Toronto’s Traffic Lights Re-Visited and Animated

My map of Toronto’s traffic signals described in a post on April 4th, 2014, was recently published on the title page of Cartouche, the newsletter of the Canadian Cartographic Association (CCA). This is my first-ever published map that is stand-alone, not included in an article or other text document! Here is a screenshot of the newsletter title:


Motivated by this unexpected outcome and using the occasion of the launch event of Maptime Toronto on May 29th, 2014, I wanted to try animating the dots representing the traffic signals. More precisely, each traffic light should iterate through a green-yellow-red sequence, and each mid-block pedestrian crossing should go through an off-blinking-off sequence. I was aiming for an animated GIF image with ten frames displayed in a continuous loop.

To create the colour sequences for each dot in QGIS, I copied the last digit of an existing  feature ID from the City of Toronto traffic signals data table into a new field to act as a random group assignment. Using a suggestion by Michael Markieta, I then created nine additional integer fields and cycled through the group numbers by adding 1. To keep these numbers in the 0…9 range, I used QGIS’ “modulo” function, e.g. Cycle1 = (“Cycle2” + 1) % 10. I then assigned the green, yellow, and red dot symbols from the static traffic lights map as a categorized “style” to different group numbers. Finally, I manually iterated the symbology through the ten group columns and took a screenshot each time. I put these together in the animated GIF shown below.


I must admit that I am not super convinced of the outcome. Maybe, ten frames are not enough to overcome the clocked appearance of the traffic signal system. But at least, things are moving now :)

It is important to note that this animation does not show the real-time status of the traffic lights! In fact, there is only one dot for an entire intersection that would include two to four sets of vehicle traffic lights, plus pedestrian lights, etc. – all represented by the same green-yellow-red cycle on the map. I also made the assumption that the green and red phases are the same length (4 out of 10 ticks each, with the remaining 2 ticks used for the yellow phase). You will note that the mid-block crossings have an active phase with three on-off cycles followed by a longer off phase. In this case, it would be fancier to individually control each crossing and have it come on randomly.


Big Data – Déjà Vu in Geographic Information Science

A couple of years ago, one of my first blog posts here was a brief note on “Trends in GIScience: Big Data”. Although not at the core of my research interests, the discussions and developments around big data continue to influence my work. In an analysis of “The Pathologies of Big Data”, Adam Jacobs notes that “What makes most big data big is repeated observations over time and/or space”. Indeed, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) researchers and professionals have been working with large datasets for decades. During my PhD in the late 1990s, the proceedings of the “Very Large Data Bases” (VLDB) conference series were a relevant resource. I am not sure what distinguishes big data from large data, though I don’t have the space nor time to discuss this further.

Instead, I want to draw a first link between big data and my research on geovisual analytics. In an essay on “The End of Theory”, Chris Anderson famously argued that with sufficiently large data volumes, the “numbers [would] speak for themselves”. As researchers, we know that data are a rather passive species and the most difficult stage in many research projects is to determine the right questions to ask of your data, or to guide the collection of data to begin with. The more elaborate critiques of the big data religion include a recent article by Tim Harford on “Big data: are we making a big mistake?” Harford points to the flawed assumption that n=all in big data collection (not everybody tweets, has a smartphone, or even a credit card!) and argues that we are at risk of repeating statistical mistakes, only at the larger scale of big data. Harford also characterizes some big data as “found data” from the “digital exhaust” of people’s activities, such as Web searches. This makes me worried about the polluted analyses that will be based on such data!

On a more positive note, cartographers have argued for using interactive visualization as a means to analyse complex spatial datasets. For example, Alan MacEachren’s 1994 map use cube defines geovisualization as the expert use of highly interactive maps to discover unknown spatial patterns. On this basis, I understand geovisual analytics as an efficient and effective approach to “making the data speak”. For example, in Rinner & Taranu (2006) we concluded that “an interactive mapping tool is worth a thousand numbers” (p. 647), which may actually underestimate the potential of map-based data exploration. Along similar lines, I noted in Rinner (2007) that data (read: small data) can quickly become complex (read: big data), when they are subject to analytical processing. For example, in a composite index created from a few indicators for the 140 social planning neighbourhoods in the Wellbeing Toronto tool, changes in the indicator set, weights assigned to indicators, and normalization and standardization applied, will create an exponentially growing set of potential indices. The interactive, geovisual nature of the tool will help analysts to draw reasonable conclusions for decision-makers.

A second link exists between big data and my research on the participatory Geoweb. In this research, we examine how the Geoweb is changing interactions between government and citizens. On the one hand, government data are being released in open data catalogues for all to enjoy – i.e., use for scrutinizing public service, developing value-added products or services, or just to play with cool map and app designs. On the other hand, governments start to rely on crowdsourcing to fill gaps in data where shrinking budgets are limiting authoritative data collection and maintenance. In this context of “volunteered geographic information” (VGI), we argue that we need to consider the entire VGI system, including the hardware and software, user-generated data, and the application and people involved, in order to fully understand the emerging phenomenon. We also took up the study of different types of VGI, such as facilitated VGI in contrast to ambient VGI. Of these two types, ambient or “involuntary” VGI is connected with big data and the “digital exhaust” discussed above, as it consists of information collected from large numbers of users without their knowledge.

Again, geographers are in a strong position to examine big data resulting from ambient VGI, as location plays a major role in the VGI system. The 2014 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) included a high-profile panel on big data, their impact on real people, asymmetries in location privacy, and the role of “big money” in big data analytics. In contrast to previous discourse, in which geographers often limited themselves to deploring the disconnect between the social sciences and the developments in computer science and information technology, at AAG 2014 a tendency to more confident commentary and critique of big data and other unreflected IT developments was tangible. We need to understand the societal risks of global data collection and (geo)surveillance, and explain why if you let the data speak for themselves, you may earn a Big Silence or make bad decisions.

Both, my research on Wellbeing Toronto and place-specific policy-making as well as the Geothink partnership studying the Geoweb and government-citizen interactions are funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). While supporting research into the opportunities provided by big data, I think that SSHRC is best positioned among the granting councils to also fund critical research on the risks and side effects of big data.

Ryerson Geographers at the Upcoming CAG Meeting

Guest post by Dr. K. Wayne Forsythe:

The Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) 2014 Annual Meeting will be held at Brock University from May 26-30. It is part of the larger 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

A number of Ryerson Geographers are taking part. The papers and sessions are as follows:

1) TUE-08:30 POSTER SESSION – Physical Geography, Environmental Geography, Climate Change (Mackenzie Chown Complex C407). Posters will be displayed all day.

K. Wayne Forsythe, Meghan McHenry, Stephen J. Swales, Joseph M. Aversa, Daniel J. Jakubek, Ryerson University.
Bathymetric Visualization of Contaminated Sediments in Lake Ontario

2) TUE-13:30 Geographies of Health and Wellbeing I (Mackenzie Chown Complex D400).
Chair: Gavin J. Andrews, McMaster University

Eric Vaz, Ryerson University; Michael Cusimano, University of Toronto; Tony Hernandez, Ryerson University.
Spatial heterogeneity of self-reported health in Toronto: Exploratory analysis of anthropogenic land use phenotypes

3) TUE-15:30 Geographies of Health and Wellbeing II (Mackenzie Chown Complex D400).
Chair: Allison Williams, McMaster University

Peter Kedron, Rajiv Lalla, Adam Mckay, Ryerson University
A Study of Within Group Inequality in the Geographic Distribution of HIV/AIDS in Thailand

4) WED-10:30 Selling the City (Mackenzie Chown Complex D400).
Chair: Phillip Gordon Mackintosh, Brock University

Chris Daniel, Tony Hernandez, Ryerson University
Scale effects on retail co-location analysis

5) WED-13:30 Critical Legal Geographies (Mackenzie Chown Complex D303).
Sponsorship: Indigenous Peoples Working Group; Historical Geography Study Group; Social Justice Research Institute (SJRI), Brock University
Special Session Organizers: Vanessa Sloan Morgan, Dalhousie University; Laura Schaefli,
Queen’s University
Chair: Vanessa Sloan Morgan, Dalhousie University

Valentina Capurri, Ryerson University
The Chester Case: the Canadian Immigration Act and the interconnections between law and spatiality in the lives of immigrant applicants with disabilities

6) WED-15:30 Possibilities and Limits of Scholarly Activism In and Outside of the Classroom II: How to Bring Academy to Activism (Mackenzie Chown Complex C405).
Sponsorship: Social Justice Research Institute (SJRI), Brock University
Special Session Organizers: Ebru Ustundag, Brock University; Emily Eaton, University of Regina
Moderator: Ebru Ustundag, Brock University
Fran Klodawsky, Carleton University
Valentina Capurri, Ryerson University
Vanessa Sloan Morgan, Dalhousie University
Emily Eaton, University of Regina

7) THU-10:30 Urban Inequalities in Canadian and US Cities – Exploring the Interconnections among Housing, Food Insecurity, and Environmental Justice I: Exploring the Links Between Housing and Food Security (Mackenzie Chown Complex C405).
Sponsorship: Social Justice Research Institute (SJRI), Brock University
Special Session Organizers: Sutama Ghosh, Peter Kedron, Ryerson University
Chair: Peter Kedron, Ryerson University

Brian Ceh, Tony Hernandez, Ryerson University
Measuring food deserts and implications of local, independently-owned grocers on the food landscape: The case of Toronto, Ontario

Discussant: Sutama Ghosh, Ryerson University

8) THU-13:30 Urban Inequalities in Canadian and US Cities – Exploring the Interconnections among Housing, Food Insecurity, and Environmental Justice II: ‘Mapping’ Links Between Housing and Environmental Justice (Mackenzie Chown Complex C405)
Special Session Organizers: Sutama Ghosh, Peter Kedron, Ryerson University
Chair: Sutama Ghosh, Ryerson University

Victoria Fast, Ryerson University
Building collaboration into the Food Security Equation: Participatory Mapping of Local Food Systems using Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI)

Heather Hart, Peter Kedron, Ryerson University
Understanding the statistical bias of geographic scale in environmental inequity research

Cosmin Marmureanu, Ryerson University
Poverty, Housing, and Urban Forestry: Interrogating Intertwined Social and Environmental Justice in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs

Discussant: Peter Kedron, Ryerson University

9) FRI-15:30 Thinking About Learning (Mackenzie Chown Complex C407)
Chair: Dragos Simandan, Brock University

Rajiv Lalla, Ryerson University
Proximity to LGBT Social Resources as a proxy for defining Queer Communities in Ontario: A GIS Perspective

The presentations span the breadth of Geography, Environmental Studies and GIScience, and involve students/alumni from the Geographic Analysis and Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) programs, in addition to students in the MAsc and PhD in Environmental Applied Science and Management. See you in St. Catharines!

K. Wayne Forsythe  Ph.D.
Professor, Program in Geographic Analysis, Graduate Program in Spatial Analysis, and President, Canadian Association of Geographers – Ontario Division (CAGONT)
Department of Geography, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street
Toronto, Ontario,  CANADA   M5B 2K3