UCL Urban laboratory pamphleteer – Beyond Quantification: We Need Meaningful Smart Cities

The UCL Urban Laboratory is a cross-disciplinary initiative that links various research interest in urban issues, from infrastructure to the way they are expressed in art, films and photography. The Urban Laboratory has just published its first Urban Pamphleteer which aim to ‘confront key contemporary urban questions from diverse perspectives. Written in a direct and accessible tone, the intention of these pamphlets is to draw on the history of radical pamphleteering to stimulate debate and instigate change.’


My contribution to the first pamphleteer, which focused on ‘Future & Smart Cities’ is dealing with the balance between technology companies, engineers and scientists and the values, needs and wishes of the wider society. In particular, I suggest the potential of citizen science in opening up some of the black boxes of smart cities to wider societal control.  Here are the opening and the closing paragraphs of my text, titled Beyond quantification: we need a meaningful smart city:

‘When approaching the issue of Smart Cities, there is a need to discuss the underlying assumptions at the basis of Smart Cities and challenge the prevailing thought that only efficiency and productivity are the most important values. We need to ensure that human and environmental values are taken into account in the design and implementation of systems that will influence the way cities operate…

…Although these Citizen Science approaches can potentially develop new avenues for discussing alternatives to the efficiency and productivity logic of Smart Cities, we cannot absolve those with most resources and knowledge from responsibility. There is an urgent need to ensure that the development and use of the Smart Cities technologies that are created is open to democratic and societal control, and that they are not being developed only because the technologists and scientists think that they are possible.’

The pamphleteer is not too long – 32 pages – and include many thought-provoking pieces from researchers in Geography, Environmental Engineering, Architecture, Computer Science and Art. It can be downloaded here.

Interacting with Geospatial Technologies

At the end of September, the manuscript of ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies’ was submitted to John Wiley & Sons. This is the reason for the silence on this blog since July while the final chapters were written.

The book, which is an introduction to usability and Human-Computer Interaction aspects of GIS and other geospatial technologies, was written because there is no other recent book that covers these aspects while taking into account the special characteristics of geographical information and the extensive use of maps.

There were several books in the early 1990s dedicated to human factors of GIS or to cognitive aspects of these systems. Since then, there have been many published articles, but no easy-to-access summary of the outcomes in a way that is useful for developers or people who want to understand how to design more usable systems. So, while working on a paper that called for developing ‘usability engineering for GIS’ in 2005, I figured out that, actually, it was time to write an introductory text in this area. In the end, this is an edited textbook written by me together with a group of excellent collaborators: Jochen Albrecht, Clare Davies, Catherine Emma Jones, Robert Laurini, Chao Li, Aaron M. Marcus, Stephanie L. Marsh, Annu-Maaria Nivala, Artemis Skarlatidou, Carolina Tobón, Jessica Wardlaw and Antigoni Zafiri.

So the book provides an introduction to user-centred design and usability engineering from a geospatial technologies perspective, theoretical aspects of human understanding of space and collaborative systems, practical aspects of cartography and map design that are useful for developers and application designers, guidance for evaluating geospatial systems and some tips for designing desktop, Web and mobile based systems. Each chapter includes case studies and examples that make the material more concrete.

The book is scheduled to be out by March 2010. A lot of work went into writing the various chapters and ensuring that the content is covering all the needed elements to create a usable GIS – I hope that it will be useful!

Web Mapping 2.0 – an introduction to Neogeography in Geography Compass

In October 2007, Francis Harvey commissioned me to write a review article for Geography Compass on Neogeography. The paper was written in collaboration with Alex Singleton at UCL and Chris Parker from the Ordnance Survey.
The paper covers several issues. Firstly, it provides an overview of the developments in Web mapping from the early 1990s to today. Secondly, in a similar way to my Nestoria interview, it explains the reasons for the changes that enabled the explosion of geography on the Web in 2005: GPS availability, Web standards, increased spread of broadband, and a new paradigm in programming APIs. These changes affected the usability of geographic technologies and started a new era in Web mapping. Thirdly, we describe several applications that demonstrate the new wave – the London Profiler, OS OpenSpace and OpenStreetMap. The description of OSM is somewhat truncated, so my IEEE Pervasive Computing paper provides a better discussion.
The abstract of the paper is:

‘The landscape of Internet mapping technologies has changed dramatically since 2005. New techniques are being used and new terms have been invented and entered the lexicon such as: mash-ups, crowdsourcing, neogeography and geostack. A whole range of websites and communities from the commercial Google Maps to the grassroots OpenStreetMap, and applications such as Platial, also have emerged. In their totality, these new applications represent a step change in the evolution of the area of Internet geographic applications (which some have termed the GeoWeb). The nature of this change warrants an explanation and an overview, as it has implications both for geographers and the public notion of Geography. This article provides a critical review of this newly emerging landscape, starting with an introduction to the concepts, technologies and structures that have emerged over the short period of intense innovation. It introduces the non-technical reader to them, suggests reasons for the neologism, explains the terminology, and provides a perspective on the current trends. Case studies are used to demonstrate this Web Mapping 2.0 era, and differentiate it from the previous generation of Internet mapping. Finally, the implications of these new techniques and the challenges they pose to geographic information science, geography and society at large are considered.’

The paper is accessible on the Geography Compass website, and if you don’t have access to the journal, but would like a copy, email me.

OSM quality evaluation

In the past year I have worked on the evaluation of OpenStreetMap data. I was helped by Patrick Weber, Claire Ellul, and especially Naureen Zulfiqar who carried out part of the analysis of motorways. The OSM data was compared against Ordnance Survey Meridian 2 and the 1:10,000 raster as they have enough similarity to justify a comparison. Now, as the fourth birthday of OSM is approaching, it is good time to evaluate what was achieved. The analysis shows that, where OSM was collected by several users and benefited from some quality assurance, the quality of the data is comparable and can be fit for many applications. The positional accuracy is about 6 metres, which is expected for the data collection methods that are used in OSM. The comparison of motorways shows about 80% overlap between OSM and OS – but more research is required. The challenges are the many areas that are not covered – currently, OSM has good coverage for only 25% of the land area of England. In addition, in areas that are covered well, quality assurance procedures should be considered – and I’m sure that the OSM crowd will find great ways to make these procedures fun. OSM also doesn’t covered areas at the bottom of the deprivation scale as well as it covers areas that are wealthier. The map below shows the quality of coverage of the two datasets for England, with blue marking areas where OSM coverage is good and red where it is poor.

Difference between OSM and OS Meridian for England
Difference between OSM and OS Meridian for England

The full report is available here, and if someone is willing to sponsor further analysis – please get in touch!

The paper itself have been published – Haklay M, 2010, “How good is volunteered geographical information? A comparative study of OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey datasets” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 37(4) 682 – 703

The Sustainable Suburban High Street

As part of our ‘Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres‘ project, we have recently published the review of the literature in Geography Compass. The paper, titled ‘The Sustainable Suburban High Street: A Review of Themes and Approaches’ written by the project team, with Sam Griffiths leading the effort. We are already working on other papers from the project…

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

‘Whether suburbs are regarded as a distinctive feature of the contemporary urban landscape or as symptomatic of ‘sprawl’ the recent upsurge of scholarly interest in suburbia has done little to displace the dominant image of the suburb as a primarily residential phenomenon. In a wide ranging survey of the academic literature, taking account of current developments in the policy debate relating to suburban regeneration and also drawing on research conducted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project at University College London, this article argues for an approach to the suburbs that emphasises their importance as historical centres of diverse social and economic activity. The focus is on the ‘typical’ British suburban high street, regarded as a complex and dynamic socio-spatial entity facing particular challenges to its vitality and viability in the light of ongoing socio-economic change. It is suggested that an improved understanding of the relation between suburban society and the built form of suburban centres over time would lead to a fuller appreciation of the actual and potential contribution of the local high street to achieving sustainable built environments.’

The paper can be accessed on the Geography Compass website. If you do not have access to Geography Compass and would like to get a copy, contact the project team and we can send you a copy by email.