Geographic Information Science and Citizen Science

Thanks to invitations from UNIGIS and Edinburgh Earth Observatory / AGI Scotland, I had an opportunity to reflect on how Geographic Information Science (GIScience) can contribute to citizen science, and what citizen science can contribute to GIScience.

Despite the fact that it’s 8 years since the term Volunteers Geographic Information (VGI) was coined, I didn’t assume that all the audience is aware of how it came about or the range of sources of VGI. I also didn’t assume knowledge of citizen science, which is far less familiar term for a GIScience audience. Therefore, before going into a discussion about the relationship between the two areas, I opened with a short introduction to both, starting with VGI, and then moving to citizen science. After introduction to the two areas, I’m suggesting the relationships between them – there are types of citizen science that are overlapping VGI – biological recording and environmental observations, as well as community (or civic) science, while other types, such as volunteer thinking includes many projects that are non-geographical (think EyeWire or Galaxy Zoo).

However, I don’t just list a catalogue of VGI and citizen science activities. Personally, I found trends a useful way to make sense of what happen. I’ve learned that from the writing of Thomas Friedman, who used it in several of his books to help the reader understand where the changes that he covers came from. Trends are, of course, speculative, as it is very difficult to demonstrate causality or to be certain about the contribution of each trends to the end result. With these caveats in mind, there are several technological and societal trends that I used in the talk to explain how VGI (and the VGI element of citizen science) came from.

Of all these trends, I keep coming back to one technical and one societal that I see as critical. The removal of selective availability of GPS in May 2000 is my top technical change, as the cascading effect from it led to the deluge of good enough location data which is behind VGI and citizen science. On the societal side, it is the Flynn effect as a signifier of the educational shift in the past 50 years that explains how the ability to participate in scientific projects have increased.

In terms of the reciprocal contributions between the fields, I suggest the following:

GIScience can support citizen science by considering data quality assurance methods that are emerging in VGI, there are also plenty of Spatial Analysis methods that take into account heterogeneity and therefore useful for citizen science data. The areas of geovisualisation and human-computer interaction studies in GIS can assist in developing more effective and useful applications for citizen scientists and people who use their data. There is also plenty to do in considering semantics, ontologies, interoperability and standards. Finally, since critical GIScientists have been looking for a long time into the societal aspects of geographical technologies such as privacy, trust, inclusiveness, and empowerment, they have plenty to contribute to citizen science activities in how to do them in more participatory ways.

On the other hand, citizen science can contribute to GIScience, and especially VGI research, in several ways. First, citizen science can demonstrate longevity of VGI data sources with some projects going back hundreds of years. It provides challenging datasets in terms of their complexity, ontology, heterogeneity and size. It can bring questions about Scale and how to deal with large, medium and local activities, while merging them to a coherent dataset. It also provide opportunities for GIScientists to contribute to critical societal issues such as climate change adaptation or biodiversity loss. It provides some of the most interesting usability challenges such as tools for non-literate users, and finally, plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.

The slides from the talk are available below.

How geoweb fossils become unusable

Once upon a time, Streetmap.co.uk was one of the most popular Web Mapping sites in the UK, competing successfully with the biggest rival at the time, Multimap. Moreover, it was ranked second in The Daily Telegraph list of leading mapping sites in October 2000 and described at ‘Must be one of the most useful services on the web – and it’s completely free. Zoom in on any UK area by entering a place name, postcode, Ordnance Survey grid reference or telephone code.’ It’s still running and because of its legacy, it’s around the 1250 popular website in the UK (though 4 years ago it was among the top 350).

Streetmap 2014

So far, nothing is especially noteworthy – popular website a decade ago replaced by a newer website, Google Maps, which provide better search results, more information and is the de facto  standard for web mapping. Moreover, already in 2006 Artemis Skaraltidou demonstrated that of the UK Web Mapping crop, Streetmap scored lowest on usability with only MapQuest, which largely ignored the UK, being worse.

However, recently, while running a practical session introducing User-Centred Design principles to our MSc in GIS students, I have noticed an interesting implication of the changes in the environment of Web Mapping – Streetmap has stopped  being usable just because it didn’t bother to update its interaction. By doing nothing, while the environment around it changed, it became unusable, with users failing to perform even the most basic of tasks.

The students explored the mapping offering from Google, Bing, Here and Streetmap. It was fairly obvious that across this cohort (early to mid 20s), Google Maps were the default, against which other systems were compared. It was not surprising to find impressions that Streetmap is ‘very old fashioned‘ or ‘archaic‘. However, more interesting was to notice people getting frustrated that the ‘natural’ interaction of zooming in and out using the mouse wheel just didn’t worked. Or failing to find the zoom in and out buttons. At some point in the past 10 years, people internalised the interaction mode of using the mouse and stopped using the zoom in and out button on the application, which explains the design decision in the new Google Maps interface to eliminate the dominant zoom slider from the left side of the map. Of course, Streetmap interface is also not responsive to touch screen interactions which are also learned across applications.

I experienced a similar, and somewhat amusing incident during the registration process of SXSW Eco, when I handed over my obviously old laptop at the registration desk to provide some detail, and the woman was trying to ‘pinch’ the screen in an attempt to zoom in. Considering that she was likely to be interacting with tablets most of the day (it was, after all, SXSW), this was not surprising. Interactions are learned and internalised, and we expect to experience them across devices and systems.

So what’s to learn? while this is another example of ‘Jacob’s Law of Internet User Experience‘ which states that ‘Users spend most of their time on other sites’, it is very relevant to many websites that use Web Mapping APIs to present information – from our own communitymaps.org.uk to the Environment Agency What’s in Your Backyard. In all these cases, it is critical to notice the basic map exploration interactions (pan, zoom, search) and make sure that they match common practices across the web. Otherwise, you might end like Streetmap.

OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey Meridian 2 comparison – 2008 – 2011

In March 2008, I started comparing OpenStreetMap in England to the Ordnance Survey Meridian 2, as a way to evaluate the completeness of OpenStreetMap coverage. The rational behind the comparison is that Meridian 2 represents a generalised geographic dataset that is widely use in national scale spatial analysis. At the time that the study started, it was not clear that OpenStreetMap volunteers can create highly detailed maps as can be seen on the ‘Best of OpenStreetMap‘ site. Yet even today, Meridian 2 provides a minimum threshold for OpenStreetMap when the question of completeness is asked.

So far, I have carried out 6 evaluations, comparing the two datasets in March 2008, March 2009, October 2009, March 2010, September 2010 and March 2011. While the work on the statistical analysis and verification of the results continues, Oliver O’Brien helped me in taking the results of the analysis for Britain and turn them into an interactive online map that can help in exploring the progression of the coverage over the various time period.

Notice that the visualisation shows the total length of all road objects in OpenStreetMap, so does not discriminate between roads, footpaths and other types of objects. This is the most basic level of completeness evaluation and it is fairly coarse.

The application will allow you to browse the results and to zoom to a specific location, and as Oliver integrated the Ordnance Survey Street View layer, it will allow you to see what information is missing from OpenStreetMap.

Finally, note that for the periods before September 2010, the coverage is for England only.

Some details on the development of the map are available on Oliver’s blog.

Google Geo applications – deteriorating interfaces?

While Google wasn’t the first website to implement slippy maps – maps that are based on tiles, download progressively and allow fairly smooth user interaction – it does deserve the credit for popularising them. The first version of Google Maps was a giant leap in terms of public web mapping applications, as described in our paper about Web Mapping 2.0.

In terms of usability, the slippy map increased the affordability of the map with direct manipulation functionality for panning, clear zoom operating through predefined scales, the use of as much screen assets for the map as possible, and the iconic and simple search box at the top. Though the search wasn’t perfect (see the post about the British Museum test), overall it offered a huge improvement in usability. It is not surprising that it became the most popular web mapping site and the principles of the slippy map are the de facto standard for web mapping interaction.

However, in recent months I couldn’t avoid noticing that the quality of the interface has deteriorated. In an effort to cram more and more functionality (such as the visualisation of the terrain, pictures, or StreetView), ease of use has been scarificed. For example, StreetView uses the icon of a person on top of the zoom scale, which the user is supposed to drag and drop on the map. It is the only such object on the interface, and appears on the zoom scale regardless of whether it is relevant or available. When you see the whole of the UK for example, you are surely not interested in StreetView, and if you are zooming to a place that wasn’t surveyed, the icon greys out after a while. There is some blue tinge to indicate where there is some coverage, but the whole interaction with it is very confusing. It’s not difficult to learn, though.

Even more annoying is that when you zoom to street level on the map, it switches automatically to StreetView, which I found distracting and disorientating.

There are similar issues with Google Earth – compare versions 4 and 5 in terms of ease of use for novice users, and my guess is that most of them will find 4 easier to use. The navigation both above the surface and at surface level is anything but intuitive in version 5. While in version 4 it was clear how to tilt the map, this is not the case in 5.

So maybe I should qualify what I wrote previously. There seems to be a range here, so it is not universally correct to say that the new generation of geographical applications are very usable just because they belong to the class of ‘neogeography’. Maybe, as ‘neogeography’ providers are getting more experienced, they are falling into the trap of adding functionality for the sake of it, and are slowly, but surely, destroying the advantages of their easy-to-use interfaces… I hope not!

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.

The new London crime mapping website

The Metropolitan Police Authority has released a beta version of their new Crime Mapping application, showing the generalised level of crime (burglary, robbery and vehicle) for Lower-level Super Output Areas (LSOAs). The application uses generalised boundaries of LSOAs , and use a clear classification of the level of crime. Interestingly, the Show Us a Better Way website includes several suggestions for crime mapping – so there is an ongoing public interest.

This is not surprising, based on my own experience with CamStats, which was developed in collaboration between me, Kate Jones and Dave Ashby for Camden Police in late 2003, with the website operating from early 2004 until late 2007.

As you can see from the slideshow above, the information that CamStats provided is richer than what is available today. CamStats was based on static maps, and was very easy to produce – we designed it so a team administrator (with no GIS skills) could compile monthly and annual statistics simply by copying a data file to a processing machine, and then clicking one button in Mapinfo Professional which called Mapbasic, Perl scripts and other utilities to create, process and map the data and compile the HTML pages for the website into one zip file. All the user had to do was transfer the zip file to the Met web team who easily updated the webserver by unzipping the files. The fact that it was running for three years without any request for support is something that Kate and I are justifiably proud of.

Notice that CamStats provided options to see different geographical units, different forms of visualisation and to view the information in tabular and chart forms. Users could even download the aggregate counts for each area to compile there own reports. This was particularly useful for a number of community groups in Camden.

There is no question that the use of Google Maps, which provide context for the statistics is a huge usability improvement over our implementation. However, it will be interesting to see how long it will take the Met team to reach the functionality and ease of use CamStats provided …

The British Museum Test for public mapping websites

Back in 2005, when I worked with Artemis Skarlatidou on an evaluation of public mapping websites, we came up with a simple test to check how well these search sites perform: Can a tourist find a famous landmark easily?

The reasoning behind raising this question was that tourists are an obvious group of users of public mapping sites such as Multimap, MapQuest, Yahoo! Maps, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth or Google Maps. Market research information presented by Vincent Tao from Microsoft in a seminar a year ago confirmed this assumption.

During the usability evaluation, we gave the participants the instruction ‘Locate the following place on the map: British Museum: Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG’. Not surprising, those participants who started with the postcode found the information quickly, but about a third typed ‘British Museum, London. While our participants were London’s residents and were used to postcodes as a means of stating an address precisely, a more realistic expectation from tourists is that they would not use postcodes when searching for a landmark.

In the summer of 2005 when we ran the test, the new generation of public mapping websites (such as Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth) performed especially bad.
The most amusing result came from Google Maps, pointing to Crewe as the location of the British Museum (!).
Google - British Museum in Crewe

The most simple usability test for a public mapping site that came out of this experiment is the ‘British Museum Test’: find the 10 top tourist attractions in a city/country and check if the search engine can find them. Here is how it works for London:

The official Visit London site suggests the following top attractions: Tate Modern, British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, the British Airways London Eye, Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A Museum), the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, we can run the test by typing the name of the attraction in the search box of public mapping sites. As an example, here I’ve used Yahoo! Maps, Google Maps, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Multimap. With all these sites I’ve imitated a potential tourist – I’ve accessed the international site (e.g. maps.google.com) and panned the map to the UK, and then typed the query. The results are:

Attraction (search term used) Yahoo! Google Microsoft Multimap
Tate Modern Found and zoomed Found and zoomed Found and zoomed Found and zoomed
British Museum Found and zoomed Found as part of a list Found and zoomed Found and zoomed
National Gallery Found and zoomed Found as part of a list Found and zoomed Found as part of a list (twice!)
Natural History Museum Failed Found as part of a list Found and zoomed Found and zoomed
British Airways London Eye (commonly abbreviated to London Eye) Failed on the full name, found and zoomed on the common abbreviation Found as part of a list, failed on the common abbreviation Failed on the full name, found and zoomed on the common abbreviation Failed on the full name, found and zoomed on the common abbreviation
Science Museum Found and zoomed Found as part of a list Found and zoomed Found and zoomed
The Victoria & Albert Museum (commonly abbreviated to V&A Museum) Found and zoomed on both Found and zoomed, but failed on the common abbreviation Found and zoomed, but failed on the common abbreviation Found and zoomed, but the common abbreviation zoomed on Slough (!)
The Tower of London Found and zoomed Found and zoomed Found and zoomed (failed if ‘the’ included in the search) Found and zoomed
St Paul’s Cathedral Found and zoomed Found and zoomed Found as part of a list Failed
National Portrait Gallery Failed (zoomed to the one in Washington DC) Found and zoomed Found and zoomed Found and zoomed

Notice that none of these search engines managed to pass the test on all the top ten attractions, which are visited by millions every year. There is a good reason for this – geographical search is not a trivial matter and the semantics of place names can be quite tricky (for example, if you look at a map of Ireland and the UK, there are two National Galleries).

On the plus side, I can note that search engines are improving. At the end of 2005 and for most of 2006 the failure rate was much higher. I used the image above in several presentations and have run the ‘British Museum Test’ several times since then, with improved results in every run.

The natural caveat is that I don’t have access to the server logs of the search engines and, therefore, can’t say that the test really reflects the patterns of use. It would be very interesting to have Google Maps Hot Trends or to see it for other search engines. Even without access to the search logs though, the test reveals certain aspects in the way that information is searched and presented and is useful in understanding how good the search engines are in running geographical queries.

By a simple variation of the test you can see how tolerant an engine is for spelling errors, and which one you should use when guests visit your city and you’d like to help them in finding their way around. It is also an indication of the general ability of the search engine to find places. You can run your own test on your city fairly quickly – it will be interesting to compare the results!

For me, Microsoft Virtual Earth is, today, the best one for tourists, though it should improve the handling of spelling errors…