Dr Alex Singleton from the University of Liverpool joined us on the 31st January 2014 to speak on the topic of ‘Advances in Geographic Data Science: Open Data and Systems’. Open geographical information systems were discussed in the context of school pupil travel data and census data by this self-confessed ‘Geodemographics nerd’.
The presentation began by discussing the differences between open data and free data; free data allows the use of interfaces and applications but the data is owned by whoever is running the application (eg. google). Open data gives full access to do whatever they like with the data within the licensing agreements. Dr Singleton also discusses how linking private data but sanitising it for publication in the public domain (such as following a person’s journey through school and higher education) can display patterns that may not be seen otherwise. This is an application of ‘big data’.
Dr Singleton expressed his very strong feelings about potholes in his home city of Liverpool. He showed how the ‘Street Bump’ app may be used to let the council know that a pothole exists. However this would seem to highlight potholes in affluent areas where more people have access to smartphones, thus creating a false big-data set and showing the care needed when dealing with open data.
Dr Singleton then went on to discuss two projects where he has used open data to create new geographical systems. The first investigated emissions generated by pupils’ journeys to and from school. The model was created using ‘R’ and postgreSQL, and incorporated data on the pupils’ home addresses, school addresses, probable routes to school, average emissions of cars in the area and likelihood of what type of transport the pupil would be taking.
The second project that was presented was the 2011 Census Atlas. With census data now being open and much more accessible, the number of different and new ways of visualising the data is has increased. Dr Singleton took all the census data for England and Wales and created a model that automatically rendered the appropriate variables into choropleth maps. Again the model used the ‘R’ programming language to create these from the census database, in conjunction with a latex file to produce a formatted output. The time to render all 134,567 maps was only two days. In conjunction with his feelings on open data, Dr Singleton has posted his code for this on Bitbucket for use by others for any data; Irish census data has already been mapped through his method.
In conclusion, Dr Singleton put forward his hopes that the trend towards more open data will continue, thus allowing for more transparency and peer review of the datasets to occur more easily, pushing this area of science forward. He also stated his belief that teaching scripting and coding to students is important for the future, improving the visualisations of these ever-increasing and complex data sets and in turn increasing our knowledge of the world we live in.
(MSc in GIS at University of Edinburgh)