The Saga of False-Positive COVID-19 Tests

[Skip first paragraph if you are not interested in the German context of the false positives issue;]

On June 5, 2020, OVALMedia’s Robert Cibis interviewed the Austrian microbiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr. Martin Haditsch about laboratory tests and specifically the PCR test that is used globally to detect the Sars-CoV-2 virus in a person. The interview [in German] broached the issue of false-positive test results in the context of a low-prevalence disease and imperfect tests. Two Youtube copies of the one-hour interview have a total of over 100,000 views at the time of writing. The next day, Swiss entrepreneur and Youtuber Samuel Eckert presented a 20-minute summary and explanation of the false-positive issue using an interactive Excel spreadsheet. His video currently boasts over 225,000 views with 15,000 likes. Possibly in response, the German Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn, a banker by training, said in a brief interview contained in a tweet from public TV channel ARD on June 14 that if the COVID-19 prevalence continued to drop and testing was simultaneously expanded (as has been the case in many Western countries since mid-April) into the millions then you would eventually obtain more false-positive than correct-positive results.

Six weeks later, in a media briefing about the Province of Ontario’s safe reopening of schools, Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe cautioned against seeing wide-spread COVID-19 testing as a solution. She went on to state that “in fact, if you’re testing in a population that doesn’t have very much COVID, you’ll get false positives almost half the time.”

Dr. Yaffe addressing the press
Dr. Yaffe addressing the press, 30 July 2020, see full video at and clip below

In order to understand the impact of two test characteristics – sensitivity and specificity – we can use a confusion matrix to display true and false positive test results along with true and false negative test results. For example, in Geography we use confusion matrices to assess the accuracy of the classification of a remotely sensed image. The confusion matrix shows how many pixels of a certain land use class such as agricultural were correctly classified as agricultural or misclassified as another land use like forest. This is based on a ground-truthed image for comparison in a limited part of the study area. Similarly, the following spreadsheet estimates how often a positive or negative PCR test result is found in a true carrier of the virus vs an unaffected person.

PCR test reliability worksheet with a sample calculation, access through link below and open in Google Sheets to modify

The true proportions and counts of “infected” and not “infected” are based on the number of tests completed and the true prevalence of COVID-19 in the population, which is largely unknown. At the tail end of winter, coronaviruses are typically causing cold infections in some 5% to 10% of the population. As COVID-19 has tapered off over the summer, a value below 1% seems reasonable, here set to 0.5% as an example. In recent days, there were 40,000 or more tests completed in Ontario with some 400 new “cases” detected for a test-positivity rate of around 1%. Note that in conjunction with the PCR test, I like to put “cases” and “infected” in quotation marks since the test does not distinguish sick people carrying an infectious virus load from healthy, presymptomatic, or asymptomatic people carrying traces of inactive genetic material from the virus.

Ontario Minister of Health announces 400 new cases with over 40,000 tests completed,

With a prevalence of e.g. 0.5%, we expect that 200 out of 40,000 tests are true positives. If we assume the sensitivity characteristic of the test at 99%, we get 198 correct positives out of the 200 true “infections” that should be detected, while two are missed. These two misses are false-negative results. False negatives are problematic, since potentially infectious persons are told that they don’t pose a risk to their environment. However, at a low prevalence of the disease, these misses are very small, even negligible, in comparison with the correctly identified negatives.

After subtracting 200 “infected” from the 40,000 tests completed, there are 39,800 left who should test as not “infected”. However, medical tests are usually imperfect in that they can both miss a condition present (false negatives, see above) as well as indicate the presence of a condition when it is not there (false positives). The characteristic that describes how accurate the test is in this respect is called specificity. It refers to how specific the test is geared towards its target, here the Sars-CoV-2 virus, rather than picking up other targets. The specificity of the PCR test for Sars-CoV-2 is a bit of a mystery and moving target, but before I discuss it, I will go through one example to explain the significance of false-positive results in the current phase of the pandemic.

With an assumed specificity of 99.5%, our test would determine 39,601 correct negatives out of 39,800 persons who are truly not “infected”. An issue arises with the remaining 199 false positives, which are wrongly detected by the test although they do not carry the virus. While the number is small in proportion to the correct negatives, we need to view it in relation to the 198 correct positives. From the perspective of each person testing positive, the chance that they are in fact falsely positive is 199 : 198, thus 50% of the 397 total positive test results are false positives, in line with the warnings by the officials cited above. The relationship is only this large due to the low prevalence of the disease. You can use the spreadsheet link above to examine the effect of increasing or decreasing the prevalence (try 0%!) and modifying the test characteristics.

Due to the significant restrictions imposed on test-positive persons’ lives, 50% false positives is a highly problematic proportion. In addition, a difference between 200 and 400 new “cases” may affect the assessment of the current public health threat, although the raw count of positive PCR tests is almost meaningless without considering who was tested and how many tests were completed, an issue which shall be discussed at another time.

Public Health Ontario guidelines for PCR testing,

Some critics of the pandemic response are using a lower specificity of 98.6% and come to the conclusion that all positive test results in certain jurisdictions such as Germany are false positives and therefore the pandemic has ended. That values stems from a study of lab results (external PDF, see page 12) conducted by a German accreditation body in April, which found an average of 98.6% correct negative results across over 400 participating labs. Others have noted that the actual proportions of positive test results has gone down to values as low as 0.6% in Germany, 0.3% in Canada, and even 0% in New Zealand, which – given the large numbers of tests completed – would not be possible if the false positives were any higher than these values. This can be explained by the fact that the quality assurance study reported the results for individual gene sequences but the testing protocols in some countries were modified to require testing of at least two gene sequences. In this case, the false positive rates of 0.5% for the E gene region (which I used in the above example) and e.g. around 2% for another characteristic gene would have to be multiplied, resulting in extremely low false-positives of 1 in 10,000 or so. However, Public Health Ontario’s in-house test methods target the E gene and clearly state that “Specimens with a single target detected … will be reported as COVID-19 virus detected, which is sufficient for laboratory confirmation of COVID-19 infection.” (emphasis added)

Minister Elliott announces “update” (a.k.a. reversal) in COVID-19 test eligibility,

In summary, false-positive PCR test results likely are, or have been, an issue in some jurisdictions during some phases of the corona crisis, and politicians and health officials should be more transparent about it. Questions to be asked by the media include: When did you become aware of the impact of false positives? What is the magnitude of the problem currently? Have lab testing procedures been modified to address the issue? And is wide-spread testing still meaningful at this point in the pandemic? In fact, just yesterday, the Ontario government changed course by discouraging asymptomatic people from getting tested. Yet this reversal seems more related to preserving lab capacity for symptomatic persons and those with suspected exposure, who need faster test results, than to the fundamental issues with over-testing.

Book Review: Corona False Alarm?

Karina Reiß, Sucharit Bhakdi: Corona Fehlalarm? Zahlen, Daten und Hintergründe [Corona False Alarm? Numbers, Data and Background]. Goldegg, Vienna Austria. Published 1 June 2020 (eBook, EAN 9783990601907) and 23 June 2020 (paperback, 160 pages, ISBN: 978-3-99060-191-4)

Published in the midst of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, „Corona Fehlalarm?“ (German for “Corona False Alarm?”) gives reason for deep reflection on where humanity stands with respect to rational decision-making, public health, and the social contract. In fact, the authors would argue that we are in a panic rather than a pandemic, and that we are not in the midst but at the end of the COVID-19 curve, though we may only be at the beginning of much worse collateral damage inflicted by the global overreaction to the appearance of the novel coronavirus in December 2019.

Professor Karina Reiß, whose natural sciences doctorate is in cell biology, is a faculty member in the Department of Dermatology and Allergology at the University Hospital of the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein in Kiel. Her co-author and husband, retired professor Sucharit Bhakdi, holds a medical doctorate and spent his career as a faculty member in institutes for Medical Microbiology at the universities of Gießen and Mainz in Germany. Dr. Bhakdi has been one of the early critics of the lockdown measures in Germany. On March 26, he publicly asked German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel five questions around the threat assessment of COVID-19, which remained unanswered. In a June 3 video interview with alternative news magazine Rubikon, Dr. Bhakdi explained the genesis of the book “Corona False Alarm?” out of his and his wife’s frustration with the repeated extension of many emergency measures by the German governments.

Book title “Corona False Alarm?”. Source:

The book consists of ten chapters framed by an introduction and conclusion. The introduction, subtitled “Start of a Nightmare?”, outlines the first half of 2020 that most of us have experienced as an onslaught of bad news and terrifying images from Wuhan’s hospitals to northern Italy’s morgues, supermarket lineups and empty shelves, isolated seniors trapped in long-term care homes and police drones surveying deserted city streets and parks. The authors briefly outline the discovery of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the associated illness COVID-19. Subsequent chapters discuss the data and state of scientific knowledge concerning the public health threat from SARS-CoV-2; describe the pandemic situation in Germany; explain collateral damage from the lockdown measures; and compare the lockdown with Sweden’s light-handed response. Additional chapters suggest alternative emergency measures that could have been taken and analyze the role of the media in this crisis situation. The book ends with a short chapter asking where we will go from here, a concluding note, and an appendix with 208 numbered online references.

The first substantial chapter analyses the threat level of the so-called “killer virus” based on the relation of fatalities to infections. The authors explain three tremendous challenges with counting infections: (1) use of the non-validated PCR test with unknown false-positive and false-negative rates, which becomes problematic when the (true) prevalence of the infection decreases towards the end of an epidemic; (2) testing being limited to symptomatic patients instead of sampling across the entire population from an early stage; and (3) lack of attention to the fact that the number of tests completed directly influences the number of infections found, potentially resulting in a “lab pandemic”. The authors only present a hypothetical example here; I believe they could have easily used the example of Germany or any other country, in which the number of tests conducted were increased significantly as lab capacities became available in the early stages of the corona crisis, resulting in an apparent exponential growth of cases while the percent of positive test results quickly started to decline.

With respect to COVID-19 fatalities, Drs. Reiß and Bhakdi emphasize that the official guidelines in Germany, the UK, Sweden, the US, and probably most other countries are known to count anyone as a “corona death” who has tested positive for the virus, regardless of the ultimate cause of death. In some countries, a suspected infection was enough to be included in the death count. In addition, the agencies discouraged or prohibited autopsies for fear of endangering the pathologist. Nevertheless, a dissenting pathologist in Hamburg conducted autopsies on over 100 corona-related fatalities and found that all of them had at least one co-morbidity, most frequently cardio-vascular diseases. Similar observations are reported from Switzerland and Italy, casting doubt on the degree to which the SARS-CoV-2 virus caused the patients’ death. In this context, the authors place the “corona deaths” in context with Germany’s regular mortality of 2,500 to 3,000 deaths per day, and specifically with the death rate among people over 80 years. The text and graphic are a bit confusing here, but they nevertheless illustrate the minimal impact of COVID-19 even on elderly mortality compared to the big killers: heart disease and cancer.

Still in the same chapter, Drs. Reiβ and Bhakdi summarize different ways to compare the risks from COVID-19 and influenza. The infection-fatality rate (IFR) of a normal flu season in Germany is 0.1% to 0.2% with a few hundred deaths. However, in 2017/18, 25,000 patients died from the flu with 330,000 reported cases, resulting in a stunning 8% lethality. Even the original WHO estimate of 3% to 4% IFR for COVID-19 was lower, while current estimates were revised to 0.4% or less, taking into account a large number of undetected infections. For example, the CDC’s best estimate is now 0.26%, identical to the estimate from a comprehensive population-wide study by Prof. Streeck and team of the corona hotspot Heinsberg county in western Germany. Our book authors emphasize that this makes COVID-19 comparable to a moderate flu season and dispels the myth of the “killer virus”. They also note that while elderly are at much higher risk than the young, it is the co-morbidities that cause death and that many healthy elderly have survived the infection.

This chapter ends with a selective review of local factors that may have influenced the higher death counts and rates in COVID-19 hotspots in Italy, Spain, Britain, and the US. These factors include different testing regimes, historic underfunding of the hospital and healthcare system, hospital infections, antibiotics resistance, ad-hoc guidelines for medical treatment of COVID-19, classification of fatalities, local funeral logistics, fear and panic generated by media images, age structure, and regional air pollution.

Chapter 3 of “Corona False Alarm?” is a sharp critique of the prevailing expert advice and political decisions in Germany, yet it provides many lessons for other countries. The authors denounce the ever-changing goalposts for the pandemic threat assessment, from the case-doubling rate to the effective reproduction number R, the calculation of which changed several times, to thresholds on regional counts of new infections per 100,000 population currently in place. An extensive quote by Stanford Professor John Ioannidis is presented in contrast to the seemingly erratic government communications and decisions around mid-March 2020. Fear-mongering with spurious models, best known from the Imperial College group around Prof. Ferguson, and individual narratives by Germany’s “top” virologist Prof. Drosten about exploding cases and triage decisions in an overburdened healthcase system inevitably led to the lockdown decision effective March 23. Among other evidence that the lockdown was ill-advised, the authors present a copy of the infectious disease agency RKI’s estimated R curve, published mid-April, that shows that the peak of the pandemic was passed in early March before any measures were taken.

Estimate of effective reproduction number R for assumed four-day generations, plus corresponding daily infections, according to the German infections disease agency’s epidemiological bulletin of April 15. Source:

Readers with a critical disposition will already know many of these and the following details, but seeing them organized and summarized in book form gives them additional logic and credibility. The RKI’s R curve was extensively scrutinized by Prof. Homburg of the University of Hannover. Another early warning that the pandemic was “over” in late March came from Dr. Wittkowski, whose testimonials could be added to the book. Despite the evidence, the German lockdown was extended and makeshift face-coverings required in some indoor settings such as stores, a move the authors decry as capricious at best. Brainwashing through the mainstream media and the stoking of fear of a “second wave” by Prof. Drosten and others resulted in broad compliance with the lockdown, distancing, and mask regulations. This contrasts with the known seasonality of coronaviruses, illustrated in the book with reference to a 1998 study from Finland. The authors’ frustration is tangible when they report the slow pace of re-opening throughout May and the further extension of many measures until the end of June, and Chancellor Merkel’s recent statements that “we are still at the beginning of the pandemic” …  

In Chapter 4, the German healthcare system and the occupancy of intensive-care beds and respirators throughout the pandemic are discussed. With reference to official data and a model from the “Corona Initiative of German SMEs”, the authors show that the system was nowhere near capacity at any point in time. In addition, they criticize the practice of bringing frail elderly patients, who would have gone into palliative care during normal times, into ICU and expose them to futile respirator treatment. The chapter ends with a summative assessment of the COVID-19 situation in Germany, including that there has never been an exponential growth of infections to begin with, that government decision-makers declared a pandemic emergency without justification and enforced nonsensical measures instead of living up to their oath of office: to work towards the wellbeing of Germans and protect them from harm. A section on “what the government did right” is left demonstratively empty.

Chapter 5 deals with the collateral damage from the lockdown measures. Reference is made to a leaked crisis management analysis from the German Ministry of the Interior, which suggests that the pandemic may have been a global false alarm and its “cure” comes with a disproportionate cost of lives (e.g. from deferred surgeries and stroke sufferers avoiding hospitals), wellbeing (e.g. loneliness, depression, violence, abuse), and prosperity (e.g. unemployment, bankruptcies). A particularly cruel side effect of the social distancing requirements was the isolation of seniors. The authors also highlight the impact on children and on the poorest regions in the world, before turning their sights in Chapter 6 to a handful of countries that averted general lockdowns. Given that more specific and proven infectious disease control measures existed, it is not surprising that high-density Japan (with little testing), South Korea (with extensive testing and tracing), Hong Kong, Iceland, and even the (in)famous Sweden have similar (or better) epidemic curves and death rates as the countries with the strictest and longest lockdowns, including France, Italy, and Spain. The authors call out German politicians and media for putting illicit pressure on Swedish decision-makers to follow suit with the Europe-wide lockdowns. Since Sweden has now reached one of the higher death rates in the world, it would be helpful to add details that may explain the – in today’s perspective – mixed results of the Swedish approach. Conversely, an interesting example included in the book is the Czech Republic where due to a court decision some restrictions were eased much earlier (late April) than elsewhere, without noticeable impact on COVID-19 cases.

According to Drs. Reiβ and Bhakdi, consistent protection of the at-risk population, in particular the residents of long-term care homes, would have been the right approach to addressing SARS-CoV-2. Chapter 7 also deconstructs politicians’ claims that the pandemic continues and normality will not return “until a vaccine is found”. Lockdown sceptics were particularly dismayed when Bill Gates got to make a 9-minute statement on public TV’s 15-minute prime time news show, decreeing that all 7 billion humans will be immunized with a vaccine developed in a time span compacted from five years to 18 months by skipping some of the required safety checks. Our authors explain immunity to coronaviruses on the basis of two natural mechanisms involving anti-bodies and t-cells, noting that t-cell immunity against coronaviruses has been largely ignored in public discourse. The much cited “herd immunity” for corona and flu viruses is described as a relative concept, which also relies on cross-immunity from earlier virus variants. Existing cross-immunity may very well explain the high percentage of asymptomatic and mild infections with SARS-CoV-2. Importantly, the same virus can never cause a catastrophic second wave, although a new, significantly different variant could. Given these factors, the authors call the aspiration to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine foolish. They note parallels to the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the role of the WHO in determining what constitutes a pandemic. The same government advisors of today warned of a deadly disease then, and recommended the purchase of millions of doses of a quickly developed vaccine, which later had to be destroyed. And some of the same critics raised their voice, including physician and health politician Dr. Wodarg and one of our authors, Prof. Bhakdi, competent voices of reason that again today are ignored by decision-makers.

Chapter 8 turns to one of the most disturbing developments in the corona crisis of 2020: the role of the mainstream media, their journalists, and the censorship of social media and the web. The public broadcasters in Germany and many other European countries are considered the fourth branch of societal power, with a mandate to control the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. They are legally required to be politically independent and contribute to the formation of public opinion – supposedly by reporting on opposing views regarding major questions and events. The book illustrates the complete failure of Germany’s public broadcasters along with private mainstream media (and parliamentary opposition) to critically monitor government action. The authors outline the fear-mongering on national and regional TV, the uncritical reporting on a limited subset of science and modeling, and the discrediting and silencing of dissenting viewpoints. What should be added here is the emergence of a grassroots democratic resistance movement, whose goal to restore and protect the constitution was equally ignored, if not ridiculed, by the mainstream media.

In addition, internal and external “fact checkers” produced inaccurate ratings that flagged alternative perspectives as conspiracy theories and led to shadow banning or complete removal of YouTube videos and Facebook posts as well as temporary web site closures. Meanwhile, the often changing and contradictory messages from governments and WHO were taken as the only permissible narrative. In interviews, Prof. Bhakdi repeatedly stated that it should not be considered “courageous” in a democracy to state one’s dissenting opinion. Yet, disturbingly, we have indeed reached this point, both with respect to personal opinions vis-à-vis family members, friends, and neighbours as well as regarding expert opinions. The authors of “Corona False Alarm?” take government, opposition, the media, and those in the know – here doctors and scientists – to task and accuse those, who remain silent, of complicity with regards to the collateral damage done.

The book ends with an even darker concluding Chapter 9 and a brief and faintly hopeful summary. The suspension of constitutional freedoms of opinion, speech, movement, assembly, exercise of religion, and choice of profession was not proportional to the public health threat from SARS-CoV-2. Germans should have been particularly vigilant when critical journalism went missing, mass hysteria was stoked, and public opinion constrained to a single narrative. The invitation to snitch on fellow citizens for violations of lockdown regulations is another sign of totalitarian practices established within a few months in what many of us considered a healthy democracy. I concur with Drs. Reiβ and Bhakdi that there will be extensive research and inquiry needed to learn from the corona crisis. The authors express their hope that the book will help prevent that (this!) history ever repeats itself.

Although it must have been put together with a red-hot needle (or keyboard?), the book reads well with a stringent storyline and fitting transitions between chapters. A few inaccuracies, duplications, and omissions are excused by the urgency to publish this important perspective on the ongoing corona crisis. While the information is often specific to German events and actors, some additions could be made to cover the development of the crisis in German-speaking Austria and Switzerland, which had their own distinct experiences. Translations into other languages would likely require some clarifications, if not the addition of regionally relevant contents. Owing to the subject, reading “Corona False Alarm?” could be quite upsetting for the unsuspecting reader, yet it is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what on earth just happened!

Canadian News Coverage of #elxn43 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Maps

Much like many economic, social, health, crime, and environmental data sets, election results have an important geospatial component. For the 2019 federal election, Canada was divided into 338 electoral districts, each of which is represented by a member of parliament. Consequently, thematic maps – usually representing the “first-past-the-post” winning party – are a typical part of news media coverage of the 43rd election. The following examples were found in select Canadian media outlets on the morning after the election.

The Good

Canada’s vast geographic expanse makes it difficult to show the entire country in a map that preserves its internal shapes and sizes as much as possible. Kudos to the Toronto Star for publishing #elxn43 results on a map with a suitable, appealing projection.


From the source code it appears that the Star used the D3js Javascript library with an orthographic projection.


If you zoom to your local riding results, you may notice that this projection is not ideal for local areas. In the case of Toronto, the city is presented at an awkward angle due to the projection centre being located in the east-west centre of Canada, far to the west of Toronto. Since maps are primarily useful to examine general spatial patterns, not specific data points, I find that the properly presented overview map outweighs the issue with local zooming.


The Bad

All other outlets that I checked do not live up to the Star’s standard. According to the copyright statement on the map, the Globe and Mail used the Leaflet interactive mapping library with an OpenStreetMap base layer. The provincial breakdown of riding results is helpful to illustrate the increasing divisiveness of Canadian politics, yet the use of a Mercator map projection is not just unappealing but further emphasizes the size differences between small left-leaning city ridings and large right-leaning rural ridings.


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) uses the US-based Mapbox “location data platform” with the same projection issue. A difference is that the Globe uses the actual riding boundaries including water bodies, while the CBC clipped the ridings at the shores – both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.


The Ugly

Maybe it’s just the way it is integrated in the National Post’s, Toronto Sun’s, and Huffington Post’s web sites that makes the Canadian Press’s #elxn43 results map “ugly”. When I loaded these newspaper pages, the map defaulted to full extent including all of Ellesmere Island in the most northern reaches of Nunavut. While we normally don’t want to cut off relevant geographic areas from a map, in this case it makes the entirety of the map all the more … ugly.


Maps can be a “centre piece” not only during election time but for many important political discussions and decisions. The following tweet by Jean Tong and the Ontario Association of Geographic and Environmental Education sums it up nicely.
Source: Tweet by Esri Canada employee Jean Tong retweetet with a comment by

As I am teaching two cartography courses this semester, I was compelled to take a critical look at published #elxn43 maps. Nevertheless, I appreciate the media’s efforts to visualize geospatial data and make them navigable for their readers. In interactive mapping, some cartographic guidelines become blurred. Maybe this critique will further stimulate improved map-making and underline the value of higher education and applied skills in the field of Geography.

Geography – The Secret Sauce of Data Analytics

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.

Geography at Ryerson – Your Social Innovation Powerhouse

Innovation in higher education and scholarly research has always been a hallmark of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson. Recent faculty and student achievements underline our position as a social innovation powerhouse on campus.

In the competition for “RECODE at Ryerson University” grants, @RyersonGeo faculty are leading three of the eight successful applications. That is 37.5% of these social innovation projects across campus, a proportion even more impressive if you consider the competitive process with eight grants selected among 33 applications, a success rate of only 24%.

oswald_3d-printed-DEM-tweet With her RECODE grant, Dr. Claire Oswald, in collaboration with Dr. Claus Rinner and 3D printing startup company Think To Thing, plans to use “A 3D elevation model of Toronto watersheds to promote citizen science in urban hydrology and water resources”. Undergraduate students from our Geographic Analysis and Environment and Urban Sustainability programs will help with processing geospatial data to create a tangible model of the Don River watershed. The model is to be used for school and community outreach on pressing urban water issues.

shaker_roncesvalles-OSMDr. Richard Shaker received a RECODE grant for “A prototype for reaching sustainability through local business improvement initiatives: Roncesvalles Village”. In collaboration with the Roncesvalles Business Improvement Area in Toronto, Dr. Shaker’s team will develop metrics of sustainability of local restaurants to support sustainable community planning and management.

millward_citytrees-homepageThe goal of Dr. Andrew Millward’s proposal is to advance “The Citytrees Project: a tool of social innovation that engages people to work collectively and make our cities greener and more resilient”. RECODE funding will assist with forming new community partnerships and collecting tree data with GPS in collaboration with the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation.

In addition to the faculty grants, our students were equally active and successful in applying for funding from the RECODE student competition.

Jennifer Fisher, a student in our BA in Environment and Urban Sustainability, received a grant to create “Soul Roots”, an urban agriculture project that employs “alternative farming practices to create large yield crops on a contaminated land site”. Working with Provincial and municipal partners in Toronto’s Parkdale community, the project also aims to demonstrate the social and economic impact of local food production.

Sarah Brigel, another student in the EUS program, is using RECODE funds to develop a pilot for her “Microbe-Hub Campus Compost Initiative”. The project aims to divert all organic waste from the Faculty of Arts’ Jorgenson Hall 14-storey building using a closed-loop vermicomposting system.

Another playing field for social innovation made @RyersonGeo is the Faculty of Arts’ SocialVentures Zone. Of the seven student-led social enterprises currently being incubated in the Zone, two were founded by our students, including Jennifer’s “Soul Roots”.

The other SocialVenturesZone project is Claire Stevenson-Blythe’s “Reciprocity”, an app-based platform to help people with signing up for local environmental volunteer opportunities. Claire’s enterprise is focused on engaging active citizenship and sharing solutions for the sustinability issues of our time.

Geography in its analytic, applied, and urban-focused form practiced at Ryerson is destined to inspire and train future social innovators and sustainability leaders. Stay tuned for more news!

Background on the RECODE at Ryerson University initiative:

List of student projects in the SocialVentures Zone:

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

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!

About Quick-Service Mapping and Lines in the Sand

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!

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.

Thought Spot – Crowdmapping of Mental Health and Wellness Resources

Thought Spot is a project designed by post-secondary students to support mental health and wellbeing among Toronto-area youth. The main feature is the online map at, which is based on the Ushahidi crowdsourced mapping platform. The Thought Spot project was initiated at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), in collaboration with the University of Toronto, OCAD, and Ryerson. The map allows students to find mental health and wellness resources in ­their geographic area, without the need for an intermediary (parent, teacher, physician). The mapped information originates from ConnexOntario and Kids Help Phone data as well as data that were crowdsourced from members of the target audience.


Ryerson Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) candidate Heather Hart took a lead role in designing the Thought Spot map (shown above), bringing unique geospatial expertise to the table of the project’s student advisory board. Through her MSA practicum placement with a different research group at CAMH, Heather got in contact with the Thought Spot team and brought the funding for her own summer position to Ryerson, to devote half of her time to ensuring that the project’s crowdmapping would be successful. Heather’s involvement culminated in co-organizing a Thought Spot hackathon at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone in October 2014, which led to the ongoing development of a mobile version of the Thought Spot map.


This photo shows Heather at GIS Day at Ryerson on November 19th, 2014, presenting the Thought Spot project to an interested University audience. In collaboration with Environmental Applied Science and Management PhD candidate Victoria Fast, Heather has now also submitted a conference abstract about “Crowd mapping mental health promotion through the Thought Spot project”. The abstract brings together Victoria’s extensive expertise in volunteered geographic information systems and Heather’s on-the-ground experience with the Thought Spot project. Their presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in April 2015 is part of the “International Geospatial Health Research” theme.

It is wonderful to see two enterprising Geography graduate students contribute to supporting mental health and wellbeing on campus, a goal that the University is committed to. At the same time, the Thought Spot project informs Heather’s thesis research on the role of maps in evidence-based health care decision-making and Victoria’s dissertation on crowdmapping of local food resources.

Guest lecture on Dynamic Transportation Systems, OpenStreetMap, and QGIS

The Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and the Centre for Geocomputation at Ryerson University welcome Anita Graser, MSc, Scientist at the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), Mobility Department – Dynamic Transportation Systems, for the following guest lecture.

Title: GIScience for Dynamic Transportation Systems
Date: Friday, 31 October 2014, 10am-12noon
Location: Room JOR-440, 4th floor, Jorgenson Hall, 380 Victoria Street, Toronto


Anita Graser (@underdarkGIS) is a scientist, open source GIS advocate, and author of “Learning QGIS 2.0”. In this presentation, Anita will give an overview of her work at the AIT and in the QGIS project, where she is currently serving on the project steering committee. The talk covers measuring, analyzing, visualizing, and understanding mobility data. These topics will be discussed in the context of Anita’s recent work such as analyses of floating car data and assessments of OpenStreetMap for vehicle routing purposes.