Category Archives: Education

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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Capturing Balloon Airphotos with Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) Geotech Magnet Program

We are fortunate here in Waterloo Region to have access to a unique high school-level program focused on geospatial technologies. The Waterloo Region District School Board offers a Geotechnology magnet program at Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) high school. This program attracts students from all over the region, who come to WCI to participate in advanced instruction in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and geospatial analysis. Students from this program learn in a dedicated computer lab, equipped with industry leading ArcGIS software from Esri. This is an exceptional program, providing a real educational advantage to students at the high school level who are interested in geospatial technologies.

As part of our high school outreach program in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, I went and worked with the current WCI Geotech class to setup data collection using a digital camera attached to a helium weather balloon provided by the Public Lab, a non-profit organization supporting hardware development for data collection.

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Preparing the balloon rigging for launch. Photo courtesy of Mark Menhennet, WCI.

After an introduction session in the classroom, we took the balloon and camera out to the WCI field for a morning flight. Students handled the balloon while it took images of the playing fields and nearby developments along Columbia Street.

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Camera crash guard rig. Photo courtesy of Mark Menhennet, WCI. 
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Hazel and Columbia area of Waterloo

 

The balloon reached a max height of approximately 600 feet before the students hauled it back in.

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Hauling in the balloon.

In their afternoon class, students used the open source web platform MapKnitter, to stretch and align the various photos from the balloon to create a composite image.

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Composite image made with MapKnitter

 

This hands-on experience for students showed how easy it can be to collect and assemble your own amateur airphotos. Typically we think of this type of data collection as something that only professional geospatial companies or governments can do. However, with the right type of tools, this custom data collection and mapping is open to nearly anyone with an interest. Experiencing first-hand this type of data collection can show high school students just one of the many applications of geospatial technology, and the potential of a career in geospatial technology. Given the success of this first collaboration with the WCI Geotech Magnet Program, I’m looking forward to working together to expand this student experience in the future!

Aligning Canadian Open Data Programs with International Best Practices – Geothink.ca and OpenNorth

The Geothink partnership is a great opportunity for academics to work directly with those organizations pushing the leading edge of our field. Last fall, uWaterloo student Erin Bryson held a co-op placement working at Montreal-based non-profit (and Geothink partner) OpenNorth. Working closely with OpenNorth staff, Erin wrote an excellent white paper on the potential for current Canadian open data programs to adopt the International Open Data Charter (IODC). The IODC presents 6 main principles as a set of best practices for governments around the world that produce and distribute open data (see image below from opencharter.net).

 

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In creating her report, Erin interviewed a number of municipal governments across Canada, asking them to consider how the IODC could inform their existing work with delivering open data and to determine how aligned existing practices are with the IODC. Erin’s full paper is available for download from the OpenNorth website. Congratulations Erin, and thank you to OpenNorth for your continued work with Geothink.

Measuring the Value and Impact of Open Data: Recruiting Doctoral Students

I’ve recently been successful with obtaining five years of funding from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Early Researcher Award (ERA). This generous funding will allow me to measure the value and impact of open data initiatives, assessing how open data is accessed, used, and exploited. This research will directly impact how governments provide open data and how stakeholders such as private developers, other governments, non-profits, and citizens build applications and businesses models that rely on open data.

As part of this award, I am now currently recruiting for graduate students (PhD students in particular) that are interested in working with me on open data topics, with a focus on government provision, measuring value, and the development of metrics. If you are interested in these topics, please take a look at my comments for prospective students and the Faculty of Environment Dean’s Doctoral Initiative page for funding opportunities.

This work will build on my current open data work as a part of the SSHRC-funded Partnership Grant geothink.ca, led by Dr. Renee Sieber at McGill University.

Esri Canada Centres of Excellence (ECCE) App Challenge 2015

This is a guest post by graduate student Qing (Lucy) Liu about her team’s experience at the ESRI Canada App Challenge:

Esri Canada Centres of Excellence (ECCE) App Challenge By Qing (Lucy) Lu

The ECCE App Challenge is a coding completion held by Esri Canada. Started in February 27, 2015, teams of participants were given one week to develop an innovative app using open data and Esri software. The apps to be developed should be on some aspect of government services in Canada, for any of the following themes:

  • Housing
  • Health (human and/or animal/environmental)
  • Parks and recreation
  • Education, including daycare
  • Public/private transport, including infrastructure
  • Garbage collection/snow/branch removal
  • Emergency management
  • Information services (online information access and use
  • Utilities

Chen Chen and I teamed up with Jingwen Huang (a MSc student working with Dr. Su-Yin Tan) and participated in this competition. We named our team as WATERMELON for two reasons. Firstly, with symmetrically distributed stripes that can be seen as longitudes, watermelon is a fruit that look most similar to an earth. Secondly, we are following two leading cell phone companies that also choose a fruit as their names, which are Apple and Blackberry.

Chen, Jingwen, and Qing

Inspired by the theme of World Health Day 2015, “Food Safety: from far to plate, make food safe”, we decided to focus on food safety field. Region of Waterloo happened to provide Food Premise Inspections dataset, we decided to develop a WebGIS application that can be used to help consumers choose right restaurants.

The data used was obtained from Open Data Catalogue held by Region of Waterloo. It represents food safety inspections and re-inspections for geographically fixed food premises. Web AppBuilder was used to build our web application.

The map is composed of two layers; one represents a heatmap of critical infractions and the other contains points of food facilities. The heatmap is presented from red to grey based on the number of critical infractions inspected, and food facilities with the most number of critical infractions are shown in red while those with the least number are represented in grey. The two layers are displayed on the basemap of Streets by default, and the users can select their preferred basemaps. Information of a particular food facility can be displayed once a food facility point is selected, including facility name, address, telephone, number of critical infractions and number of uncritical infractions. In addition, queries are enabled for users to extract detailed infraction information including inspection date, whether a particular infraction is critical and a brief description of the infraction. Users can make the queries by specifying the facility name or a range of dates, and inspection information of facilities with the names specified or inspections carried out between the dates selected will be returned to the users. Further, users can select facilities on the attribute table, and the selected points will be highlighted on the map. On the side of the web page, general information of food safety is displayed, from which users can find instructions on how to report food illness, information of food safety training courses as well as contact information of Public Health.

In addition to developing the web application, we also created a pitch video that describes the usage and characteristics of the application. All the comic pictures were hand-painted by Chen Chen.

Participating in this competition is a great experience for all of us. We have explored government open data, new products and resources offered by Esri. Especially, WebApp Builder is very useful to build GIS applications that can run across any device. Ready-to-use widgets and some app templates save time and efforts for GIS people who are not necessarily skilled at writing codes, and enable developers to focus more on spatial analysis. ArcGIS online is a great tool for creating maps that can be viewed in a browser, desktop or mobile device. Compared to Desktop ArcGIS, it is intuitive and very easy for people without GIS background to create customized maps. One of the limitations of ArcGIS online is that it is not fully free to users. Users are required to buy ArcGIS online annual subscription once their 60-day trial ends. In addition, attribute names cannot be edited via ArcGIS online. This could be a problem as cause some confusions would be caused to end users of the maps if attribute names are not straightforward. Take our case as an example, the attributes of selected points are shown to users. As the data contain redundant attributes, and some attribute names are not straightforward, some useless information is provided, but there is no way to select attributes to show and change the display names of attributes.

Chen drawing graphics for the pitch video

In addition to experimenting with the products and tools, we gained experience in developing a complete web application product as we were also required to provide mission statement, characteristics statement, readme file and pitch video. These files are also very important as they are used for introducing and promoting our product to customers. Traditional GIS courses provide limited opportunities to experiment with new products related to spatial analysis, and they usually focus on very classic GIS concepts and GIS problems. Due to the rapidly advancing information technologies and fierce competitions between service providers, it is likely that students will find what they learn in school is out of date and of little use once they enter the workforce. In recent years, location data has been put enormous attention to, and GIS problems as well as data have entered into new stage. For example, open data provided by government and user-generated data are two new types of data, which are still at the early stage of research. I would recommend that the courses offered by institutions of higher education adapt the learning materials so that students are able to solve problems of the time.

The Canadian Water Network conference: “from knowledge to action”

This post is by PhD student Simone Philpot on her recent experience attending the Canadian Water Network Conference 2015.

When it comes to managing water resources, there is no shortage of problems. The consequences impact security, ecological health, environmental justice, and economic development. I recently had the opportunity to attend the Connecting Water Resources conference hosted by the Canadian Water Network. The 2015 theme, ‘from Knowledge to Action’ stressed the need to address a gap between what we know about sustainable and equitable water systems and our capacity to implement solutions.

When it came to implementation, the speakers uniformly put people, communities, cooperation, and governance front and center of the discussion. Former Premiere Bob Rae urged Canadians to critically examine assumptions of water security. More than 100 communities endure boil-water advisories in Canada. These advisories disproportionately impact remote areas, creating a gap between the water security experiences of different communities. Rae tasked Canadians to abandon ‘us and them’ mentalities and to address water security as a national problem. Patricia Mulroy gave a nod to water competition anxieties, opening her talk with “don’t worry, I didn’t come with any straws”. As the former director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Mulroy was responsible for securing water to support growing communities in a desert regime relying on a contested and stressed water source. Mulroy emphasized that all communities are linked to a common water destiny – or else, she says, “We will all fail together”. Margaret Catley-Carlson illustrated the centrality of water by playing off of the question “Is it a water issue?” Answering “yes of course it is” and -No “when water goes by your house and you can’t drink it, that’s not a water issue, that’s an exclusion issue”. Afternoon activities consisted of smaller group sessions. I attended Blue Cities: moving to the systems we need. A variety of topics relevant to municipal water managers were presented. Some important themes that surfaced were regulatory reform in the water sector, a willingness to look outward for solutions, and the importance of citizen engagement. These perspectives indicate a strong and growing role for the social sciences in water resources management.

Finally, there were the conversations that occurred in between events. I had the opportunity to hear about initiatives that aim to couple research and action in innovative ways. Of particular interest are the Ryerson Urban Water1 multidisciplinary collective in Toronto, Canada, and the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative2, in the City University of New York (CUNY), US. I have provided links below if you wish to learn more about these groups. At CWR-2015 lively discussions occurred across disciplinary and professional boundaries, without any sign of struggle. It can be done. I look forward to picking up on many of the conversations that started at the conference, and I look forward to the next Canadian Water Network event.

*The speakers are too numerous to discuss in this post, and although I identified a few themes and speakers, I have left out many excellent participants. For more information on the speakers and the conference, see the Canadian Water Network website3, listed below.

1Ryerson Urban Water http://ryerson.ca/water/

2Environmenta Crossroads Initiative http://rose.ccny.cuny.edu/~darlene/CrossRoads/about.html

Fulcrum – using mobile devices to collect field data

As part of Geography 187: Problem Solving in Geomatics, I’ve started using Fulcrum as a tool for students to gain experience collecting in-situ field data. Fulcrum is both a mobile app (for iOS and Android) and a data management/survey design backend. Fulcrum lets you develop a ‘survey’ (or form to fill out) that can accept all types of data, pictures, comments, custom tailored to your application.

fulcruminterfaceIn the case of GEOG 187, students were conducting a basic tree health survey of trees on campus, with help from the Ecology Lab. This dataset provided the basis for the semester project on identifying areas on campus where building development could take place with minimal disruption to existing mature and healthy trees.

Overall, Fulcrum was quite easy to set up, with pre-made templates to help me get started. In the field, students used the app to record information on trees, and to take pictures. Data collection is limited to point data, but of course, when data is collected on the potentially tree picsmall screen of a smartphone, it could be challenging to create more complex geometries like polygons and lines. This data is automatically geotagged and available for export from the Fulcrum interface. I’ve taken the tree data and put it into a small CartoDB map. Fulcrum provided a very easy to deploy and easy to use solution for this class, and also helped students to learn more about primary data collection. Thanks Fulcrum!