Missing Maps comes to Edinburgh University

The School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh was pleased to host a Missing Image1.jpgMaps event on Thursday 22nd June.  The Missing Maps project helps Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) and and other NGOs by creating maps of the most vulnerable communities, providing a vital resource for their on-the-ground staff as well as local people. 35 people came along to help, including students and GI professionals, with various local companies such as ThinkWhere and ESRI-UK particularly well represented.  Pizza was eaten and the event proved to be a great social occasion.

Each year, disasters around the world kill nearly 100,000 and affect or displace 200 million people. Many of the places where these disasters occur are literally ‘missing’ from any map and first responders lack the information to make valuable decisions regarding relief efforts. Missing Maps is an open, collaborative project in which individual volunteers can help to map areas where humanitarian organisations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.

Attendees created data which forms part of the global OpenStreetMap mapping project, guided by volunteer experts. Since 2014 Missing Maps users have contributed almost 32 million edits, involving the creation of 10,858,095 buildings outlines and 1,241,944 km of roads.  Future events are planned and will be posted here.


Edinburgh University announces new Professional Development Initiative

EDINA and the School of GeoSciences in the University of Edinburgh is launching a new geospatial continuous professional development programme, which builds on existing strengths in GIS training and education.  With a pedigree established through its internationally renowned GIS Masters programme (begun in 1985) and many years of offering CPD opportunities to government and industry, this new initiative kicks off with a one-day course on the popular OpenSource GIS software QGIS on 30th June 2017.  Many organisations are looking to complement their commercial GIS with QGIS to help drive down costs and unlock the extra functionality and time savings it can provide.   This initial course is designed for those who already have a good grounding in GIS but want to take the skills they have in a commercial GIS package and use them in the OpenSource software. Bruce Gittings, GIS Programmes Director in the School of GeoSciences, said “We are very pleased to be working with EDINA on this new initiative, which extends the university’s town-meets-gown mission”.  Tom Armitage of EDINA said “We are looking forward to this new collaboration, bringing together the geospatial strengths in different parts of Edinburgh University “. The School of GeoSciences already runs the successful EEO/AGI seminar programme, with a professional development mission, while EDINA is known for its online digital mapping services and associated training. Further details are here.

Edinburgh GIS Student takes prize in Story Maps competition

Image1Charlie Moriarty, currently undertaking the GIS MSc at the University of Edinburgh, has taken second prize in an international competition run by software vendors ESRI to showcase their storymaps feature.  Charlie’s storymap involves a virtual trip across the longest highway in his native Australia. The map highlights how long it would take to drive around the Australian coast compared to travelling through Europe and Asia, and Charlie’s project is illustrated with dynamic maps and photographs.

The storymap was prepared as an assessment within the Geovisualisation course and course leader William Mackaness commented “This is great news. I am delighted for Charlie”

Charlie’s storymap can be found here

Tories plans for GeoSpatial

Its not often that political manifestos get into the specifics of the GeoSpatial industry, but the British Conservative party seem to have decided there is political gain in terms of spatial data.  Under the heading “Digital Land”, they say:

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.

If this means making MasterMap data open or indeed just producing a larger-scale digital data set than is currently available, it will indeed  have a profound effect on our industry.  This suggestion has been bobbing around for a while, but it is perhaps surprising that it is the Tories who are putting it forward to the electorate, as it will undoubtedly devalue Ordnance Survey which otherwise could have been sold off.

The implications for Scotland are interesting.  The remit of Land Registry is restricted to England & Wales, so Registers of Scotland would have to be involved north of the Border. Registers are responsible to the Scottish Government, who would have to cooperate in a political initiative, which seems unlikely. In contrast, the Ordnance Survey operates across both jurisdictions, and some will undoubtedly call for that organisation to be split.

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Prof. Jonathan Silvertown: 28th Apr

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 Image1 ‘…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[1] 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[2].

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.'[3]. To the GIS enthusiast, clear parallels exist with this idea and that of individuals out mapping, using for example OpenStreetMap[4].

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[5]. 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[6] ‘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[7] 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 [8] 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].

[1] http://www.jonathansilvertown.com
[2] http://www.edinburghcityscope.org
[3] http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.017
[4] http://www.openstreetmap.org
[5] https://github.com/EdinburghCityScope
[6] http://jupyter.org
[7] http://doi.org/10.1038/545119a (Nature, 4th May 2017)
[8] http://www.researcherid.com/rid/G-3581-2011

Edinburgh Students travel to GISRUK

gisruklogo_gd A group of fourteen of the Edinburgh GIS Masters students travelled to the GIS Research UK conference with Programme Director Bruce Gittings and lecturer William Mackaness.  This trip has become an important feature of the Masters programme at Edinburgh, exposing students to the latest developments in geographical information science, and providing the first experience of an academic conference for many.  The conference featured introductory workshops followed by three parallel sessions of talks over three days. Bruce Gittings said “we feel that GISRUK is a great experience for our students, not only giving them a deeper understanding of current development but also planting the seed that perhaps they should be presenting their own dissertation research at the conference the following year”

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review :

The Edinburgh Earth Observatory (EEO) AGI-Scotland seminar series were delighted to host Stephen Cragg, transport planner for Transport Scotland on Friday the 31st of March, 2017. Stephen’s talk formed part of the seminar series’ ‘Future’ theme, in which GI professionals across a range of fields and disciplines examine the pervasive nature of technology, and the ways in which it is changing our world for the better (or for the worse).

The seminar was intriguingly entitled ‘Future Transport: I know where you were last night!”. Steven stated that the title was, in itself, a technique to garner curiosity from among the audience, and a question which he sought to answer in the concluding remarks of his talk.

Steven amusingly began his discussions on the premise that he knew his left from his right, but not necessarily his east from his west, setting the scene for a spatially-minded audience. He followed-up by outlining in turn, the range of high profile transport projects in which he has been involved in, including The Queensferry Crossing, the completion of the M74 south of Glasgow (near Auchenshuggle Bridge no less), Edinburgh-Glasgow rail improvements, and the dualling of the A9.

He noted that his involvement in such projects were at the earliest stages of development, the one who posed the question: ‘do we really need this? What is the business case?’ With such an emphasis on the business case, Stephen argued that he needed to understand who was going to use such large-scale transport projects, why would they use it, and crucially where were they going from and where were they going to?

With this context in mind, Steven turned his attention to how such information could be uncovered. He spoke of his frustrations with the transport-limited nature of the questions posed in the census, with the only gauge being the address of the participant’s workplace for which he/she travels to. He then turned his attention to the Scottish Household Survey through which participants were asked to provide a travel diary, but he noted its limitations in scope, with only 15,000 annual participants extrapolated to a population of over 5 million. He estimated that a discussion with a driver costs Transport Scotland around £10, and noted that there are around 4 billion personal journeys in Scotland annually, ultimately totally a rather expensive endeavour.

With such expense associated with traditional surveying, Steven then posed the question: “can I tap into a whole range of remote monitoring systems?” By remote monitoring systems, Steven was referring to Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), Bluetooth Detection (BD), and Mobile Phone Tracking (MPT).

Firstly, ANPR was discussed in relation to the collection of journey time data, their “raison d’etre”. Steven noted that while ANPR sensors were not installed for his purposes, he wondered could he tap into their data, and commandeer said data for his benefit. Secondly, BD installed by Transport Scotland, again for journey time data, could he tap into this data? Finally, MPT based on the context of your mobile phone knowing where it is, and by extension knowing where you are. Steven did not believe that your mobile phone could be used to track you to the finest level of detail, but instead within a larger ‘cell’ as governed by a mobile phone tower’s coverage.

Steven then turned his attention to the common challenges associated with accessing data for purposes beyond which it was originally collected for. Steven found it surprising that he was unable to simply access data from speed cameras as a transport planner for Transport Scotland, and noted that Home Office-style approval would be required for such access. In contrast, mobile phone data is becoming increasingly available in terms of the selling of ‘movement data’. Steven then sparked an interesting discussion with regards to the ways in which we can translate number plate data, speed data, and movement data, into people data, more personalised to the individual(s) concerned.

The inherent bias prevalent in such data was discussed in terms of those people who have access to modern technology and those that do not. For example, the data would be skewed to those people who own a modern smartphone, but how do we account for those people that do not?

Steven then asked “what does location actually mean?” Through that, he discussed issues of geographical scale, so how precise does the location have to be? Street-level data, neighbourhood data, city data, national data, and so on? This question becomes more acute when considering the urban-rural divide, and the issues of data coverage. This related to the disentanglement of data in the context of assessing a ‘stop’ in a journey from A to B. Was this ‘break’ in movement simply due to lack of adequate sensor coverage, or was it a genuine detour, and if so why, where, and for how long?

Steven then turned his attention to the ‘bread and butter’ of a transport planner, journey purpose. He argued that this was key due to the fact that the responses of travellers to the decisions and interventions taken by the likes of himself, depended upon the purpose of the journey they were making. He spoke of longitudinal monitoring as a means to determine journey purpose in which repeated journeys recorded via a smart device could provide indications of places of work, study, residence, and so on.

Drawing to a close, Steven considered issues related to privacy and the ethics of third-party data selling. He interestingly asked the audience if they regarded a car registration plate to be personal, private data, to which a mixed response was provided by the audience. The key issue of data linkage was Steven’s final point, with the collected data being aggregated with other data sources to construct a movement profile of the individual. For that reason, Steven argued that a car registration plate could indeed be considered personal, private data.

Steven ended his thought-provoking seminar arguing that while he doesn’t know where I was as an individual last night, he could know where we were as an audience last night on a larger, aggregate level.

Blair JH Bell
MSc. Geographical Information Science
The University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh GIS team meets Deputy First Minister


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.

Cut Off

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.