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Gaining Work Experience in Russia – My Internship Placement at ESRI CIS

December 22nd, 2016

Guest post by Nikita Markevich, BA in Geographic Analysis candidate, Ryerson University

As an international student, I was facing some bureaucratic hurdles obtaining an internship in Canada. However, my program, the BA in Geographic Analysis, requires the completion of 350 hours of work experience, usually on paid practicum placements in the private or public sector. Given the need to complete this requirement for timely graduation next spring, my attention shifted to my home country, Russia. I was able to arrange an internship with ESRI CIS, the Russian subsidiary of the world-leading Geographic Information Systems (GIS) vendor, ESRI Inc. The placement in Moscow was arranged through the help of networking and contacts I made during the 2015 International Geographical Union conference in Moscow, which I attended as well.

During my placement between May and July 2016, I have obtained valuable experience which shaped my sense of the work environment of a large GIS vendor. I was attached to the GIS specialist team and my supervisor helped me a lot on the first stages of my placement. I was introduced to my project, which involved creation of a massive geo-database coordinated by ESRI software packages, particularly ArcMap 10.2 and ArcCatalog 10.2. I was tasked with data mining routines, maintaining attribute tables and working with relational databases. The project focused on the transformation of polygonal data into a geo-database according to technical standards, which were set by a client.

Once the routine workflow was formed, ESRI offered me a choice of attending additional ESRI certified training courses, from which I completed two: ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 Essential Workflows and ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 Effective Editing. Both courses helped to solidify my skills in editing polygonal data and conduct analyses using geoprocessing tools. Working in an environment with experienced professionals in the GIS field, especially programmers involved in the creation of Web GIS scripts, helped me improve my GIS programming skills, including those, which facilitate and automate routines related to attribute information editing.

Overall, my summer internship at ESRI CIS allowed me to practice and deepen the essential skills of a GIS specialist, which will come as an asset in my employment search in Canada. I also spent some time exploring my hometown – visiting museums and suburbs – and traveling to the neighbouring Baltic countries Latvia and Estonia.

Geography – The Secret Sauce of Data Analytics

November 17th, 2016

For GIS Day 2016, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies joined forces with Environics Analytics, “Canada’s premier marketing and analytical services company”. This year’s Environics Analytics User Conference on November 16 attracted 675 data analysts from 350 organizations and featured 16 client presentations, numerous software demos, and one great party!

eauc2016-alliwitz-secret-sauce eauc2016-alliwitz-tweet-tps-ea-geo

The core role of Geography and location in data analytics was emphasized by many presenters. Environics Analytics founder and president, @statslady Jan Kestle, is quoted with identifying “Geography as the secret sauce” that integrates data for advanced analytics. The Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson University received shout-outs and accolades for training the next generation of data analysts through its BA in Geographic Analysis and MSA in Spatial Analysis programs.

eauc2016-ryersongeo-maps4 eauc2016-alliwitz-msa-students3

We joined the Environics Analytics User Conference with a GIS Day-themed display of geovisualization projects from the MSA cartography course and with a 15-year reunion to celebrate the 2001 class of MSA graduates, the first-ever group of students receiving a graduate degree from Ryerson University. Since then, over 300 students have obtained the MSA degree and joined the ranks of data analysts, who shape the regional economy, public services, and environment.

A timeline of all conference-related tweets can be found at Thank you, Allison Urowitz (@alliwitz), for the pertinent tweets reproduced above.

Leveraging Open Data: International Perspectives Presented at URISA’s GIS-Pro 2016 Conference

November 11th, 2016

Guest post by Sarah Greene (@SarahAGreene), Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) candidate, Ryerson University

This past week, URISA held its 54th annual GIS-Pro conference in Toronto, bringing together GIS professionals and businesses from around the world. The conference provided many interesting sessions including one focused entirely on open data. This session, titled “Leveraging Open Data” (, included government as well as private sector perspectives.

The session began with a presentation from the Government of North Carolina, discussing the importance of metadata. They are currently collaborating with a number of agencies to create and share a metadata profile to help others open up their data and understand how to implement the standards suggested. They have produced a living document which can be accessed through their webpage

The next speaker at the session represented Pitkin County in Colorado. They represent an open data success story with a number of great resources available for download on their website including high quality aerial imagery. An important aspect to their open data project was their engagement with their local community to understand what data should be opened, and then marketing those datasets which were released.

The Government of Ontario was also present as this session, presenting on the current status of open data for the province. The Ontario Government promotes an Open by Default approach and currently has over 500 datasets from 49 agencies available to download through their portal at They are working towards continuing to increase their open datasets available.

A presentation by MapYourProperty ( provided an interesting perspective from the private sector using open data to successfully run their business. They heavily depend on visualizing open data to provide a web-based mapping application for the planning and real estate community to search properties, map zoning information and create a due diligence report based on the information found. This is one example of many that exist in the private sector of open data helping build new companies, or help existing companies thrive.

Lastly, a representative from Esri Canada’s ( BC office wrapped up the session reminding us all of the importance of opening data. This included highlighting the seemingly endless benefits to open data, including providing information to help make decisions, supporting innovation, creating smart cities and building connections. Of course, open data is big business for Esri too, with the addition of ArcGIS Open Data as a hosted open data catalog to the ArcGIS Online platform.

This session showcased some great initiatives taking place in Canada and the United States that are proving the importance of opening up data and how this can be done successfully. It is exciting to see what has been taking place locally and internationally and it will be even more exciting to see what happens in the future, as both geospatial and a-spatial data products continue to become more openly available.

Geographic Analysis Explained through Pokemon GO

August 8th, 2016

Hello, pokemon trainers of the World! Today, I would like to explain Geographic Analysis using the ideas of the Pokemon GO game that you know only too well. I hope that you will return to the game with a good understanding of the geographic concepts and the geospatial technology behind it.

Safe for some serious cheating, you have to move around this thing called THE REAL WORLD with your location-enabled device in order to “catch’em all”. Smartphone producers make it really difficult to manipulate GPS location, because it is such a critical function of your device. So, unless you are truly close to that poke stop, you won’t be able to access its resources: free poke balls, razz berries, etc. In Geography, we often study the location of points-of-interest or services. For example, if you live or work close to a specific shopping mall or hospital, you are likely to use their services at one point or another. Or, if you are far away from a college or university and still choose to pursue higher education, you may have to move in order to be within reach of that institution.

To use a poke stop or gym, or to catch a pokemon, you do not need to be at their exact coordinate locations, but you need them to appear within your proximity circle as you move around. In Geographic Analysis, we often examine this “reach”, or catchment area, that is defined by proximity to locations of interest. For example, when a coffee chain looks to open a new store, Geographers will examine their competitors’ locations and surrounding neighbourhood profiles to determine whether there is a gap in coverage or whether there are catchment areas that include enough people of the right demographic to support an additional cafe. In Retail Geography, we call these areas “trade areas”. That’s why you can find clusters of Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, and/or Starbucks at major intersections where the geodemographics are favourable – yes, this is likely a Geospatial Analyst’s work! And that’s also why you can find clusters of poke stops in some of your favourite busy locations.

To support business decision-making, AKA “location intelligence”, Geographers use data on population, household incomes and employment, the movement of people, and the built environment. If you have ever “watched” for different locations, you will have noticed great variation in the pokemon spawn density and frequency. For example, in our screenshots below you can see tons of pokemon in downtown Toronto, but not a single one in an area of rural Ontario. Similarly, there are dozens of poke stops and several gyms within walking distance in the City but a lone poke stop in rural Ontario. The Pokemon GO vendor, Niantic, seems to be using geodemographics in determining where pokemon will spawn. They make it more likely for pokemon to spawn where there are “clients”: that is, yourselves, the trainers/players.

(a)IMG_0035 (b)IMG_0042 (c)IMG_0099

Fig. 1: poke stops locations and pokemon appearances in downtown Toronto (a, b), compared to rural Ontario (c)

Geographic space is a unique dimension that critically influences our lives and societies. The spatial distribution of people and things is something that Geographers are studying. Just like the spawning of pokemon in general, the appearance of the different types of pokemon is not randomly distributed either. For example, it has been shown that water-type pokemon are more likely to appear near water bodies. See all those Magicarps near the Toronto lakefront in the screenshot below? A few types of pokemon even seem restricted to one continent such as Tauros in North-America and won’t appear on another (e.g., Europe). The instructions by “Professor Willow” upon installation of the app actually refer to this regional distribution of pokemon. I also believe that the points-of-interest, such as buildings, that serve as poke stops, determine the pokemon type spawning near them. For example, the Ontario Power Building at College St. and University Ave. in Toronto regularly spawns an Elektrabuzz, as shown in the last screenshot below.

(a)IMG_0026 (b)pokemon_cluster-of-magicarps-at-lakefront (c)algorithmic-regulation_aka-pokemon-go

Fig.2: (a), “Professor Willow” explaining his interest in studying the regional distribution of pokemon (what a great-looking Geographer he is!); screenshots of with (a) Magicarps at the Toronto lakefront and (b) an Elektrabuzz near the Ontario Power Building

In Environmental Geography, we often analyze (non-pokemon) species distribution, which is also not random. The availability of suitable habitat is critical, just like for pokemon. In addition, spatial interactions between species are important – remember the food chain you learned about in school. I am not sure that different pokemon types interact with one another; maybe that could be the topic of your first course project, as you enter a Geography program at university?

The techniques that we use within Geographic Information Systems (GIS) include suitability mapping, distance and buffer analysis, and distance decay. Distance decay means that it is becoming less and less likely to encounter a species as you move away from suitable habitat. Or in the business field, it is becoming less and less likely that people will shop at a specific mall the further away they live from it. A buffer is an area of a specified distance around a point, line, or polygon, just like the proximity circle around your pokemon avatar. GIS software can determine if other features are within the buffer around a location. Instead of enabling access to poke stops or gyms around your avatar, Geographers would use buffer analysis to determine which residents have access to public transit, e.g. if they are within walking distance of 500m or 1km of a transit stop.

A final thought about how Pokemon GO has brought Geography to the headlines concerns important professional and societal challenges that Geographers can tackle. These range from map design and online map functionality to crowdsourcing of geospatial data, as well as the handling of big data, privacy concerns, and ultimately the control of people’s locations and movement. The now-defunct Web map used Esri online mapping technology, one of the world-leading vendors of GIS software and promoters of professional Geography. Another approach, which is used by, has trainers (users) report/upload their pokemon sightings in real-time. This geospatial crowdsourcing comes with a host of issues around the accuracy of, and bias in, the crowdsourced data as well as the use of free labour. For example, poke stops were created by players of a previous location-based game called “Ingress” and are now used by Niantic in a for-profit venture – Pokemon GO! Finally, you have all read about the use and misuse of lure to attract people to poke stops at different times of day and night. The City of Toronto recently requested the removal of poke stops near the popular island ferry terminal for reasons of pedestrian control and safety. Imagine how businesses or government could in the future control our movement in real space with more advanced games.

I hope I was able to explain how Pokemon GO is representative of the much larger impact of Geography on our everyday lives and how Geographers prepare and make very important, long-term decisions in business and government on the basis of geospatial data analysis. Check out our BA in Geographic Analysis or MSA in Spatial Analysis programs to find out more and secure a meaningful and rewarding career in Geography. And good luck hunting and training more pokemon!

GIS Day 2015 at Ryerson – A Showcase of Geographic Information System Research and Applications

November 3rd, 2015

Ryerson students, faculty, staff, and the local community are invited to explore and celebrate Geographic Information Systems (GIS) research and applications. Keynote presentations will outline the pervasive use of geospatial data analysis and mapping in business, municipal government, and environmental applications. Research posters, software demos, and course projects will further illustrate the benefits of GIS across all sectors of society.

Date: Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Time: 1:00pm-5:00pm
Location: Library Building, 4th Floor, LIB-489 (enter at 350 Victoria Street, proceed to 2nd floor, and take elevators inside the library to 4th floor)

Tentative schedule:

  • 1:00 Soft kick-off, posters & demos
  • 1:25 Welcome
  • 1:30-2:00 Dr. Namrata Shrestha, Senior Landscape Ecologist, Toronto & Region Conservation Authority
  • 2:00-2:30 posters & demos
  • 2:30-3:00 Andrew Lyszkiewicz, Program Manager, Information & Technology Division, City of Toronto
  • 3:00-3:30 posters & demos
  • 3:30-4:00 Matthew Cole, Manager, Business Geomatics, and William Davis, Cartographer and Data Analyst, The Toronto Star
  • 4:00 GIS Day cake!
  • 5:00 End

GIS Day is a global event under the motto “Discovering the World through GIS”. It takes place during National Geographic’s Geography Awareness Week, which in 2015 is themed “Explore! The Power of Maps”, and aligns with the United Nations-supported International Map Year 2015-2016.

Event co-hosted by the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies and the Geospatial Map & Data Centre. Coffee/tea and snacks provided throughout the afternoon. Contact: Dr. Claus Rinner

Looking for a secure, laid-back, and meaningful job in a growing field? Get into Geography!

July 10th, 2015

This text was first posted as a guest contribution to WhyRyerson?, the Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment blog at Ryerson University. Images were added after the initial posting.

Geography@Ryerson is different. Atlases, globes, and Google Maps are nice pastimes, but we are more interested in OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, and GeoDA. We map global flight paths, tweets, invasive species, and shoplifters. As a student in Geographic Analysis you will gain real-world, or rather real-work, experience during your studies. This degree is unique among Geo programs in Ontario, if not in Canada, for its career focus.


Mapping global flight paths.
(Source: Toronto Star, 24 May 2013

The BA in Geographic Analysis has a 40-year record of placing graduates in planning and decision-making jobs across the public and private sectors. Jobs include Data Technician, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist, Geospatial Analyst, Mapping Technologist, GIS Consultant, Environmental Analyst, Market Research Analyst, Real-Estate Analyst, Crime Analyst, and many more. You name the industry or government branch, we’ll tell you what Geographers are doing for them. And these jobs are secure: Many are within government, or, if they are in the private sector, they tend to be in units that make businesses more efficient (and therefore are essential themselves!).

And these are great jobs, too. In November 2013, GIS Specialists were characterized as a low-stress job by CNN Money/PayScale. There were half a million positions in the US, with an expected 22% growth over 10 years, and a median pay of US$53,400 per year. In their previous survey, Market Research Analysts had made the top-10, with over a quarter million jobs, over 40% expected growth, and a median pay of US$63,100. The 2010 survey described GIS Analyst as a stress-free job with a median salary of US$75,000.


Mapping Technologist, one of Canada’s best jobs!
(Source: Canadian Business, 23 April 2015)

Closer to home, in April 2015 Canadian Business magazine put Mapping Technologists among the top-10 of all jobs in Canada! They note that “The explosion of big data and the growing need for location-aware hardware and software has led to a boom in the field of mapping”. With a median salary of CA$68,640, a 25% salary growth, and a 20% increase in jobs over five years, “this class of technology workers will pave the way”. According to Service Canada, “Mapping and related technologists and technicians gather, analyze, interpret and use geospatial information for applications in natural resources, geology, environment and land use planning. […] They are employed by all levels of government, the armed forces, utilities, mapping, computer software, forestry, architectural, engineering and consulting firms”. Based on the excellent reputation of our program in the Toronto area, you can add the many jobs in the business, real-estate, social, health, and safety fields to this list!


Sample applications of Geographic Analysis
(Source: Google image search)

While you may find the perspective of a well-paid, laid-back job in a growing field attractive enough, there is more to being a Ryerson-trained Geographer. Your work will help make important decisions in society. This could be with the City of Toronto or a Provincial or Federal ministry, where you turn geospatial data into maps and decision support tools in fields such as environmental assessment, social policy, parks and forestry, waste management, immigration, crime prevention, natural resources management, utilities, transportation, … . Or, you may find yourself analysing socio-economic data and crime incidents for a regional police service in order to guide their enforcement officers, as well as crime prevention and community outreach activities. Many of our graduates work for major retail or real-estate companies determining the best branch locations, efficient delivery of products and services, or mapping and forecasting population and competitors. Or you could turn your expertise into a highly profitable free-lance GIS and mapping consultancy.

Geography is one of the broadest fields of study out there, which can be intimidating. Geography@Ryerson however is different, as we provide you with a “toolkit” to turn your interest in the City, the region, and the world, and your fascination with people and the environment, into a fulfilling, secure, laid-back, yet meaningful job!

My takeaways from AAG 2015

May 21st, 2015

The 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in Chicago is long gone – time for a summary of key lessons and notable ideas taken home from three high-energy conference days.

Choosing which sessions to attend, was the first major challenge, as there were over ninety (90!) parallel sessions scheduled in many time slots. I put my program together based on presentations by Ryerson colleagues and students ( and those given by colleagues and students of the Geothink project (, as well as by looking through the presenter list and finding sessions sponsored by select AAG specialty groups (notably GIScience and Cartography). Abstracts for the presentations mentioned in this blog can be found via the “preliminary” conference program at

Upon arrival, I was impressed by the size and wealth of the industrial and transportation infrastructure in Chicago as well as the volume of the central business district, as seen from the airport train and when walking around in the downtown core.

aag-photo1 aag-photo3

My conference started on Wednesday, 22 April 2015, with Session 2186 “Cartography in and out of the Classroom: Current Educational Practices“. In a diverse set of presentations, Pontus Hennerdal from Stockholm University presented an experiment with a golf-like computer game played on a Mercator-projected world map to help children understand map projections. Pontus also referred to the issue of “world map continuity” using an animated film that is available on his homepage at In the second presentation, Jeff Howarth from Middlebury College assessed the relationship between spatial thinking skills of students and their ability to learn GIS. This research was motivated by an anonymous student comment about a perceived split of GIS classes into those students who “get it” vs. those who don’t. Jeff notes that spatial thinking along with skills in orientation, visualization, and a sense of direction sets students up for success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses, including GIS. Next was Cindy Brewer, Head of the Department of Geography at Penn State University, with an overview of additions and changes to the 2nd edition of her Esri Press book “Designing Better Maps”. The fourth presentation was given by David Fairbairn of Newcastle, Chair of the Commission on Education and Training of the International Cartographic Association. David examined the accreditation of cartography-related programs of study globally, and somewhat surprisingly, reported his conclusion that cartography may not be considered a profession and accreditation would bring more disadvantages (incl. management, liability, barriers to progress) than benefits to the discipline. Finally, Kenneth Field of Esri took the stage to discuss perceptions and misconceptions of cartography and the cartographer. These include the rejection of the “map police” when trained cartographers dare to criticize the “exploratory playful” maps created by some of today’s map-makers (see my post at

A large part of the remainder of Wednesday was spent in a series of sessions on “Looking Backwards and Forwards in Participatory GIS“. Of particular note the presentations by Renee Sieber, professor of many things at McGill and leader of the Geothink SSHRC Partnership Grant (, and Mike McCall, senior researcher at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Renee spoke thought-provokingly, as usual, about “frictionless civic participation”. She observes how ever easier-to-use crowdsourcing tools are reducing government-citizen interactions to customer relationships, and participation is becoming a product being delivered efficiently, rather than a democratic process that engages citizens in a meaningful way. Mike spoke about the development of Participatory GIS (PGIS) in times of volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, arguing to operationalize VGI within PGIS. The session also included a brief discussion among members of the audience and presenters about the need for base maps or imagery as a backdrop for PGIS – an interesting question, as my students and I are arguing that “seed contents” will help generate meaningful discussion, thus going even beyond including just a base map. Finally, two thoughts brought forward by Muki Haklay of University College London: Given the “GIS chauffeurs” of early-day PGIS projects, he asked whether we continue to need such facilitators in times of Renee Sieber’s frictionless participation? And, he observed that the power of a printed map brought to a community development meeting is still uncontestable. Muki’s extensive raw notes from the AAG conference can be found on his blog at

In the afternoon, I dropped in to Session 2478, which celebrated David Huff’s contribution to applied geography and business. My colleague Tony Hernandez chaired and co-organized the session, in which Tony Lea, Senior VP Research of Toronto-based Environics Analytics and instructor in our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program, and other business geographers paid tribute to the Huff model for predicting consumers’ spatial behaviour (such as the probability of patronizing specific store locations). Members of the Huff family were also present to remember the man behind the model, who passed away in Summer 2014. A written tribute by Tony Lea can be found at

Also on my agenda was a trip to the AAG vendor expo, where I was pleased to see my book – “Multicriteria Decision Analysis in Geographic Information Science” – in the Springer booth!


Thursday, 23 April 2015, began with an 8am session on “Spatial Big Data and Everyday Life“. In a mixed bag of presentations, Till Straube of Goethe University in Frankfurt asked “Where is Big Data?”; Birmingham’s Agnieszka Leszczynski argued that online users are more concerned with controlling their personal location data than with how they are ultimately used; Kentucky’s Matt Wilson showed select examples from half a century of animated maps that span the boundary between data visualization and art; Monica Stephens of the University at Buffalo discussed the rural exclusions of crowdsourced big data and characterized Wikipedia articles about rural towns in the US as Mad Libs based on Census information; and finally, Edinburgh’s Chris Speed conducted an IoT self test, in which he examined the impact of an Internet-connected toilet paper holder on family dynamics…

The remainder of Thursday was devoted to CyberGIS and new directions in mapping. The panel on “Frontiers in CyberGIS Education” was very interesting in that many of the challenges reported in teaching CyberGIS really are persistent challenges in teaching plain-old GIS. For example, panelists Tim Nyerges, Wenwen Li, Patricia Carbajalas, Dan Goldberg, and Britta Ricker noted the difficulty of getting undergraduate students to take more than one or two consecutive GIS courses; the challenge of teaching advanced GIS concepts such as enterprise GIS and CyberGIS (which I understand to mean GIS-as-a-service); and the nature of Geography as a “discovery major”, i.e. a program that attracts advanced students who are struggling in their original subjects. One of the concluding comments from the CyberGIS panel was a call to develop interdisciplinary, data-centred program – ASU’s GIScience program was named as an example.

Next, I caught the first of two panels on “New Directions in Mapping“, organized by Stamen’s Alan McConchie, Britta Ricker of U Washington at Tacoma, and Kentucky’s Matt Zook. A panel consisting of representative of what I call the “quick-service mapping” industry (Google, Mapbox, MapZen, Stamen) talked about job qualifications and their firms’ relation to academic teaching and research. We heard that “Geography” has an antiquated connotation and sounds old-fashioned, that the firms use “geo” to avoid the complexities of “geography”, and that geography is considered a “niche” field. My hunch is that geography is perhaps rather too broad (and “geo” even broader), but along with Peter Johnson’s (U Waterloo) comment from the audience, I must also admit that you don’t need to be a geographer to make maps, just like you don’t have to be a mathematician to do some calculations. Tips for students interested in working for the quick-service mapping industry included to develop a portfolio, practice their problem-solving and other soft skills, and know how to use platforms such as GitHub (before learning to program). A telltale tweet summarizing the panel discussion:

Thursday evening provided an opportunity to practice some burger cartography. It was time for the “Iron Sheep” hackathon organized by the FloatingSheep collective of academic geographers. Teams of five were given a wild dataset of geolocated tweets and a short 90-or-so minute time frame to produce some cool & funny map(s) and win a trophy for the best or worst or inbetween product. It was interesting to see how a group of strangers new to the competition and with no clue about how to get started, would end up producing a wonderful map such as this :-)


My last day at AAG 2015, Friday, April 24, took off with a half-day technical workshop on “Let’s Talk About Your Geostack”. The four active participants got a tremendous amount of attention from instructor-consultant @EricTheise. Basically, I went from zero to 100 in terms of having PostgreSQL, PostGIS, Python, NodeJS, and TileMill installed and running on my laptop – catching up within four hours with the tools that some of my students have been talking about, and using, in the last couple of years!

In the afternoon, attention turned to OpenStreetMap (OSM), with a series of sessions organized by Muki Haklay, who argues that OSM warrants its own branch of research, OpenStreetMap Studies. I caught the second session which started with Salzburg’s Martin Loidl showing an approach in development to detect and correct attribute (tag) inconsistencies in OSM based on information contained in the OSM data set (intrinsic approach). Geothink co-investigator Peter Johnson of UWaterloo presented preliminary results of his study of OSM adoption (or lack thereof) by municipal government staff. In eight interviews with Canadian city staff, Peter did not find a single official use of OSM. Extensive discussions followed the set of four presentations, making for a highly informative session. One of the fundamental questions raised was whether OSM is distinct enough from other VGI and citizen science projects that it merits its own research approach. While typically considered one of the largest crowdmapping projects, it was noted that participation is “shallow” (Muki Haklay) with only 10k active users among 2 million registered users. Martin Loidl had noted that OSM is focused on geometry data, yet with a flat structure and no standards other than those agreed-upon via the OSM wiki. Alan McConchie added the caution that OSM contributions only make it onto the map if they are included in the “style” files used to render OSM data. Other issues raised by Alan included the privacy of contributors and questions about authority. For example, contributors should be aware of the visualization and statistics tools developed by Pascal Neis at! We were reminded that Muki Haklay has developed a code of engagement for researchers studying OSM (read the documentation, experience actively contributing, explore the data, talk to the OSM community, publish open access, commit to knowledge transfer). Muki summarized the debate by suggesting that academics should act as “critical friends” vis-à-vis the OSM community and project. To reconcile “OSM Studies” with VGI, citizen science, and the participatory Geoweb, I’d refer to the typology of user contributions developed by Rinner & Fast (2014). In that paper, we do in fact single out OSM (along with Wikimapia) as a “crowd-mapping” application, yet within a continuum of related Geoweb applications.

About Quick-Service Mapping and Lines in the Sand

April 4th, 2015

A walk on the beach along the still-frozen Georgian Bay has helped me sort some thoughts regarding fast food cartography, quick-service mapping, and naturally occurring vs. artificial lines in the sand … but first things first: This post refers to a debate about Twitter mapping and neo-cartography that is raging on blogs across the planet and will flare up in the Geoweb chat on Twitter this Tuesday, Update: #geowebchat transcript prepared by Alan McConchie available at

Lines in the sand (Photos: Claus Rinner)

Lines in the sand (Photos: Claus Rinner)

A few days ago, The Atlantic’s CityLab published an article entitled “Why Most Twitter Maps Can’t Be Trusted”, There have been other cautions that Twitter maps often just show where people live or work – and thus where they tweet. Along similar lines, a comic at xkcd illustrates how heatmaps of anything often just show population concentrations – “The business implications are clear!”,

The CityLab article incited Andrew Hill, senior scientist at CartoDB and mapping instructor at New York University, to respond with a polemic “In defense of burger cartography”, In it, Hill replies to critics of novel map types by stating “The dogma of cartography is certain to be overturned by new discoveries, preferences, and norms from now until forever.” He likens the good people at CartoDB (an online map service) with some action movie characters who will move cartography beyond its “local optima [sic]”. Hill offers his personal label for the supposedly-new “exploratory playfulness with maps”: burger cartography.

Examples of CartoDB-based tweet maps in the media (Source: Taylor Shelton)

Examples of CartoDB-based tweet maps in the media (Source: Taylor Shelton)

The core portion of Hill’s post argues that CartoDB’s Twitter maps make big numbers such as 32 million tweets understandable, as in the example of an animated map of tweets during the 2014 soccer world cup final. I find nothing wrong with this point, as it does not contradict the cautions against wrong conclusions from Twitter maps. However, the rest of Hill’s post is written in such a derogatory tone that it has drawn a number of well-thought responses from other cartographers:

  • Kenneth Field, Senior Cartographic Product Engineer at Esri and an avid blogger and tweeter of all things cartography, provides a sharp, point-by-point rebuttal of Hill’s post – lamenting the “Needless lines in the sand”, The only point I disagree with is the title, since I think we actually do need some lines in the sand (see below).
  • James Cheshire, Lecturer and geospatial visualization expert at University College London, Department of Geography, supports “Burger Cartography”,, but shows that “Hill’s characterisation of cartography … is just wrong”.
  • Taylor Shelton, “pseudopositivist geographer”, PhD candidate at Clark University, and co-author of the study that triggered this debate, writes “In defense of map critique”, Shelton reveals Hill’s oversimplification by pointing to the need to consider context when interpreting maps, and to the “plenty of other ways that we can make maps of geotagged tweets without just ‘letting the data speak for themselves’.”

Extending the fast food metaphor, CartoDB can be described as a quick-service mapping platform – an amazing one at that, which is very popular with our students (more on that in a future post). I am pretty sure that CartoDB’s designers and developers generally respect cartographic design guidelines, and in fact have benefited commercially from implementing them. However, most of us do not live from fast food (= CartoDB, MapBox, Google Maps) alone. We either cook at home (e.g., R with ggplot2, QGIS; see my previous post on recent Twitter mapping projects by students) or treat ourselves to higher-end cuisine (e.g., ArcMap, MapInfo, MAPublisher), if we can afford it.

I fully expect that new mapping pathways, such as online public access to data and maps, crowdmapping, and cloud-based software-as-a-service, entail novel map uses, to which some existing cartographic principles will not apply. But dear Andrew Hill, this is a natural evolution of cartography, not a “goodbye old world”! Where the established guidelines are not applicable, we will need new ones – surely CartoDB developers and CartoDB users will be at the forefront of making these welcome contributions to cartography.

MacEachren's Some Truth with Maps (Source:

MacEachren’s Some Truth with Maps (Source:

While I did not find many naturally occurring lines in the Georgian Bay sand this afternoon, I certainly think society needs to draw lines, including those that distinguish professional expertise from do-it-yourselfism. I trust trained map-makers (such as our Geographic Analysis and Spatial Analysis graduates!) to make maps that work and are as truthful as possible. We have a professional interest in critically assessing developments in GIS and mapping technologies and taking them up where suitable. The lines in the sand will be shifting, but to me they will continue to exist: separating professional and DIY cartographers, mapping for presentation of analysis results vs. exploratory playing with maps, quantitative maps vis-a-vis the map as a story … Of course, lines in the sand are pretty easy to cross, too!

Ryerson Geographic Analysis students put restaurants, airports, cities, and cropland on the map!

February 25th, 2015

Blog post authored by Claus Rinner and Victoria Fast

In response to a recent lab assignment in GEO441 “Geographic information Science”, 49 second-year Geographic Analysis students selected a crowdmapping application and actively contributed valuable geographic information.

The most popular choice was the global OpenStreetMap initiative ( From updating the name and hours of their favourite restaurant or adding their local bank to a plaza, to identifying community gardens, adding a newly built hospital or geocoding new condos, the students used their local knowledge of the GTA to update and expand the freely accessible OpenStreetMap dataset.


For example, second-year Geographic Analysis student Stephanie Dizonno added a restaurant, George’s Pizza, to a set of businesses already represented along Toronto’s Dundas Street East.

ksmith-osm-airportSome of the more unusual edits were made by GEO441 student Kyle Smith, who is a recreational pilot. Kyle corrected and added key features to a local airport, such as a taxiway, the airport restaurant, and the apron, which we learned is the paved area used for aircraft parking. An essential part of his contribution was to update “crucial attribute data about the airport’s characteristics using the Canadian Flight Supplement,” writes Kyle.

In addition to OpenStreetMap, other students elected to contribute to Wikimapia, Cropland Capture, Night Cities, and the David Rumsey Map Collection. For example, instead of the point, line, polygon, and/or attribute data added to OpenStreetMap, the Cropland Capture online game ( has ‘players’ indicate whether or not a given satellite image includes agricultural land. Mooez Munshi highlights the relevance of his contribution: “The geographic data collected will help in building a map that shows all of the world’s cropland.”


Geographic Analysis student Daniel Bocknek elected to geographically reference a 100-year old map from the David Rumsey Map Collection ( showing the Aberfoyle area in Scotland. After identifying at least three control points on both the historic map and a contemporary basemap such as OpenStreetMap or Google Maps, the historic map is automatically geo-referenced and can be integrated with other GIS data as shown in Daniel’s screenshot above.

A similar approach is used by the Night Cities application ( to geo-locate photographs of world cities taken at night by astronauts on board the ISS. In his GEO441 assignment, Navdeep Salooja explains that this project involves “citizen scientists”, like himself, in research about global night-time light pollution.

Overall, the 49 Ryerson students contributed important bits (and bytes) to the growing body of volunteered geographic information, while experiencing the broad applicability of geographic knowledge and principles of geographic information science to real-world issues.