Edinburgh GIS team meets Deputy First Minister

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GIS Programme Directors Bruce Gittings and Neil Stuart talk to John Swinney, Education Secretary

Our recent fieldtrip to Kindrogan in Highland Perthshire brought the opportunity for GIS staff and students to meet Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, who also fills the role of Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Neil Stuart and Bruce Gittings held Mr Swinney in discussion over issues as broad-ranging as the importance of GIS to government, the use of UAVs, the ability to be able to collect and process data in near real-time, government resilience, the need for improved broadband and mobile coverage in Scotland and the value of the Scottish Government support for Masters students. Several of the GIS students benefit from the Scottish Government’s Highly Skilled Workforce Scholarships.

Mr Swinney was visiting the Kindrogan Field Centre at Enochdhu, which is the base for the Edinburgh GIS team’s annual field trip.  Mr Swinney spent almost an hour talking to our staff and students. He was not aware that universities used the field centre as well as schools and was impressed by the work being undertaken.

AGI(S) – EEO Seminars Update

February 2017 witnessed the first Festival of Creative Learning at the University of Edinburgh.  To mark this, Friday 24th saw a pairing of the first and second seminars in a special ‘Future Techniques’ trilogy held as part of this year’s EEO-AGI(S) Seminar Series.

Dr. Paul Chapman of Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualization (SimViz) first asked: “Virtual Reality. Temporary distraction or real opportunity?”

For those of us old enough to remember some of the mixed efforts of the early 1990s (cumbersome games console add-ons and some questionable movies! – all discussed) this was an interesting update and a reminder of how the Computer Games industry has developed at enormous pace over the last few decades.  For those new to VR this was a comprehensive coverage of hardware and software platforms (such as Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and the HTC Vive offering – tipped as one VR system to watch) as well as a brief historical review of some older VR technology – some from long before the 1990s!

While not forgetting some valid critiques and criticisms of us blindly adopting such technology, the conclusion is that VR – this time – is a real force to be reckoned with, and a potential game changer.

Later that afternoon, via our friends at Hutton Club, Dr. Rebecca Hodge of Durham University gave a talk on: “CT scanning and 3D printing: New tools for quantifying fluvial sediment dynamics”.  It was interesting to see a particularly Earthy (or should that be sandy?) application of such technologies, and to see 3D printing being used in a GeoScience domain.

Friday 3rd March saw the final seminar in the Techniques mini-series, again hosted jointly with The Hutton Club, and featured Edinburgh GeoSciences’ own Dr. Andrew Cunliffe speaking about: “Terrestrial carbon in degrading drylands: A study of soils, sediments and plants from drones”.  Once again it was interesting to see an application of ‘spatial’ technology and techniques, this time UAVs and Structure From Motion Photogrammetry, to see not only the topographic features on the Earth’s surface but also to gather information, literally, about the Earth itself.

Owen Macdonald
Organiser, EEO-AGI(S) Seminars

Amazon Outage makes for a Dark Cloud

image1For some years now we have been led to believe that The Cloud gives us a robust solution for providing software services (including GIS) which avoids the dangers of being dependent on individual servers, which risk loss of hardware, power supply, cooling and other points-of-failure.  This is a solution has become increasing popular, with many organisations and services now dependent on it.  In theory, the Cloud spreads the risk over thousands of individual servers, physically located in different data centres at different sites dispersed geographically across different countries and indeed  continents.

Or that’s the theory.  The 28th Feb saw a failure which brought down the US-EAST node of Amazon’s S3 service that has caused chaos across the web.  Amazon’s web services (AWS) have grown from an infrastructure built to support their own online shopping business to become the largest of the cloud-hosting companies, underpinning around 150,000 web sites, services and smartphone apps around the world.  These are used by literally millions of users on a daily basis.  Amazon didn’t invent cloud computing, but they did commercialise it effectively and make it affordable.  The US-EAST node is distributed across several large and anonymous warehouse-like buildings in Northern Virginia.  Disruption has affected notable GIS services such as ArcGIS Online, several OpenStreetMap providers and Autodesk’s cloud through to well-known sites such as Netflix, Spotify, Instagram and IMDb, and even the NEST applications used by many to run their central heating and home security.

How many businesses and government applications are now dependent on maps and interactive services published through ArcGIS Online?  ESRI are certainly concerned, having issued a rare global email to ArcGIS users explaining the situation and delaying service updates until they have taken “great care in insuring all services, maps and apps are working as they should”.

Amazon haven’t said exactly what went wrong, a software problems seems more likely than hardware, but the real problem seems to be that programmers have not taken the time to properly use the services which the Cloud provides to ensure reliability.  Developers are supposed to spread their applications over different servers in different data centres so applications are resilient to localised outages.  But this process is expensive and distributed programming is hard, so developers have fallen back into old, bad habits.  The have relied on the Cloud only to scale the amount of processing available, but programmed their applications only for a single node.  In Edinburgh, we have been promoting use of parallel and distributed processing since the early 1990s – but such applications are still not well-developed, especially within GIS.

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An Amazon Data Centre – Cut off?

The Amazon outage lasted over four hours, in the initial stages Amazon themselves weren’t able to use their service health dashboard because it too is hosted on AWS.

This incident will give pause for thought. Amazon need to review the dependencies between their nodes, but it is also reported that US-East is the most fragile component of the AWS cloud: it is old, running on old equipment in second-hand buildings.  Reflection is also needed by developers who thought they were taking advantage of a highly-distributed resilient infrastructure but have found their businesses held hostage to a new and unexpected point-of-failure.