007 conference, this is going to be an excellent event. The range of papers, speakers and more importantly participants created an entertaining and educational two days, in addition to the networking and meeting of some familiar faces, including former students who are now part of the GIS industry.

However, over the past few years, the relationships between the academic side of GIS and industry – especially through the AGI – have not been as close and collaborative as they should be. This is a shame, as the many MSc courses in GIS programmes across the country are a significant entry route to a career in GIS. As I’ve noted, it is crucial for GIS professionals to keep up with the wider field and to learn about developments at every opportunity. This is not just true for people who are working with GIS on a daily basis, but also for academics who are carrying out research with or about GIS and GIScience and who educate future generations of GIS professionals. It is therefore unfortunate that only a few academics showed up to the AGI conference last year.

This year, the AGI has very generously put in a special effort to outreach academia. Two opportunities are available – for students there is a competition for a free day pass and an opportunity to meet prospective employers. For academics and researchers who submit a paper to the conference, there is another competition which is based on the papers that have been submitted with an award of significantly subsidised conference fees. So that’s a clear signal that the AGI is keen to see the academic side of GI at the annual conference – now we, as academics, need to do our part!

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