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!)

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…

The G3 Project, is a new project led by Claire Ellul and  Kate Jones and funded by the JISC geospatial working group.  The project’s aim is to create an interactive online mapping tutorial system for students in areas that are not familiar with GIS such as urban design, anthropology and environmental management.

The project can provides a template for the introduction of geographical concepts to new groups of learners. By choosing a discipline specific scenario, key geographic concepts and functions will be presented to novices in a useful and useable manner so the learning process is improved. Users will be introduced to freely available geographic data relevant to their particular discipline and know where to look for more. G3 Project will create a framework to support learners and grow their confidence without facing the difficult interfaces and complexity of desktop mapping systems that are likely to create obstacles for students, with the feeling that ‘this type of analysis is not for me’.

Check the project’s blog for regular updates and developments.

These are the slides from the presentation that I gave to the BCS Geospatial SG.

The talk abstract is:

Here is a useful party trivia: as a form of human communication, maps pre-date text by thousands of years – some early spatial depictions are 25,000 years old, whereas writing emerged only 4000 years ago. When it comes to computing, the reverse is true: the first wide use of computing is from the early 1950s, whereas the first effort to create a GIS only started in 1966. There are good reasons for this, chief among them is the complexity of handling geographical information in digital computers. An adverse impact of this challenge is that for many years geospatial technologies developers focused on functionality and not on the interaction with end-users. The result of this focus is that while word processors and spreadsheets became popular in the early 1980s, only with the emergence of ‘Web Mapping 2.0′ in 2005, GIS and geospatial technologies became more popular, albeit far from universally usable.

The talk covered interaction and user aspects of geospatial technologies, pointing to issues that permeate the usability and usefulness of geographical information itself (e.g. why ESRI shapefile is a popular format despite its drawbacks?), the programming of geospatial technology (e.g. why OGC WMS did not spark the mashup revolution, while Google Maps API did?) and the interaction of end users with desktop and web-based GIS.

And the talk happened at the same day in which the excellent Third Workshop on the Usability of Geographic Information was running at the Ordnance Survey.

Finally, after 2 years in the making, Interacting with Geospatial Technologies is out. It is the first textbook dedicated to usability and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) aspects of geographical information technologies. It covers desktop, Web and mobile applications and how they can be designed so they are more effective, efficient, error-free, easy to learn and enjoyable, which is one version of the 5 E’s of usability.      

Book cover

  

I started thinking about the book in 2004, when I realised that the most recent  academic books dedicated to HCI and GIS were published in 1993 and 1995. These are respectively David Medyckyj-Scott and Hilary Hearnshaw’s Human Factors in Geographic Information Systems  and the collection of papers from the NATO workshop Cognitive Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction for Geographic Information Systems, edited by Tim Nyerges, David Mark, Robert Laurini, and Max Egenhofer.  While these books and the collections of papers in them are still valuable, it must be noted that in the early 1990s, Web-based GIS was just starting to appear, desktop GIS was fairly basic, mobile GIS was not even experimental and GIS trade journals argued about which  UNIX workstation is the best for GIS.      

Apart from these books, the proceedings of COSIT (Conference of Spatial Information Theory) are also valuable sources of academic research on spatial cognition and other principles of geographical and spatial information, and there are also many papers in academic journals about GIS.      

However, not much attention was paid to everyday use of geographical information technologies, and no textbook included an introduction in a form accessible to postgraduate students and software developers. So, after complaining in various conferences that there is a clear need for such a book, I started working on it. It was an interesting process to identify suitable authors and encourage them to contribute to the book.      

While offering the breadth of several authors who specialise in different aspects of the field, I think the textbook is coherent and consistent, and its style both accessible and readable. The editing process was more active and time-sensitive than is often the case in academic books, to ensure that the textbook is usefully up-to-date. On UCL’s MSc in GIS, a recent course based on the textbook was well received by students.      

The book covers the principles and the practical aspects of interaction with geospatial technologies. There are sections about spatial cognition, cartography, user-centred design and usability engineering – here is the table of contents.      

So, now you can get your own copy – and any feedback is welcomed.

The Commission on Use and User Issues of the International Cartographic Association (ICA) is currently working on a new handbook specifically addressing the application of user research methods and techniques in the area of geographical information and its applications.

In order to share experiences and interesting case studies a workshop is organized by the Commission, in collaboration with UCL, on the day preceding GISRUK 2010, Tuesday, 13th April 2010.

The programme for the workshop is now completed and the programme and abstracts for the papers that will be discussed during the meeting are available here.

For information on the commission, visit the website of the ICA Commission on Use and User Issues and to register to the workshop  follow the instructions on the GISRUK2010 website.

In March 2009 Ordnance Survey together with the Human Factors group at the University of Nottingham, ran a workshop on the usability of geographic information.  Bringing together a new grouping of researchers from across disciplines of Human Factors, HCI, Computer Science and Geographic Information Science, the aim of the workshop was to share perspectives on research challenges for investigating usability of data products – in particular geographic information products.  In so doing we wished to help build an interdisciplinary network of contacts in this field and identify priority areas for further investigation.

Findings from the workshop were presented in a paper at AGI2009, and in a report which is available on the Ordnance Survey’s website.  These confirmed there is indeed a clear need to focus on usability of information, as well as on interfaces used to access information.  Rationale centred on the fact that current research and established methodologies in the field of product usability focus on objects such as devices, and on computer interfaces, with not so much focus on usability of data products such as digital geographic information.

The March 2010 workshop

As with the 2009 workshop, this one day workshop aims to bring together people researching usability of data/information across different disciplines, including Human Factors, HCI, Computer Science, Geographic Information Science.

The objective will be to share case studies on theory and/or application of methods for investigating usability of data or information, in particular geographic data/ information.

We hope the workshop will:

  • Identify theoretical frameworks and methodologies, through a range of case studies, for applying usability evaluation to data or information.
  • Help to build further an interdisciplinary network of research contacts in this field
  • Form the basis for a publication

If you would like to participate…

Please send a short position paper (around 1000 words), based on a case study where you have addressed issues of usability of geographic information, to the contact details below by 29th January 2010.

A workshop agenda and venue details will be sent once we have all position papers.

Support for reasonable travel and accommodation costs may be provided – if you may need assistance please contact me (details below).

Jenny Harding, Ordnance Survey Research

jenny.harding@ordnancesurvey.co.uk Phone: +44 (0)23 8079 2052

This is call for papers for a workshop on methods and research techniques that are suitable for geospatial technologies. The workshop is planned for the day before GISRUK 2010, and we are aware of the clashes with the AAG 2010 annual meeting, CHI 2010 and the Ergonomics Society Annual Conference. However, if you would like to contribute to the book that the commission is developing but can’t attend the workshop, please send an abstract and inform us that you can’t attend.

In the near future I’ll publish information about another workshop in March 2010 about the usability and Human-Computer Interaction aspects of geographical information itself – see the report from the Ordnance Survey workshop earlier in 2009.

So here is the full call:

Workshop on Methods and Techniques of Use, User and Usability Research in Geo-information Processing and Dissemination

Tuesday 13 April 2010 at University College London

The Commission on Use and User Issues of the International Cartographic Association (ICA) is currently working on a new handbook specifically addressing the application of user research methods and techniques in the geodomain.

In order to share experiences and interesting case studies a workshop is organized by the Commission, in collaboration with UCL, on the day preceding GISRUK 2010.

CALL FOR PAPERS

While there is growing awareness within the research community on the need to develop usability engineering and use and user research methods that are suitable for geographical and spatial information and systems, to date there is a lack of organized and documented experience in this area.

We therefore invite researchers with recent experience with use, user and usability research in the broad geodomain (cartography, GIS, geovisualization, Location Based Services, geographical information, GeoWeb etc.) to present a paper specifically focusing on the research methods and techniques applied, with an aim to develop the body of knowledge for the domain.

To participate, please send an abstract of 1 page A4 at maximum containing:

  • A description of the research method(s) and technique(s) applied
  • A short description of the case in which they have been applied
  • The overall research framework
  • Contact details and affiliation of the author(s)

We are also encouraging PhD researchers to submit paper proposals and share experiences from their research. At the workshop there will be ample time for discussing the application of user research methods and techniques. Good papers may be the basis for contributions to the handbook that is planned for publication in 2011.

Abstracts should be submitted on or before 1 December 2009 to the Chairman of the Commission Corné van Elzakker ( elzakker@itc.nl )

Also see:
the website of the ICA Commission on Use and User Issues and  the GISRUK2010 website

At the end of September, the manuscript of ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies’ was submitted to John Wiley & Sons. This is the reason for the silence on this blog since July while the final chapters were written.

The book, which is an introduction to usability and Human-Computer Interaction aspects of GIS and other geospatial technologies, was written because there is no other recent book that covers these aspects while taking into account the special characteristics of geographical information and the extensive use of maps.

There were several books in the early 1990s dedicated to human factors of GIS or to cognitive aspects of these systems. Since then, there have been many published articles, but no easy-to-access summary of the outcomes in a way that is useful for developers or people who want to understand how to design more usable systems. So, while working on a paper that called for developing ‘usability engineering for GIS’ in 2005, I figured out that, actually, it was time to write an introductory text in this area. In the end, this is an edited textbook written by me together with a group of excellent collaborators: Jochen Albrecht, Clare Davies, Catherine Emma Jones, Robert Laurini, Chao Li, Aaron M. Marcus, Stephanie L. Marsh, Annu-Maaria Nivala, Artemis Skarlatidou, Carolina Tobón, Jessica Wardlaw and Antigoni Zafiri.

So the book provides an introduction to user-centred design and usability engineering from a geospatial technologies perspective, theoretical aspects of human understanding of space and collaborative systems, practical aspects of cartography and map design that are useful for developers and application designers, guidance for evaluating geospatial systems and some tips for designing desktop, Web and mobile based systems. Each chapter includes case studies and examples that make the material more concrete.

The book is scheduled to be out by March 2010. A lot of work went into writing the various chapters and ensuring that the content is covering all the needed elements to create a usable GIS – I hope that it will be useful!

At several recent GIS industry and academic conferences, I was not very surprised to see GIS presentations in which the presenter started by talking about ‘usability enhancements’ and ‘we took usability very seriously in this application’ but failed to deliver. In contrast to such statements, the application itself was breaking basic usability guidelines such as not giving any feedback to the user about some activity of the system, or grouping related elements together in the interface, among other problems.

Then I came across a report from 1991, which talks about User-Centred Graphical User Interface for GIS and notes that ‘It is not unusual for more than 60% of the code in a complex software system to be dedicated purely to the user interface. This stands in sharp contrast to the 35% dedicated to the user interface in early GISs’. This is still true in spirit, if not in percentage. GIS applications require sophisticated data manipulation, and most of the development effort of GIS vendors or Open Source GIS projects is focused on the information itself and its manipulation. The interface is probably seen as an add-on – the ‘fun’ bit of the development that you leave to the end after cracking all the engineering challenges that make the application work.

What I would argue is that, as a result, GIS as an industry doesn’t have a ‘usability culture’. Compare that to Apple, where usability and interaction with users has been at the centre of what they are doing since they started. Or with e-commerce which also shows a ‘usability culture’ because, if you fail on usability, there is a direct link to loss of sales. These are examples of organisations and sectors who know that usability is important and commit resources to ensuring that their products are usable.

In contrast, in the GIS industry there is a feeling that usability is a ‘nice to have’ element of the development process, so there is no practice of involving usability experts in software development projects. There are relatively few examples of user-centred design in GIS, and they are mostly in research papers, very rarely in practice.

Neogeography is changing it somewhat, since parts of it are coming from companies and developers who see the value in understanding the users. Maybe the competition between the existing developers of GIS and neogeography companies will cause the former to change and they will become more serious about usability.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,228 other followers