EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Ed Parsons, Google : 1st Dec

Friday 1st December saw a very healthy turnout for the last EEO-AGI seminar of 2017, given by the engaging and convivial Ed Parsons, Google’s Geospatial Technologist and self-professed geographer-in-residence. Having moved from GIS Applications Manager at Autodesk, to Chief Technology Officer for Ordnance Survey, and acting as Executive Fellow at University of Aberdeen and Visiting Professor at UCL, Ed’s career has carved a path in geospatial data management and visualisation. In his current role, he now seeks to evangelise Google’s efforts to improve the world using geospatial data. As he sees it, Google may seem like a giant frightening techno-monster; but Ed is here to act as the friendly geographer conduit.

Ed’s enjoyable talk focused on his near and distant predictions for the future of technology and the use of spatial data. 56% of all mobile Google searches are for local information, and with Google Maps now serving 1 billion users, an incredible portion of the world’s population is involving spatial information in its daily life.  Suddenly the giant techno-monster analogy didn’t seem so far off…

As Ed joked, ‘only idiots do lectures about the future’, but he made a decent effort in presenting megatrends we can no longer ignore. We are coming into a world of urban living, where residents are comfortable with technology and businesses increasingly make successful use of ‘big data’, APIs and web services. Ambient location is now becoming a natural part of life, with the introduction of Google Maps app for iOS in 2007 helping maps transition from static information to dynamic tools for daily tasks. Maps now operate as egocentric, placing the user at the centre of the data. With such capabilities as travel notifications as you walk into a train or bus station, digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, and lights and thermostats that turn on when you reach the vicinity of your house, ‘science fiction technology’ and the use of locational data is becoming part of ordinary life. Indeed, Ed used a quote from Mark Weiser, chief scientist at Xeroc PARC to portray that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” The question of data privacy was raised, and countered with the reassurance that at the heart of ambient location is the freedom to withhold your information. It is very rare nowadays to get lost with locational data at our fingertips, but we must be offered the choice to get lost if we want to.

Voyaging into the world of virtual reality, Ed acknowledged the criticism and the lack of uptake of the Google Glass headwear but highlighted the potential applications and advantages of 3D modelling and user-friendly augmented reality software. The hardware still experiences limitations in true 3D movement, but with the use of SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) software, photogrammetry techniques are helping to fill in the blanks of indoor mapping and movement in virtual space using just handheld processing power.

Ed next presented a playful analogy of technology over the last three decades as headgear: the hardhats of 1995-2005 (focused on defence, engineering and inexpensive solutions), the fedora and sunglasses of 2005-2015 (mocking hipsters creating a stylish, entertaining and mobile internet) and the robot head of the present (depicting the development of artificial intelligence). Earth Engine, Google’s cloud-based platform for remote sensing image analysis, now offers a fast, free, up-to-date solution to traditionally slow and clunky remote sensing programs. With over 5 petabytes of data available, Ed gave a demo of the platform’s impressive ability to remove clouds from aerial imagery over the UK on-the-fly. As is the way with live demos, a minor snag required Ed to re-log in to his Google account and then perform two-factor authentication, spawning laughter but allowing him to declare the usefulness of this security measure: “I could have been a malicious person trying to steal Ed’s details!”

The tech evangelist finished with some examples of machine learning, with feature recognition in driverless cars, computer-controlled drone racing, landmark recognition from frequent congregations of people sharing their location (“no human was used in the making of this map”), and Global Fishing Watch taking 10TB of ship tracking data and aerial images to identify illegal fishing hotspots. Ed finally thanked everyone who has ever filled in a CAPTCHA, explaining Google’s improvements of street sign and business name photo-recognition by using the training dataset of millions of CAPTCHA answers entered by unwitting humans. Overall, the seminar proved an enjoyable tour of Google and others’ offerings to the progression of geospatial data usage, and where we may see ourselves (and additionally the pitfalls, legalities, and questions of morality we must be aware of) in stepping into a future of machine-and-human harmony.

Freya Muir

(MSc in Geographical Information Science at University of Edinburgh)

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EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr. Lauren Biermann : 17th Nov

[NB Next Talk: 2018 Opener – David Henderson, MD OSGB Fri 26th Jan]

On Friday 17th November we were delighted to welcome Dr. Lauren Biermann, Senior Satellite Scientist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), for the second in this series of EEO-AGI Scotland seminars, held jointly with the University of Edinburgh’s Hutton Club. Lauren gave us a very engaging seminar entitled ‘Building Bridges to Satellites: how the UK Government is encouraging uptake of remotely sensed data’, in which she talked about her roles as data scientist at Cefas, Marine Lead at Defra’s Earth Observation Centre of Excellence (EO CoE), and Marine Liaison for UK-GEOS, a cross-government Earth Observation service.

The talk started with a brief introduction to EO, and the benefits and limitations of satellite data for marine science. An obvious limitation is that the vertical complexity of the oceans is hidden from satellites, which can only measure the surface layer. Satellite data also suffer from reduced accuracy in more complex waters (including those around the UK), though this problem is beginning to be addressed by improved algorithms.

The benefit of EO that Lauren emphasised was one that I had not thought about before, but seemed obvious when it was pointed out: its ability to tie together observations at different spatial scales, from local to global. She gave the example of coastal water quality: this could be affected by very local processes; by more regional processes such as river runoff; by pollutants being carried onshore by ocean currents; by large-scale oscillations such as El Niño; right up to global climate change. Marine scientists study these processes using in situ measurements and computer modelling, and the satellite data is what ties together these different observations and spatial scales. This is perhaps especially true now that high-resolution satellite imagery is becoming more available, as this allows smaller-scale phenomena to be studied from satellite data. A beautiful example of this was shown in this talk: a Sentinel-2 image of a Black Sea algal bloom, with a single vessel and its wake clearly visible.

Lauren then presented one of the projects that she worked on with Cefas: Tracking North East Atlantic Mackerel with Earth Observation Data (aka Finding NEAM-EO – an acronym of which she can be proud!). This project started some time ago, looking at how EO data could be used to predict mackerel distribution in the North Sea, but was then picked up by policymakers in the run-up to the Brexit vote because of the so-called ‘Mackerel Wars’ [1]. This dispute pitted Britain, Norway and the EU on one side against Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the other. Although it has now been resolved, the situation could become more complicated once Britain leaves the EU. In disputes of this kind, it is vital to know exactly where the fish are: the argument that Iceland and the Faroes put forward for unilaterally increasing their quotas was that mackerel had shifted their range northwards.

In the North Sea, the Finding NEAM-EO project had used in situ data on mackerel distribution taken from acoustic surveys, and related this to variables that could be measured from satellites, such as sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll concentration. The results showed that SST was a very good predictor of mackerel distribution, along with bathymetry.

Cefas were then asked to extend the project to the North East Atlantic, but there was no in situ acoustic data available to validate the predictions made from the EO data. However, it was possible to track the mackerel trawlers, which are required by law to carry Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceivers. Mackerel could be assumed to have been present wherever mackerel ships slowed down to trawl. This idea was adapted from Dr. Biermann’s PhD work, in which she investigated the foraging behaviour of tagged elephant seals in the Southern Ocean. In the North Sea, the hotspots identified from the AIS data agreed well with the acoustic data, showing that this was a valid method for tracking mackerel distribution. In the Atlantic, the hotspots showed the same strong relationship with SST and bathymetry as in the North Sea.

After giving us this great example of how satellite data can be used to inform policy, Lauren turned to her role as Marine Lead at Defra’s EO CoE, which involves convincing UK Government to integrate satellite data into monitoring and policymaking. There was initially some scepticism among senior civil servants about the value of satellite data, perhaps because of a lack of information about the range of satellite products available. Although Defra have become more engaged with EO over the last few years, there are still barriers to its uptake. Satellite data are big and require specialist knowledge and software to analyse, so the main task of the EO CoE is to make the data more accessible and easier to use for policymakers across government.

The first step was to understand which data government agencies needed to do their work effectively. Some of this data, such as NDVI/crop maps, SST and chlorophyll-a, could easily be made available in an accessible form. Other data products are currently in development, and Lauren spent some time talking about her role in each of these.

Firstly, AIS and radar maps are being developed in collaboration with Cranfield University to help government agencies understand the shipping pressures on UK waters. By overlaying radar images taken at different times, areas of high shipping intensity can be identified. Combining the radar data with AIS data could potentially allow automatic classification of vessels into different types (fishing vessels, recreational vessels, etc.). This is important in helping to police Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – particularly in the Overseas Territories, where the UK’s main MPAs are. The aim is not so much to catch individuals as to understand patterns so that limited resources can be allocated more effectively.

Secondly, Cefas and Plymouth Marine Labs are working to develop the first product from Sentinel-3 data: 300 m resolution maps of suspended particulate matter, which will help to understand changes in turbidity in the North Sea as well as UK coastal waters.

Finally, Lauren talked about a project she worked on for UK-GEOS, which was set up to promote the integrated delivery of EO products across government departments. This project investigated the use of satellite imagery to identify river runoff plumes, and predict the types of pollutant they might contain based on the industrial or agricultural facilities that were upstream. This is very relevant for understanding the causes of fish diseases, and for improving the sustainability of aquaculture. Consumption of farmed fish surpassed that of wild-caught fish for the first time last year, so this is of vital importance to the sustainability and security of our food supply.

After making a good case for the integration of satellite data with policy and giving us many fascinating examples, Dr. Biermann ended her talk with some more general remarks about the importance of sea literacy – not just among scientists and policymakers, but in society as a whole – and of greater collaboration both within government and between government and academia. The future health of our seas and coastlines may depend on it, and I’m sure that some of those present in the audience will want to be involved.

Daniel Stow (MSc Earth Observation & Geoinformation Management)

[1] http://britishseafishing.co.uk/the-mackerel-wars/

What’s in the Budget?

Budgets used to represent rather mundane and depressing announcements about indebtedness, tax rates and the price of beer.  It is a reflection of the importance of the GI industry, and its central role within the UK economy, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, today announced a Geospatial Data Commission:

And a new Geospatial Data Commission to develop a strategy for using the Government’s location data to support economic growth.

This would seem to be a followup (implementation?) of the Tory 2017 Manifesto commitment:

Digital land
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.”

The big question everyone is asking is what does this mean in reality?  Big changes, or minor tweaking?  Is Ordnance Survey under threat?  Will more data be widely available?  Will it be free?  Or is government just intent on reducing its own costs?   “Developing strategy” inevitably means we are a long way off anything actually changing.

GIS Pot Luck

pot luck pie.jpgWednesday (8th Nov) saw our GIS students get together for a pot-luck dinner in Drummond Street.  Revealing hidden talents in the kitchen, the students brought along a range of dishes from around the world, including Pebre (a tomato, avocado and coriander salsa) from Chile and a chicken and cider pie from the Somerset, together with culinary creations from China and Korea!  To ensure there was no mistaking the purpose of the event, the pie had ‘GIS’ carved into its crust.
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EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr. Vanessa Lawrence CB : 29th Sept

Starting the new series of EEO-AGI seminars with a bang, we welcomed none other than Dr. Vanessa Lawrence CB, HonFREng, FRGS, FRICS, FCInstCES, FRSGS, CCMI, CGeog. As the longest-serving Director General and CEO of the Ordnance Survey since 1875, she filled the post from 2000 to 2014. Vanessa is currently working internationally as a senior advisor to governments and inter-governmental organisations, including the World Bank and large private sector organisations.

Approximately 65 people crowded in to the Old Library eager to hear the seminar on “Location: Its role in solving issues facing you, our nation and our world”. Vanessa quickly highlighted that “Everything happens somewhere” – a point that would repeat throughout the seminar. We must remember how important location is: “where” underpins all of our daily lives.

In a very personable talk, Vanessa went on to discuss the opportunities and challenges around Geospatial Information (GI), giving numerous personal anecdotes. She gave personal experiences of developing countries in which GI technology is still not accessible by the majority of the population or it is mis-perceived by local Governments, reminding us that not everywhere is like the western world. She also detailed how one billion people live in slums to be near opportunities for work, and 700 million people live on less than $1.9 a day.

Vanessa described how GI can help solve these global issues. There are 17 sustainable development goals at the UN all requiring geospatial data and methods. With examples such as Copernicus, Smart Cities, Uber, machine learning, the hurricane impact on Houston, an Afghanistan greenhouses project, fair coffee crops, mobile phone usage (or lack of usage) maps, the Catapult and catching illegal fishers, Vanessa described the multitude of ways in which Geospatial data can help.

There has been a paradigm shift in how world leaders now understand GI. Flat maps are moving to multidimensional maps and from 2012 to 2016 the use of geospatial data increased four-fold, the number of users increased x75, and the value of geospatial data doubled. The key is the organisational side of GI; proper use requires not only the data and software, but also informed interpretation, and hence there is a huge need for governments and international organisations to create geospatial strategies.

Thankfully the industry is going through huge growth with many people and organisations joining, and Vanessa concluded by reminding us that with worldwide geospatial initiatives, she hopes we can transform the lives of those 700 million people living on less than $1.9 a day.

Martin Ewart

(MSc in Earth Observation at the University of Edinburgh)

[Next Seminar Friday 17th November!]

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.