Snapshot Study – a Useful Usability Engineering for GIS Method?

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.

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The Experienced Noise

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.

Noise modelling and public access

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).

Defra London Noise Maps 2004

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…

Mapping for Sustainable Communities Seminar

As part of the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities, we are organising a one day seminar titled ‘Mapping for Sustainable Communities – An interactive day of reports and discussion for community practitioners, academics and community groups‘.

This event is scheduled for 17th June 2008, starting at 10.30 and finishing with a reception around 7.00 in the evening. It is free and open to anyone with interest in community mapping.

This is how we describe the event:

The seminar will consider recent work and ways forward. It is being organised by University College London and the London 21 network as part of their ‘Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities’ project funded under the UrbanBuzz programme and their Environmental Justice programme. These projects use internet-based and paper mapping along with other tools to work with communities on collecting and collating local information.

The seminar will bring together academics, practitioners and community groups to discuss the use of mapping as a means of engagement and tool for collaborative action, and to consider the benefits and limitations. The seminar includes sessions for academics and practitioners and a celebration of community work.

Outline Agenda
10.30 am “Academic” Session – Theory & Research

  • The use of different methodologies in participatory mapping
  • Mapping, impacts and inequalities
  • Panel discussion: the balance between participation and the use of technology

2pm “Practitioners” Session – The Practice of participatory mapping

  • The use of mapping with local communities
  • Mapping, empowerment and Community Development
  • Local Government, Regeneration and the use of community mapping
  • Practical workshop: starting a participatory mapping project

4.30pm “Community” Showcase – work in progress

  • A brief introduction to the development of the two projects, followed by presentations about the five case studies.

6pm Reception

Now, just because a session is tagged as academic, practitioners or community, it doesn’t mean that we want just one group – the whole point is to have people from different groups joining the discussion throughout the day. The titles are about the ‘hats’ that you put on during a session!

The conference is free but numbers are limited. Register on-line at http://www.communitymaps.london21.org/includes/mcsc_conference.php

Open Knowledge Conference (OKCon) 2008 presentation

Below you can find the presentation that I gave at the Open Knowledge Conference on 15th March. The presentation focuses on the issue of environmental information and Open Knowledge and covers several areas of open information and access to environmental information, starting with a short overview of the background, followed by some examples of environmental information over the internet from the past 14 years. It continues with a few examples of recent development and a discussion of the work that we’ve been carrying out at UCL recently. Finally, there are observations on access to information in the environmental field. The presentation contains notes that explain each of the slides – for a version with the notes, click here.

One interesting observation from the discussions during the conference was that the discourse of Open Knowledge, which is a political discussion, is lacking in the area of political philosophy, and bringing this issue up will reveal, I suspect, inherent differences which are very significant for the substance of the licenses’ structures, software design and many other aspects in this area.

What I mean by political philosophy is that if you approach Open Knowledge from an egalitarian or altruistic approach then you would have a specific set of perceptions about what it can be used for, by whom and under which conditions, which will be very different to an approach taken by a strong techno-libertarian believer. The egalitarian approach might emphasise the fact that the use of your knowledge must be beneficial for society, and, if the data or software is used for personal benefit, then there should be some social payback. It is likely that no demands will be made restricting further use. The techno-libertarian approach will pick and choose which rights you want to protect (yours) and which you don’t (for example, those of media companies). You are likely to dictate certain conditions on the use of your data, to further your belief.

The core issue is what is the social change that you are trying to lead and what levers are you using to achieve it?

The argument against an explicit discussion of political philosophy is that it can destroy Open Knowledge projects (such as OpenStreetMap, where a whole range of underlying political philosophies can be found), but the problem is that the licensing and legal structures around them are unsatisfactory exactly because the politics remain unarticulated.

Even if in many projects the politics are hidden, I think that conferences and meetings (such as OKCon) should be the right forum to discuss these aspects.

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For a more detailed analysis of public access to environmental  information, see Haklay, M., 2003, Public Access to Environmental Information: Past, Present and Future, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 27, 163-180
and other publications.

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!