Edinburgh offers its inhabitants and visitors a large range of sights and events to occupy and entertain throughout the year, notably its annual festivals. As a stroll through many Edinburgh bookshops confirms, much interest also exists in investigations of the city’s rich heritage and natural environments.
In close proximity to the Drummond Street location of the seminar lies St. John’s Hill, where James Hutton (1726-1797), later billed the ‘father of modern geology’, once lived. It was here, in sight of the Salisbury Crags, that Hutton’s early geological observations were made. To this day, Hutton’s profound statement ‘…we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – can be found etched into a large Clashach stone at the spot where Hutton’s house and garden once lay.
It was in this context – and that of other lauded figures of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and David Hume – that Professor Jonathan Silvertown came to deliver his EEO-AGI seminar outlining the vision of making Edinburgh a ‘Global City of Learning’. Silvertown, a professor in Technology Enhanced Science Education at the University of Edinburgh, came to describe the nascent Edinburgh Cityscope.
Perhaps uncharacteristically for an EEO-AGI seminar, initial emphasis was not placed on matters spatial. Instead, the case was made that developing technologies have a clear interplay with new pedagogies or – perhaps more readily understandably – new methods and practices in teaching. The experiential learning process – first championed in the 1970s by Kolb – has at its core the idea of learning by doing. This is where Edinburgh Cityscope comes in. Might students (or indeed anyone) be able to walk around Edinburgh, armed with little more than a mobile device, learning about – and even contributing to – information about the city?
In a previous role at the Open University, Silvertown was in the vanguard of those proposing the benefits of citizen science. In a highly cited 2009 paper, a citizen scientist was defined as ‘…a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific query.'. To the GIS enthusiast, clear parallels exist with this idea and that of individuals out mapping, using for example OpenStreetMap.
So, what is Edinburgh Cityscope? Silvertown described a three-layer infrastructure that is currently undergoing development: first, a data capture layer; secondly, a storage and retrieval layer and – last of all – a presentation layer. Data capture could be from a multitude of devices, perhaps a student working on a field assignment where location is key (e.g. a georeferenced sighting of a particular species).
In terms of data storage, Edinburgh Cityscope has at its core an open GitHub repository. The potential for beneficial sharing of disparate data among students, researchers and the public (both in space and time) is therefore high. Beyond the acquisition and storing of data, when it comes to analysis JupyterHub – and its ‘virtual workbench’ capabilities – will act as the ‘glue’ for users out collecting data using Jupyter ‘notebook’ software (freely available across multiple platforms, based on IPython).
The icing on the cake – the presentation layer with web pages (with scope for associated mobile device apps and application programming interfaces) would then ‘join the dots’ in terms of configurable maps for presentation, reuse, and further analyses. For GIS enthusiasts, clear interest emerges from the possibility of presenting and analysing different ‘layers’ of data to address hypothesis-driven science. As if to emphasise the cross-disciplinary potential of Edinburgh Cityscope, Silvertown emphasised the work of Edinburgh University’s Professor Lesley McAra and the vision of Edinburgh Cityscope to inform social and political changes in the city over time. Elsewhere, the concept of ‘spatial humanities’ is similarly gaining traction.
Edinburgh Cityscope clearly has much potential and, when fully realised, will hopefully excite and ultimately engage. The notion that smartphones and other devices can in effect act as ‘pocket laboratories’ is becoming increasingly clear and, to this writer at least, seems to offer far more scope to be useful than a lot of frequently witnessed smartphone activity…
Dr. Jonathan Henderson  works for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Geographical Information Science in 2016, during which he conducted research on geographic biases in conservation research. [Photos: J Henderson].
 http://doi.org/10.1038/545119a (Nature, 4th May 2017)