Category Archives: Uncategorized

Crowdsourcing the Disaster Management Cycle

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and recent record flooding in Bangladesh, I was reminded of the foundational role of mobile communications technology in the response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. A pivotal moment in the development of the Geoweb, the response to Hurricane Katrina (or lack thereof) is widely considered to be the first example of the use of mobile phones to communicate crisis information. Using mobile technology during a crisis can support first responders to identify the location of affected individuals as well as to give emergency response managers more up-to-date information as a crisis unfolds. A recent publication from UW graduate Sara Harrison picks up on this thread, examining the disaster management cycle and presenting results from US and Canadian emergency managers as to their adoption of crowdsourcing tools and social media. Constraints and challenges to adoption of crowdsourcing are presented, with specific recommendations for government at all levels. The integration of crowdsourcing into emergency management systems can provide a conduit for two-way exchange of information, in real time, between citizens in need and emergency response professionals. In the decade + since Katrina, the development of this area of application of crowdsourcing has begun to show real benefits, but as Sara Harrison’s paper shows, there are still real development and deployment challenges to be overcome.

Read the full paper here, available open access:

hurricane irma
Hurricane Irma




Aligning Canadian Open Data Programs with International Best Practices – 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



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.

Group Members at AAG 2016: San Francisco

Looking forward to some sun (or fog) in California! Myself and two group members, Sara Harrison and Qing Lu are off to present at the Association of American Geographers annual conference in San Francisco. I’ve pasted the links to sessions below. Also check out other presenters as well. Hope to see you there!

The Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be in San Francisco, CA from March 29 to April 2.

Sara Harrison

Crowdsourcing in Emergency Management: A comparative analysis of crowdsourcing adoption by governments in the United States and Canada


Qing Lu 

Potential and challenges of mobile technologies in the public sector: a case study of 311 requests in Edmonton, Canada


Peter Johnson

Reflecting on the Success of Open Data: How Municipal Governments Evaluate Open Data Programs



Funded Doctoral Opportunities in GIScience, Open Data, Mobile Technology

Two Funded Doctoral Opportunities:

Citizen/government interactions mediated by mobile devices

Open Data as a contributor to Open Government

The Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, is pleased to announce two funded opportunities to pursue Doctoral Studies in Geographic Information Science, with project themes of Citizen/government interactions mediated by mobile devices and Open Data as a contributor to Open Government.

Under the supervision of Dr. Peter Johnson (, you will carry out doctoral studies in one of the two themes.

  1. The first theme, Citizen/government interactions mediated by mobile devices, will explore how a location-enabled society generates data that can be integrated into government decision-making, through processes such as crowdsourcing. This project is supported by the SSHRC-funded Geothink partnership grant:, and infrastructure funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
  2. The second theme, Open Data as a contributor to Open Government, will involve developing metrics of the value of Open Data in government, tracing benefits derived to distinct data user communities. This research is funded by SSHRC.

The Department of Geography and Environmental Management is ‘twinned’ at the graduate level with Wilfrid Laurier University, and the resulting Waterloo-Laurier Joint Program in Geography (WL-JPIG) is one of the largest Geography concentrations in North America with over 55 faculty members. Doctoral coursework and committee members can be drawn from either campus – the two campuses are walking distance from each other.

Doctoral Applications should be submitted via the process outlined at these two links:


Funding: How it Works

The Faculty of Environment aims to attract and support the next generation of outstanding researchers. Many sources of funding are available to support doctoral students: scholarships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, etc.  We want to overcome the financial uncertainty that students sometimes face by guaranteeing $90,000 over four years ($22,000, $22,300, $22,700, $23,000). This is the minimum. The actual funding package you receive will comprise a mix of Scholarships, Teaching Assistantships and Research Assistantships.

Scholarships: We encourage students to apply for major external scholarships (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR, OGS, etc.) and note that successful students will also be awarded the President’s scholarship ($5,000 scholarship and $6,800 TA for an additional $11,800).

Research Assistantships: Many research topics can attract research funding from research councils (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR), provincial agencies or private partners. We encourage these sources to be used to support students and to focus energies on the research.

Teaching assistantships/Sessional teaching: Graduate students often work as teaching assistants in a variety of roles (tutorial presenters / facilitators, markers, etc.) to help deliver our undergraduate programs. Senior doctoral students (year 3 or 4) often have an opportunity to teach a course to help build their teaching skills and portfolio. The amount of teaching-related activity that a doctoral student performs will depend on the combination of resources acquired from scholarships and research funding to ensure that they earn at least the $90k minimum guarantee over four years.

Note: scholarships, research studentships (a form of RA for research related to your dissertation), and graduate experience awards (given in association with teaching assistantships) are typically not taxed as income.

For more information about these two Doctoral opportunities, please contact Dr. Peter Johnson at

Graduate Student Opportunities

I am currently recruiting graduate students to start in September 2014. I place a priority on graduate student supervision and try to support all my students as best I can, through providing timely feedback on written work, facilitating networking within academia and industry, and supporting student travel to conferences when possible. The position outlines and instructions are listed below. Please contact me for more details.

1. Modeling the sustainability of the Ontario ski industry (Masters)

Project Description: The tourism sector is considered to be one of the least prepared for climate change. With its highly visible impacts from weather variability, the multi-billion dollar ski industry has been repeatedly identified as vulnerable to ongoing and future climate change. Media in Europe, the US, Canada, and elsewhere have declared that climate change could ‘wipe out’ large portions of the ski industry, with severe economic impacts for many rural economies, vacation property real-estate value, sports participation, and regional cultural loss. The research will build on existing collaborations with the tourism sector to develop a new integrated systems model of the Ontario ski marketplace, called SkiSim3, that is capable of assessing the simultaneous impact of climate change on ski operators and skier responses to changes in ski conditions and the seasonal availability of ski areas. This research will assist ski businesses to understand their relative climate risk, and develop proactive adaptation strategies.

This project is funded through a SSHRC research grant to Dr. Daniel Scott and Dr. Peter Johnson (both Geography and Environmental Management).

Qualifications: Prospective candidates should have an honours undergraduate degree in Geography, Geomatics, or strongly related discipline, with a background in climate change adaptation and strong quantitative skills, for example, experience with GIS or statistical modeling. Exposure to and interest in computational approaches, such as agent-based modeling, is highly desired. Preference is given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

Start Date: September 2014

Contact: Please email Dr. Peter Johnson (, with a current CV, unofficial transcript, and a statement of interest.

2. Tools and methods for facilitating citizen input to government spatial data (Masters)

Project Description: As mobile devices become ubiquitous, there are many resulting opportunities for the creative engagement of individuals as contributors of location-based information. The generation of volunteered geographic information (VGI) has been widely explored in a number of contexts, yet many questions remain as to how VGI can be integrated into formal governance and decision-making channels. This research project asks questions about how mobile device technology can be used to allow citizens to contribute to update and edit official digital maps of their jurisdictions of residence and how the asserted information can be incorporated into an authoritative and current map product.

This project is funded through a SSHRC research grant to Dr. Peter Johnson and Dr. Rob Feick (School of Planning). The successful candidate will join a Canada-wide team of researchers and industry partners (, with resulting opportunities for networking, collaboration, and additional funding for conferences, workshops, and travel.

Qualifications: Prospective candidates should have an honours undergraduate degree in Geography, Geomatics, or strongly related discipline. Experience in programming (Java, Python, Javascript) and familiarity with developing for mobile devices is highly desired. Preference is given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

Start Date: September 2014

Contact: Please email Dr. Peter Johnson (, with a current CV, unofficial transcript, and a statement of interest.

3. Mobile citizenship (PhD, Postdoc)

Project Description: As mobile devices take an increasingly central role in our daily activities, they become mediators of our interactions with each other, the environment, businesses, and institutions. This research area investigates the rapidly emerging development of a location-enabled society, from technical, social, and political perspectives. Multiple directions are possible within this broad area, including (but not limited to):

–    citizen/government interactions mediated by mobile devices
–    the impact of tracking technologies on individual or group use of space
–    integration of crowdsourced/volunteered data into decision-making
–    critical inquiry into mobile device use and impact on society both broadly and in specific areas (health, privacy, security, activism…).

This project description is intentionally left open-ended. If you have a suitable background and are interested in this area of research, I am eager to co-develop ideas with you.

This project is funded through a SSHRC research grant to Dr. Peter Johnson (Geography and Environmental Management). The successful candidate will join a Canada-wide team of researchers and industry partners (, with resulting opportunities for networking, collaboration, and additional funding for conferences, workshops, and travel.

Qualifications: Prospective candidates should have an appropriate academic qualification for the given level (phd, postdoc). Creativity and originality are strongly valued. Preference is given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

Start Date: September 2014

Contact: Please email Dr. Peter Johnson (, with a current CV, unofficial transcript, and a detailed statement of interest.

4. Open Data as a contributor to Open Government (Masters or PhD)

Project Description: Governments across Canada are taking measures to improve transparency and efficiency in their activities and services. A key component of this trend are new data distribution protocols, often called “open data” initiatives. Generally, open data must be downloadable by users free of charge, contain contents that can be viewed, edited and combined with other data (mashable), and be provided under a non-restrictive license. A research gap exists in understanding the value and impact of these open data initiatives. Current perspectives on the value of open data are often anecdotal, or reflect only the potential commercialization of software applications developed that use open data. The objectives of this research are to; 1) measure the value of open data as reported by diverse user communities (government, non-profit, community organizations, private developers); and 2) develop a set of quantitative metrics to guide the evaluation of open data strategies at all levels of government.

This project is funded through a SSHRC research grant to Dr. Peter Johnson (Geography and Environmental Management). The successful candidate will join a Canada-wide team of researchers and industry partners (, with resulting opportunities for networking, collaboration, and additional funding for conferences, workshops, and travel.

Qualifications: Prospective candidates should have an appropriate degree (bachelors or masters) in Geography, Geomatics, or strongly related discipline. Experience in qualitative research (interviews, focus groups) and familiarity with open data and Canadian municipal government structure is highly desired. Preference is given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

Start Date: September 2014

Contact: Please email Dr. Peter Johnson (, with a current CV, unofficial transcript, and a statement of interest.

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.

Vespucci Summer Institute 2010

The eighth edition of the Vespucci Summer Institute for the Advancement of Geographic Information Science was held from June 14th to June 18th, near beautiful Florence, Italy. The goals and purpose of the Summer Institute are outlined on the Vespucci website (
“The Summer Institute is aimed at researchers from the university, commercial, and government sectors. It provides an inspiring and productive opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction with leading international experts in the field. Participants will:
  • Learn the state of the art in the topic areas
  • Understand and explore tomorrow’s research and market challenges
  • Be challenged to think laterally outside their daily work setting
  • Present their own work and ideas to receive feedback and advice
  • Get one-on-one access to experts in a relaxed and productive setting
  • Improve presentation and team work skills
  • Return home refreshed and newly motivated”
Family photo overlooking Florence
The themes for this year’s Summer Institute was “Interfacing Social and Environmental Modeling” with presentations by two teams, the first led by Gilberto Camara, from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), who focused on the use of spatial models to combat perceived misconceptions about the degree and extent of Amazonian deforestation, and the second was led by Henk Scholten and Eduardo Dias representing Vrije University, who focused on integrating scientific wildfire models with emergency response systems.
Both instruction teams framed their respective presentations around specific models that integrated social and environmental variables. In his lectures, Dr. Camara drew from many classic examples, such as Schelling’s segregation model, to demonstrate a basic approach to modeling with cellular automata. He then presented TerraME (, an open-source GIS/modeling environment developed by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. Students were given time to follow a tutorial using sample data to familiarize themselves with the benefits and constraints of TerraME. Students then worked in groups to develop a hypothetical approach to modeling change dynamics in the Amazon.
Similarly, Dr. Scholten and Dr. Dias built their lectures on the use of the FARSITE fire model ( Participants were given a self-paced tutorial to familiarize themselves with FARSITE. Then, working in groups, students developed a hypothetical model to represent the flow of information and decision steps used in an emergency management system. Dr. Scholten and Dr. Dias then presented their own comprehensive work on developing an emergency management system in the Netherlands, using the EAGLE system developed in collaboration with Microsoft.
I attended this event as one of 28 participants. The majority of attendees came from the United States, with 18 representatives from a variety of universities. The remaining 10 students hailed from institutions in Canada (2), Brazil (2), Germany (5), and the European Community Joint Research Centre (1). The experience level of attendees was varied, including recent master’s graduates, PhD students of all levels, and a small handful of postdoctoral and industry researchers. For me, the greatest benefit to attending the Vespucci Summer Institute was the opportunity to meet these other students and discuss the similarities and differences between our research. These conversations occurred informally over breaks for espresso and lunch, as well as at the two formal group dinners. I was struck by the incredible diversity represented in the group of attendees – in addition to many typical “GIScientists”, there were individuals with backgrounds in fields such as political science, sociology, robotics, engineering, computer science, public health, and ecology. I found that each participant had an important viewpoint and the opportunity to access this “collective intelligence”, even just in an informal setting, was one of the most valuable aspects of the week. I have no doubt that I will stay in touch with many of these fellow participants, and look forward to future collaboration as our careers progress.
Statue of Amerigo Vespucci near the Uffizi gallery, Florence
The 2010 Vespucci Summer Institute was a very memorable experience. The setting was very comfortable and the technologies presented by the instructors showed important applications of GIScience tools in diverse areas. Most important however, were the unstructured networking opportunities that occurred between students and also between students and instructors. Considering that I spend much of my work time in front of a computer screen, it is easy to forget the benefits that come from face-to-face communication. For this reason, the Vespucci Summer Institute was a strong reminder that one conversation over coffee can produce much more than dozens of emails.
I would like to thank the Summer Institute organizers Michael Gould, Max Craglia, David Mark, and Werner Kuhn, for their efforts in making the Vespucci Institute happen. I would also like to thank the generosity of the GEOIDE Network in providing funding without which I would not have been able to attend.