Annual GIS Alumni Conference records another success

Friday 12th June saw the GIS Update conference take place in the Geography Building in Edinburgh.  This annual event brought together an audience of 55 current and former students together with the staff involved in the GIS programme to hear about current research and trends in industry and academia. It also gives students access to those working in the GIS industry to discuss careers and employment opportunities.

Speakers coming from a range of organisations gave talks discussing the use of GIS in organising major sporting events, the future of cartography, heatmapping, the delivery of cloud-based GIS solutions, climate change and the use of GIS in geomorphological and geological applications. The day also included demonstrations of work currently being developed as part of ongoing student dissertation projects as well as the popular ‘question time’ which concluded the formal programme for the day.

The conference also provides an effective means of maintaining contacts with our widely-spread alumni network, spilling over into social events on Friday evening and Saturday.

Bitcoins, Blockchains, Hash and the Registration of Land Interests Among Vulnerable Communities

I am reliably informed that hash is the name given to resin collected from the flowers of the cannabis plant. I put ‘hash’ in the title to peak your interest but you are now being tracked by GCHQ and the NSA – hey ho! The title is meant to read: Bitcoins, Blockchains, Geohash and Registration of Land Interests Among Vulnerable Communities. When I write ‘Bitcoin’ you think ‘dark web’, I imagine you have not heard of blockchains, but everyone knows about the challenges faced by displaced communities and the desire to create a register of land ownership in developing countries, that we might create order from chaos, et cetera et cetera.

There are complex debates around the notion of developed and developing countries (I think Brettton Woods), around ideas of vulnerable communities (read Tanya Murray Li), and the necessity of the alientation of land (away from customary rights) as a start point to various aid initiatives and incentivisation schemes (particularly in the context of REDD). But in a single sentence I step deftly over such matters.

What do I think the problem is:

Many countries do not have a registry of land ownership. There are various cultural, political and logistical reasons for this. But in the absence of such legal frameworks that define interests and ownership over land, we are increasingly seeing people being forcibly evicted – the land ‘purchased’ in the name of large carbon investment programmes. Where a centralised Land Registry does exist, there is the risk that government officials can corruptly lay claim to land that is apparently ‘unsettled’ (reminds me of the ‘finders keepers’ argument of ‘Terra Nullius’ applied by the British when they colonised Australia).

What do I think the solution is:

Could we not equip such vulnerable communities with the power to record their own interests in the land? Could we not use the ‘spatial’ wisdom of the masses to verify such occupancy? Could we store such information in a way that prevents its corruption and fabrication? Can we do it in a way that is simple and does not require a Masters Degree in GIS from The University of Edinburgh? Which brings me nicely onto bitcoins, blockchains and (geo)hash.

What is a bitcoin?

A bitcoin is a form of digital currency, created and held electronically. Interestingly, no one individual controls it. It facilitates online transactions. A bitcoin can be divided into as many pieces as you like. It can be used to buy anything (including hash).

What is a blockchain?

A blockchain is an encrypted digital ledger. Every bitcoin has a blockchain. It contains the record of every transaction that that bitcoin has been involved in (which is why it is encrypted!). An analogue would be to take a coin from your pocket and have a way of knowing every transaction that that coin had been involved in. The encryption is shared among many machines around the world such that it is impossible to decrypt.

What is geohash?

Geohash is a public domain service by which latitude and longitude can be recorded as a simple alphanumeric sequence. Invented by Gustavo Niemeyer, the length of the character string is proportional to a point’s locational precision (ie analogous to the postcode, the first part being coarse, and the second part affording finer resolution). In that sense it is much more sophisticated and logical than what3words.


So, for bitcoin, read ‘landcoin’ – stored in the cloud. Each landcoin has a blockchain that records the provenance of the property (its sale, partioning, or disbursement). The transactions are encrypted and not alterable by any single institution or individual. Lets use geohashing to create an alphanumeric encoding of a property boundary (perhaps the four corner points of a property for example).

Coming to a cinema near you

Let us remember that technology is inherently undemocratic. For this to work, people need to know about such a service, a person needs the technical know-how, and access to a machine that can record a series of geohash locations, access to the internet, and a proforma that enables current (and future transactions) to be recorded in the blockchain, and a mechanism of informing adjoining properties of any changes so that the crowd can verify its veracity. This is truly a big ask!

But I thought it was intriguing to take the idea of bitcoin and apply it in the context of a global land registry rather than just the purchase of hash! One day these pieces will fall together.

The Importance of Maps and Navigation Skills

It was interesting to read the recent Guardian editorial under the headline “Map-reading skills are about so much more than navigation. They should be treasured”.  Spot on I say.  The article makes the point that too many people now place their complete confidence in GPS-enabled phones and sat-navs while ignoring the obvious features of the landscape and navigation – skills built up over thousands of years of humankind interacting with their physical environment.  I’m a huge fan of technology, but technology to assist in a process not to deskill the individual.

guardian scan

Judging an Eco Hack

Bruce Gittings, Director of GIS Programmes, was asked to help judge the Eco Hackathon run under the auspices of Scotland’s Environment Web on 30th / 31st May. Held in the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, next to the Geography building, the event attracted a number of computer and environmental scientists. Organised by Jo Muse, Olivia Gill and Linda Gallacher of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, teams spent the weekend working on projects such as a phone app to count food miles, another app to a visualise the historic landscape and a web site which integrates environmental data for use in schools. Among the mentors helping the ‘hackers’ was Paul Georgie, a graduate of the Edinburgh GIS programme who now runs his own business using GIS, web technology and UAVs in community development, and Peter McKeague, Database and GIS Project Manager at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, who is a great supporter of the Edinburgh GIS programme and a regular attendee at the EEO/AGI(S) seminars organised by the GIS group in Edinburgh.  The hackathon organisers hope that this will be the first of a series of events of this kind, which apply the ‘computer hack’ groupwork concept to environmental data.