Research Plans for GeoThink Theme 4: “Open Everything”

I wrote the following blog post for the Web site of our 2013-2018 SSHRC Partnership Grant on “How the Geospatial Web 2.0 is Reshaping Government-Citizen Interactions”, also known as “GeoThink”. The post first appeared at http://geothink.ca/open-everything/.

Hello, I am Dr. Claus Rinner, an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and program director of the Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) at Ryerson University. My research focuses on the decision support function of maps and geographic information systems (GIS), and the underlying concepts of cartography, geovisualization, public participation, and multi-criteria decision analysis. I plan to contribute to the GeoThink research partnership through students at all levels of study.

Edgar Baculi, a second-year undergraduate student in Ryerson’s BA in Geographic Analysis, is co-funded by Geothink and the Ontario work-study program. Edgar started an exploration of the City of Toronto’’s open data portal, toronto.ca/open, with attention to the data formats and data types available for download. He found that 91 of Toronto’’s 133 open datasets have a geospatial component. About one half of these are available in ESRI’’s shapefile format. Edgar plans to extend his contents analysis to the open data catalogues of other municipal partners of GeoThink. This complements a planned longitudinal survey of municipal open data initiatives by two other GeoThink researchers, Dr. Peter Johnson and Dr. Pamela Robinson, within Theme 4. Edgar will also start to examine the demand side of open data in terms of their use by local journalists in news reporting and by Ryerson professors in Geography classes and GIS labs.

Together with Dr. Pamela Robinson of Ryerson’’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, I am also collaborating with the Neptis Foundation, a key GeoThink partner. With funding from Neptis, incoming MSA student Michael Markieta has upgraded and installed the Neptis Geoweb tool on a Ryerson server for use in research and by other GeoThink partners. The tool includes a mapping interface with a rich collection of datasets for the Toronto region, including a settlement development layer that Neptis combined from the individual land-use plans of dozens of Ontario municipalities. The tool also includes a discussion forum, and Michael’’s Master’’s research will examine the analytical and decision support function of such participatory Geoweb tools.

My PhD student Victoria Fast will also be involved in the GeoThink project. Victoria recently presented a novel framework for understanding volunteered geographic information (VGI) through a ““systems perspective”” (http://digitalcommons.ryerson.ca/geography/47/). On this basis and a survey of existing VGI projects, Victoria wants to outline a path for effective deployment of the Neptis Geoweb tool in climate change adaptation planning, an important consideration for municipalities and regions worldwide.

If you’ would like to participate in research around mapping tools for land use planning and decision support, open data formats, implications of participatory mapping for news media, or tools for urban and regional climate change adaptation, please contact me at crinner at ryerson dot ca.

Reflections on OpenStreetMap

The second Canadian OpenStreetMap (OSM) developer event held at Ryerson’s Geography department started today with a series of presentations and workshops introducing students and members of the broader community to OSM. Toronto OSM guru Richard Weait gave another one of his engaging OSM-or-nothing speeches, telling tales of trap streets and mappy hours. He also got attendants to edit the OSM data and submit a few new features based on their local knowledge of their neighbourhoods or the university campus. Geographic Analysis student, GIS consultant, and spatialanalysis.ca blogger Michael Markieta guided us through the querying of the OSM “planet file” from a PostGIS/PostgreSQL database and its mapping in the open-source Quantum GIS package (see photo).

michael-teaching-osm-queries_08march2013

As most of you will know, OSM is a global volunteer project to create a free geographic base dataset. OSM data have been shown to be more detailed and accurate than commercial data, at least in some areas of the world. There was some interesting discussion this afternoon about potential liability issues due to inconsistencies in OSM data used in professional applications. The concern that OSM contributors could be held liable for erroneous contributions was countered by noting that commercial data vendors provide their data “as is” in just the same way, and that their data are out-of-date most of the time. That certainly seems to be true for my car navigation system! Still, the possibility of downloading OSM data for a professional map at a moment where a misuser has modified or deleted information that has not been detected and reverted by the community makes me uneasy. Also, the thought that detail in OSM, e.g. in rural areas, may depend on whether or not there is an avid mapper living in the area, is unsatisfactory.

Further, the challenges resulting from free tagging of new features were brought up at today’s event. There are support sites such as taginfo.osm.org and the map features list on the OSM wiki, but I cannot help but think that the OSM community is repeating mistakes that were addressed (at least to some degree) by research, development, and best-practice in GIS over the last couple of decades.

Whatever your position with regards to these issues, OSM is playing an increasingly important role in government and business. Our students need to know about it, and I think today’s workshops went a long way to achieve this awareness. Thank you to Mike Morrish and the Student Association of Geographic Analysis (SAGA) for their tremendous support in organizing this educational event and for sponsoring food and drinks today.

From a research perspective, OSM is a fabulous subject too. My interest in it was discussed in a section of an earlier post about volunteered geographic information (VGI) systems. The OSM developer weekend is focusing precisely on hardware, software, and provider/user issues that are not well explained by the VGI label, but captured within our concept of VGI systems to be presented at the 2013 AAG conference.

Call for applications to the MSA program

‘Tis the season… of admissions to graduate programs and I want to share the call for applications to the MSA program that I am sending to colleagues across Canada :

I am emailing colleagues who have provided reference letters and advice to students from their institutions applying to our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program. We are always very grateful for your assessments and I would like to thank you personally for the time and effort spent speaking with your students about graduate school and writing those letters.

I would be grateful if you would again recommend the MSA program to your senior undergraduate students. The program homepage at http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/ contains relevant information for prospective applicants. Graduate funding is provided based on incoming qualifications, research interests, and time of application – first-consideration deadline is January 13th, 2013.

The MSA program is an intense one-year program with strong connections to potential employers in the Toronto area, as well as a rigorous research component. A range of research themes, in which MSA graduates have recently published or presented, are listed below. Also listed are additional areas of interest of potential MSA supervisors.

Recent graduates were employed by major retailers and banks (e.g., Canadian Tire, McDonald’s, Walmart; RBC, Scotiabank); environmental and health agencies (e.g., Ministry of Environment, TRCA; St.Michael’s Hospital, Toronto Public Health), police services, GIS vendors, and spatial data producers, or they are pursuing further graduate degrees (including MBAs and PhDs).

Thank you for forwarding this call to your students.

Kind regards,
Claus

 

Selection of recently published MSA research by field of study:

ENVIRONMENTAL ANALYSIS:
– lake and river sediment contamination
– wildfire modeling
– land-use change detection
– the urban heat island
– urban reforestation
– renewable energy site selection

BUSINESS GEOMATICS:
– Canadian retail trends
– consumer segmentation
– the effect of business improvement areas
– spatial patterns of TV consumption

SOCIAL/COMMUNITY APPLICATIONS (incl. HEALTH, CRIME):
– access to primary health care
– newcomer health services planning
– local news coverage
– food deserts
– the geospatial web
– public participation GIS

(See details at http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/publications.html.)

Additional areas of interest of potential supervisors include:
– agent-based modeling, self-organizing maps
– economic geography
– environmental justice
– ethnic retail
– geographic visualization
– immigration and settlement patterns
– neighbourhood wellbeing indices
– real-estate valuation
– transportation planning

(See also http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/faculty.html for program faculty members.)

50 Years of Geographic Information Systems

Some 50 years ago, the Canadian government started the development of a computerized land inventory which would become the prototype of geographic information systems (GIS). Its early history is detailed in a blog post by leading GIS vendor ESRI at http://blogs.esri.com/esri/esri-insider/2012/09/07/the-50th-anniversary-of-gis/.

In addition to the interesting links they provide at the end of their post, I really like the three-part documentary “Data for Decision” on the Canada GIS, which you can access via the GIS and Science blog at http://gisandscience.com/2009/01/25/data-for-decision-42-years-later/, or directly at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAFG6aQTwPk (part 1).

Ryerson’s Department of Geography (formerly School of Applied Geography) has a long tradition of using GIS in research and in the classroom/lab, and thereby training a modern type of geographer and contributing to a new perspective on the study of social and earth systems.

The Death of Evidence: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.

“The scientific community is sad to report the death of evidence, which passed away June 18th, 2012, after an over six year battle with Harper government policies. Objective and honest, evidence was heavily involved in all aspects of Canadian prosperity and will be sorely missed by all Canadians, whether they currently realize it or not.”

Cited from one of the most distressing Web sites out there, http://www.deathofevidence.ca/.

More about GEOIDE – student participation and outcomes

As reported on 16 May 2012 (below), student participation was a major benefit of the GEOIDE research funding. I was recently asked to provide information about all students funded from my GEOIDE projects and found 21 individual students. By the numbers reported in the other post, that’s 1.5% of all students who ever participated in GEOIDE, while I was just one out of 400 investigators ;-)

Nine of my GEOIDE  students were Bachelor’s, nine Master’s, one doctoral, and two students participated as both Master’s and doctoral students. Most of the Bachelor’s students were from our BA in Geographic Analysis while a couple came from Ryerson’s and UofT’s BSc in Computer Science programs. All of the Master’s students were in our Master of Spatial Analysis. The doctoral students are in Ryerson’s Policy Studies or Environmental Applied Science and Management PhD programs.

Of the 21 students, six are now working in industry, three have government positions, and three are employed in the academic sector. In addition, seven are completing either the same degree as when they were participating in GEOIDE, or the next degree level. Only two are unemployed or have unknown status, both with their final degree just completed (and not under my supervision!). The jobs that my GEOIDE alumni are holding include several software developers, spatial (data) analysts, an enterprise GIS consultant, a health informatician, and a postdoctoral researcher.

While the GEOIDE Network always had to demonstrate short-term benefits for the funding it received, my own GEOIDE research was conceptual – not highly theoretical but not directly applied either. I consider it “blue sky research” (see 26 April 2012, below), since it is driven by my own and my students’ curiosity. I did not directly collaborate with industry partners within GEOIDE, and planned collaborations with government and non-profit partners were often slow. But apparently, this approach has worked well for my students, while making a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge in geography, GIScience, and geomatics!

Recognizing postermakers

Congratulations to BA in Geographic Analysis candidate Michael Markieta, who won a GEOIDE Student Poster Award at the Global Geospatial Conference 2012. Michael’s poster was entitled “Using Web Map Overlay for Visual Multi-Criteria Analysis: The Example of the Ontario Human Influence Index”. It presents a newly developed version of an online map overlay tool, with which we can represent multiple criteria or indicators in a composite index through the opacity/transparency of map layers.

A screenshot of the poster is seen above. The poster is listed at http://www.gsdi.org/gsdiconf/gsdi13/prog_details.html#s31 with ID P411. Partial funding for Michael’s work-study position was provided by the GEOIDE Network of Centres of Excellence, project PIV-41.

Current issues in academia: Calling students “clients” doesn’t fly

At the risk of raising a few eyebrows among my own students, I want to pass along another pointed opinion from the ranks of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). This time, Michael Morse, a professor at Trent University, wrote in the CAUT Bulletin Vol 59 | No 4 | April 2012 about why “Calling Students ‘Clients’ Doesn’t Fly“.

Prof. Morse argues that students or their parents are not the clients of the university. University serves society as a whole, not individual customers. This leads to an interesting association with the student protests going on in Quebec. In a comment on “Tuition hikes, student strikes and lessons in applied politics” for the Toronto Star, Prof. Pierre Martin of the Université de Montréal notes that the Quebec view of higher education used to be that of a “collective good for society as a whole rather than a personal investment made by individuals in search of future income gains”. But through increases in tuition, this culture is gradually shifting towards the latter view.

While Prof. Morse uses the example of a flight school to present education/training as a public good, my example is broader. Consider the road network in Toronto as government-funded infrastructure. It is so varied in its form and function, and more importantly its uses and benefits, that we accept that it is built and maintained from our tax money. Higher education is a critical part of this country’s infrastructure too. And its job is to get its users (students) through effectively for their own direct benefit but more so for indirect societal benefits (greater productivity, increased tax revenue, good decision-making, responsibility, civic engagement, …). I can think of additional parallels, e.g. regarding express toll routes (~fast-track programs, continuing education) or fees for out-of-town drivers (out-of-province/country students), but I want to leave these for another time!

Current issues in academia: Why we need blue-sky research

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) executive director James Turk wrote an interesting article about “Why we need blue-sky research”. The term stands for basic research that is conducted out of the researcher’s curiosity, not for a clearly defined result. Examples abound that document how blue-sky research yielded innovations of critical importance to human society and the economy.

Unfortunately, support for basic research requires long-term, strategic thinking that is rare among our politicians. In November 2011, the Ontario government cancelled the “Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence program” in the middle of a call for proposals, which over 100 groups of researchers across the province were working on. On the day of the notification, I had hired a research coordinator to help with putting together a proposal for interdisciplinary research on “Spatial Analysis and Geovisualization in the Social Sciences”. Incidentally, in the week of the ORF cancellation, premier McGuinty announced a new $20m Southwest Ontario development fund to support businesses in creating jobs. My impression from other recent news is that research funds and other support provided to for-profit companies has been found to be largely ineffective in spurring economic growth.

This insight seems equally lost on the federal government, which has mandated the research granting councils to move funds from basic research to targeted, industry-led programs. I am currently working on a proposal that would support a single partner company’s product development. This is an interesting collaboration for me, but I am convinced that the same amount of taxpayers’ money would have a greater long-term effect when invested in curiosity-driven research.

Recognizing mapmakers

“Recognizing mapmakers” is the motto of the National Geographic Map Awards. We are talking serious mapping, by which I mean the professional design of thematic maps that are used for research, planning, and decision-making in a broad range of disciplines.

I am extremely pleased to report that Brad Carter, a parttime student in our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program, won the 2nd place prize of the 2012 National Geographic Award in Mapping. Brad created his award-winning map on “Broken Windows & Violent Crime in Philadelphia” as his final assignment in my course on “Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization” in November 2011. A high-resolution PDF of Brad’s map is available from the CartoNews blog of the American Association of Geographers’ Cartography Specialty Group.

With his map, Brad illustrates crime theories by superimposing social factors (single-mother households), environmental factors (vacant buildings as a proxy for urban decay), and crime incidents. The combination of data from the US Census, the Crime Reports Web site, and from Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access allows the map reader to determine whether the “broken windows theory” can explain the distribution of crime in Philadelphia. The uncommon dasymetric mapping technique used in the large-scale map places aggregate information only in those areas where the phenomenon is likely to exist, instead of uniformly distributing it across the entire enumeration unit. A crime analyst himself, Brad is creating and using this kind of map to support prevention programs and policing operations at Durham Regional Police. In the MSA program, he is working with me on a locally weighted heat vulnerability index (more to come soon;-).