Edinburgh GIS team meets Deputy First Minister

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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.

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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.

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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.

Location, Location, Location

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 auber-map_3457218and 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.

Edinburgh Students visit Greenwich

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.gisruk 2016b

 

Edinburgh Costume wins ESRI competition

tempThis 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!

Kathryn Murphy
MSc in GIS

 

GIS students in the Field

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.

EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr. Joanne Nightingale : 16th Oct

What is National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and what sort of work do they undertake? We were fortunate enough to have Joanne Nightingale, Head of Earth Observation, give a fascinating seminar about what NPL does and projects she is involved with.

NPL is a world leading National Measurement Institute that aims to work towards the growing demand for high quality, robust measurements in all aspects in our lives. The uncertainty in measurement is important to consider because they want the most accurate measurement and as the saying goes “measure thrice, cut once.” As a centre for carbon measurement, they support climate change research and a low carbon emission future.

Joanne explains about the department she works in (EO, Climate and Optical Group) and how they strive to provide traceability for all EU earth observation data products for calibration and algorithms applications. This group is working on projects such as Fidelity and Uncertainty in Climate data records from Earth Observation (FIDUCEO) and FOREST (Fully Optimized and Reliable EmissionS Tool). Joanne’s group focuses with TREES (Traceability in tErrestrial vEgetation Sensors and biophysical products) to establish an essential climate variable “traceability through modelling, reference measurements and test-site characterizations.” Their current areas of interest are in fAPAR and Leaf Area Index.

Megumi Sasaki
(MSc in GIS at the University of Edinburgh)

Using Remote Sensing to Scan Egypt’s Pyramids

A Guest Post by Jenny Reilly (MSc in GIS)

The 21st century has come to archaeology and it’s here to stay. The Egyptian Minister of Antiquities has just announced that a technique called Cosmic Ray Radiography (among others) will be used to scan several of the pyramids. This technique was notably used to assess the damage at the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in Japan. Researchers will measure the energy and trajectory of Muons, a particle similar to an electron, which changes trajectory based on the density of what it hits. Researchers hope to make a 3D model of the interior of the pyramids, perhaps finding hidden rooms. This project will be carried out by Cairo University, Université Laval, and Nagoya University and will continue until the end of 2016.

The “Scan Pyramids” project is one of many that will help us to learn more about the ancient world around us. Work like this is imperative to the improvement of the field of archaeology. Up to, and including, the present, archaeology has been a destructive science. In an effort to save the artefacts of the past that we hold so dear, archaeologists must learn how to use and develop remote sensing techniques.

To learn more, visit:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/26/national/science-health/japanese-experts-join-team-looking-to-unlock-secrets-of-egyptian-pyramids/#.Vi6JIH7hC01

http://archaeology.org/news/3829-161026-red-pyramid-dahshur