Category Archives: GIScience

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.

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 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.

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.

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 is well-earned!



New Publication: Evolving Relationships in Community Participatory Geoweb Projects

At long last, a team publication from the GEOIDE grant The Participatory Geoweb has been published in ACME journal. This paper, co-authored by myself, Jon Corbett, Chris Gore, Pamela Robinson, Renee Sieber, and Patrick Allen, takes a critical view of the general enthusiasm for Geoweb projects. We challenge the commonly held notions that the Geoweb is ‘easy’, and highlight several implementation challenges derived from a variety of case studies. For those working with the Geoweb, crowdsourcing, and VGI, I would recommend this as a good overview of the challenges of both developing these types of tools and implementing them within a community context. It’s open-access, so please check it out!


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.

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!

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).
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 to gather point data using mobile phones
Using 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.

Geopatial Mobility Lab – Launched with support from CFI and ORF

I’ve recently been awarded funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund. I’d like to thank both of these government funding agencies  for their support of a new research and training initiative that I call the ‘Geospatial Mobility Lab’. This effort is also co-sponsored through direct contributions of equipment and services from Esri Canada and Dell Computer.

I am actively recruiting students at the Masters and PhD levels to participate in research using this infrastructure. If you are interested, please read this and get in touch with me.

The Geospatial Mobility Lab in brief:

The widespread adoption of Internet-connected mobile devices has signaled a shift in the way that geographic information is both delivered and gathered. No longer tethered to desks, terminals, and Wi-Fi networks, location-based applications are now a key part of the mobile computing experience, providing a conduit for communication with space and place as a permanent backdrop. This project will develop a first-of-its kind testbed, the Geospatial Mobility Lab, an integrated system of mobile devices and analytic infrastructure, for the systematic evaluation of geospatial information and mobile technology. The Geospatial Mobility Lab will generate benefits for Canada and Canadians in three areas: the generation of direct economic benefits through software and use case developments conducted in partnership with private companies; training benefits through creating employees with marketable skills in software design, deployment, and evaluation; and generate social benefits in understanding the affordances and constraints of mobile device use on individual interactions, communications, and spatial behaviour. Considering the widespread adoption of mobile devices within society and the continued growth of this area of the information technology sector, research findings will impact many of the millions of Canadian citizens who use mobile devices on a daily basis.

See the official funding announcement here.

Balloon Mapping Experiment


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.


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.



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?”)


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


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.


And we’re off!


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.


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


Mike with some solid linesmanship here.


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!


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


Another one showing the shoreline


Oblique shot of Warriors field and Columbia Ave.


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


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



Lastly, here is the georeferenced and mosaicked images all put together using You can take a look at the zoomable version here (can’t embed this in a 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!