EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Prof. Clive Sabel : 14th Nov

Can we model our exposure to our environment? Understanding human health has always been important to society – as, naturally, we do not particularly like it when we know someone who is ill. Current research has asked questions such as: What are the genetic predispositions to the illness?; How long have these illness been present and when did exposure to it occur?; and Where is this occurring?

The traditional approach to epidemiology (the study of the distribution and determinants of illnesses) has been based on the fact that people are fairly static in their lives. Yet more people are moving all the time, not just in the same area but moving regions and nations as well. Another factor is that we don’t estimate exposure by tracking individuals in their daily lives.

This is where the exposome (the area in which we are exposed to illnesses) comes into the discussion. Two thirds of deaths are caused by non-communicle (non infectious) illnesses and only ten percent are due to genetic variations. Therefore the rest are caused by our environment. The idea of looking at how life circumstances affect human health is not a new one; John Wallis in 1790 describes an idea of following people from birth until death and to measure their health throughout. The exposome assess three aspects of life: the internal aspects; the general external situations (such as social stressors); and the specific external factors which include radiation and lifestyle factors.

Professor Clive Sabel has been researching the routines of daily lives and the risk of exposure to such illnesses. In our everyday lives we will come across various hazards – whether this is crossing the road, walking into secondary smoke, or even eating something amazingly unhealthy. By mapping these movements through the course of the day, we can begin to see some very interesting patterns.

How can we track people in their everyday lives? We can use government data to help such as census data and schools in England often send out questionnaires to students’ families asking how they get to school. We can also use social media – such as Tweeting where you are and now on Facebook you can ‘Check in’ with a status update.
Technology has made things a bit easier. There are all kind of fitness measuring devices that also come with GPS (Global Positioning System) to help route plotting and future setting. Most people have a smart phone. Most smart phones have a GPS built into them. A lot of apps ask for location data: coincidence?

Clive Sabel’s pilot study is to investigate how location and activity to assess risks to health in relation to being indoors or outdoors. To do this they were given a range of equipment which measured location, ultraviolet radiation, temperature, and they wrote a paper log of what they did. They did this across seven cities in Europe: Edinburgh, Zeist, Stuttgard, Zagreb, Thessaloniki, Kozani and Athens. Each individual collected data for seven days and carried the equipment wherever they went.

Ultimately, with enough information, it may be possible to create an agent based model to simulate behaviour between daily lives and exposure to containments. This, in time, will help those in the medical profession to model illness and use the environmental/spatial aspects of illnesses and to find ways to treat them.

Chris Kinnear
(MSc in GIS at the University of Edinburgh)

Edinburgh GIS Students Graduate Today

Thursday marks the graduation of the latest group of students who have gained an M.Sc. from the University of Edinburgh.  Twenty-nine students graduate with their Masters either in Geographical Information Science or Geographical Information Science & Archaeology. We pass on our congratulations to all of them!  An exceptional number of students gained their degree with distinction and two prize-winners are of particular note. Prizes are presented by Informed Solutions, a leading Cheshire-based information systems consultancy, who maintain a valued long-term relationship with the GIS group at the University.

Sarah Beadle was awarded prize for best dissertation for her study of “The Application of Cluster Analysis to Investigate Multivariate Spatial Patterns in Belizean Lowland Savanna Soils“, in which she brought together for the first time data from four previous but partial soil surveys of the country and applied clustering methods to enable a first national assessment of the differences in soil fertility and therefore agricultural suitability across the country.

Sarah shared the dissertation prize with Ryland Karlovich, whose dissertation entitled “Integrating Climate Information into the Gazetteer for Scotland” used the statistical package ‘R’ to compute realistic long-term average climate information for all towns listed in the Gazetteer for Scotland, for which previously only the largest towns had information about their weather and climate. This information now makes a valued addition to the Gazetteer website.

Seth Finegan of Informed Solutions said “we are very pleased to be involved with the GIS programme in Edinburgh.  The prizes we have presented today reflect both the quality of the work and the excellent students which Edinburgh has a reputation for producing”

Chair of the Exam Boards Dr Neil Stuart commented “these two dissertations were both excellent illustrations of how our students use GIS analysis to produce genuinely new and highly relevant information through their independent project work.  Both projects built on top of excellent work done by our previous students, showing the value of pursuing established lines of GIS research for which Edinburgh is well known, while letting our students develop their individual creativity.”

So let’s do GIS at school?

I was surprised today when I was sent details of a GIS ‘higher’ now available in Scottish Schools. Apparently this SCQF Level 6 qualification has been offered since 2011.  I had never heard of it, and seems I was not the only one.

The curriculum is interesting and I did wonder if we should be responding to this in terms of what we teach in GIS at university-level.  However, I couldn’t resist phoning the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to get the answer to the obvious question.  A rather embarrassed member of their qualification centres team said that, although this has been available since 2011, no centres had been accredited to offer this qualification and thus no-one has ever taken it.

That this qualification asks for pre-requisites of English and Maths, but not Geography is remarkable (basic IT skills are ‘recommended’).  There would seem to be a missed opportunity to strengthen science-based geography in schools (currently taught only as a ‘social subject’) but instead we have a qualification that no-one does?  Are the SQA completely out of touch?

Bruce Gittings, University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh Student puts 50,000 Books on the Map for Scottish Book Week

Alex Mackie, a recently-completed GIS student from the University of Edinburgh has commercialised his dissertation project which gives books locations, and founded his own company

For his MSc dissertation, submitted only three months ago, Alex chose to mix two subjects close to his heart; books and maps. As well as a research exercise, he realised there was commercial value to mapping books, which has been largely ignored by the industry.  If books are properly georeferenced then location-aware e-readers and tablets can use their user’s location to recommend locally relevant books or provide the option to search for books, relating to intended holiday destinations, favourite mountain or place-based Christmas present. This extends the principle that physical bookstores already recognize a demand for locally relevant books, with Waterstones and other retailers stocking shelves with books linked to the shop’s location.

Rather than having to have the text of thousands of books, the initial method involved extracting place names from Amazon book reviews, which total a remarkable 80 million words, on the basis that reviewers discuss the places books were about or set in.  It may seem strange to be mining metadata for further, more specific metadata but the vast amount of review text is a potentially rich source of information. Yet there was a problem – while the reviews do indeed contain sufficient place-names to geolocate books, the error rate caused by misidentified mentions of things like Dundee cakes and Yorkshire terriers meant the data was not ideal for powering location-based book recommendation.

Thus an alternative approach was taken, disambiguating existing metadata. By taking metadata in the form of toponyms from book catalogues and using a custom algorithm to disambiguate these toponyms to real-world coordinates, an interactive  “global book map” of 50,000 books had been built. This is growing all the time as more books are constantly processed. All of this in time for Scottish Book Week 2014 (Monday 24th – Sunday 30th November).

As the data grows, displaying tens of thousands of points elegantly and speedily becomes a significant challenge. Thus the book map takes a new approach to intelligently clustering these large point fields for web mapping. The PostGIS spatial extension to PostgreSQL was used to aggregate points by country and region, depending on the zoom level of the map. This was made possible because of lightning-fast point-in-polygon operations in PostGIS. While seemingly complicated, this approach gives a much more useful map than simpler alternatives, which tend to merge features together based on naive proximity rather than any real-world similarity.

Building on his academic background in philosophy and now GIS, Alex was able to learn further skills during his dissertation research, including natural language processing, how to handle ‘big’ data, spatial database design, building, testing and hosting dynamic web apps with a spatial component, geovisualisation and front-end web design.

Alex has built on his book map to add participatory mapping to the portfolio of his new company.  He is creating a simple participatory mapping environment that allows users to quickly and easily create their own custom map layer, to which others can contribute. The intended application is for one-off consultation projects and niche interests with a spatial element. He is currently looking for beta-testers with interests in collaborative mapping, who can contact him via his web site or

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Prof. Phil Townsend : 31st Oct

Global change is affecting both natural and agricultural ecosystems, requiring that we develop better ways to monitor and predict vegetation processes. A grand challenge in biology and geosciences is to develop the methods that will allow us to better understand ecosystem change at local to global scales. Contact and imaging spectroscopy show great promise for measurement of the physiology of ecosystems related both to environmental drivers and genetics. Over the last decade, researchers have demonstrated the use of reflectance spectroscopy to rapidly and accurately characterize features of ecosystems that previously entailed considerable monetary expense and effort.

The seminar that was given by Prof. Phil Townsend focused on how the spectral measurements allow us to measure the ‘heartbeat’ and ‘lung capacity’ of different ecosystems and also how those measurements provide the opportunity to characterize traits of ecosystems in order to understand their function. The presentation was rich of real life experiments and case studies, and all of them enclose the main idea, that with the use of spectroscopy we can map the state and function of different ecosystems.

A method was proposed by the speaker in collaboration with a colleague from the University of Minnesota that includes optical measurements. Optical surrogacy provides information about the genetic diversity of the species.

Spectral data are used as a surrogate for physiological processes and hyperspectral images used to map the traits. It might sound simple but it not, to reach the final output a variety of methods, techniques and multiple samplings to estimate the uncertainty of the models are being used, so they can finally create a pixel by pixel trait map. This technique also allows the prediction of the Vmax and Jmax of the ecosystem models.

The adaptation of spectrometers in UAV’s will be enable to bridge the gaps in spatial and temporal measurement capacity from the leaf/canopy to airborne to spaceborne levels and the potential future applications of these methods are extensive, an integrated approach will enable geneticists to understand genome function better, agronomists to better target existing genotypes and breeding for different environmental circumstances, and ecologists to better predict the effects of climate change on agricultural and natural ecosystems.

Niki Katzi
(MSc in GIS at the University of Edinburgh)

GIS in Schools

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society convened a meeting in Perth on 31st October to discuss issues relating to the uptake of GIS in Scottish Schools.  The meeting was chaired by Dr. Vanessa Lawrence, Secretary General of Ordnance Survey International. Central to the discussion were the following issues:

1. There was clear commitment to further promote the significant value of studying Geography in Scottish schools and universities at a time when the subject is under pressure.

2. There was awareness of the contribution that the Geographical Information (GI) industry can make to Scotland’s future economic prosperity. However, there was also recognition that there remains a significant skills gap amongst our young people at a time when there are many jobs available globally in the buoyant GI industry.

3. There was a concerted desire amongst delegates to reduce existing barriers, including cost, to geographical information use in schools and to work together to develop a long-term strategy to develop teachers’ confidence in delivering GI skills training in schools across Scotland to make our young people competitive in the job market.

Bruce Gittings attended as RSGS Vice Chair, but also wearing his hats as Director of GIS Programmes at the University of Edinburgh. RSGS was also represented by Erica Caldwell (Education Convenor), Chief Executive Mike Robinson and Education Officer, Rachel Hay. Other attendees included Lynne Roberston from Education Scotland, Peter Burnhill and Anne Robertson from EDINA, Elaine Owen and Darren Bailey from Ordnance Survey and Liz Crisp, President of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers (SAGT).

perth meet


I was rather amazed to look at the statistics for this blog and discover that it is proving popular across the globe!  Over the last year, there have been almost 1500 page-views across a remarkable 74 countries.  While the majority of readers are in the UK, there were 44 in India and 28 in Croatia!  And being a GIS person, here’s a map:


GIS Cake wins Edinburgh Geography Bake-Off

GIS Cake

Liz Richardson’s Remarkable Cake

A remarkable four-layer GIS cake has won a charity Bake Off competition organised in the  Institute of Geography and the Lived Environment at the University of Edinburgh. The cake was the work of Liz Richardson, a spatial analyst with the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) based in the Drummond Street building, part of the School of GeoSciences. Liz’s cake features the real-world, sitting on a geological base, overlain by raster layers representing elevation, land-use and the risk of attack by a killer rabbit!

The winning entry was judged on taste with extra marks awarded for research-related themes! Those sampling the cake donated generously to a local food bank, which benefited to the tune of £300.

Neil Stuart, one of the core team contributing to the GIS Masters programme in Edinburgh said “I had heard of Liz’s creativity with cakes, but this was truly amazing.  I have taken a photograph to use in one of my lectures!”

Liz said “I really enjoy making decorative cakes and this gave me a unique opportunity to combine work with fun, all for a good cause”

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr. Anne Kemp : 10th Oct

Increasingly technology is used to solve problems in our rapidly changing world. Along with this comes the production of data at a greater volume that ever before in history. This data has the potential to provide a critical contribution to overcome the challenges we face in society. This potential can only be fully realised if data is produced, maintained and interpreted in an appropriate way.

The seminar by Dr Anne C. Kemp, a leading figure in the GI world, addressed the issues of data management suggesting systematic ways to ensure the quality of geospatial data. Among Dr Kemp’s many credentials is her title as Chair of the Association for Geographic Information (AGI). The seminar Dr Kemp gave addressed data production and management in line with the mission of AGI which is “…to maximise the use of geographic information (GI) for the benefit of the citizen, good governance and commerce.”  In order to successfully meet this aim it is argued that quality and management of GI has to meet certain standards.

Although the need for data quality and management may sound obvious to many of us in the GEO world it is an immensely important issue that others may not have explicitly thought about let alone implemented strategies to ensure their data is the best it can be and fit for purpose. GI (and its management) is a new concept for many fields, Dr Kemp gave the example of engineers using spatial data to improve the planning stages of projects by modelling outcomes. Techniques such as this are well established in the field GIS but a new concept to others.

Having known and clearly defined standards for data enables greater trust in the data and between stakeholders for a given project. Dr Kemp gave the example of use of GI in BIM and the Crossrail project where spatial data is shared through a common information portal. Through a concerted effort to manage and standardise the data quality metadata is made available. This enables all stakeholders to fully understand and trust the data.

With cities growing at an unprecedented rate it’s not just building management that needs to be addressed but also the services a city has to provide e.g. water, sewage, efficient transport networks. This type of development has major social, economic and environmental impacts. ‘Smart’ technology has been suggested to enable us to monitor cities.

The danger of ‘Smart’ cities is that technology replaces us as decision makers. Dr Kemp argued that ‘smart’ technology needs to be harnessed in such a way that makes it easier to for humans to make informed and democratic decisions, rather than it being an automated process.

The hope is that though better information management, out of the age of Big Data and information overload will come the ‘Knowledge Age’ where information is critically and effectively used to create new knowledge. ‘Better Information Management’ strategies and qualified professionals who understand all elements of data production and use are needed for this to happen.

Christine Ratcliffe
(MSc in GIS at the University of Edinburgh)