Category Archives: Development

2017 ESRI User Conference and The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data

I had the amazing opportunity recently to attend the 2017 ESRI User Conference in San Diego, California. The ESRI ‘UC’ as it’s known is an annual event that showcases what’s new and hot in the ESRI GIS world, and provides a chance for over 16,000 GIS and map nerds to get together, learn from each other, and generally celebrate everything geospatial.

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What’s your super power?

I was attending the UC with the support of the ESRI Canada Centres of Excellence program (of which UW is a participant), and to present a co-authored work for a special issue of Transactions in GIS. The paper I presented, co-authored with Renee Sieber, Teressa Scassa, Monica Stephens, and Pamela Robinson, is titled ‘The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data”, and is available open access from the publisher site. The SSHRC Partnership Grant Geothink.ca has a lovely writeup of the paper and some thoughts of mine about our motivations for writing it. I had some supportive and thought-provoking comments during and after the presentation as part of the Frontiers in GIScience session organized by Dr. Michael Gould from ESRI.

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Dark conference room, but sunny outside

I also had the chance to take part in many of the UC events, including the vendor expo, map gallery, Canada night social and other events. One thing I couldn’t help noticing was the shout-out to Roger Tomlinson, the ‘father of GIS’, on this display of the ESRI press 20th anniversary. I had the pleasure a number of years ago to meet Dr. Tomlinson at a reception after his awarding of an honorary degree at McGill, and the naming of Dr. Renee Sieber’s research lab in his honour.

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Roger Tomlinson on ESRI Press 20th anniversary display

Lastly, no trip to California would be complete without some delicious fish tacos beside the water. Here was one particularly notable dinner at the Carnitas Snack Shack on the San Diego harbourfront. Great tacos and great Alpine Duet IPA. And yes, that 99/100 rating on Ratebeer.com is well-earned!

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A Comparison of Traditional and Experiential Approaches to First-Year Geomatics Instruction

I’m currently leading a research project that looks to compare two first-year Geomatics courses (GEOG 181 and the new GEOG 187). Having instructed the prior version of GEOG 181, and now designing and instructing GEOG 187, I’m trying to understand what the impact is of ‘experiential’ teaching methods on student engagement with traditionally tricky concepts, called ‘threshold concepts’. In particular, I’m interested in how students engage with the fundamental geographic concept of ‘scale’. When I talk about scale, I mean how different objects can be represented differently at various scales (local to global), and how geographers and cartographers manipulate and change how objects are visualized to communication information. This work is supported by the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence LITE (Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement) Full Grant. You can read a nice writeup of the project. This research is currently underway, with data collection from two first year classes complete, and basic analysis commencing soon. I’m hoping to have some general summaries completed by next semester and look forwards to sharing the results with the broader UW community of teaching practice. In the meantime, here are a few photos of GEOG 187 and their ‘experiential’ data collection this past fall.

Grant getting the weather balloon ready to launch (with attached camera to collect budget airphotos).
Grant getting the weather balloon ready to launch (with attached camera to collect budget airphotos).
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View from balloon – note the string tethering the balloon.
Aerial view of a small portion of UW campus.
Aerial view of a small portion of UW campus.
Using Fulcrumapp.com to gather point data using mobile phones
Using Fulcrumapp.com to gather point data using mobile phones
Typical photo of trees for identification.
Typical photo of trees for identification.
Infrared photo of local tree, showing leaf health.
Infrared photo of local tree, showing leaf health.

Balloon Mapping Experiment

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It’s no secret – I’ve got a real love for DIY and small-scale data collection methods. Ever since I first heard about the Public Lab of Open Technology and Science (PLOTS, or simply ‘Public Lab’) balloon mapping techniques applied during the Gulf Oil Spill, I really wanted to give it a try. After reading about the experience of some friends and colleagues with balloon mapping in Vancouver, I decided to purchase a balloon kit with the idea of testing it out for a new ‘hands-on’ first-year course in our Geomatics program (GEOG 187: Problem Solving in Geomatics). After a somewhat lengthy ordeal sourcing a helium tank, I got together with my research assistant Grant and some willing helpers from the Faculty of Environment Mapping, Analysis, and Design team (thanks Scott, James, Mike, and Collin – nice writeup here). We waited for a clear, not-so-windy day, and headed off to the Columbia Lake playing fields, on the uWaterloo campus to test the balloon ourselves. Here is the photo-journal description of our morning, with big thanks to Collin from MAD for the awesome photos.

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The balloon – not even close to being filled. And just FYI for others interested in doing this – you don’t need a regulator on the helium tank, though of course we had no idea how much helium we were putting into the balloon.

 

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Closing off the stem of the balloon with a set of zipties (subtitle to this picture is – “Do you have it? Do YOU have it?”)

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Alright, now we are talking! Balloon is all inflated and tethered to the spare tire from my car. Nice group shot, gentlemen!

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With my compact camera (hacked via CHDK to take pictures every 10 seconds) attached to a ‘custom made’ pop bottle crash cage (thanks Grant, for your excellent craftsmanship on this one), and the PLOTS balloon harness clip system, we were ready to go.

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And we’re off!

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Lots of mad flailing about by the camera rig at this point (hopefully it smooths out at altitude?). Around now is probably when the camera slipped, which resulted in a sliver of the harness obscuring the photos.

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James and Mike doing the real hard work here – controlling the balloon while Scott lets out line.

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Mike with some solid linesmanship here.

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We had the balloon up for about 45 minutes, walked the length of a soccer field with it, and brought it down fairly smoothly. Everyone crowding around to take a look at the photos!

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One of the higher altitude photos – showing the centre of Columbia Lake (and the rim of the crash harness pop bottle).

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Another one showing the shoreline

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Oblique shot of Warriors field and Columbia Ave.

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I like this one because it shows the balloon line + us on the ground.

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One of the last photos taken before the camera memory card filled up. Busy people below, reeling in the balloon.

 

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Lastly, here is the georeferenced and mosaicked images all put together using mapknitter.org. You can take a look at the zoomable version here (can’t embed this in a wordpress.com blog, unfortunately).

Overall, a ton of fun on a sunny late spring morning. Other than the obvious adjustments to the camera harness, and perhaps choosing a more interesting location, I’m not sure what we would have done differently. I think this speaks to how well set up the PLOTS balloon kit and instructions were, and also the number of other people who have done similar experiments out there. This gives me quite a bit of confidence that this could actually be done in the context of a first-year class – hopefully I get the chance to put this plan into action!

 

 

 

Why we don’t all need to learn code

Today I’m going to provide a counter point to my last post “Why we should all learn to code”. Is it true that coding is an essential skill for undergraduates, particularly those who want to use geospatial data? To interact with technology in an advanced way (i.e., as more than a user) do you have to ‘speak the language’?

What has gotten me thinking about not needing to code was a great blog by Steve Coast on the issues of “Small Data”. Steve points to the issues that an everyday Joe or Jane user would have with accessing and using some of the online data that they may find useful. His example takes a wishlist of books from Amazon and then cross-references with his local library to find what is available. The (many) steps he describes shows how challenging this type of analysis would be for an average user.

This got me thinking about all the hype about Big Data, the Geoweb, APIs, Web 2.0, and Mashups. The term ‘democratization’ is often thrown around, but this term definitely needs to be unpacked. Are tools and data democratized by simply being available, even if large segments of the population can’t access it? The cost of entry to manipulate online data is just too high for many. And that is a shame, because there are plenty of ways that these technologies can be put to work in daily life. I have recently come across some initiatives that promise to bring advanced data gathering and analysis to the masses. I’ve already discussed Geocommons as a code-free way to make and share geospatial data and maps, and there are plenty of similar options from Google and ESRI.

Two new services have really caught my eye: 140kit and ifttt (if THIS then THAT). These are both simple websites, built with sweet user interfaces, that anyone can use to gather Twitter data (140kit), and automate a variety of cross-platform tasks (ifttt). The ifttt interface in particular makes setting up automated tasks between a variety of services, or ‘channels’  (Twitter, Gmail, WordPress, SMS, Facebook) as easy as…well…following a recipe:

This is an example of two ifttt recipes. The first takes your tweets and archives them to your Google Calendar and the second one takes facebook photos and uploads them to a dropbox folder. Pretty simple stuff, but challenging to do otherwise. There are a lot of options with ifttt and it is worth checking out. Plus, you can create and submit your own recipes. 140kit takes a different approach, in that a user requests for a sample of tweets on a certain topic or geo location, and then similarly requests an analysis on the results. These requests aren’t instantaneous, they need to be handled by a live operator, so there is some lag in the system. Still, this can provide an easy way to tap into the firehose of Twitter. No coding required.

So what is the take home point here? Should you learn programming or not? Services like ifttt, Geocommons, and 140kit are all looking to meet the needs of ‘the rest of us’ – people who don’t know a programming language and don’t want to learn one (or several). This isn’t bad – for most of what people need, these simplified services will do the trick. But they are just that – simplified. Eventually users of these services will likely hit a wall where their advancing needs of analysis or data collection just can’t be met without getting dirty with code. But for many people, these services will be all that they need, plus more. Average users get introduced to some very powerful technology through the miracle of the GUI. If this leads anyone to get interested in how things work under the hood, and then to pick up a programming language, then this is a win for everyone.

Empowering communities to manage their water supply

As part of the project “Geoweb and Community Development in Quebec“, two teams of McGill School of the Environment students spent the fall term 2010 working with a community-based watershed monitoring agency CDRN (Corporation de développement de la rivière Noire) to explore the potential for the Geoweb to serve as a conduit for citizen participation in watershed management. These student groups developed two tools, conducted a series of workshops with community members, and produced reports and instructional materials. McGill Public Affairs produced a short film about the group activities that gives an excellent overview of the project and the potential for the Geoweb in a community development context.

 

Make your own user-contributed map with Crowdmap.com

One of the most exciting Geoweb developments of 2010 has to be www.crowdmap.com, a fully packaged, hosted, user-contributed mapping solution produced by the non-profit tech company Ushahidi. You may have heard of Ushahidi, the developers of collaborative map-making technology first used to gather reports of violence from cell phone users during the 2007 Kenyan election. This technology has since been used in many other crisis mapping situations, from the earthquake in Haiti, to the recent New York snowstorm.

Briefly, both the Ushahidi and the Crowdmap.com platforms allow users to contribute spatially-referenced data, such as comments, observations, photos, or other hyperlinked media to a map. Of course you can do this with Google Maps, particularly Google MyMap or with sites developed with the Google Maps API. Crowdmap provides a near-instant, no-coding setup that improves on a Google Map because it can accept data coming from wide variety of input methods and requires no login. We all know that logins are a huge impedance to participation (though there are benefits as well), but the ability to accept input from web users, SMS/text message, twitter #hashtag, and email makes Crowdmap a potentially very powerful tool.

Ushahidi and Crowdmap were originally targeted towards crisis mapping, however there are countless uses for the Crowdmap platform. I just checked the Ushahidi twitter stream and one that jumped out at me is the ATM mapping in Manchester, NH implementation. Setting up this site was as simple and creating a user account and ticking several preference boxes. Another crisis-related use of Crowdmap that is starting to trend on twitter is the Queensland floods map.

Any way that you can think of mobilizing a community to address some spatially-related issue, Crowdmap can help. How are you currently using (or planning to use) Crowdmap?