Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)

Last weekend, I updated my Linkedin page to indicate that I’ve now completed the move between departments at UCL – from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering to the Department of Geography. It’s not just me – the Extreme Citizen Science group will be now based at the Department of Geography.

With this move, I’m closing a circle of 20 years – in September 1997 I came to the Department of Geography at UCL to start my PhD studies at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (At the time, CASA was an inter-departmental centre with links to the Bartlett, Geography, and Geomatic Engineering). At the end of my PhD studies, in 2001, after four years of self-funding the PhD by working as a sysadmin in Geography, research assistant in CASA, and few other things, I was looking for opportunities to stay in London for a while.

Today, the plight of EU academics in the UK due to Brexit is a regular feature in the news. In a similar way, as a non-EU person, I had to take into account that every job that I’m applying to will require organising job permit, and consider how long it will last. This ‘silent’ part of the academic experience that was there for many people is becoming common knowledge, but that’s another story…

With that in mind, I have applied to quite a diverse range of jobs – and finding myself shortlisted at urban planning at MIT, Geography at Leicester, Geography at LSE, Geography at the Hebrew University (where I’ve done my BSc and MA), and Geomatic Engineering at UCL, in addition to management consultancy, and a GIS software company. The MIT, LSE and the commercial jobs weren’t successful, and Leicester offer came too early in the write-up process. In the end, UCL Geomatic Engineering materialised at the right time and this is where I ended.

I found myself staying at the department (including its merger with Civil and Environmental Engineering) for 15 years until it became clear that it is time to move because an incompatibility between the direction that my research evolved and the focus of the department. I did consider staying within the faculty of Engineering – some of my work is linked to computer science, and to interaction with geographical technologies which is related to Human-Computer Interaction, but it felt just as incompatible – after all, most of my work is appearing in journals and conferences that are not valued by computer scientists but by geographers. It was good to discover that my interest in moving to the Department of Geography was welcomed, and now the process is complete. So what have I learned in these 15 years of being a geographer (geographical information scientist) in a civil engineering department? and what reflections do I have about being a researcher of one discipline but having an academic position in another?

Straddling fences

Let’s start from my own position – Nadine Schuurman & Mike Goodchild interview from 1998:

NS Some of the human geographers have partially built their careers upon writing critiques of GIS. How meaningful is participation in these debates for people in GIS?
MG Quite meaningful for geographers interested in GIS. If I were advising a new graduate student on how to succeed in geography these days, my advice would be to try to straddle that fence. It wouldn’t be to come down on either side of it because you have to be able to talk to the rest of the discipline and yet you have to be able to use the technology (Schuurman 1998, emphasis added)

This matched also recommendations that I received before starting my PhD, and my own interest from previous studies in linking social aspects in the environment and society interface with GIS and technology. During my PhD, I was lucky to be linked to three areas of studies at UCL – CASA, with its focus on GIS, computer modelling and visualisation, the Environment and Society Research Unit (ESRU) in Geography, and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering expertise in the department of Computer Science. The result was that my PhD thesis had both a technical part, as well as social-theoretical part. It also demonstrated in papers that I wrote collaboratively during the PhD – for example, a technical paper about the use of agent-based modelling, was followed by a social theoretical paper about the methodological individualism that is embedded in the models at the time.

The technical part of my academic identity was part of the reason that Geomatic Engineering accepted me, and at least at the beginning I tried to fit in – e.g. by directing my attention to technical aspects of GIS data and processing representations and supervising a PhD on 3D data storage. However, participatory aspects of GIS continue to interest me – so I seized opportunities to develop this area. For example, once I heard about OpenStreetMap, I directed my research effort towards it, or when I learned about London 21 Sustainability Network effort to create a London Green Map, I offered help and designed MSc projects to support it. Since 2007, my research became more concentrated on participatory mapping and citizen science. As a result, the work that is linked to geomatic engineering (i.e. surveying, precise measurements, photogrammetry) shrank, as well as relationships with other areas of work in the department, this eventually led to where I am now.

Considering that I have found myself as an interdisciplinary researcher in a department that is completely outside either my ‘home’ disciplines (either Geography or Computer Science), had benefits and challenges.


The most important benefit, which eventually paid off, was the disciplinary freedom. While at the point of promotion applications, or specific evaluators for a research applications and such, I did provide a list of people who relate to my area of work (Geographic Information Science), on the day to day work I was not judged by disciplinary practices. Shortly after securing the lectureship, Paul Longley introduced me to the 3Ps – Publications, Pounds (grant money), and PhD students as criteria that you should pay attention to in terms of career development. Because of my involvement with London Technology Network, I’ve learned about the fourth P – Patents (as in wider impacts). With this insight in mind, I was aware that around me, people cannot evaluate my research on its merit so they will check these general matrices, and as long as they are there, it does not necessarily matter what I do. This freedom provided the scope to develop the combination of technology development which is embedded in social science research which I enjoy doing.

Disciplines do set which journals you should publish in, what conferences you’re expected to present in, and similar aspects of an academic career. Being outside a discipline means that I could publish sometimes in computer science (my top cited paper) and sometime in geography and urban studies (my second top cited paper). Noticeably, I don’t have a single publication in a pure geomatic engineering journal. This allowed for exploring different directions of research that if I was inside a disciplinary department, I would not necessarily be able to do.

The second important benefit was to learn how to communicate with engineers and people who do not see the research from the same perspective as you. Because I was in an engineering department, I was applying to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (the categorisation of my research on EPSRC website are interesting – and I know that they are not what I entered to the system!) and that meant that I needed to think about the reasons that someone who reviews my applications or judges them on a panel will see the benefits from their perspective. I had to learn how to think about structuring research applications, or submissions to REF so they are convincing and relevant to the reader – there was no point in going over the philosophy of technology reasons for researching VGI because this does not help in convincing the reader that my research is worth funding. Highlighting the technical advances and the potential for wider societal impact was more important.

Third, the position that I found myself in was pushing my interdisciplinary understanding further. Not only I had to get used to the engineering mindset and support engineering education (to a very minor extent), I also was in a position that I was doing participatory action research but within an engineering department, which made it more palatable for various researchers in the natural sciences and engineering to approach me while applying for funding. They needed a “safe” person to carry out a participatory part of a wider research project, and I guess that being based in an engineering department made it look this way.  Over the years, I had discussions if the group that I led can be considered as “social scientists” on a project, because of the departmental affiliation. I found it puzzling, but I guess that for reviewers who look less at the details of each applicant’s background, and used to look at affiliations, this worked.


The most obvious downside of being out of a disciplinary department is the issue of resources – this was frustrating while also understandable. Many requests for resources, such as appointing a lecturer in my area, were turned down. Throughout the whole period, the activities that I was carrying out were interesting, or even one that worth highlighting at a departmental level from time to time. When it came to the hard decisions on investment and resource allocation, the activities were not part of the core mission of the department and therefore not fundable. This left me with a continual need for bootstrapping and figuring out ways to secure resources.

The second downside is a version of the imposter syndrome that I started calling  “the hypocrite syndrome”. This is the downside of the communication across disciplines (and therefore epistemologies and ontologies) that I mentioned above. It is the feeling that while what drives the research is a social theory, the process of writing an application is about dampening it and emphasising technical aspects. A good example for this is in my paper about data quality of OpenStreetMap – if you read carefully the paper, it’s fairly obvious that my main reason to carry out quality assessment is so I can have a measure that will help me to show the social justice aspect of the project. Most of the papers that cite this work take it as a paper about data quality. It was a useful way of developing my research, but it doesn’t make you feel that you have provided a holistic description of what your aims are.

A third downside is the additional effort that was required to keep in touch with the development of the discussions in your home disciplines – I frequently went to geography conferences and followed the literature on HCI and computer science, but this is not a replacement for attending regular departmental seminars or even noticing discussions during departmental meetings, that keep you up to date with the general development. In Geography, I was lucky to be on the board for a leading journal (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) for about 5 years, and that provided another way to keep in touch and learn about the discipline.

Overall, I don’t regret the decision to go for an engineering department. The journey was interesting, I have learned a lot through it, and have developed my academic career this way. In hindsight, it did work well. What will happen next? I don’t know – I’ll probably need to reflect in 5 years what were the impacts of joining a disciplinary department…


AAG 2015 notes – day 1

At 8:00 I’ve attended the Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Peripheries  session asking ‘what difference people expect better connectivity to make at the world’s economic peripheries’. I took notes from the presentations of Nancy Ettlinger, Dorothea Kleine and Lisa Poggiali.

Nancy Ettlinger analysed crwodsourcing from governance perspective – using Foucauldian analysis. She looks at rationalities of non-inventive but skilled activity. There are some differences with innovative activities – but the treatment people is the same. The line between classes and intellectual outputs became blurred – data collection, translation, patterns. Algorithms are managing non-innovative work. There are algorithms that are being deployed turning the crowd into human computers. Third party platforms such as AMT that broker requests for jobs and workers. There is also feedback to the software during the process. Crowdsourcing spanning the globe, and the active learning is going to the computers. The work regime is wage-less with less than $10c for an hour of work. Employment is not linked to payment, and the labour is people on demands – people are commodified – most of the crowd are dispersed and working at home. There are IT people in ‘body shopping’ – code monkeys in the IT industry. Precarisation of the workforce. Acceleration of time to completion of tasks magnifies job insecurity. While the companies are working in the regular economy, the workers are actually in the informal sector, invisible, and insecure. Need to imagine new frontier of resistance across the digital landscape will require cooperative-based on web 3.0 network.

Dorothea Kleine – looks at digital inclusion and female enterpreneurship in chile and Tanzania. ICT4D is an emerging field, a lot are focusing on economic growth – the paper focus on capabilities approach (Amartya Sen). The choice framework provide a way to deal with the capabilities approach. The discourse of ICT4D – includes powerful neoliberal framing. Under which conditions women are invited to be included? In ICT4D, women participation is becoming more central (it wasn’t before). Too much ‘counting of women’ and not on the relationship and power. There is focus on female entrepreneurs – invited to become responsible neoliberal subjects who are ‘excited about change. They are if there are conformist, reformist or transformative approach to what ICT4D is. In Tanzania, they found issues of limited mobility, access to IT only in specific places – many female participants wanted a secure job. In a participatory video, they use videos to explore gender violence – but then it was offered to turn the experience into a venture with films – so instead of transformative, it found a conformist trajectory. In Chile, they follow a group of women learning IT. Only minority explored entrepreneurial activities – wanted to be employed. Business ideas competition an indigenous women won, she lost regular employment in teaching the local language, and because of the lost of the job, she looked for opportunities to get some funding – she was able to charge story telling about indigenous practices. ‘I sell my culture. I am not going to give out information just like that, I can’t’. The knowledge moved from public good, to commodity. Women Enterprise Development discourse is conformist and reformist – and what about the women who are not successful? Conformist trajectory peddling impoverished vision of the world. entrepreneurship.

Lisa Poggiali analysing informal settlement mapping in Muhimu (not the real place name) in Nairobi. There are plenty projects in Nairobi and ICT4D became a topic – Silicon Savannah. Most of the narrative, the iHub received special attention – various events and tech-hub. Muhimu is a place where technology is implemented – Miroslav and Sarah (the people behind the initiative) carried out work with local people to record things that don’t work. Maps are symbolic conduit – there is exclusion of slum dwellers from digital technologies. The maps provide a way to map an area – the land is owned by the state. The mapping project using satellite imagery with donated areal maps they were able to create a representation of their area. The mapping infrastructure will encourage bringing resources – so they mapped sewage, incomplete public toilet. They assume that mapping will lead to action by the project initiators Sarah and Miroslav . The map provides a way to allow the locals to emerge as experts that are respected – it created a sense of anxiety for the participants. Noticing that local data collection can be eclipsed by other, more powerful. There is a dominant narrative of digitisation is about efficiency, and dealing with corruption. The digital is assumed to make corruption impossible. During the period or research, there was no results from the mapping.

At 12:40 1487 Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation (panel session) with Jeremy Crampton, Rob Kitchin, Elvin K. Wyly, Agnieszka Leszczynski, and Julie Cupples. Only captured some of the discussion. It started with the observation that the data brokers need to continue and convince the businesses that there is value in geolocation. Like any other business, big data is sold to businesses as ‘something that works and increase revenue’. This is part of a wider claims about efficiency, productivity etc. Within Smart Cities – there is scepticism by public servants at city level that don’t believe the narrative, so there are situations, such as the UK, where the government invests in ‘creating the market’ for large IT corporations. There is a perception that the data in itself has value. Data will have value down the line.
Regarding the concept of value – Elvin: there is proliferation of what is value – the concept of monetization and turning new things into value. Multi dimensional concept of personhood and it circulate among institutions which construct it. The illusion of the value is preformative in the way that it plays in the world. Julie noted that in universities there is work on creating meaningless correlations from data and offer simplistic policy conclusions.
Julie: People have different levels of technical competancies and therefroe they are locked into a wider system. Quant Self movement is participatory to a larger extent, and subverted by the individual at the same time. There is no way to be outside the system as non-participation is also costly. Rob: there are changes inside – e.g. legal framing as in right to be forgoten, under which condition Uber is allowed to a city. The objects are moving so fast, and the legal situation has not captured their operation and come with solutions. Although this is self serving narrative, there is a question about to what degree it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle – although it is possible to consider to legislate ‘privacy by design’. Agnieszka noted that teens and social media that there are complex and creative approaches to have anonymity and obscurity that are happening. Many teenagers disabled location information in apps – different cohorts are working differently with the services. We want to control flows of information about ourselves, but we can’t do that – we don’t know who got our data and what they put it for. Rob: the project ‘the Secret life of Data’ provide an insight to the black boxes through which data is travelling. Elvin: there is digital Murphy Law is operating – there are conflicting laws in operations that conflict with each other and can’t work towards common goals.
Rob: doing the work and critiquing Big Data, there is plenty of inertia and resistance within the political system so neo-liberalism is not the only force in operation. The global financial crisis amplified neo-liberalism instead of causing it to think. Sharing economy is worsening the conditions of labour.  It is easy to see technology in utopia or dystopia, but it is important to understand how it shaped and evolve. Elvin: there is struggle between utopia/dystopia – we need to be careful of Silicon Valley libertarian approach that information is only good. Rob: There is an alternative to the California Ideology if you want to compete with them. The effort of merging data is fairly challenging.

2:40 1587 #CritGIS: Social Justice and GIS: Past, Present, and Future –  aimed to ‘reflect, reconsider, and prognosticate on the social, political and ethical issues that GIS brings to bear’. The paper in this session included the following.

Clinton Davies looked how reporting of social care work at disciplinary tools to produce power structures. Specifically looking at Homeless Management Information Systems. Data reporting reinforce structures through the different organisations. Looking at Critical GIS and Critical Data Studies. The act of reporting data- what the reporting does? looking how controlling how people go through their everyday, you get an understanding of the power hierarchies. Part of the question is to see if the information system and data management impacted organisational structures such as mergers.

Jonathan Cinnamon looked at ‘The data divide: Placing data in the context of social justice’. Data-driven economy emerged recently, with data as raw material, but there is also interest in the concept of data – there is little inquiry to data in compared to information and knowledge. Kitchin (2014) noted the need to ask what data are and what they do? What force data have in the material world? What divisions are inscribed in the data landscapes? Some the division are being exposed – between data rich/poor , producer/consumer , and people/their data. Rich/poor – the places and people who can produce data or use it. The second gap is between producer and consumer – those that produce data have the ability to shape the world. The producers shape the world according to their worldview. There is also separation between people and the data that they produce.
The questions – what are the social and material consequences of these divides? What tools social justice theory can be used? Harvey in ‘Social Justice and the City ‘ defined social justice as ‘a just distribution justly arrived at’ – Rawls justice theory was and is influential in geography.
However, Nancy Fraser work on justice is useful – we living in abnormal justice in what, who and how of justice and deeply contested. It is difficult to evaluate it. She suggest principle of parity of participation – justice require social arrangement that permit all to participate as peers in social life. She identifies maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation as the dimensions of justice. So we can see in data divide the maldistribution of uneven geographies and at the city level and between cities. There is also misrecognition in status hierarchy – none counting in the census, or Manovich (2011) concept of data-classes. There is also misrepresntation within the companies that are collecting data are subject to laws of a different teritory and you can’t have proper political control. He argue that open data movement as attempt to redistribute data, recognition can be a movement to reconnect people with their data and give them control over it.

Ellen Kersten described her PhD work in  ‘Spatial triage, spatial justice? A critical evaluation of geospatial approaches to health equity research and policy’ – She looked at health in terms of medical model and a socio-ecological model. Looking at Amartya Sen definition of health equity, with elements from public policy, place and health, community development and critical GIS. Spatial analysis of health equity in terms of life expectancy for example. There is an element of place that appear in these narratives. She compared quantitative tools that are based on GIS but they are missing many aspects that are missing and not captured in numbers so simply. These health atlases play the role of triage to decide who will get funding and who won’t. In the past, spatial triage was used in public renewal and done by experts, targeting neighbourhoods. Today, it is cauched in ‘best return to investment’, a bit more participation but the scale counties/regions and above, and more organisations are involved. The future seem to go further to return on investment and monetary benefits.

Jill Gambill and Mariana Alfonso  – A Radical Trans-Disciplinary Approach to Sea Level Rise Planning in the Southeast. They explore challenges – coastal communities are facing challenges of climate change, but with denial – political ban on climate change discussion while at the same time there is a need for sea level rise planning, and trying to do something about it. Knowledge productions – one in theory and one in politics and actions. Communities in the Souteast of the US are trying to have climate change adaptation policies and actions so they are ready. The approach is to meet communities where they are and having a dialogue – how to deal with flooding and sea level rise and not the source of it. Thinking what will enable the dialogue. The community decide the see level rise that will be model, identify who is vulnerable and then decide on actions. They make information accessible – they develop graphics that helped communicate history of sea level rise. They are focusing on who will pay the costs of climate adaptation – with valuable areas receiving subsidy, so some of the wealthy areas are benefiting. Retreat is something that is not being discussed yet – just starting. The approaches are around engineering resistance, instead of resilience – expensive infrastructure have life span of just 25 years. There are also revealed preferences in action, as in allowing more building in vulnerable places. Doing the modelling with GIS is challenging – you don’t want to create an impression of safety when there isn’t one. Need to visualise the social implications of issues such as sea level rise.

GIS chapter in ‘Introducing Human Geographies’

There is something in the physical presence of book that is pleasurable. Receiving the copy of Introducing Human Geographies was special, as I have contributed a chapter about Geographic Information Systems to the ‘cartographies’ section.

It might be a response to Ron Johnston critique of Human Geography textbooks or a decision by the editors to extend the content of the book, but the book now contains three chapters that deal with maps and GIS. The contributions are the ‘Power of maps’ by Jeremy Crampton, a chapter about ‘Geographical information systems’ by me, and ‘Counter geographies’ by Wen Lin. To some extent, we’ve coordinated the writing, as this is a textbook for undergraduates in geography and we wanted to have a coherent message.

Overall, you’ll notice a lot of references to participatory and collaborative mapping, with OpenStreetMap and mentioned several times.

In my chapter I have covered both the quantitative/spatial science face of GIS, as well as the critical/participatory one. As the introduction to the section describes:

“Chapter 14 focuses on the place of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) within contemporary mapping. A GIS involves the representation of geographies in digital computers. … GIS is now a widespread and varied form of mapping, both within the academy and beyond. In the chapter, he speaks to that variety by considering the use of GIS both within practices such as location planning, where it is underpinned by the intellectual paradigm of spatial science and quantitative data, and within emergent fields of ‘critical’ and ‘qualitative GIS’, where GIS could be focused on representing the experiences of marginalized groups of people, for example. Generally, Muki argues against the equation of GIS with only one sort of Human Geography, showing how it can be used as a technology within various kinds of research. More specifically, his account shows how current work is pursuing those options through careful consideration of both the wider issues of power and representation present in mapping and the detailed, technical and scientific challenges within GIS development.”

To preview the chapter on Google Book, use this link . I hope that it will be useful introduction to GIS to Geography students.


GeoHCI 2013 – Geography meet Human-Computer Interaction

CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) is the premier conference in the calendar of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) studies. While the first paper that deal with geographic technologies within this conference was presented in 1991 (it was about User Interfaces for Geographic Information Systems by Andrew Frank and presented at a special interest group meeting), geography did not received much attention from HCI researchers in general, though the growth of location-based technologies made it a growing area in recent years. As I noted elsewhere, HCI did received interest in GIScience over the years, with more attention paid to spatial cognition and fundamental aspects of knowledge representation but unfortunately less on interaction design and exploration of user studies.

This sort of loose coupling between GIScience and HCI is also reflected in personal histories.  I was aware of CHI and its importance for over 15 years, but I never managed to attend one – until now. When Brent Hecht invited me to join a CHI workshop proposal on Geographic HCI (GeoHCI), I jumped on the opportunity. The process of working together with HCI researchers on coordinating and curating a workshop led to mutual learning about priorities and practices of work of the two different research communities – in the tone and style of position papers, reviews and ways of organising a meeting. The response to the call for position papers was overwhelming and demonstrated the interest from both geography and HCI communities to find opportunities to converse and share ideas.

The workshop itself was excellent, with coverage of many topics that are being actively researched in Geography and GIScience – and the papers and presentation cover crowdsourced/volunteered geographic information, use of geographic information in crisis situations, participatory mapping and citizen science, concepts of place and space, personal memories, and of course many interactions with maps.

My own talk focused on Geography and HCI, exploring the point of view of geography when approaching computing environments to represent and communicate geographical knowledge. I have used human geography and particularly the concept of space/place to highlight the contribution that geography can make. For example in understanding the multiplicity of interpretation of place by using both David Harvey critique of spatial sciences in the understanding of place, and Doreen Massey relational geography description of places as ‘stories so far’ in ‘For Space‘ as a clear example of different conceptualisation of what they are.

One particular point that I highlighted, following the first chapter of Introducing Human Geographies in which a differentiation is made between Geography as ‘writing the Earth’: looking at human-nature relationship in the wider sense, versus ‘writing the World’ : looking at society-space relationships. For HCI audience I described it by rephrasing Don Norman’s differentiation between ‘Geography in the world‘ which is about the way people interact with the physical environment around them, versus ‘Geography in the head‘ which is the cultural, personal and social understanding of the place where they are and how they want to shape their personal activities, memories and interactions. Of course, Geography in the world is easier to represent in computers then the Geography in the head, and my personal view is that too much emphasis is paid to the first type.

Another part of the presentation focused on the importance of Cartography for geographical technologies, and why issues of map scale, media and task context are very important when designing geographic applications. For example, the value of paper as a media and understanding that maps are more about context then about ‘you are here’.

My position paper is available here . My presentation is provided below

In my view, the workshop was very valuable in opening new conversations. I have now a better understanding of the context in which HCI researchers in Google, Yahoo! and Pitney-Bowes Business Insight consider geography and what problems they have. The issue of place and the need to explore platial information came up several times, and we also experienced the multi-sensory engagement with place which are difficult to capture in digital forms. Most importantly, this was an experience in understanding the language and ways of expression that can help in bridging the two communities.

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers virtual issue on GIScience

Since early 2010, I had the privilege of being a member of the editorial board of the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers . It is a fascinating position, as the journal covers a wide range of topics in geography, and is also recognised as one of the top journals in the field and therefore the submissions are usually of high quality. Over the past 3 years, I was following a range of papers that deal with various aspects of Geographic Information Science (GIScience) from submission to publication either as a reviewer or as associate editor. Transactions of the IBG cover

In early 2011, I agreed to coordinate a virtual issue on GIScience.  The virtual issue is a collection of papers from the archives of the journal, demonstrating the breadth of coverage and the development of GIScience within the discipline of geography over the years. The virtual issues provide free access to a group of papers for a period of a year, so they can be used for teaching and research.

Editing the virtual issue was a very interesting task – I was exploring the archives of the journal, going back to papers that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. When looking for papers that are relevant to GIScience, I came across various papers that relate to geography’s ‘Quantitative Revolution‘. The evolution of use of computers in geography and later on the applications of GIS is covered in many papers, so the selection was a challenge. Luckily, another member of the editorial board, Brian Lees, is also well versed in GIScience as the editor of the International Journal of GIScience. Together, we made the selection of the papers that are included in the issue. Other papers are not part of the virtual issue but are valuable further reading.

To accompany the virtual issue, I have written a short piece, focusing on the nature of GIScience in geography. The piece is titled “Geographic Information Science: tribe, badge and sub-discipline” and is exploring how the latest developments in technology and practice are integrated and resisted by the core group of people who are active GIScience researchers in geography.

You can access the virtual issue on Wiley-Blackwell online library and you will find papers from 1965 to today, with links to further papers that are relevant but not free for access. The list of authors is impressive, including many names that are associated with the development of GIScience over the years from Torstan Hägerstrand or David Rhind to current researchers such as Sarah Elwood, Agnieszka Leszczynski or  Matt Zook.

The virtual issue will be officially launched (and was timed to coincide with) at the GIScience 2012 conference.

As I cannot attend the conference, and as my paper mentioned the Twitter-based GeoWebChat (see which is coordinated by Alan McConchie, I am planning to use this medium for running a #geowebchat that is dedicated to the virtual issue on the 18th September 2012, at 4pm EDT, 9pm BST so those who attend the conference can join at the end of the workshops day.

Maps are wonderful, but GIS are hard to use. What can we do about it?

These are the slides from the presentation that I gave to the BCS Geospatial SG.

The talk abstract is:

Here is a useful party trivia: as a form of human communication, maps pre-date text by thousands of years – some early spatial depictions are 25,000 years old, whereas writing emerged only 4000 years ago. When it comes to computing, the reverse is true: the first wide use of computing is from the early 1950s, whereas the first effort to create a GIS only started in 1966. There are good reasons for this, chief among them is the complexity of handling geographical information in digital computers. An adverse impact of this challenge is that for many years geospatial technologies developers focused on functionality and not on the interaction with end-users. The result of this focus is that while word processors and spreadsheets became popular in the early 1980s, only with the emergence of ‘Web Mapping 2.0’ in 2005, GIS and geospatial technologies became more popular, albeit far from universally usable.

The talk covered interaction and user aspects of geospatial technologies, pointing to issues that permeate the usability and usefulness of geographical information itself (e.g. why ESRI shapefile is a popular format despite its drawbacks?), the programming of geospatial technology (e.g. why OGC WMS did not spark the mashup revolution, while Google Maps API did?) and the interaction of end users with desktop and web-based GIS.

And the talk happened at the same day in which the excellent Third Workshop on the Usability of Geographic Information was running at the Ordnance Survey.

The Tyranny of Place and OpenStreetMap

The slides below are from my presentation in State of the Map 2010 in Girona, Spain. While the conference is about OpenStreetMap, the presentation covers a range of spatially implicint and explicit crowdsourcing projects and also activities that we carried out in Mapping for Change, which all show that unlike other crowdsourcing activities, geography (and places) are both limiting and motivating contribution to them.

In many ways, OpenStreetMap is similar to other open source and open knowledge projects, such as Wikipedia. These similarities include the patterns of contribution and the importance of participation inequalities, in which a small group of participants contribute very significantly, while a very large group of occasional participants contribute only occasionally; the general demographic of participants, with strong representation from educated young males; or the temporal patterns of engagements, in which some participants go through a peak of activity and lose interest, while a small group joins and continues to invest its time and effort to help the progress of the project. These aspects have been identified by researchers who explored volunteering and leisure activities, and crowdsourcing as well as those who explored commons-based peer production networks (Benkler & Nissenbaum 2006).

However, OpenStreetMap is a project about geography, and deals with the shape of features and information about places on the face of the Earth. Thus, the emerging question is ‘what influence does geography have on OSM?’ Does geography make some fundamental changes to the basic principles of crowdsourcing, or should OSM be treated as ‘wikipedia for maps’?

In the presentation, which is based on my work, as well as the work of Vyron Antoniou and Nama Budhathoki, we argue that geography is playing a ‘tyrannical’ role in OSM and other projects that are based on crowdsourced geographical information and shapes the nature of the project beyond what is usually accepted.

The first influence of geography is on motivation. A survey of OSM participants shows that specific geographical knowledge, which a participant acquired at first hand, and the wish to use this knowledge and see it mapped well is an important factor in participation in the project. We found that participants are driven to mapping activities by their desire to represent the places they care about and fix the errors on the map. Both of these motives require local knowledge.

A second influence is on the accuracy and completeness of coverage, with places that are highly populated, and therefore have a larger pool of potential participants, showing better coverage than suburban areas of well-mapped cities. Furthermore, there is an ongoing discussion within the OSM community about the value of mapping without local knowledge and the impact of such action on the willingness of potential contributors to fix errors and contribute to the map.

A third, and somewhat surprising, influence is the impact of mapping places that the participants haven’t or can’t visit, such as Haiti after the earthquake or Baghdad in 2007. Despite the willingness of participants to join in and help in the data collection process, the details that can be captured without being on the ground are fairly limited, even when multiple sources such as Flickr images, Google Street View and paper maps are used. The details are limited to what was captured at a certain point in time and to the limitations of the sensing device, so the mapping is, by necessity, incomplete.

We will demonstrate these and other aspects of what we termed ‘the tyranny of place’ and its impact on what can be covered by OSM without much effort and which locations will not be covered without a concentrated effort that requires some planning.