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”
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
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.
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.
Organiser, EEO-AGI(S) Seminars
For 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.
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.
Taxi operator Uber is proving that its not just about location, but the best possible location, as they are reportedly investing $500 million to build a better mapping system. Following Apple’s hasty decision to ditch google’s mapping in 2012, Uber are intent on doing something similar, regarding Google’s product as being expensive, restrictive and of limited accuracy outside North America and Western Europe. This announcement by Uber is a logical extension of their acquisition of Microsoft’s data collection business in June last year. Last year too they ‘poached’ Brian McClendon Google’s former head of mapping to lead their mapping initiative. Uber are intending to use data captured by their own cars to help create the mapping. So what does this all mean? It does seem a bit daft to create yet another mapping product in addition to those produced by venerable national mapping agencies, Google, Microsoft, Navteq, TeleAtlas, Here, OpenStreetMap etc. etc., but owning the best data might be everything in a competitive world. Comparing the likes of Ordnance Survey’s data in the UK with Google shows there is much room for improvement in the ‘global’ products, but equally the copyright and cost of OS data continues to restrict its use in broader marketplaces. The bottom line is more data must be a good thing, it builds our industry and increases employment. Whether the Uber data is ever available outside that company, to whom, and at what cost, represent a number of unanswered questions.
Yesterday, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reached their deadline for releasing data under their OpenDefra project, which has made freely available around 8000 datasets since the launch of the project in June 2015.
Further details from mapgubbins
Fifteen of the Edinburgh GIS students were in Greenwich (London) between 29th March and the 1st April, along with staff members Bruce Gittings and William Mackaness for the annual GIS research UK (GISRUK) conference. The students enjoyed the mix of formal conference sessions, social events and the networking opportunity, together with the chance to see some of London. The student group are encouraged to attend the event through a conference grant, and a good time was had by all. Inspirational keynote lectures were given by Prof Ross Purves of the University of Zurich in Edinburgh (who had previously been a lecturer on the GIS programme in Edinburgh), Prof Nye Parry (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and Jeremy Morley Chief Geospatial Scientist at the Ordnance Survey (the UK National Mapping Agency). 35 other presentations were included in the conference.
This is the second year that Esri has run their Geoween contest on their Instagram page, esrigram. This year, the contest started with Esri posting suggestions for geographically themed Halloween costumes.
The Edinburgh GIS students enjoyed a Halloween party at their field trip in the Scottish Highlands. Amongst various amazing costumes, demonstrator Dave got into the Geoween spirit and dressed up with a quite-amazing drone hat. Dave built a hat which was a remarkable copy of one of our DJI Phantom UAVs . Posing him in front of a large map of Perthshire, I took his photo and posted it on my Instagram account in order to enter us into the contest. This was quickly reposted on the Esri account, and it has been liked by 140 people. We have since found out that Dave’s costume was one of the winners, and that Esri is shipping the two of us a set of Esri pint glasses!
MSc in GIS
On the 1st November, the Edinburgh GIS students are back from another successful outing to the Kindrogan Field Centre in Highland Perthshire. Seven groups of students undertook a range of projects overseen by staff members Bruce Gittings, Nick Hulton, Iain Woodhouse, William Mackaness, Alasdair MacArthur, Zhiqiang Feng and Owen Macdonald, together with postgraduate demonstrators Sarah Donoghue and David Cooper and field assistant Ivona Hubova, all members of the GIS and remote sensing team in the School of GeoSciences in Edinburgh.
The students are undertaking a range of projects from mapping using a diversity of UAV platforms, to hydro-power potential, analysing mobile phone signal strength, and marketing the remarkable local archaeology and geomorphology to tourists, all using GIS and remote sensing methods.