Building Centre – from Mapping to Making

The London based Building Centre organised an evening event – from Mapping to Making –  which looked at the “radical evolution in the making and meaning of maps is influencing creative output. New approaches to data capture and integration – from drones to crowd-sourcing – suggest maps are changing their impact on our working life, particularly in design.”  The event included 5 speakers (including me, on behalf of Mapping for Change) and a short discussion.

Lewis Blackwell of the Building Centre opened the evening by noting that in a dedicated exhibition on visualisation and the city, the Building Centre is looking at new visualisation techniques. He realised that a lot of the visualisations are connected to mapping – it’s circular: mapping can ask and answer questions about the design process of the build environment, and changes in the built environment create new data. The set of talks in the evening is exploring the role of mapping.

Rollo Home, Geospatial Product Development Manager, Ordnance Survey (OS), started by thinking about the OS as the ‘oldest data company in the world‘. The OS thinking of itself as data company – the traditional mapping products that are very familiar represent only 5% of turnover. The history of OS go back to 1746 and William Roy’s work on accurately mapping Britain. The first maps produced in Kent, for the purpose of positioning ordinances. The maps of today, when visualised, look somewhat the same as maps from 1800, but the current maps are in machine readable formats that mean that the underlying information is very different. Demands for mapping changed over the years: Originally for ordinances, then for land information and taxation, and later helping the development of the railways. During WW I & II the OS led many technological innovations – from national grid in 1930s to photogrammetry. In 1973 the first digital maps were produced, and the process was completed in the 1980s. This was, in terms of data structures, still structured as a map. Only in 2000, MasterMap appear with more machine readable format that is updated 10,000 times a day, based on Oracle database (the biggest spatial data in the world) – but it’s not a map. Real world information is modelled to allow for structure and meaning. Ability to answer questions from the database is critical to decision-making. The information in the data can become explicit to many parts of the information – from the area of rear gardens to height of a building. They see developments in the areas of oblique image capture, 3D data, details under the roof, facades and they do a lot of research to develop their future directions – e.g. challenges of capturing data in cloud points. They see data that come from different sources including social media, satellite, UAVs, and official sources. Most of Smart Cities/Transport etc. areas need geospatial information and the OS is moving from mapping to data, and enabling better decisions.

Rita Lambert, Development Planning Unit, UCL. Covered the ReMap Lima project – running since 2012, and looking at marginalised neighbourhoods in the city. The project focused on the questions of what we are mapping and what we are making through representations. Maps contain potential of what might become – we making maps and models that are about ideas, and possibilities for more just cities. The project is collaboration between DPU and CASA at UCL, with 3 NGOs in Lima, and 40 participants from the city. They wanted to explore the political agency of mapping, open up spaces to negotiate outcomes and expand the possibilities of spatial analysis in marginalised areas in a participatory action-learning approach. The use of technology is in the context of very specific theoretical aims. Use of UAV is deliberate to explore their progressive potential. They mapped the historic centre which is overmapped and it is marginalised through over-representation (e.g. using maps to show that it need regeneration) while the periphery is undermapped – large part of the city (50% of the area), and they are marginalised through omission. Maps can act through undermapping or overmapping. Issues are very different – from evictions, lack of services, loss of cultural heritage (people and building) at the centre, while at the informal settlement there are risks, land trafficking, destruction of ecological infrastructure, and lack of coordination between spatial planning between places. The process that they followed include mapping from the sky (with a drone) and mapping from the ground (through participatory mapping using aerial images). The drones provided the imagery in an area that changes rapidly – and the outputs were used in participatory mapping, with the people on the ground deciding what to map and where to map. The results allow to identify eviction through changes to the building that can be observed from above. The mapping process itself was also a mean to strengthen community organisations. The use of 3D visualisation at the centre and at the periphery helped in understanding the risks that are emerging or the changes to their area. Data collection is using both maps and data collection through tools such as EpiCollect+ and community mapping, and also printing 3D models so they can used by discussions and conversations. The work carries on as the local residents continue the work. The conclusion: careful consideration for the use of technology in the context, and mapping from the sky and the ground go hand in hand. Creating these new representation are significant and what is that we are producing. more information at  and

Simon Mabey, Digital Services Lead for City Modelling, Arup. Simon discussed city modelling in Arup – with the moved from visualisation to more sophisticated models. He leads on modelling cities in 3D, since the 1988, when visualisation of future designs was done stitching pieces of paper and photos. The rebuilding of Manchester in the mid 1990s, led to the development of 3D urban modelling, with animations and created an interactive CDROM. This continued to develop the data about Manchester and then shared it with others. The models were used in different ways – from gaming software to online, and trying to find ways to allow people to use it in real world context. Many models are used in interactive displays – e.g. for attracting inward investment. They went on to model many cities across the UK, with different levels of details and area that is covered. They also starting to identify features underground – utilities and the such. Models are kept up to date through collaboration, with clients providing back information about things that they are designing and integrating BIM data. In Sheffield, they also enhance the model through planning of new projects and activities. Models are used to communicate information to other stakeholders – e.g. traffic model outputs, and also do that with pedestrians movement. Using different information to colour code the model (e.g. enregy) or acoustic modelling or flooding. More recently, they move to city analytics, understanding the structure within models – for example understanding solar energy potential with the use and consumption of the building. They find themselves needing information about what utility data exist and that need to be mapped and integrated into their analysis. They also getting mobile phone data to predict trip journeys that people make.

I was the next speaker, on behalf Mapping for Change. I provided the background of Mapping for Change, and the approach that we are using for the mapping. In the context of other talks, which focused on technology, I emphasised that just as we are trying to reach out to people in the places that they use daily and fit the participatory process into their life rhythms, we need to do it in the online environment. That mean that conversations need to go where they are – so linking to facebook, twitter or whatsapp. We should also know that people are using different ways to access information – some will use just their phone, other laptops, and for others we need to think of laptop/desktop environment. In a way, this complicates participatory mapping much more than earlier participatory web mapping systems, when participants were more used to the idea of using multiple websites for different purposes. I also mentioned the need for listening to the people that we work with, and deciding if information should be shown online or not – taking into account what they would like to do with the data. I mentioned the work that involve citizen science (e.g. air quality monitoring) but more generally the ability to collect facts and evidence to deal with a specific issue. Finally, I also used some examples of our new community mapping system, which is based on GeoKey.

The final talk was from Neil Clark, Founder, EYELEVEL. He is from an architectural visualisation company that work in the North East and operate in the built environment area. They are using architectural modelling and us Ordnance Survey data and then position the designs, so they can be rendered accurately. Many of the processes are very expensive and complex. They have developed a tool called EYEVIEW for accurate augmented reality – working on iPad to allow viewing models in real-time. This can cut the costs of producing these models. They use a tripod to make it easier to control. The tool is the outcome of 4 years of development, allow the navigation of the architectural model to move it to overlay with the image. They are aiming at Accurate Visual Representation and they follow the detailed framework that is used in London for this purpose

The discussion that follow explored the political nature of information and who is represented and how. A question to OS was how open it will be with the detailed data and while Rollo explained that access to the data is complicated one and it need to be funded. I found myself defending the justification of charging high detailed models by suggesting to imagine a situation where the universal provision of high quality data at national level wasn’t there, and you had to deal with each city data model.

The last discussion point was about the truth in the mapping and the positions that were raised – It about the way that people understand their truth or is there an absolute truth that is captured in models and maps – or represented in 3D visualisations? Interestingly, 3 of the talk assume that there is a way to capture specific aspects of reality (structures, roads, pollution) and model it by numbers, while Rita and I took a more interpretive and culturally led representations.


Happy 10th Birthday, OpenStreetMap!

Today, OpenStreetMap celebrates 10 years of operation as counted from the date of registration. I’ve heard about the project when it was in early stages, mostly because I knew Steve Coast when I was studying for my Ph.D. at UCL.  As a result, I was also able to secured the first ever research grant that focused on OpenStreetMap (and hence Volunteered Geographic Information – VGI) from the Royal Geographical Society in 2005. A lot can be said about being in the right place at the right time!

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)
OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

Having followed the project during this decade, there is much to reflect on – such as thinking about open research questions, things that the academic literature failed to notice about OSM or the things that we do know about OSM and VGI because of the openness of the project. However, as I was preparing the talk for the INSPIRE conference, I was starting to think about the start dates of OSM (2004), TomTom Map Share (2007), Waze (2008), Google Map Maker (2008).  While there are conceptual and operational differences between these projects, in terms of ‘knowledge-based peer production systems’ they are fairly similar: all rely on large number of contributors, all use both large group of contributors who contribute little, and a much smaller group of committed contributors who do the more complex work, and all are about mapping. Yet, OSM started 3 years before these other crowdsourced mapping projects, and all of them have more contributors than OSM.

Since OSM is described  as ‘Wikipedia of maps‘, the analogy that I was starting to think of was that it’s a bit like a parallel history, in which in 2001, as Wikipedia starts, Encarta and Britannica look at the upstart and set up their own crowdsourcing operations so within 3 years they are up and running. By 2011, Wikipedia continues as a copyright free encyclopedia with sizable community, but Encarta and Britannica have more contributors and more visibility.

Knowing OSM closely, I felt that this is not a fair analogy. While there are some organisational and contribution practices that can be used to claim that ‘it’s the fault of the licence’ or ‘it’s because of the project’s culture’ and therefore justify this, not flattering, analogy to OSM, I sensed that there is something else that should be used to explain what is going on.

TripAdvisor FlorenceThen, during my holiday in Italy, I was enjoying the offline TripAdvisor app for Florence, using OSM for navigation (in contrast to Google Maps which are used in the online app) and an answer emerged. Within OSM community, from the start, there was some tension between the ‘map’ and ‘database’ view of the project. Is it about collecting the data so beautiful maps or is it about building a database that can be used for many applications?

Saying that OSM is about the map mean that the analogy is correct, as it is very similar to Wikipedia – you want to share knowledge, you put it online with a system that allow you to display it quickly with tools that support easy editing the information sharing. If, on the other hand, OSM is about a database, then OSM is about something that is used at the back-end of other applications, a lot like DBMS or Operating System. Although there are tools that help you to do things easily and quickly and check the information that you’ve entered (e.g. displaying the information as a map), the main goal is the building of the back-end.

Maybe a better analogy is to think of OSM as ‘Linux of maps’, which mean that it is an infrastructure project which is expected to have a lot of visibility among the professionals who need it (system managers in the case of Linux, GIS/Geoweb developers for OSM), with a strong community that support and contribute to it. The same way that some tech-savvy people know about Linux, but most people don’t, I suspect that TripAdvisor offline users don’t notice that they use OSM, they are just happy to have a map.

The problem with the Linux analogy is that OSM is more than software – it is indeed a database of information about geography from all over the world (and therefore the Wikipedia analogy has its place). Therefore, it is somewhere in between. In a way, it provide a demonstration for the common claim in GIS circles that ‘spatial is special‘. Geographical information is infrastructure in the same way that operating systems or DBMS are, but in this case it’s not enough to create an empty shell that can be filled-in for the specific instance, but there is a need for a significant amount of base information before you are able to start building your own application with additional information. This is also the philosophical difference that make the licensing issues more complex!

In short, both Linux or Wikipedia analogies are inadequate to capture what OSM is. It has been illuminating and fascinating to follow the project over its first decade,  and may it continue successfully for more decades to come.

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.