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…
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.
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.
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.
For a while now, I have been calling for the development of usability engineering for GIS – a set of techniques and methods that will ensure that geographical technologies are learnable, efficient, easy to memorise, error tolerant and provide a satisfactory and enjoyable experience. While general usability guidelines are as relevant for GIS as they are to other computer-based systems, the use of maps as an interface and the nature of the data require the development of specific methodologies for GIS.
An example of such a method is a snapshot study. This is a simple usability study where we ask current users of GIS to take a snapshot of their computer monitor (by pressing Print Screen), fill in a very short survey and send the results by email. It requires very limited investment from the participants, but actually reveals a lot about the software packages that they are using.
The study that I conducted with Antigoni Zafiri in the summer of 2005 helped in understanding common screen resolution, the way users set toolbars on their interface and what type of maps they are looking at.
This type of study can be effective for the revision of products, to understand how they are used. It can also be used to understand the common computing environment in which the product is used.
The study has now been published in the Cartographic Journal – and can be downloaded from here. The proper citation for it is Haklay, M., and Zafiri, A., 2008, Usability Engineering for GIS: Learning From A Screenshot, the Cartographic Journal, 45(2) 87-97.
While the new Defra noise maps provide the results of a computerised model, the experience of noisy places can be mapped through community mapping, as was demonstrated recently in the Royal Docks area and the Pepys Estate.
Within the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project, and through the collaboration with London Sustainability Exchange and London 21 projects on Environmental Justice and with the help of Christian Nold, we have recently carried out studies of noise in two areas in east London. While the method is based on a systematic data collection framework, it does not intend to replace detailed acoustics studies that the authorities should carry out regarding sources of noise which influence residential areas. What it does is enable communities to get evidence about their experience, the maximum levels of noise that they are exposed to and to identify the sources of noise that influence the specific place.
The following text is taken from the press release that we have just issued:
People living in the Pepys Estate in Lewisham and in the Royal Docks area in Newham have led the way with a new way to tackle noise. The Pepys Estate currently suffers noise pollution from a scrapyard near the centre of the estate and very close to both a primary and nursery school, while Royal Docks suffers noise problems resulting from flights in and out of London City Airport (LCA), where a major expansion is threatened.
The project supplied local residents with noise meters and trained them in how to use these devices. They went on to make over 1500 measurements at all times of day and night and developed their own ‘noise maps’.
The results of this ‘citizen science’ have been remarkable. On the Pepys Estate members of the Community Forum found disturbingly high levels of noise, often continuing outside normal working hours. This noise affected quality of life up to 350 metres from the scrapyard. They have been trying to deal with this problem for over six years, initially raising concerns with the Mayor of Lewisham and others in September 2002. Since this time the disturbance has actually escalated. Now armed with this information they called a public meeting to present their findings to the council and the Environment Agency.
Lewisham Council and the Environment Agency accept that there is a problem. After seeing the results of the survey the Agency has appointed an acoustic consultant to carry out a detailed analysis of noise in and from the scrapyard. The residents who carried out the survey will meet with the consultant to share their information, and will work with the council to agree an action plan for moving forward.
The communities surrounding London City Airport (LCA), including Virginia Quays and Thamesmead, also found troubling results. Many readings exceed levels deemed to cause serious annoyance under the World Health Organisation community noise guidelines. The measurements gathered by the community revealed a clear correlation between unacceptable levels of noise and the LCA operational hours. More interestingly, the results obtained by both communities indicate that people are quite accurate in their perceptions of noise levels and the survey enabled them to express how these affected them. One of the residents said ‘the noise is irritable, I can’t relax or have the window open – but I can’t shut out the noise so have to turn the TV up – but everything is then so loud.’
The full press release is available here.
The new noise maps for England are yet another example of how environmental information is presented to the public in ways that do not make sense, and, I suspect, alienate rather than include people in understanding the state of their environment.
A few weeks ago, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) release their modelled noise maps for main urban areas of England. There is no doubt about the popular interest in these maps – the site collapsed on the first day of publicity due to demand, and the message ‘Due to the popularity of the site we are currently experiencing very heavy load’ is on display. This also happened to the Environment Agency when they released their ‘What’s in your backyard?’ and flood maps in 1998.
Yet, the maps are as difficult to understand as the previous version of the London noise maps that were released in 2004 (see image below from the now defunct site).
In the new maps, the maps are smaller in size than the London test site (occupying just 29.2% of the screen at 1024×768). They are either too generalised (Rail noise) or are detailed but without street names and landmarks (Roads), and, although noise is experienced as a combination of the impacts from industry, air, rail and road, the site gives no option of seeing all the layers together!
While the site makes it clear that the data is just modelled and was produced for strategic purposes, the message that ‘Users are strongly encouraged to read the explanatory information’ is not immediately visible – you need to scroll down to see it! Furthermore, the site does not explain what this ‘strategic assessment’ is – strategy of whom? For what end?
I do have sympathy with the designers, and I know from personal experience how difficult it is to display this information with all the political and organisational pressures, but without end-user testing and improvements the release of this information in such an inaccessible form can lead people to feel even more disenfranchised about environmental information…