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.

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.

The GEOIDE Network of Centres of Excellence – an era of geomatics research in Canada

The GEOIDE Network of Centres of Excellence is holding its final annual conference as part of the Global Geospatial Conference 2012 in Quebec City. From 1999-2012, GEOIDE brought together some 400 Canadian University researchers and over 1,400 students in collaborative, multi-year projects that spanned Geomatics engineering and the natural, social, and health sciences. At Ryerson, faculty members in Civil Engineering, Geography, and Planning were involved in GEOIDE-funded research. Upon a quick count, at least ten graduate and five undergraduate students contributed to my own research within GEOIDE between 2005-2012. During this time, we developed and tested tools for argumentation mapping to engage stakeholders in spatial planning and decision-making.

An argumentation map combines an online cartographic map of an area of interest, e.g. for urban re-development, with a discussion forum. People interested in, or affected by, a spatial planning or decision-making issue can reference their comments and opinions to specific places in the mapped area. This enables others to read existing posts from either the map view or the threaded structure of the discussion forum. Additionally, decision-makers can investigate hot spots of discussion, the most contentious areas within the plan, as well as the patterns of contribution (by date/time and by participant) during an online public participation period.

Interest in argumentation mapping and related concepts has gained traction with the increasing availability of geospatial Web tools such as Google Maps, OpenLayers, etc., many of which have a global reference map already included (e.g. from the OpenStreetMap initiative). Building on my most frequently cited article in Environment and Planning (2001 – over 90 citations), the GEOIDE network has enabled student research such as the project that led to an article in Computers, Environment and Urban Systems (2008), which draws the link between Web 2.0 concepts and argumentation mapping. That article has 57 citations as of today and is featured as the third-most cited article of the journal since 2007.

Besides the direct funding of graduate student stipends and undergraduate research assistantships and work-study positions, attending the annual GEOIDE summer school was a highlight for a number of students. A series of my students were actively involved in the GEOIDE student network and the planning of the last three summer schools. The network provided a great deal of organizational and leadership experience and valuable professional networking to Ryerson students and helped involve them in cutting-edge research at the intersection of geography, geomatics, planning, and policy studies.

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;-).

Trends in GIScience: Big Data

The Geography Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is notorious for detecting and/or setting trends in the field. In February, they held a panel discussion on “Big Data in Geographic Information Science”. Moderator Dr. Krzysztof Janowicz reports that Big Data are not only characterized by their volume, but also by the variety of their data sources and data types, and by the velocity with which they are accumulated. In geography, Big Data are generated from high-resolution satellite images, transportation simulations, government data published in spatial data infrastructures, volunteered geographic information (e.g., geo-tagged flickr photos, OpenStreetMap data), and geographically referenced social network activity (e.g., twitter messages).

Coincidentally, the Obama administration has just announced a “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” with US$200m research and development funding in the sciences, health, military, and earth science fields. The initiative also aims at new undergraduate and graduate student training in advanced data management and analysis. My students’ research in public participation GIS, volunteered geographic information, geographic visualization, and spatial decision support are contributing to this emerging research area.