EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Prof. Alison Heppenstall, University of Leeds and Alan Turing Institute : 1st Mar

“Bringing the Social City to the Smart City”

For a joint EEO-AGI and Hutton Club Seminar Series, we welcomed Professor Alison Heppenstall, a Professor of GeoComputation at the University of Leeds and an ESRC-Turing fellow. Alison guided us through her new research into the methodology and implementation of big data in understanding human behaviour and its impacts, and how this can be used to create smarter, healthier cities.

By 2050, the UN predicts that 70% of the population will be living in urban areas. In Africa, cities are expanding faster than the infrastructure can be built. It is easy to see that cities will play a crucial role in our future. So, how can big data help? The goal of Alison’s research is to understand the impacts of human behaviour. Particularly, how behaviour changes spatially and temporally, and how it is affected by disruptions.

Our phones monitor our activity 24/7, and with the increased use of smartwatches, our steps, heart rate and location are routinely tracked – even our sleep. Combined with the strong computational power and ability to store huge amounts of data, we can now progress from an aggregate-level analysis to individual. By bringing cities and big data together, we can plan for a smarter, healthier future of our cities and people living in them. Piecing together the who, where and why can reveal the secrets of cities: pollution and crime hotspots, who is being exposed? Where are the popular economic hotspots? How can we develop active cities to encourage healthy citizens? We must look into social data for patterns and clusters across time and space. However, geographers are notorious for handing space-time badly…

Dynamic data assimilation is the process of adding real-time data to predictors and recalibrating to understand the potential decisions (and consequences) of humans. In this process, we can unearth patterns we would not usually see. However, due to the mass of data, we are new to manipulating it and using it to its full potential. But data wrangling from disciplines such as epidemiology can introduce new perspectives on human behaviour, and as we want to see behind the expected patterns (not people going to work at 9 am and returning at 5 pm), we need to think outside the box.

Straight-line flow maps and Bézier curves are all data visualisation techniques. The homogenisation of data can also allow us to identify patterns on national scales. A strong point throughout Alison’s seminar was the importance of good data visualisation, reinforced by the wide range of techniques presented to display her data. However, the bias presented by data visualisation, such as choosing what is or isn’t shown can significantly affect how patterns are found – but Alison says using a suite of data visualisation techniques can help avoid this. Other means of cluster-identification, such as K-means, DBSCAN and degree-node identify clusters or groups and popular routes for reaching places – but what if these groups are more spatially dependent than we realise? What is the spatial context?



Figure 1 Left: Straight-line flow map; right: Bézier curves of train travel.


Recent research of Alison’s from a Chinese city, Shenzhan, shows that people actively changed their behaviour when a new metro line was built, as two new clusters formed. Can we use big data to predict short-term changes in behaviour to disruptions – such as, how will Londoners change their behaviour with the new Elizabeth line?



Figure 2 (a) before the metro station was built;
(b) after the metro station was built with two new clusters.


A glaring issue, nonetheless, is present: ethics. The UK has strict safeguarding of our data, and there are several training courses required before you can have access. But is anonymity of data enough? Monitoring where people go, their race or gender and other “anonymous” characteristics other than name or address are still hugely revealing. This raises the question of who can have access to this data, and how much should they be allowed to do with it?

Despite this, machine learning combined with big data gives a unique opportunity to adapt and manipulate social data to reveal unknown patterns in human behaviour on a spatial and temporal scale. With the aim of building better agent-based models, we can add parameters or rules derived from machine learning analyses to provide solutions to help our cities become smarter.

Harriet Branson, MSc Geographical Information Science

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Elliot Hartley, Garsdale Design : 1st Feb

“Geodesign and Smarter Planning” – Elliot Hartley (Garsdale Design)

For a joint EEO-AGI and Hutton Club Seminar series we welcomed Elliot Hartley the Managing Director of Garsdale Design, an expert in 3D urban modelling and geodesign, to guide us through his personal journey and experiences in the need for implementation of geodesign for smarter planning.

Elliot Hartley eloquently set the scene  the scene, “humans are in a pickle”. According to recent UN reports, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. As urbanisation continues, sustainable development necessitates how do we successfully plan urban growth to ensure the benefits of urbanisation are fully shared and inclusive for all? The possible solution? Geodesign.

Geodesign utilises the geovisualisation and geoanalytical aspects of GIS and combines it with planning and design practices to  create design proposals set within a geographic context. At the foundation of geodesign is an iterative workflow that uses stakeholder input and collaboration, spatial modelling and analysis, and model simulations within a geographical context. This enables a comprehensive final design and is a useful tool for enabling effective decision making. Elliot Hartley describes it as, “ A holistic approach to the design process that includes responsive & iterative, analysis in real-time”.  This is a powerful tool that can evaluate the performance of a series of different designs to find the most optimal outcome (profit, environmental impact, social impact, etc.)  by evaluating and compromising with all stakeholders. This is due to its unique ability to  provide more informed design decisions based on geographic visualisation represented in a 3D model.

However, there are obstacles to adopting this holistic approach. Elliot Hartley outlined that most professionals at all stages of a typical design process, from the city surveyors to architects, are “trapped within their professional cell”. For example, architects and urban planners whilst understanding that it is vital to undertake research and incorporate geographic context  in their designs, still  do not typically use GIS. This is likely due to the number of GIS programmes and platforms to attempt to learn. Which are often not compatible with one another, making things appear overly complex and time consuming. Or vice-versa, with GIS users not understanding the design process.

The solution Elliot believes is a future that requires greater collaboration  between different organisations and listening to the needs across departments to erode the effects of this “professional cell” and promote learning from others. Only when we “Stop. Collaborate, and listen” will we find solutions that benefit greater society. This was demonstrated with Elliot’s playful nature from which he realised that using the pre-existing Unreal Engine, a suite of tools designed specifically for game developers to design and build games, could be incorporated into the geodesign workflow. Learning and utilising these pre-existing tools and incorporating the Unreal Engine into the workflow enabled the easier production of visually pleasing and accurate 3D models. It is this collaborative and playful practice that Elliot Hartley promotes that not only can be applied to the context of geodesign but any professional practice. Helping to find the solutions to societies  greatest challenges.

“We have the data and we have the methodology, lets begin to do things properly. “ – Elliot Hartley.

Jozef Rusin, MSc Earth Observation and Geoinformation Management

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Layla Gordon, OS Labs : 18th Jan

This week we were honoured to welcome Layla Gordon, computer scientist and lead of the Ordnance Survey future development team. She focused her talk on the topics of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) here summarized with the term of Geo Immersive Reality (GIR). In recent years, GIR has risen as an important topic for futuristic developments of soft- and hardware. Through strong processing power in standard mobile devices combined with modern location techniques, apps have been designed which enable the user an overlay of web-based information on their reality. The reality has become a mixed reality. Such overlay could be used in multiple scenarios. Layla presented several OS applications, which allowed for instance the overlay of underground pipes on a road, relating to the particular position of the user, or indoor story telling in historical buildings through triangulation via Bluetooth beacons. This use-case could also be helpful for fast orientation in large buildings, like hospitals. According to a survey presented by the speaker, a major amount of hospital staff could benefit from such navigation systems as they are often part-time employees or ‘on loan’ from other hospitals and therefore not familiar with the local geography. In such circumstances, an indoor-navigation application could be a life-saver. Furthermore, Layla showed further developments in combination with holo-lenses, which would allow the use of AR in our daily life. For now, holo-lenses are still too expensive and massive and are therefore not ready for the mass market, but future developments could enable a massive presence of Holograms for multiple purposes. Booking an uber car by clicking on it while it drives by or standing literally in the model of a complex building which has been planned are just a few examples for the immense possibilities of this technology. Education could benefit massively as well from virtual reality, as students could be prompted into an artificial environment with which they could interact and learn. This has been done already by the Ordnance Survey receiving great feedback from their students as Layla showed. Summarizing, this week’s talk was a delightful journey to future technologies, raising the curiosity of the auditorium towards endless possibilities and leaving us all with many questions and thoughts to think about.

Maximilian Bakenhus
MSc Geographical Information Science


EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr. Graeme Buchanan, RSPB Scotland : 7th Dec

‘Remote Sensing for Conservation’ – Dr Graeme Buchanan (RSPB Scotland)

The longevity of many species that inhabit our world is under threat from anthropogenic effects, such as habitat destruction. To find solutions and help those who are vulnerable, it is essential that we precisely monitor these effects. Remote sensing has proved useful for various applications, and its popularity as a tool to aid conservation action has been ever increasing since the first paper on remote sensing for ecology in 1969. In fact, remote sensing can help fill a gap in conservation monitoring and decrease time needed to monitor, as it was previously carried out on foot.

For a special Christmas event the EEO-AGI and Hutton Club seminar series joined together to introduce Dr Graeme Buchanan from RSPB Scotland who discussed how remote sensing can be used in conservation. He explored this notion with case studies from his new book “Satellite Remote Sensing for Conservation Action: Case Studies from Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems”.

Satellite Remote Sensing for Conservation of East Asia’s Coastal Wetlands

East Asia’s coastal wetlands are areas of great habitat importance for passive waders, such as the spoonbill sandpiper. This species’ population has declined massively over the past few years due to loss of habitat from agriculture and urbanisation. Using Landsat data from the 1990s onwards, a map of mudflats and mudflat loss was produced, which went on to influence conservation action. The tool developed to create these maps will be useful for other study areas.

Lessons Learned from WhaleWatch – Predictions of Whale Migration

High levels of whale mortality are caused from entanglement in fishing kit or collisions with ships. WhaleWatch was developed in order to allow ships to monitor where whales are to reduce the possibility of collisions. ARGOS satellite tag data was used to locate and model krill (the main food source for whales) locations, which would indicate where whales are. The data of whale positions was put online using a user-friendly interface and has subsequently reduced whale collision rates.

Wildfire monitoring with Satellite Remote Sensing to Support Conservation

Fire dependent and fire sensitive ecosystems are found over large areas of Africa, such as in Tanzania and Niger. Data from MODIS was used to investigate what areas were being burned and when. Investment into infrastructure (satellites for Internet access) was required to ensure the data from this study could be made available for those in the affected areas.

Dr Graeme Buchanan rounded off his case studies by exploring common themes and lessons learned from these examples and others in his book. He expressed that collaboration of all stakeholders is key and the importance of data remaining free and accessible for conservation. He explained how better temporal resolution may be favoured over a high spatial resolution for conservation action. The usefulness of remote sensing to aid in conservation monitoring and management is clearly evident, although the ground data to calibrate earth observation data is still a necessity. Remote sensing provides a valuable method for monitoring habitat loss, animal migration and wildfires, among many other conservation applications.

“Satellite Remote Sensing for Conservation Action: Case Studies from Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems” edited by Allison K. Leidner and Graeme M. Buchanan is available now.

Kirsty Hulme, MSc Geographical Information Science

[Next talk – Fri 18th Jan 2019 with Layla Gordon, Research and Innovation Scientist, OSGB/OSLabs – ]

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : David Rush and Lesley Gibson, University of Edinburgh : 12th Oct

Remote sensing detection of fires in informal settlements – IRIS-Fire (Improving the Resilience of Informal Settlements against Fire) – Dr David Rush and Dr Lesley Gibson

Remote sensing applications are continually broadening – primarily through improvement of spatial and temporal resolution of satellite data. IRIS-Fire is an interdisciplinary research project, for which remote sensing techniques are pivotal. The project aims to improve the resilience of informal settlements to fire, carried out by an international team based at The University of Edinburgh and Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Dr David Rush, a project engineer and Dr Lesley Gibson, a remote sensing expert delivered an insight into the research the IRIS-Fire project is undertaking.

Informal settlements are growing around the world with the trend of urbanisation. These settlements are densely packed and haphazardly constructed – with narrow pathways between buildings, chaotic electric cables and highly flammable construction materials. These factors make informal settlements extremely vulnerable to fire. IRIS-Fire is currently focused in the City of Cape Town, where 18-33% of the population resides in informal households. The city experiences at least 1 informal settlement fire per day. The Imizamo Yethu fire in 2017 is an extreme example, where the dwellings of 10,000 people were destroyed.

To improve the resilience of informal settlements to fires, the project is attempting to understand the conditions under which fires occur. Dr Lesley Gibson introduced us to the integral use of remote sensing in the identification of fire events in informal settlements. IRIS-Fire aims to produce a monitoring and analysis framework using satellite data. The purpose of this is to detect fire events, subsequently higher resolution imagery can be used to observe the settlement structure before the fire occurred. A Google Earth time series detects the burnt regions by identifying the change in the optical reflectance signal from the ground surface. Optical sensors are currently the focus of the IRIS-Fire project, particularly SPOT and Sentinel-2 blue band, which have a 10m resolution. Synthetic Aperture Radar methods are also being taken into consideration.

In Cape Town, IRIS-fire has found limited detectable spectral change associated with the burning itself. The rebuilding process, however, has a distinct optical spectral character, as a result of the emergency rebuild kits (the metal roofs of these rebuild kits are extremely shiny) provided by the city of Cape Town to households affected by a fire. This increase in reflectance of the shiny roofs is detectable by satellite. Dr Lesley Gibson informed us of the success in detecting regions exposed to fires by this change in optical spectral reflectance. Research is still underway to reduce the influence of noise and false positives, exploring options such as ratio approaches and spatial autocorrelation.

Dr David Rush introduced us to the research taking place to improve understanding of the computational fluid dynamics of fire, both inside individual buildings and across settlements structures. This includes collecting samples from dwellings to understand their flammability and fuel load and surveys on fire history. Experiments are taking place, in which model settlements are being set alight to consider how settlement structures, such as Euclidian distances influence fire risk and the impact of fuel load, size and ventilation. The experiments are being carried out to develop a mapping algorithm to identify critical at-risk areas within informal settlements.

This seminar was a great insight into this innovative interdisciplinary project. Coalescing the knowledge of engineers, social scientists, fire safety scientists and remote sensing specialists, to improve the resilience of informal settlements against fires. The remote sensing portion provides a method for identifying settlements impacted by the fire, allowing for a time series to assess the structure pre-fire. The modelling of fire dynamics by the project engineers is attempting to produce a mitigation/prevention strategy to improve the resilience of the settlements to fire. While still in the research phases, IRIS-Fire is progressing towards producing a generic risk-mapping framework and best practice resilience-based technical guidelines to improve the fire resilience informal settlements. This will be initially applied to the Western Cape with potential to be extrapolated to wider regions with informal settlements.

Sarah Cheesbrough, MSc Earth Observation and Geoinformation Management










EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Leif Isaksen, University of Exeter : 25th May

Over the last years, Archaeologists have identified the importance of sharing the information given the complexity and the amount of our data. The development of web and geospatial technologies has enhanced the capability to publish our information[1]. This does not only imply more original ways of presenting the results from our studies to the public[2]; it also enables archaeologists to work collaboratively through powerful online.

This has been the aim of Leif Isaksen, the speaker of the seminar on the 25th May, who is a professor in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter and is Project Director of the Pelagios Commons. Leif defines himself as being interested in community exchange. This concern has determined his career towards the unification of his particular interests on the online visualisation and linking of spatial ancient data and his research ambits: Ptolemy’s Geography, the Tabula Peutingeriana and the geographic thought and representation in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Currently he is also an active member of the excavation team in the hilltop enclosure on Cluny Hill in Forres, Moray.

Leif’s talk revolved around the Pelagios Commons project and its focus on linked open geodata in the past-oriented humanities. The ambition of the project is to use the web as a medium for promoting the connection and exchange of online historical resources through the places they refer to amongst its community of users. He also emphasized the fact that its applications are not only restricted to Archaeology or History, as other fields such as poetry and literature also make use of it.

In order to introduce the background of the project, Leif used Herodotus’ Histories as an example and what he called the “semantic miracle”, regarding the identification of places referred in the text. Once this happens, it is necessary to apply the connecting principle to link the words to their location: annotate each string of characters with unique URLs linking to a gazetteer such as Pleiades. However, in this growing digital ecosystem of linked data, a huge variety of resources is available. However, Pelagios as a connecting infrastructure aims to become the toolset that puts all websites and documents about the study place according to the same structure.

Continuing with the same work by Herodotus, the audience was introduced Pelagios Commons’ website as first-time users: automatic identification of location names, color-coding, tagging and the eventual map visualisation. During this explanation, as an archaeologist, the first thing that comes to mind are all the sites whose location remains unknown or uncertain. This is resolved by providing a list of the sources referring to the name, which the user can use to decide if a location has to be assigned. Moreover, the user must confirm if the automatic identifications have been made correctly and can do any modification before the map is created.

Speaking in front of an audience full of GIS students, Leif was clear to note that one of the key points was that all identified places are available as a CSV file for further spatial analysis. Pursuing his interests, he also pointed out Pelagios’ capability to transcribe and annotate on old maps, a feature that has recently been improved so as to display other elements on it. The tools on the website seem to be countless. It is also possible to create emergent networks that connect text annotations together, in which you can apply network analysis. Furthermore, users can collaborate on the same document according to different levels of permissions.

Finally, Leif introduced the latest development of Pelagios Commons project: Peripleo. The website provides the user with a map and a search box. After supplying a word, the map displays the locations associated to the word, which you can click to see more information, and a histogram showing its usage over time. All these features seem exciting and tremendously useful when you want to check quickly the sources and the location of specific elements. As Leif joked, it is a good alternative to Google for historical elements.

After all the technical explanations, Leif addressed the growing scope of the project and engaged us to attend the Linked Pasts IV meeting on December 12-13 in Mainz, Germany. It is exciting to hear how projects like this are trying to engage professionals from all over the world through working groups and development grants. Hopefully this is just the start of the linked open data in humanities!

Guillem Domingo Ribas

(MSc in GIS & Archaeology)


EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Jamie Pearce, University of Edinburgh : 27th Apr

Complexity and uncertainty in geography of health research: incorporating a ‘life course of place’ perspective – Jamie Pearce

As geographic information specialists we are quite good at considering the implications of space, however the issue of time is somewhat neglected. This was at the centre of the seminar delivered by Professor Jamie Pearce who demonstrated the research benefits of a longitudinal perspective to place, space and health.

Jamie Pearce is a professor of health geography at the University of Edinburgh and is part of the CRESH research group. His work considers social, political and environmental processes affecting social and spatial inequalities in health. His primary argument in this seminar was that these processes are inextricably linked and that local particularites matter in understanding health over time. Life course theory looks at the critical periods of development that contribute to healthy ageing in utero, through childhood into adulthood and older age. It considers the various lifestyle factors and socio-economic factors that can have an impact on health and wellbeing.

Professor Pearce highlighted green space as an environmental factor that has been shown to have a widespread impact on health outcomes in Scotland. This was exemplified through research undertaken by the CRESH team. They have utilised the Lothian Birth Cohort, born in 1936, and surveyed some of those participants over the last decade to investigate the impact of place on public health over time. These results of these surveys have been combined with historical data – including digitising historical maps and boundaries – to understand the environmental factors.

Key findings included that access to green space had a positive impact on both mental health outcomes and also on cognitive ageing. Much of these benefits seem to be derived from childhood experiences and that accumulation of green space throughout life was also significant. It was also found that there was a correlation between high levels of anxiety and the most socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

These findings were said to show how the life course of a place can contribute to deeper understanding. It can help establish critical periods and causal relationships over time. It can also demonstrate the role of place in establishing and perpetuating inequalities, showing how historical processes can impact on human lives and who may end up trapped in areas with environmental disadvantages.

Some key limitations were emphasised, both methodological and conceptual. Dealing with time is a well recognised problem for geospatial studies. Often we have to deal with snapshots of places over time which can miss the more subtle and ever evolving nature of places, a challenge that must be faced in CRESH’s research. There are also challenges in dealing with the changing of administrative boundaries of time which can make analysis and the extrapolation of meaning increasingly difficult.

Jamie concluded this fascinating talk by illustrating some opportunities for further study – including aiming to look at a wider set of environmental characteristics and to scale this type of study nationally. The seminar showed that life course theory can have a significant impact on our understanding of space by focussing on the role of time, and of environmental factors at the various stages in life. This can help to offer evidence that can shape key policy decisions in child health, cognitive ageing and environmental inequalities.

Sophie McCallum, MSc in Geographical Information Science

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Julie Procter, Greenspace Scotland : 16th Feb

[NB March seminar rescheduled for May (25th); *Next talk*: Fri 27th Apr]

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review: Julie Procter, Greenspace Scotland: 16 February

Friday 16 Feb 2018

For the February edition of the EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar in Edinburgh, we welcomed Julie Procter to the Geography building and were rewarded with an engaging foray into the new OS Greenspace map products and their many applications. Julie is the Chief Executive of Greenspace Scotland, which she has led since it was established in 2002. Though she was hasty to mention to the assembled crowd of geospatial scientists that she was personally no tech expert, her talk provided a refreshing change of perspective as an exploration of the history of the Greenspace Map’s development and the new possibilities afforded by its newest iteration. The title: “Using OS greenspace to transform urban places into people places.”

Julie began by describing the challenges and successes of the original Greenspace map of Scotland, released in 2011. The public benefits of accessible greenspace are directly related to many objectives of the Scottish Government, so there was great interest in developing a resource to manage and display this data, but at the time there was no unified repository for greenspace data. The first release of the Greenspace map solved this issue, but the team quickly realized that keeping it up to date was going to be a monstrous task; this realization led to their partnership with the Ordnance Survey. The OS Open Greenspace map now updates every 6 months, and the OS MasterMap Greenspace Layer for public sector and academic use also includes more categories such as woodlands and private gardens.

After this tour of the history of the greenspace products, Julie decided to give the audience a bit of homework. Distributing post-it notes, she asked us to write down some of our ideas about how we might use the greenspace data while she went on to describe how it’s been used recently by a number of organisations. From local council land use strategies to greenspace network development on regional scales, the public sector has been an important and innovative user thus far of the greenspace data.

As a final theme, Julie covered some big news from the very recently published Third State of Scotland’s Greenspace Report. The new MasterMap Greenspace Layer enabled the production of some eye-opening statistics and figures about the urban greenspace in Scotland. For example, the area of urban greenspace in Scotland is equal to 22 Loch Lomonds, or 1593 square kilometres – enough for one green tennis court per person (of course, it is not currently the plan to convert all of Scotland’s greenspace into tennis courts). These figures are exciting, but Julie reminded us that many of the public benefits of greenspace depend on the quality of that space and whether it is used, and assessing that quality is the next big step for the Ordnance Survey, Scottish Greenspace, and the Scottish Government.

We diligent members of the audience did not forget that we had homework, and nor did Julie. She opened a discussion to follow up on the group’s ideas on potential uses for the greenspace data, which had the excellent benefit of seamlessly transitioning to a question and answer session. Audience engagement was high, particularly as the MSc students had previously used the OS Open Greenspace data for a project and were keen to ask clarifying questions and to share their experiences with the dataset.

Luckily for members of AGI Scotland who did not attend the Edinburgh seminar, Julie also spoke at the organisation’s annual meeting on 27 February, contributing to the theme of GI Applications. It will be exciting to watch for new research and, hopefully, new strides ahead for Scotland’s greenspace that will be enabled by this important resource.

Taylor Willow

(MSc Geographical Information Science at University of Edinburgh)

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : David Henderson, Ordnance Survey : 26th Jan


Friday 26th Jan 2018

David Henderson
Managing Director, Ordnance Survey Great Britain

The day after Burns Night, David Henderson (Managing Director of OSGB) came to deliver a talk billed as ‘Beyond GB and Geo: National Mapping in Transformation’, kick-starting the 2018 contributions to the EEO-AGI(S) seminar series. With our speaker extolling the virtues of Scotland’s ‘other’ national drink – incidentally available on the night in our Old Library venue at the University of Edinburgh – we took our seats for a wide-ranging overview of the role of the OS in the rapidly changing geospatial industry both nationally and, increasingly, internationally.

Paying loose homage to the famous “The economy, stupid” phrase coined during the successful 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, we were introduced to the reality that, increasingly, now “it’s digital, stupid”. Another key tenet of the Clinton campaign – that a failure to embrace change was not an option – seems to reflect the current reality in the geospatial industry.

To aptly demonstrate this, we were shown the front cover of an edition of The Economist (May 2017, pictured) showing modern day tech giants sitting atop oil rigs. David took issue with the message inside that the “…world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data” due to the conflation of a finite commodity with another – data – that we seek to invest in, curate, maintain and (crucially) re-use.

Notwithstanding this misgiving, we were left in no doubt that now we need to ‘think digitally’. The concept of the ‘Digital Twin’ – rather than ‘mapping’ or ‘geospatial technologies’ – reflects the new reality. And therein lies a dichotomy: the geospatial industry has to simultaneously service current demands while keeping abreast of rapid technological developments and the opportunities arising from them.

The axiomatic ‘Everything happens somewhere’ likely needs no introduction to the GIS enthusiast but remains as valid as ever. The OS has, David argued, spent 225 years ‘trying to simplify the natural complexity of the real world’ – traditionally into map form and – increasingly – into data form. Now, a real paradigm shift is taking place with the tantalising prospect of vastly enhanced capabilities to abstract and model the real world (inside and outside) in near real-time. Encouragingly, now we should think more of outcomes (what can we ask of the data?) rather than outputs (the means of delivering the data) given the ‘data-as-a-platform’ capabilities that now exist. Key outputs from this include so-called Smart Cities, with mention made of Singapore as a city with a highly developed digital infrastructure.

The phrase ‘Digital Twin’ popped up frequently during the talk. So, what is a Digital Twin? And how does this relate to agencies such as the OS tailoring their offerings in a rapidly evolving world? Digital Twins are assets such as devices or buildings that exist both physically and digitally, the concept being that the assets and their operation and maintenance (e.g. planning builds, isolating faults, doing repairs…) are best understood and managed when the assets exist in this twin form. This is inextricably linked to the overarching ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) phenomenon, where ubiquitous sensors provide frequent updates on, for example, current environmental conditions associated with individual assets. The OS, David argued, is adapting to this rapidly evolving world with its innovation agenda (e.g. OS OpenData and OpenSpace APIs) being made available to developers.

Geospatial data are being exploited nationally and internationally, and the OS has reached out in collaborations worldwide with other agencies to mutual benefit. Governments have their own drivers (economic, environmental, social) with these affecting the focus on certain areas (e.g. issues of land tenure dominating in many developing countries).

In the domestic sphere, the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in November 2017 the creation of a new Geospatial Commission [1]. Although David jokingly commented that this was possibly the first time the word ‘geospatial’ had been used by a minister in the House of Commons, it is clear the OS sees opportunities in the Government’s stated aim of exploiting its location data – held by various agencies such as the HM Land Registry – to support economic growth.

Internationally, in his role as UK lead in the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM)[2], David described ongoing collaborative efforts to effectively use geospatial data on national to global scales. Also at the UN level, the Sustainable Development Goals have geospatial at their core; asking for example where the most disadvantaged communities are located is fundamental to taking action.

David mentioned two domestic developments in the OS of particular interest. The first was the OS embracing earth observation (EO) technologies. The new reality is that EO is proving very useful in supervised classification for improved thematic mapping. The OS is well-placed to reference change data derived from EO satellite data to its existing high quality real-world data, especially for documenting change (e.g. in land use).

A further example was OS input into the rollout of 5G technologies, notably in the context of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). We learned that the propagation of high-frequency signals in 5G is highly sensitive to lines-of-sight. Consequently, a whole host of features of urban micro-geography – ranging from the presence of reflective surfaces to the presence of trees – can affect service quality. Again, with its existing detailed real-world urban mapping the OS hopes to assist in the provision of live data feeds to make the safe use of CAVs a possibility.

David concluded by making mention of the OS and HM Land Registry role in the Geovation Programme [3] (recently crowned Geospatial Hub of the Year) [4] and its pivotal role in assisting tech startups to exploit location and/or property data. The argument was made that the geospatial industry has a key role to play in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, a call echoed elsewhere by other influential players in the geospatial industry such as Google [5].


Dr. Jonathan Henderson [6] works for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Geographical Information Science in 2016, and is not related to the guest speaker!




EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Ed Parsons, Google : 1st Dec

Friday 1st December saw a very healthy turnout for the last EEO-AGI seminar of 2017, given by the engaging and convivial Ed Parsons, Google’s Geospatial Technologist and self-professed geographer-in-residence. Having moved from GIS Applications Manager at Autodesk, to Chief Technology Officer for Ordnance Survey, and acting as Executive Fellow at University of Aberdeen and Visiting Professor at UCL, Ed’s career has carved a path in geospatial data management and visualisation. In his current role, he now seeks to evangelise Google’s efforts to improve the world using geospatial data. As he sees it, Google may seem like a giant frightening techno-monster; but Ed is here to act as the friendly geographer conduit.

Ed’s enjoyable talk focused on his near and distant predictions for the future of technology and the use of spatial data. 56% of all mobile Google searches are for local information, and with Google Maps now serving 1 billion users, an incredible portion of the world’s population is involving spatial information in its daily life.  Suddenly the giant techno-monster analogy didn’t seem so far off…

As Ed joked, ‘only idiots do lectures about the future’, but he made a decent effort in presenting megatrends we can no longer ignore. We are coming into a world of urban living, where residents are comfortable with technology and businesses increasingly make successful use of ‘big data’, APIs and web services. Ambient location is now becoming a natural part of life, with the introduction of Google Maps app for iOS in 2007 helping maps transition from static information to dynamic tools for daily tasks. Maps now operate as egocentric, placing the user at the centre of the data. With such capabilities as travel notifications as you walk into a train or bus station, digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, and lights and thermostats that turn on when you reach the vicinity of your house, ‘science fiction technology’ and the use of locational data is becoming part of ordinary life. Indeed, Ed used a quote from Mark Weiser, chief scientist at Xeroc PARC to portray that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” The question of data privacy was raised, and countered with the reassurance that at the heart of ambient location is the freedom to withhold your information. It is very rare nowadays to get lost with locational data at our fingertips, but we must be offered the choice to get lost if we want to.

Voyaging into the world of virtual reality, Ed acknowledged the criticism and the lack of uptake of the Google Glass headwear but highlighted the potential applications and advantages of 3D modelling and user-friendly augmented reality software. The hardware still experiences limitations in true 3D movement, but with the use of SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) software, photogrammetry techniques are helping to fill in the blanks of indoor mapping and movement in virtual space using just handheld processing power.

Ed next presented a playful analogy of technology over the last three decades as headgear: the hardhats of 1995-2005 (focused on defence, engineering and inexpensive solutions), the fedora and sunglasses of 2005-2015 (mocking hipsters creating a stylish, entertaining and mobile internet) and the robot head of the present (depicting the development of artificial intelligence). Earth Engine, Google’s cloud-based platform for remote sensing image analysis, now offers a fast, free, up-to-date solution to traditionally slow and clunky remote sensing programs. With over 5 petabytes of data available, Ed gave a demo of the platform’s impressive ability to remove clouds from aerial imagery over the UK on-the-fly. As is the way with live demos, a minor snag required Ed to re-log in to his Google account and then perform two-factor authentication, spawning laughter but allowing him to declare the usefulness of this security measure: “I could have been a malicious person trying to steal Ed’s details!”

The tech evangelist finished with some examples of machine learning, with feature recognition in driverless cars, computer-controlled drone racing, landmark recognition from frequent congregations of people sharing their location (“no human was used in the making of this map”), and Global Fishing Watch taking 10TB of ship tracking data and aerial images to identify illegal fishing hotspots. Ed finally thanked everyone who has ever filled in a CAPTCHA, explaining Google’s improvements of street sign and business name photo-recognition by using the training dataset of millions of CAPTCHA answers entered by unwitting humans. Overall, the seminar proved an enjoyable tour of Google and others’ offerings to the progression of geospatial data usage, and where we may see ourselves (and additionally the pitfalls, legalities, and questions of morality we must be aware of) in stepping into a future of machine-and-human harmony.

Freya Muir

(MSc in Geographical Information Science at University of Edinburgh)