London’s Suburban Town Centres Profiler – a Geovisualisation application without interactive mapping

This week, we have released the ‘Suburban Town Centres Profiler’. The application can be accessed from the Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres website, and was originally developed to support hypotheses development within the project’s team. It’s been quite a while that we’ve been working on the range of maps and information the profiler is based on, practically since last summer.

All the details about the profiler are on its website, but an interesting point that underpins it is that, in some cases, it is worth sacrificing the interactivity of the map itself to allow users to concentrate on the information. In HCI terminology, the main task is not about interaction with the map but with the information and its meaning, so providing interactive maps will actually reduce the usability of the application!

The maps on the profiler do not support zoom in, zoom out or panning. However, they are not meant to be interactive by themselves. The idea behind the application is to allow systematic and consistent comparison of many layers of geographic information across a range of 26 town centres in London’s suburbs. To achieve this task, the interface allows us to switch between themes and explore various datasets quickly, and, by ‘locking’ the map itself, we can ensure that we are looking at each Town Centre at the same scale and to the same extent. I’m sure that there are other cases where such an approach is the correct one – not all interactions are necessarily helpful to the user’s task…

MySociety’s FixMySteet is somewhat similar – it is holding the scale constant while allowing Panning.


AGI 2008 – engaging academia and 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!

Confusing interfaces…

The Manifold training course that we ran earlier in February is always an excellent opportunity to observe how new GIS users interact with such a system.

Running a training session for new users of any GIS will expose major usability problems with the interface. Many of these problems are unnoticeable to experienced users, since they have learned the idiosyncratic aspects of the interface. Usability problems surface in such a session through misunderstandings and questions that the participants raise.

With Manifold, one of the interesting problems that came up is with the query toolbar (see below):

Manifold GIS query bar

The way the query toolbar works is that you select a field in the left drop-down list, an operator at the central drop-down and a value in the text box on the right and click on select to see the result. For example, if you enter 5 in the toolbar in the picture, it will lead to a selection of the 5 polygons on the map with the smallest area.

The confusing part of the interface is the ‘not’ between the left drop-down and the central one. For a new user, the interface reads ‘find objects on the map where the field Area (I) are not the bottom X’. The ‘not’ in this case is a toggle button that can be activated to negate the operation that was selected in the central drop-down. Clearly, it would be better if, when not activated, it had the word ‘is’ (Area is the bottom 5) and ‘not’ appeared only when it was active. This is one of the cases where usability enhancement could be carried out in less than a minute of a programmer’s time – and surely makes life less confusing to many novice users…

Finding your way as a tourist

During the visit to Turin, I had an opportunity to experience the consequences of address matching and georeferencing which I’ve noted in the entry ‘British Museum Test’. After touring the city, I needed to get to a restaurant to meet colleagues that were staying in the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) in Turin. The meeting place was the ‘Il Porto di Savona’ restaurant in Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2. Since the hotel room was connected to the Internet through a relatively slow ‘Swisscom Hospitality Service’ connection, I decided to try to find my way to the restaurant with Google Maps, which are the fastest to download.

My first attempt with Google was unsuccessful – trying to search for ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2, Turin’ pointed me to a place 10 miles away from the city. The next attempt was with Yahoo! Maps, but this one could not find anything. Microsoft Virtual Earth failed to find the full name, but offered a location called ‘Piazza Vittorio’ which I selected, only to zoom in and discover that the full proper name does appear on the map! Using this name (‘Piazza Vittorio’) with Google also worked and it managed to find the location.

Turin Map Virtual Earth

Interestingly, because the connection was relatively slow, the interface of Microsoft was fairly annoying as parts failed to upload, and I was deterred from using Multimap as I’ve experienced slow response in the past on a fast broadband connection at home. Even so, checking more recently with Multimap shows that it will direct you to the wrong place in the city – although again, if you zoom to the map, the square is clearly mapped with its proper name…

The experience demonstrated how significant the problem of georeferencing is on these public mapping sites. This is a fundamental problem for these search engines to make them really usable. In this case, I used my knowledge of the range of public mapping sites, manipulated the address until I got the location and did a lot of things that, I suspect, a less experienced user would not do. I persevered with the problem because of my interest in usability and because it was an interesting problem. Actually, in terms of efficiency, it would have taken me less time to just go downstairs and ask the concierge…

Another aspect is that download time still matters. This is an aspect that web designers tend to ignore. I suspect that the assumption here is that broadband connections are ubiquitous. The speed of downloading a page is significant in geospatial applications – because there is no way round the fact that, unlike text based sites, the map is the most significant part and must be delivered as graphic files which tend to bulk-up the overall size of the page, as far as the end-user is concerned.

I must note that once I managed to find the location, it was again a pleasure to use the old style tourist map to navigate to and from the restaurant, which, by the way, I warmly recommend.

The joys of not knowing the way ‘home’

Map reading and navigation can be challenging – personally, finding my location on the map when touring a new place is not always easy. As a result, I thought for many years that having a device that could guide me ‘home’ would be really useful. Of course, away from home, ‘home’ may mean the hotel that I’m staying in. Today, it is possible to have such a device, as many smartphones are capable of finding their location and use services such as Google Maps.

A recent visit to Turin (Torino) made me rethink this view. The hotel I stayed in provided a typical tourist map (see example below) with a delightful depiction of the buildings in the centre of the city, clearly marked tourist attractions and, as always, some additional information on the back of the map.[ The map was produced by A&C e Turismo Torino ]

Turin Map - Small

Touring the centre of a new place is a very enjoyable activity, and I realised that I didn’t want to get from the hotel to the centre in the most direct and efficient way. I really enjoy in looking in shops, public buildings, markets and other urban features along the way. Also, the fact that the map covered a large area at ‘high information density’ (the amount of information per square inch of interface area), because the printing is 6 to 10 times denser than a computer screen and arguably 60 times the area that is covered by the best smartphone screen, enabled me to see the ‘big picture’ and to notice more or less where I was heading. Instead of navigation by following a specific street, I was using the map to provide me with the general direction.

Nothing of the above is new, but, when I consider my experience and the enjoyment of touring a city and compare it to the current provision in navigation devices, I can see how much they are capable of spoiling the enjoyment of getting lost. Maybe the smart compass, as suggested by Max Egenhofer, can be useful for keeping the experience without destroying the really enjoyable aspects of it.

For a more general comment in the same vein, see Don Norman’s discussion in the recent ACM ‘Interactions’ journal for a more general complaint about devices and services which can destroy certain human enjoyments.

Geographies of Social Enterprise – Call for papers

As part of a research project with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, I’m co-organising a session in the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, 27-29 August 2008, on the geographicla aspects of social enterprise research. The detailed call is:

Social enterprise and social entrepreneurship have grown in quantity and strength in the last decade in the UK. Positioned within ‘Third Sector’ social enterprises are characterised by their business-like approach to social action and have grown in the UK under New Labour. The relevance of social enterprise to Geography has previously been by-passed by particular discourses that debate the political-economic and socio-economic nature of non-state, non-commercial organisations – namely volunteer or non-profit organisations. This work helps to define and map the landscape of the Third sector but is yet to give adequate attention to organisations and individuals who use their entrepreneurial ideas to deliver social change while aiming to be financially sustainable.

There is a need for more social and cultural geographers to examine the nature and emergence of social enterprise/entrepreneurship in the UK. Whilst some work has explored the interrelationships between people, place and volunteering (Milligan, 2007), work on social enterprise/entrepreneurship in this field is scarce. Social entrepreneurs identify social need at the local, national and global scales; generate interest from a variety of social, cultural, economic and political spheres; and create tangible/intangible social impacts on individuals, communities, and cultures through their encounters with people, environment and place.

For social and cultural geography, social entrepreneurs not only present the opportunity to revive long-standing debates over agency, community, citizenship, space and place but also to make contributions to recent work on mobility, diasporic geographies, geographies of enchantment and especially to rethink the links between modes of economic activity and the creation of social goods.

This session aims to move current debates in geography, e.g. within geographies of volunteerism, forward by looking at individuals as drivers of social change from a new perspective. This is also pertinent given that social entrepreneurship/enterprise is fast becoming the major force of change in UK society. This session stems from a collaborative research between UCL and a leading supporter of social entrepreneurs (UnLtd), and we want to create a forum for debate about the emergence of and contribution to be made by geographies of social enterprise.

We invite proposals from geographers to present papers on:

  • Geographical patterns of social entrepreneurial activities
  • The role of Social Enterprise, Voluntarism and Charities in shaping places
  • The concepts of space within the third sector, and how its geometry changes as result of social enterprise
  • The merits and demerits of mapping social impact
  • The relevance of non-spatial mapping to better understand social entrepreneurial activity.

If you are interested, please send expressions of interest to both and

Deadline for title and abstracts (c. 200 words): 10 February 2008

This session is part of two planned sessions about Social Enterprise. The second one is a closed session organise by Dr. Sarah-Anne Munoz, which will focus on Social Enterprise, Social Theory and Geographies of Empowerment.

Indices of Deprivation 2007

Early in December, the new version of the Indices of Deprivation (also known as the Index of Multiple Deprivation or IMD) was released. The first IMD was published in 2000, with a new version in 2004 which has now been updated. Created by Oxford University’s Social Disadvantage Research Centre, the indices classify each Lower-Layer Super Output Area (LSOA) in England according to the level of deprivation in multiple domains. An LSOA is an areal unit that contains on average 1500 people – a neighbourhood unit more or less.

As this is a data set widely used in many of my research projects, it was useful to analyse it and see how it changes in comparison to the previous version. There are some surprises, and, if the indices are really reflecting the changes in neighbourhood, the implication is that it is difficult to escape deprivation at the bottom of the ladder.

The IMD is very useful and has significant political implications. There are hundreds of academic articles that are based on applications of the IMD, and far more significant is the role that they play in allocating resources to local authorities through various governmental programmes such as Sure Start, which assists children in their early years, or Decent Homes, which improves the quality of the social housing stock. Of special importance are the points of 20% and 10% deprivation, as they are used widely in policy decisions. We use the IMD in the research with UnLtd to evaluate the location of projects and awardees, and in the Environmental Inequalities project with London 21 to show communities where they are positioned in the national scale.

After 7 years of use and acceptance at all levels of government in the UK (there are separate indices for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), the creation of the new indices must have been a challenging task – a lot is at stake if a specific area moves up or down. The IMD is a league table of sorts, placing each of the LSOAs (and there are around 32,500 of them) in a position relative to others. For each LSOA that is declared as deprived, another one will move up the scale and out of the bottom 20%, which usually means fewer resources for the community. Therefore, it is interesting to analyse the changes in the 2007 edition in comparison to the 2004 one.

Although the Department of Communities and Local Government staes that:

“The Index scores from 2004 cannot be compared with those from 2007. Though the two Indices are very similar, it is not valid to compare the scores between the two time points. An area’s score is affected by the scores of every other area; so it is impossible to tell whether a change in score is a real change in the level of deprivation in an area or whether it is due to the scores of other areas going up or down.”(see this document)

While this is true for each area, it is still valid to check what is the overall pattern of movement across the whole data set. To do that, each LSOA was coded with the percentile point in the IMD 2007 to which it belongs (in each percentile point there are about 325 LSOAs) and compared to the percentile position in 2004. The gap represents the relative change in the position of the LSOA – positive change means that it is now less deprived, while a negative change means that the place is now more deprived compared to 2004.

Within the span of 3 years and due to the differences in the calculation method, it is expected that specific LSOAs will shift their place – especially when the investment that was put into them is taken into account. For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that 5% change is not too big – although it can be significant if your LSOA belonged to the 17 percentile in 2004 and now belongs to the 22 percentile. Thus, it is worth exploring where the LSOAs that moved more than 5 percentage points are. In IMD 2007, over 25% of LSOAs have shifted more than 5 percentage points and some LSOAs have moved over 20 percentage points.

The distribution of the LSOAs that moved is shown in the chart below. Notice that, although this might look like normal distribution, actually the number of changes at the lowest percentages is not equivalent to the changes at the top of the range. It might be caused by the fact that the indices are especially designed to locate deprived areas and therefore located them accurately in 2004 and the situation haven’t shifted in 2007. The problem with this is it means that, in the periods of 2001-2 (on which IMD 2004 is based) and 2004-5 (on which IMD 2007 is based), not too many places were shifted out of deprivation, while the rest of the places happily shifted about. Is it possible that the IMD team was especially careful not to bump communities that were already included in the bottom 20%?

IMD 2007 Significant Change by Percentile

Another way to look at the data is of course through mapping. The following map represents the LSOAs that experienced significant change of over 5%. You can download an A2 size PDF in which it is possible to zoom to a specific area to see the changes.

IMD 2007 Significant Change - Map

While most of the changes are not in the most deprived areas, it is fascinating to see the geographical pattern of change. For example, by zooming in to London, it is easy to see that Barnet, Brent and Harrow are some of the local authorities with the biggest change downward, while Camden and Westminster have seen significant change upward. As many of the changes are in the middle range, will they have policy implications?

A final point about this analysis is that it was fairly easy run: the analysis was done in 4-5 hours, using an ageing laptop (a 4 years old IBM X31), Excel 2007 and Manifold GIS 8.0. While the cartography can be improved, the ability of modern GIS to do this type of work so quickly helps in focusing on the task, and not spending the time waiting for the GIS to process data…