Tag Archives: education

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.

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.

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


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

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.

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!

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!

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.

Why we should all learn to code

I recently read an article in Inside Higher Education called “Should All Majors, Not Just Computer Science Majors Learn to Code“. If you know me at all, then you probably know my answer to this question: YES. I’m not saying that all undergraduates need to know the ins and outs of several languages, but I do think that some knowledge of a common language like Java, Python, or even just how to whip up a website in HTML is becoming a basic skill, just like using Word and Excel were essential for students 15 years ago (don’t ask me how I know). This recent article in the NYT talks about the emergence of Big Data and the drive towards quantification in the social sciences. As our lives are increasingly measured and recorded, this provides a huge source of information for analysis. It really is very exciting to think of the implications of ubiquitous mobile tracking technology for spatial social science. Learning to code is big part of being able to access and use this data – and not just for research, but for business, hobbies, and just general interest, a basic understanding of the way that computers and software work is essential. My advice for anyone getting into GIScience and wanting a career in it, is to make sure that their educational institution is teaching at least some coding, or providing them with the opportunity to get their feet wet with code. This will set you apart from all the other GIS ‘users’ out there – the person who can code is a developer, not just a button-pusher. And with that, if you have never coded before, I encourage you to take the plunge and sign up for the excellent Code Academy Year of Code.


Géoweb Junior: A Community-based Geoweb implementation in rural Quebec

I’d like to take a moment to highlight some of the recent work that our team at McGill has been involved with as part of the Geoweb for Community Development in Rural Quebec project. One of our partners, the Corporation de développement de la Rivière Noire (CDRN) has become very involved with developing Geoweb sites. The first, Géoweb Junior, was developed during summer 2011 by Andréane and Pierre, two undergraduate research assistants at McGill University. Géoweb Junior was a test case for a more detailed Geoweb tool on forest management that is currently being rolled out by CDRN with McGill support. Géoweb Junior provided students (approx. age 10) at a summer day camp organized by CDRN with info sheets to go and gather information on the local environment.

Students input information on the Geoweb
Student observation sheet 1

Students collected all manner of observations, from environmental problems, to species of wildlife. Many of them even drew pictures. This information was plotted on a paper map attached to the observation sheet. Students then input this information onto a Google Maps-based Geoweb site and observations were categorized.

In this way, students were able to participate in the data gathering aspect of environmental science, demonstrating how their local information could be georeferenced, and shared publicly via the Geoweb. You can take a look at their observations on the CDRN web page devoted to the project. This type of project, though fairly simple, demonstrates the ability of the Geoweb as a tool for a variety of community-based organization tasks. These could include data collection, participation, discussions, information and data sharing, and many others.

Technical details: This Geoweb implementation uses a Google Maps API tool (V2). This is hosted on a separate server and integrated into the WordPress CMS (rivierenoire.org) using an iFrame tag. Points that are added via double clicking on the map are saved in the database and can be edited or deleted by the user with an appropriate password. We plan to make this system available as an open-source template for anyone to use.