Geographic information or environmental information?

One of the changes that is currently happening in the area of geographic information in the European Union is the roll-out of the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community directive (INSPIRE). The text of the directive uses the issue of sharing environmental information as a justification for the creation of a national spatial data infrastructure:

‘Community policy on the environment must aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Community. Moreover, information, including spatial information, is needed for the formulation and implementation of this policy and other Community policies, which must integrate environmental protection requirements’

Interestingly, this blurring between geographic information and environmental information can be traced back to 1970. Then, in a conference that was dedicated to environment information systems, Roger Tomlinson (who is credited with coining the term Geographic Information System) noted that:

‘The essential difference between most data and those describing the environment of the surface of the earth is that the latter frequently have a location identifier as part of the data element … throughout the symposium the terms “geographical data” and “environmental data” were used synonymously as were the terms “geographic information system” and “environment information system’. (Tomlinson, R. F. (Ed.) (1970) Environment Information Systems, Proceedings of the UNESCO/IGU 1st Symposium on Geographic Information Systems, Ottawa, Canada.
p. 1)

So nothing new – and the confusion between what is environmental information and what is geographic information is bound to continue.


The first ever Human-Computer Interaction and GIS research

Trying to track down the source of a term is one of the more interesting academic tasks. For example, finding out when people started researching Human-Computer Interaction and GIS is a bit like following the thread. First of all, the term Human-Computer Interaction is sometimes presented as Computer-Human Interaction, especially in the early 1980s, when it emerged – the ACM Special Interest Group still uses CHI and not HCI. Before that, the common term used was Man-Machine Interaction which was actually a term that came out of studies in the 1940s. The way to uncover this terminology chain is to find papers that mention both terms and follow it through. Quite quickly you develop an understanding of the chain…

Then there is the issue of GIS – after all, the term was invented only around the mid 1960s: surely many people outside the small circle of researchers that became familiar with the term used other terminology. So you need to look for other terms, such as geographic information (as well as geographical information), maps, etc.

Following this approach, I have found a paper from 1963 by Malcolm Pivar, Ed Fredkin and Henry Stommel about ‘Computer-Compiled Oceanographic Atlas: an Experiment in Man-Machine Interaction’. The paper is as interesting as its writers – with Pivar and Fredkin among the Artificial Intelligence group at MIT, and Stommel a leading oceanographer. The data came from surveys that were part of the International Geophysical Year (1957/8 ) – and the paper shows that information overload is nothing new.

For me, the most interesting passage in the paper is:

‘[I]n preparing a printed atlas certain irrevocable choices of scale, of map projections, of contour interval, and of type of map (shall we plot temperature at standard depths, or on density surfaces, etc.?) must be made from the vast infinitude of all possible mappings. An atlas-like representation, generated by digital computer and displayed upon a cathode-ray screen, enables the oceanographer to modify these choices at will. Only a high-speed computer has the capacity and speed to follow the quickly shifting demands and questions of a human mind exploring a large field of numbers. The ideal computer-compiled oceanographic atlas will be immediately responsive to any demand of the user, and will provide the precise detailed information requested without any extraneous information. The user will be able to interrogate the display to evoke further information; it will help him track down errors and will offer alternative forms of presentation. Thus, the display on the screen is not a static one; instead, it embodies animation as varying presentations are scanned. In a very real sense, the user “converses” with the machine about the stored data.’ (Pivar et al., 1963, p. 396)

What an amazing vision in 1963 – it would take another 30 years and even more before what they are describing became a reality!

OSM Quality Assessment – S4 presentation

The following presentation is a summary of the OSM quality assessment paper that I’ve posted here in August. It was presented in the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) S4 event which was held on the 8th January 2009.

The presentation does not include additional analysis to what included in the paper, apart from a graph that analyses the bias of coverage in comparison to the Index of Multiple Deprivation (Slide 37) which shows the analysis for urban areas only. In the slide, only areas with size up to single standard deviation from the average are shown. By and large, this means that only urban areas are included.

The success of collaborative research

Just as 2008 ended, Marc Farr, Jess Wardlaw and Kate Jones were awarded the IJMR Collaborative Research Award from the Market Research Society. Jess is working with me on the Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Dr Foster Intelligence, while Kate is leading the GIS work on the Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project. They’ve joined together to write the paper:

Farr, M., Wardlaw, J. and Jones, C. (2008)  Tackling Health Inequalities using Geodemographics: A Social Marketing Approach. International Journal of Market Research, 50, 4, pp. 449-468.

As the title suggests, the paper was about Dr Foster’s social marketing work and how we use geodemographic data to target health interventions, and compared the methodology to traditional market research methods. The statement from the award commission is rather nice:

‘This new Award recognises genuine co-operation between the practitioner (agency, client, etc.) and academic communities. Tackling Health Inequalities using Geodemographics – A Social Marketing Approach is an excellent example of the innovative methods being applied to the challenges faced by the UK public sector. It demonstrates how social marketing is being adopted in targeting healthcare priorities, and the role played by Dr Foster Intelligence as a public-private partnership in providing information to help achieve this goal.’

So well done to Jess, Kate and Marc!