Forgotten pioneer’s Forth crossing dream realised after 200 years

Perspective_600It was to prove a bridge too far for engineers 200 years ago … but now a little-known Scot’s vision of a Forth crossing is set to become reality.

Plans drawn by engineer and surveyor James Anderson in 1818 – which look remarkably similar to the Queensferry Crossing that opens tomorrow (Wednesday) – have come to light in a University of Edinburgh archive.

Anderson’s proposal for a “Bridge of Chains proposed to be thrown over the Frith [sic] of Forth” was discovered by University geographer Bruce Gittings while researching his Gazetteer for Scotland – a project to record every settlement and landmark in Scotland.

The remarkable plans for a roadway linking North and South Queensferry were proposed 72 years before completion of the iconic Forth Bridge.

Perspective_pieceBoth Anderson’s design and the new Queensferry Crossing are suspension road bridges, with their supports extending as straight lines from the towers, in both cases resembling the sails of an immense yacht.

Edinburgh-born Anderson’s scheme has the roadway supported by chain cables, forged from iron bars, very similar to Thomas Telford’s bridge across the Menai Strait in North Wales.

Anderson, who was friendly with Telford, suggested that the success of Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge, begun in 1819, was a good reason that his own design should be built.

Anderson proudly suggested his bridge would “facilitate the communication between the southern and northern divisions of Scotland”. At the time, the cost was between £175,000 and £200,000, which would equate to around £840 million today.

James Anderson was born in the Old Town of Edinburgh, the son of a textile worker. He died at his home in the city in 1861 and is buried in Old Calton Burial Ground.

The Gazetteer for Scotland, www.scottish-places.info, was the first description of Scotland to be published online in 1995 and remains the largest, with more than 25,000 entries. According to Gittings, maintaining this remarkable geographical, historical and educational resource is, as used to be said of painting the 1890 Forth Bridge, a never ending process.

Bruce Gittings, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “It is great to be able to add the Queensferry Crossing to the Gazetteer, and important to remember Anderson’s pioneering work.

“His design was beyond the engineering capabilities of the time, as evidenced by the collapse of the Tay Bridge in a storm in 1879 and of the Chain Pier at Trinity in Edinburgh – on which Anderson also worked – in 1898.”

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A little bit of GIS History

An interesting bit of GIS history came to light from a photograph one of the former students brought along to the MSC87 reunion at the end of July, which has taken a little detective work to decode!

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Tom Waugh (blue t-shirt), Richard Healey (red pullover), David Rhind (blue jacket) and Vanessa Lawrence (blue and purple dress), with students Lorraine Chu and Chris Nailer (lhs) and Melissa Phillips (rhs)

It shows the end-of-year student party in the old MSc Room (now completely changed as part of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation), and includes Richard Healey and the late Tom Waugh, who were the principal ‘movers’ behind the programme at that time, together with Professor David Rhind then of Birkbeck College, who was the External Examiner for the Edinburgh course, and a young Vanessa Lawrence, then Geography Publisher for Longman. All four were working together with Professor Terry Coppock (also of Edinburgh) planning the ‘Big Book’ of GIS, the first edition of which was published four years later in 1991.  First Rhind and later  Lawrence both went on to become Director General of the Ordnance Survey in the UK.

GIS 30-Year Reunion

The weekend of the 29th July saw a reunion of the GIS class of 1987. who stood for a photography on the steps at Drummond Street, adopting the same poses of a similar photography taken thirty years previously.

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Chris Nailer (front), Jane D’Souza, Melissa Craig, Lorraine Chu, Karen Westwood, Alex Bell (middle) and Paul Dowie, Mike Adam, Stuart Gillies and Bruce Gittings.

Bruce Gittings hosted a visit to the Institute of Geography (still known by many as “the department”) and toured the group round familiar and less familiar aspects of the building.  Three of the group had been geography undergraduates prior to taking the GIS MSc, so had spent five years in the building. The Old Library, which is now our principal seminar room, was very much an active library at that time and our newly-refurbished coffee room was the site of the librarian’s office, along with rows of shelves holding journals.

We poured through photographs of the time Bruce was able to pull out the actual dissertations submitted in August 1987 and examples of coursework, together with the student ‘mugshots’ of the time, much to everyone’s embarrassment.

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Melissa Craig and Jane D’Souza contemplate some dissertations

Over dinner, where the group was joined by former Programme Director and Founder Richard Healey, now Professor at the University of Portsmouth, it was fascinating to hear of the careers which had been followed in the intervening years, in consultancy, software development, government, where our students had made a real difference to the development of GIS.

Karen Westwood travelled back from Canada and Mike Adam returned from Germany, while Lorraine Chu flew in from Hong Kong.  Others attending were Alex Bell, Melissa Craig, Paul Dowie, Jane D’Souza, Stuart Gillies and Chris Nailer.

 

Missing Maps comes to Edinburgh University

The School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh was pleased to host a Missing Image1.jpgMaps event on Thursday 22nd June.  The Missing Maps project helps Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) and and other NGOs by creating maps of the most vulnerable communities, providing a vital resource for their on-the-ground staff as well as local people. 35 people came along to help, including students and GI professionals, with various local companies such as ThinkWhere and ESRI-UK particularly well represented.  Pizza was eaten and the event proved to be a great social occasion.

Each year, disasters around the world kill nearly 100,000 and affect or displace 200 million people. Many of the places where these disasters occur are literally ‘missing’ from any map and first responders lack the information to make valuable decisions regarding relief efforts. Missing Maps is an open, collaborative project in which individual volunteers can help to map areas where humanitarian organisations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.

Attendees created data which forms part of the global OpenStreetMap mapping project, guided by volunteer experts. Since 2014 Missing Maps users have contributed almost 32 million edits, involving the creation of 10,858,095 buildings outlines and 1,241,944 km of roads.  Future events are planned and will be posted here.

 

Edinburgh University announces new Professional Development Initiative

EDINA and the School of GeoSciences in the University of Edinburgh is launching a new geospatial continuous professional development programme, which builds on existing strengths in GIS training and education.  With a pedigree established through its internationally renowned GIS Masters programme (begun in 1985) and many years of offering CPD opportunities to government and industry, this new initiative kicks off with a one-day course on the popular OpenSource GIS software QGIS on 30th June 2017.  Many organisations are looking to complement their commercial GIS with QGIS to help drive down costs and unlock the extra functionality and time savings it can provide.   This initial course is designed for those who already have a good grounding in GIS but want to take the skills they have in a commercial GIS package and use them in the OpenSource software. Bruce Gittings, GIS Programmes Director in the School of GeoSciences, said “We are very pleased to be working with EDINA on this new initiative, which extends the university’s town-meets-gown mission”.  Tom Armitage of EDINA said “We are looking forward to this new collaboration, bringing together the geospatial strengths in different parts of Edinburgh University “. The School of GeoSciences already runs the successful EEO/AGI seminar programme, with a professional development mission, while EDINA is known for its online digital mapping services and associated training. Further details are here.

Edinburgh GIS Student takes prize in Story Maps competition

Image1Charlie Moriarty, currently undertaking the GIS MSc at the University of Edinburgh, has taken second prize in an international competition run by software vendors ESRI to showcase their storymaps feature.  Charlie’s storymap involves a virtual trip across the longest highway in his native Australia. The map highlights how long it would take to drive around the Australian coast compared to travelling through Europe and Asia, and Charlie’s project is illustrated with dynamic maps and photographs.

The storymap was prepared as an assessment within the Geovisualisation course and course leader William Mackaness commented “This is great news. I am delighted for Charlie”

Charlie’s storymap can be found here

Tories plans for GeoSpatial

Its not often that political manifestos get into the specifics of the GeoSpatial industry, but the British Conservative party seem to have decided there is political gain in terms of spatial data.  Under the heading “Digital Land”, they say:

And we will use digital technology to release massive value from our land that currently is simply not realised, introducing greater specialisation in the property development industry and far greater transparency for buyers. To make this happen, we will combine the relevant parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey to create a comprehensive geospatial data body within government, the largest repository of open land data in the world. This new body will set the standards to digitise the planning process and help create the most comprehensive digital map of Britain to date. In doing so, it will support a vibrant and innovative digital economy, ranging from innovative tools to help people and developers build to virtual mapping of Britain for use in video games and virtual reality.

If this means making MasterMap data open or indeed just producing a larger-scale digital data set than is currently available, it will indeed  have a profound effect on our industry.  This suggestion has been bobbing around for a while, but it is perhaps surprising that it is the Tories who are putting it forward to the electorate, as it will undoubtedly devalue Ordnance Survey which otherwise could have been sold off.

The implications for Scotland are interesting.  The remit of Land Registry is restricted to England & Wales, so Registers of Scotland would have to be involved north of the Border. Registers are responsible to the Scottish Government, who would have to cooperate in a political initiative, which seems unlikely. In contrast, the Ordnance Survey operates across both jurisdictions, and some will undoubtedly call for that organisation to be split.

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Prof. Jonathan Silvertown: 28th Apr

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Edinburgh offers its inhabitants and visitors a large range of sights and events to occupy and entertain throughout the year, notably its annual festivals. As a stroll through many Edinburgh bookshops confirms, much interest also exists in investigations of the city’s rich heritage and natural environments.

In close proximity to the Drummond Street location of the seminar lies St. John’s Hill, where James Hutton (1726-1797), later billed the ‘father of modern geology’, once lived. It was here, in sight of the Salisbury Crags, that Hutton’s early geological observations were made. To this day, Hutton’s profound statement Image1 ‘…we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – can be found etched into a large Clashach stone at the spot where Hutton’s house and garden once lay.

It was in this context – and that of other lauded figures of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and David Hume – that Professor Jonathan Silvertown[1] came to deliver his EEO-AGI seminar outlining the vision of making Edinburgh a ‘Global City of Learning’. Silvertown, a professor in Technology Enhanced Science Education at the University of Edinburgh, came to describe the nascent Edinburgh Cityscope[2].

Perhaps uncharacteristically for an EEO-AGI seminar, initial emphasis was not placed on matters spatial. Instead, the case was made that developing technologies have a clear interplay with new pedagogies or – perhaps more readily understandably – new methods and practices in teaching. The experiential learning process – first championed in the 1970s by Kolb – has at its core the idea of learning by doing. This is where Edinburgh Cityscope comes in. Might students (or indeed anyone) be able to walk around Edinburgh, armed with little more than a mobile device, learning about – and even contributing to – information about the city?

In a previous role at the Open University, Silvertown was in the vanguard of those proposing the benefits of citizen science. In a highly cited 2009 paper, a citizen scientist was defined as ‘…a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific query.'[3]. To the GIS enthusiast, clear parallels exist with this idea and that of individuals out mapping, using for example OpenStreetMap[4].

So, what is Edinburgh Cityscope? Silvertown described a three-layer infrastructure that is currently undergoing development: first, a data capture layer; secondly, a storage and retrieval layer and – last of all – a presentation layer. Data capture could be from a multitude of devices, perhaps a student working on a field assignment where location is key (e.g. a georeferenced sighting of a particular species).

In terms of data storage, Edinburgh Cityscope has at its core an open GitHub repository[5]. The potential for beneficial sharing of disparate data among students, researchers and the public (both in space and time) is therefore high. Beyond the acquisition and storing of data, when it comes to analysis JupyterHub – and its ‘virtual workbench’ capabilities – will act as the ‘glue’ for users out collecting data using Jupyter[6] ‘notebook’ software (freely available across multiple platforms, based on IPython).

The icing on the cake – the presentation layer with web pages (with scope for associated mobile device apps and application programming interfaces) would then ‘join the dots’ in terms of configurable maps for presentation, reuse, and further analyses. For GIS enthusiasts, clear interest emerges from the possibility of presenting and analysing different ‘layers’ of data to address hypothesis-driven science. As if to emphasise the cross-disciplinary potential of Edinburgh Cityscope, Silvertown emphasised the work of Edinburgh University’s Professor Lesley McAra and the vision of Edinburgh Cityscope to inform social and political changes in the city over time. Elsewhere, the concept of ‘spatial humanities’ is similarly gaining traction.

Edinburgh Cityscope clearly has much potential and, when fully realised, will hopefully excite and ultimately engage. The notion that smartphones and other devices can in effect act as ‘pocket laboratories’ is becoming increasingly clear[7] and, to this writer at least, seems to offer far more scope to be useful than a lot of frequently witnessed smartphone activity…

Dr. Jonathan Henderson [8] works for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Geographical Information Science in 2016, during which he conducted research on geographic biases in conservation research. [Photos: J Henderson].

[1] http://www.jonathansilvertown.com
[2] http://www.edinburghcityscope.org
[3] http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.017
[4] http://www.openstreetmap.org
[5] https://github.com/EdinburghCityScope
[6] http://jupyter.org
[7] http://doi.org/10.1038/545119a (Nature, 4th May 2017)
[8] http://www.researcherid.com/rid/G-3581-2011

Edinburgh Students travel to GISRUK

gisruklogo_gd A group of fourteen of the Edinburgh GIS Masters students travelled to the GIS Research UK conference with Programme Director Bruce Gittings and lecturer William Mackaness.  This trip has become an important feature of the Masters programme at Edinburgh, exposing students to the latest developments in geographical information science, and providing the first experience of an academic conference for many.  The conference featured introductory workshops followed by three parallel sessions of talks over three days. Bruce Gittings said “we feel that GISRUK is a great experience for our students, not only giving them a deeper understanding of current development but also planting the seed that perhaps they should be presenting their own dissertation research at the conference the following year”

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review :

The Edinburgh Earth Observatory (EEO) AGI-Scotland seminar series were delighted to host Stephen Cragg, transport planner for Transport Scotland on Friday the 31st of March, 2017. Stephen’s talk formed part of the seminar series’ ‘Future’ theme, in which GI professionals across a range of fields and disciplines examine the pervasive nature of technology, and the ways in which it is changing our world for the better (or for the worse).

The seminar was intriguingly entitled ‘Future Transport: I know where you were last night!”. Steven stated that the title was, in itself, a technique to garner curiosity from among the audience, and a question which he sought to answer in the concluding remarks of his talk.

Steven amusingly began his discussions on the premise that he knew his left from his right, but not necessarily his east from his west, setting the scene for a spatially-minded audience. He followed-up by outlining in turn, the range of high profile transport projects in which he has been involved in, including The Queensferry Crossing, the completion of the M74 south of Glasgow (near Auchenshuggle Bridge no less), Edinburgh-Glasgow rail improvements, and the dualling of the A9.

He noted that his involvement in such projects were at the earliest stages of development, the one who posed the question: ‘do we really need this? What is the business case?’ With such an emphasis on the business case, Stephen argued that he needed to understand who was going to use such large-scale transport projects, why would they use it, and crucially where were they going from and where were they going to?

With this context in mind, Steven turned his attention to how such information could be uncovered. He spoke of his frustrations with the transport-limited nature of the questions posed in the census, with the only gauge being the address of the participant’s workplace for which he/she travels to. He then turned his attention to the Scottish Household Survey through which participants were asked to provide a travel diary, but he noted its limitations in scope, with only 15,000 annual participants extrapolated to a population of over 5 million. He estimated that a discussion with a driver costs Transport Scotland around £10, and noted that there are around 4 billion personal journeys in Scotland annually, ultimately totally a rather expensive endeavour.

With such expense associated with traditional surveying, Steven then posed the question: “can I tap into a whole range of remote monitoring systems?” By remote monitoring systems, Steven was referring to Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), Bluetooth Detection (BD), and Mobile Phone Tracking (MPT).

Firstly, ANPR was discussed in relation to the collection of journey time data, their “raison d’etre”. Steven noted that while ANPR sensors were not installed for his purposes, he wondered could he tap into their data, and commandeer said data for his benefit. Secondly, BD installed by Transport Scotland, again for journey time data, could he tap into this data? Finally, MPT based on the context of your mobile phone knowing where it is, and by extension knowing where you are. Steven did not believe that your mobile phone could be used to track you to the finest level of detail, but instead within a larger ‘cell’ as governed by a mobile phone tower’s coverage.

Steven then turned his attention to the common challenges associated with accessing data for purposes beyond which it was originally collected for. Steven found it surprising that he was unable to simply access data from speed cameras as a transport planner for Transport Scotland, and noted that Home Office-style approval would be required for such access. In contrast, mobile phone data is becoming increasingly available in terms of the selling of ‘movement data’. Steven then sparked an interesting discussion with regards to the ways in which we can translate number plate data, speed data, and movement data, into people data, more personalised to the individual(s) concerned.

The inherent bias prevalent in such data was discussed in terms of those people who have access to modern technology and those that do not. For example, the data would be skewed to those people who own a modern smartphone, but how do we account for those people that do not?

Steven then asked “what does location actually mean?” Through that, he discussed issues of geographical scale, so how precise does the location have to be? Street-level data, neighbourhood data, city data, national data, and so on? This question becomes more acute when considering the urban-rural divide, and the issues of data coverage. This related to the disentanglement of data in the context of assessing a ‘stop’ in a journey from A to B. Was this ‘break’ in movement simply due to lack of adequate sensor coverage, or was it a genuine detour, and if so why, where, and for how long?

Steven then turned his attention to the ‘bread and butter’ of a transport planner, journey purpose. He argued that this was key due to the fact that the responses of travellers to the decisions and interventions taken by the likes of himself, depended upon the purpose of the journey they were making. He spoke of longitudinal monitoring as a means to determine journey purpose in which repeated journeys recorded via a smart device could provide indications of places of work, study, residence, and so on.

Drawing to a close, Steven considered issues related to privacy and the ethics of third-party data selling. He interestingly asked the audience if they regarded a car registration plate to be personal, private data, to which a mixed response was provided by the audience. The key issue of data linkage was Steven’s final point, with the collected data being aggregated with other data sources to construct a movement profile of the individual. For that reason, Steven argued that a car registration plate could indeed be considered personal, private data.

Steven ended his thought-provoking seminar arguing that while he doesn’t know where I was as an individual last night, he could know where we were as an audience last night on a larger, aggregate level.

Blair JH Bell
MSc. Geographical Information Science
The University of Edinburgh