Geovation Hub Opens in Edinburgh

We welcome the announcement by Scotland’s Digital Economy Minister, Kate Forbes, that Geovation Scotland will be established in Edinburgh as an accelerator for geospatial start-ups.

This is an exciting collaboration between Registers of Scotland and Ordnance Survey that will harness a model successfully piloted in London but with a unique Scottish flavour. The hub will promote open innovation, provide start-up companies with support and access to public datasets, while harnessing the opportunities of working alongside the Scottish tech and geospatial communities.

Bruce Gittings, Chair of the Association for Geographic Information in Scotland, said “We have strongly supported the creation of a Geovation Hub in Edinburgh. Scotland has a dynamic geospatial sector but Geovation will add further vigour by growing new ideas and small companies, employing graduates and giving further exciting opportunities to existing players in the field.”

This hub will be based close to the the university and we see it as an important collaboration for developing our students and graduates, and encouraging them to set up their own business.  There are already a number of companies setup by our graduates, the most recent being EarthWave.

Biggest Changes to UK data provision ever contemplated as OS MasterMap becomes free and open

The UK Government made its most important announcement ever today in relation to spatial data provision in the UK when it agreed that “key parts” of the Ordnance Survey’s MasterMap will be made openly available for the public and small-businesses to use.  MasterMap is the definitive detailed base map of the UK and until now has been the  OS’s closely-guarded crown jewels.  Coming remarkably quickly after the UK Government’s enthusiasm to set up a Spatial Data Commission, and a pledge  “to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular” in Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Autumn 2017 Budget, the Government is determined to “drive forward the UK as a world leader in location data, helping to grow the UK’s digital economy by an estimated £11 billion each year.”  The AGI welcomed this new initiative.

Of course, the devil is in the detail: not all of OS MasterMap will be given away for free.  The focus is on land and property, so it is property extents and topographic indentifiers (TOIDs) which form the basis of this announcement.  There is little doubt that a significant driver here is maximising the amount of land available for house-building.  Other datasets that will be made available for free up to a threshold of transactions through OS-managed APIs, effectively restricting free use to small businesses.  These components include Topography Layer (including building heights and functional sites); Greenspace Layer; Highways Network; Water Network Layer; and the Detailed Path Network.

In many ways the announcement is remarkable.  Reducing the cost of MasterMap was seen by many observers as the new Geospatial Data Commission’s most difficult task, yet the announcement comes almost before the Commission has been set-up and certainly before the Commissioners have been appointed.  It will change the way Ordnance Survey does business, taking away at least some of its main source of revenue and making it forever reliant on government funding.  The government has put aside £40 million per annum for the next two years to fill this gap; it remains to be seen how this will be funded in the longer term.  Given this seems to be a significant announcement at the start of the Geospatial Commission’s journey, there is a degree of excitement as to how this will develop over the coming years.  It comes down to economic benefit; if this benefit is proven and the UK economy is richer because of it, then there must be more to come.

Regardless, this development will provide an enormous boost for our students as they go out to work in a world where the costs of spatial data have dropped drastically, and gives genuine opportunities for them to create their own small businesses, based on free and open-source software and free data.  It also challenges those who have promoted the Open Street Map (OSM) project.  This crowd-sourced data generation project was undoubtedly one of the drivers which have led to the freeing-up of the OS MasterMap data, but its modus operandi in the UK is changed overnight.  The OSM project already had to adapt when the Labour Government under Gordon Brown decided in 2010 that OS should give away its small-scale data for the national good.  OSM adapted by increasing its scale to provide a free alternative to the more detailed data maintained by OS.  It will now have to adapt again and may become a niche product without a USP and never seen as definitive.



Its now OFFICIAL – no more Shetland in a box

Representing remarkable interference by government in freedom of expression, the Scotsman Newspaper reported today that the Islands (Scotland) Bill has been passed in the Scottish Parliament.  It passes complete with an amendment from Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, such that it is now officially illegal to put Shetland in a box!

Following the points made in my previous blog post on this issue, I have no doubt that this shows a complete lack of cartographic understanding and considerable disrespect to those living in Mainland Scotland, which is arbitrarily reduced in size by 40% following this decision.   We await with interest the first prosecutions….

Is Shetland a cartographic compromise too far?

MSP Tavish Scott intends to introduce an amendment to the Islands Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament, which would compel public bodies to “accurately and proportionately” depict Shetland in relation to the rest of the country.  He point out the the cartographic tendency to place the archipelago in a box somewhere off Scotland’s east coast is annoys island residents, as they feel like their home is an afterthought on maps. Great for inclusion, exactly what the Islands Bill intends to do one would think.

But what are the implications?  The Shetlands Times describes the placing of Shetland-in-a-box as a geographical error.  It is plainly not, it is a cartographic compromise. And there are always implications to a compromise.  To include the Northern Isles in their actual geographical location, separated from the mainland by almost 100 miles of water, would reduce the scale at which the country can be displayed by around 40%.



Paradoxically, not only does this mean that Shetland is displayed in much less detail, but also Scotland’s smaller Council Areas (eg Dundee) effectively disappear, reduced from any kind of area to an insignificant point, or major features such as the Firths of Tay and Forth lost under text-labels for Dundee and Edinburgh. We are left having to put the Central Belt in a zoom-box because of the loss of detail in areas where most people live, or having to use two sheets of paper rather than one for maps of Scotland.  Just as well we don’t live in Chile, that narrow but 2653-mile / 4270-km long country is almost impossible to viably display on a single sheet of paper.


The circumstance of Shetland-in-a-box (and indeed Orkney-in-a-box-too) is a feature of maps intended to display our entire country with a reasonable level of detail.  It is neither a feature of Ordnance Survey mapping, which divides Scotland into numerous sheets, nor of modern online maps such as produced by Google or Bing, where detail can be displayed dynamically depending on levels of zoom. Even the BBC weather map is zoomed and panned to display details, so can include all parts of the country.  But traditional maps are, and have always been, replete with cartographic compromises, whether it be omitting details unneccessary to what the map is trying to portray; projections which show Greenland as twice the size of Australia or diminish the importance of equatorial regions; or scale which displays the world’s mega-cities as insignificant dots rather than immense polygons or displaying streets as two or three times their actual width so they can be seen at all.  We may be uncomfortable with some of these choices, but the professionalism of the cartographer should ensure appropriate use.  Maps are by their nature gross simplifications of the real world.  Each individual map has a purpose and it is crucial that cartographers are not hampered by political correctness.  It is important that Tavish Scott raises this issue, and reminds us of the value of inclusivity in terms of some of our most topographically-stunning and economically important islands, but it is equally important that cartographers are not muzzled in the maps they produce.

(Map images from Google)

What’s in the Budget?

Budgets used to represent rather mundane and depressing announcements about indebtedness, tax rates and the price of beer.  It is a reflection of the importance of the GI industry, and its central role within the UK economy, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, today announced a Geospatial Data Commission:

And a new Geospatial Data Commission to develop a strategy for using the Government’s location data to support economic growth.

This would seem to be a followup (implementation?) of the Tory 2017 Manifesto commitment:

Digital land
And we will use digital technology to release massive value from our land that currently is simply not realised, introducing greater specialisation in the property development industry and far greater transparency for buyers. To make this happen, we will combine the relevant parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey to create a comprehensive geospatial data body within government, the largest repository of open land data in the world. This new body will set the standards to digitise the planning process and help create the most comprehensive digital map of Britain to date. In doing so, it will support a vibrant and innovative digital economy, ranging from innovative tools to help people and developers build to virtual mapping of Britain for use in video games and virtual reality.”

The big question everyone is asking is what does this mean in reality?  Big changes, or minor tweaking?  Is Ordnance Survey under threat?  Will more data be widely available?  Will it be free?  Or is government just intent on reducing its own costs?   “Developing strategy” inevitably means we are a long way off anything actually changing.

GIS Pot Luck

pot luck pie.jpgWednesday (8th Nov) saw our GIS students get together for a pot-luck dinner in Drummond Street.  Revealing hidden talents in the kitchen, the students brought along a range of dishes from around the world, including Pebre (a tomato, avocado and coriander salsa) from Chile and a chicken and cider pie from the Somerset, together with culinary creations from China and Korea!  To ensure there was no mistaking the purpose of the event, the pie had ‘GIS’ carved into its crust.
pot luck2

Forgotten pioneer’s Forth crossing dream realised after 200 years

Perspective_600It was to prove a bridge too far for engineers 200 years ago … but now a little-known Scot’s vision of a Forth crossing is set to become reality.

Plans drawn by engineer and surveyor James Anderson in 1818 – which look remarkably similar to the Queensferry Crossing that opens tomorrow (Wednesday) – have come to light in a University of Edinburgh archive.

Anderson’s proposal for a “Bridge of Chains proposed to be thrown over the Frith [sic] of Forth” was discovered by University geographer Bruce Gittings while researching his Gazetteer for Scotland – a project to record every settlement and landmark in Scotland.

The remarkable plans for a roadway linking North and South Queensferry were proposed 72 years before completion of the iconic Forth Bridge.

Perspective_pieceBoth Anderson’s design and the new Queensferry Crossing are suspension road bridges, with their supports extending as straight lines from the towers, in both cases resembling the sails of an immense yacht.

Edinburgh-born Anderson’s scheme has the roadway supported by chain cables, forged from iron bars, very similar to Thomas Telford’s bridge across the Menai Strait in North Wales.

Anderson, who was friendly with Telford, suggested that the success of Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge, begun in 1819, was a good reason that his own design should be built.

Anderson proudly suggested his bridge would “facilitate the communication between the southern and northern divisions of Scotland”. At the time, the cost was between £175,000 and £200,000, which would equate to around £840 million today.

James Anderson was born in the Old Town of Edinburgh, the son of a textile worker. He died at his home in the city in 1861 and is buried in Old Calton Burial Ground.

The Gazetteer for Scotland,, was the first description of Scotland to be published online in 1995 and remains the largest, with more than 25,000 entries. According to Gittings, maintaining this remarkable geographical, historical and educational resource is, as used to be said of painting the 1890 Forth Bridge, a never ending process.

Bruce Gittings, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “It is great to be able to add the Queensferry Crossing to the Gazetteer, and important to remember Anderson’s pioneering work.

“His design was beyond the engineering capabilities of the time, as evidenced by the collapse of the Tay Bridge in a storm in 1879 and of the Chain Pier at Trinity in Edinburgh – on which Anderson also worked – in 1898.”


A little bit of GIS History

An interesting bit of GIS history came to light from a photograph one of the former students brought along to the MSC87 reunion at the end of July, which has taken a little detective work to decode!


Tom Waugh (blue t-shirt), Richard Healey (red pullover), David Rhind (blue jacket) and Vanessa Lawrence (blue and purple dress), with students Lorraine Chu and Chris Nailer (lhs) and Melissa Phillips (rhs)

It shows the end-of-year student party in the old MSc Room (now completely changed as part of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation), and includes Richard Healey and the late Tom Waugh, who were the principal ‘movers’ behind the programme at that time, together with Professor David Rhind then of Birkbeck College, who was the External Examiner for the Edinburgh course, and a young Vanessa Lawrence, then Geography Publisher for Longman. All four were working together with Professor Terry Coppock (also of Edinburgh) planning the ‘Big Book’ of GIS, the first edition of which was published four years later in 1991.  First Rhind and later  Lawrence both went on to become Director General of the Ordnance Survey in the UK.

GIS 30-Year Reunion

The weekend of the 29th July saw a reunion of the GIS class of 1987. who stood for a photography on the steps at Drummond Street, adopting the same poses of a similar photography taken thirty years previously.


Chris Nailer (front), Jane D’Souza, Melissa Craig, Lorraine Chu, Karen Westwood, Alex Bell (middle) and Paul Dowie, Mike Adam, Stuart Gillies and Bruce Gittings.

Bruce Gittings hosted a visit to the Institute of Geography (still known by many as “the department”) and toured the group round familiar and less familiar aspects of the building.  Three of the group had been geography undergraduates prior to taking the GIS MSc, so had spent five years in the building. The Old Library, which is now our principal seminar room, was very much an active library at that time and our newly-refurbished coffee room was the site of the librarian’s office, along with rows of shelves holding journals.

We poured through photographs of the time Bruce was able to pull out the actual dissertations submitted in August 1987 and examples of coursework, together with the student ‘mugshots’ of the time, much to everyone’s embarrassment.


Melissa Craig and Jane D’Souza contemplate some dissertations

Over dinner, where the group was joined by former Programme Director and Founder Richard Healey, now Professor at the University of Portsmouth, it was fascinating to hear of the careers which had been followed in the intervening years, in consultancy, software development, government, where our students had made a real difference to the development of GIS.

Karen Westwood travelled back from Canada and Mike Adam returned from Germany, while Lorraine Chu flew in from Hong Kong.  Others attending were Alex Bell, Melissa Craig, Paul Dowie, Jane D’Souza, Stuart Gillies and Chris Nailer.