News from the Sabbatical Front

Wikipedia tells us that a sabbatical is “a rest from work”. And in our collective agreement, Ryerson University “acknowledges the importance of sabbatical leave to the intellectual vibrancy of the Faculty and therefore of the University.” Indeed, the triad of a professor’s duties in teaching, research, and administrative service is often shifted towards teaching and service, because many research tasks are more flexible to schedule than courses and committee meetings, and therefore tend to be postponed if time is scarce. In stark contrast to the introductory note, a sabbatical is NOT a year off (as some of my non-academic friends are thinking), but a year (or half-year) focused on research with no teaching and service duties.

Having half days or even full days available for writing has been a unique experience in the first two months of my sabbatical. The outcome so far: five journal articles under review, by far the most I have had “out there” simultaneously at any time in my career. Two of these are with Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) students who completed their major research papers in August/September; one is with a former student in collaboration with Toronto Public Health; one is with a former postdoc in collaboration with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; and one is led by a colleague in collaboration with the Injury Prevention Research Office at St. Michael’s Hospital. In addition, I have worked on a manuscript with an MSA grad from two years ago in collaboration with a colleague in Ryerson’s School of Journalism, as well as another manuscript with a former Geographic Analysis student of mine. These are still in progress, and several more manuscripts as well as a book project are lined up for the coming months!

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the last few weeks though is a 250-word abstract submitted tonight for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in April 2013. Together with my PhD student Victoria Fast, we are proposing an exciting new perspective on the burgeoning phenomenon of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). Basically, we are saying that there is no such thing as VGI! That’s because what researchers call VGI is really just user-contributed data. We argue that information cannot be volunteered; instead, it is a meaningful system output that is generated from volunteered geographic data (VGD) for the purpose of answering a question. We think that this systems perspective on VGI provides a framework for VGI research and will eventually help devise more effective geospatial Web applications.

Visual Analytics for Spatio-Temporal Data

I am starting my sabbatical year with a long overdue participation in the GIScience conference series. GIScience 2012 is taking place at Ohio State University. There was an excellent selection of pre-conference workshops today, of which I attended the one on “GeoVisual Analytics, Time to Focus on Time”, see GeoVA(t) 2012.

I presented research completed last fall by Master of Spatial Analysis student Andrew Lee under my supervision. We used a technology called “Self- Organizing Maps” to visualize changes in socio-economic status of Toronto neighbourhoods between 1996 and 2006. The presentation garnered a short but intense discussion of the limitations of the SOM technology – something to look at in future research!

Other presentations of interest introduced the “Great Wall of Space-Time”, a wall-like 3D visualization for time series data; interactive temporal zoom & pan tools using multi-touch displays; and another SOM-based cluster analysis for weather data, in which the “Multiple Temporal Unit Problem” was discussed (in analogy to geography’s well-known multiple areal unit problem). All workshop slides will be made available by the organizers at the above Web site.