What’s in your back yard? – the latest edition

The Environment Agency has released the new version of their ‘What’s In Your Back Yard?’ application, which allows you to find out about pollution incidents, water quality, and flood risk in your area. Similar to the rest of the website, it is still designed for 800×600 screen resolution, although not really – the legend spills to the bottom and requires scrolling down.

The application takes a lot of the new interaction metaphors that we’ve become accustomed to in Web Mapping 2.0 – slippy maps that can be panned easily, obtaining information by point and click on the map – unlike the cumbersome way in which it was handled in the previous version. There are also other improvements such as more data.

Yet, there remain some of the most common mistakes that I have pointed to in the past – the maps are still small and too generalised to really see what is in your area, they still have the weird scale statement at the top of the map (what does it means that the scale is 1:650,000?).

Also, notice that the slippy map implementation is such that, after you move the map, it disappears and then reappears – it takes about 3 seconds which is enough to make it difficult to relocate yourself on the map. That’s actually not a good implementation – the whole point of slippy maps is that only a small area of the screen is being refreshed, making it easy for users to keep the image in their short-term memory.
The last aspect that I would expect in such an application released in 2008 is the ability to download the data from the application (see the Power of Information report) or to have a well-controlled API as in OS OpenSpace.

So, it’s a move in the right direction, but a long way to go …

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OSM quality evaluation

In the past year I have worked on the evaluation of OpenStreetMap data. I was helped by Patrick Weber, Claire Ellul, and especially Naureen Zulfiqar who carried out part of the analysis of motorways. The OSM data was compared against Ordnance Survey Meridian 2 and the 1:10,000 raster as they have enough similarity to justify a comparison. Now, as the fourth birthday of OSM is approaching, it is good time to evaluate what was achieved. The analysis shows that, where OSM was collected by several users and benefited from some quality assurance, the quality of the data is comparable and can be fit for many applications. The positional accuracy is about 6 metres, which is expected for the data collection methods that are used in OSM. The comparison of motorways shows about 80% overlap between OSM and OS – but more research is required. The challenges are the many areas that are not covered – currently, OSM has good coverage for only 25% of the land area of England. In addition, in areas that are covered well, quality assurance procedures should be considered – and I’m sure that the OSM crowd will find great ways to make these procedures fun. OSM also doesn’t covered areas at the bottom of the deprivation scale as well as it covers areas that are wealthier. The map below shows the quality of coverage of the two datasets for England, with blue marking areas where OSM coverage is good and red where it is poor.

Difference between OSM and OS Meridian for England
Difference between OSM and OS Meridian for England

The full report is available here, and if someone is willing to sponsor further analysis – please get in touch!

The paper itself have been published – Haklay M, 2010, “How good is volunteered geographical information? A comparative study of OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey datasets” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 37(4) 682 – 703

Are SatNavs dangerous?

The Daily Mirror recently put out a summer story on the risks of using SatNavs. While I would question the statistics and the reliability of the information, as it is probably based on a quick phone survey of 2000 people and then extrapolated in some unclear manner, I do think that we need to understand more about the tunnel vision that SatNav devices create in user’s mind.

The problem of showing a users only small section of reality without the full context is surely the right way to provide information in a short burst that does not risk them too much. While I still want to see some research on how long do users look at their SatNavs using an eye tracker (if anyone is willing to sponsor this – we’ve got the equipment!), I’m confident that there is solid reasoning behind the visualisation as it is now.

So, although this is suitable visualisation, we have an unintended consequence of tunnel vision view of the environment through which the user navigates. We are now starting to see some of the misshapes that occur due to this, and that is an area that requires more research and understanding.

See also the comments in the recent Interactions by Elisabeth Churchill about SatNav

Only hearsay and confidence?

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…

Can the US change to 100% renewable energy in 10 years?

A speech from Al Gore was published last Thursday in the New York Times calling for the US to go on a 10 years project to switch to 100% renewable energy (well, electricity). The link is to the annotated version from Andy Revkin, the scientific correspondent of the paper – which adds an important insight.

It makes a very interesting reading about the links between climate change, energy security, the economy, and the ways in which the challenges of moving to an environmental sustainable mode of economic activities will be negotiated by society.

Especially interesting is to read the text critically, and to consider what is included, and why. Noteworthy is the roles of different domains of human activities  – science is used to demonstrate the problem, technology to offer a solution and the power relationships in society in both the financial investment and the political arenas are playing their part to benefit from the potential disruption of climate change.

Mapping for Sustainable Communities – presentations

The Mapping for Sustainable Communities seminar that was organised by myself together with London 21, on the 17th June, was a fantastic event that I thoroughly enjoyed. With over 100 participants, coming from academia, practice and from communities across London and further afield, it was a unique opportunity for discussion between these 3 groups which, unfortunately, is rare.

The day was fairly intensive with a series of presentations from a wide range of speakers, providing a range of views and opinions. At lunch, and especially during the afternoon workshops, there was more time for discussion and exchange of experiences. It was very satisfying to see people stand and discuss the various aspects of participatory and community mapping during the reception at the end of the day, after a heavy day of listening and talking about these issues.

The seminar covered the whole range of technical options – from paper to 3D computer mapping. It also covered various views – from the more theoretical to the practical.

As a conclusion from the day, it is clear that there is a good potential for community and participatory mapping in many aspects of life in the UK. Particpatory mapping can we be used to celebrate the wonder of places, find about their history, or identify issues that are of concern to the community. We need to take into account the local organisational and governance structures, and be sensitive to the needs of the communities within which we operate. There is an ethical dimension that should not be overlooked, but it is important to find the cases where we can make an impact with these tools and use them to make places more sustainable.

In case that you have missed the seminar, or would like to see the presentations from it, here is the outline of the day, with a link to the presentations on SlideShare:

  • Mike Batty (UCL) – Participation through Online Technologies: Experiences with 3D-GIS, Second Life and Multimedia in London (Mike’s presentation was too interactive – so for more information about the issues that he presented, see the CASA website)
  • Community Showcase, where five of the communities that we are working with talked about their experiences.

The Sustainable Suburban High Street

As part of our ‘Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres‘ project, we have recently published the review of the literature in Geography Compass. The paper, titled ‘The Sustainable Suburban High Street: A Review of Themes and Approaches’ written by the project team, with Sam Griffiths leading the effort. We are already working on other papers from the project…

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

‘Whether suburbs are regarded as a distinctive feature of the contemporary urban landscape or as symptomatic of ‘sprawl’ the recent upsurge of scholarly interest in suburbia has done little to displace the dominant image of the suburb as a primarily residential phenomenon. In a wide ranging survey of the academic literature, taking account of current developments in the policy debate relating to suburban regeneration and also drawing on research conducted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project at University College London, this article argues for an approach to the suburbs that emphasises their importance as historical centres of diverse social and economic activity. The focus is on the ‘typical’ British suburban high street, regarded as a complex and dynamic socio-spatial entity facing particular challenges to its vitality and viability in the light of ongoing socio-economic change. It is suggested that an improved understanding of the relation between suburban society and the built form of suburban centres over time would lead to a fuller appreciation of the actual and potential contribution of the local high street to achieving sustainable built environments.’

The paper can be accessed on the Geography Compass website. If you do not have access to Geography Compass and would like to get a copy, contact the project team and we can send you a copy by email.