Pandemic Panic vs. Democratic Freedoms

Why Germans are more concerned than most about a COVID-19 lockdown

I have never been a supporter of Germany’s conservative parties but their leader, Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel, is making German politics great again, at least seen from across the Atlantic. In a rare, televised address to the nation on 18 March 2020, Dr. Merkel urges her “dear fellow citizens” to voluntarily practice the hygiene and distancing measures recommended by public health authorities. At the time, there were some 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 28 deaths in Germany.

Dr. Merkel’s speech can be seen as a last attempt to avoid enforcing stricter isolation rules. There is a unison of voices from politicians, epidemiologists, and the public calling for the “total shutdown” of society to stop the coronavirus spread, both in Germany and over here in Canada. Merkel however conveys a deeper understanding of the risks of social isolation. She characterizes COVID-19 as the greatest challenge faced by Germany since WWII – not in general terms, as was wrongly reported, but in terms of a challenge that requires every single person’s solidarity and commitment to flattening the curve. Merkel acknowledges the degree to which limitations on non-essential activities are already invading not just our personal lives but our understanding of a democratic society. She refers to her upbringing in totalitarian East Germany and the struggle to fight for the freedom of movement that is now effectively being withdrawn. She established that “such restrictions can only be justified if they are absolutely imperative” and “these should never be put in place lightly in a democracy and should only be temporary.”

Fast forward five days to March 22nd and approaching 25,000 COVID-19 infections and 100 deaths, Germany’s federal and provincial governments agreed on a contact ban, but still did not impose a general curfew. Citizens are free to leave their homes for any purpose as long as they keep among their co-habitants or stick around with no more than one other person. In a commentary entitled “The Other Danger“, Die Zeit journalist Christian Bangel acknowledges that Merkel did not take the easy route. He views her speech as a reminder of what is at stake, reminder to those who call for more drastic measures. Bangel, also born in East Germany, notes how many people who usually lament Germany’s culture-of-prohibitions (“Verbotskultur”), e.g. when it comes to taking climate change action, now call for lockdowns and celebrate the Bavarian premier for jumping the gun with a province-wide curfew. Bangel cautions against the collective-conformist effect of the coronavirus panic, when we forget the difficult balance of freedom and safety in our democracies. He asks what restrictions on civil liberties will be acceptable in the next crisis situation? Accepting such restrictions out of ease and convenience reminds me of how we willingly trade privacy for the convenience of digital services. Bangel concludes that in addition to fighting the virus we also need to fight against complacency and an attitude that views civil rights as a burden for public health and wellbeing.

Germany has learned from two totalitarian regimes in its not too distant past, and Dr. Angela Merkel, the Leader of the Free World according to some, set the tone for a thoughtful, measured pandemic response. Maybe that’s what you get with a conservative, female leader who boasts a doctoral degree in physical chemistry. Merkel shows great empathy when she thanks supermarket cashiers and warehouse employees for keeping things going (“den Laden am Laufen halten”, akin to the expression “the show must go on”) and is cited with the frustration over keeping families from enjoying the sunny spring weather if confined to their homes. In addition to the political dimension of the crisis, I expect that we will also see broader public health issues from a wide-spread sedentary life style under coronavirus lockdowns. Our mental health will be challenged to say the least. And the expected increase in domestic violence is a real danger, too. I therefore hope that other leaders will take a page from Dr. Merkel’s book and avoid full lockdowns or clearly limit them in duration, plus justify them in the context of democratic standards and civil liberties.

To be clear, I am not suggesting to take the coronavirus pandemic lightly or disregard public health guidelines, rules, and laws. I do argue to take a step back and not call for hasty political decisions in a panic. Some experts even recommend “social-media distancing” to “Flatten the Curve of Armchair Epidemiology“! Let’s consider the possible longterm impacts of our response and ensure that we as individual citizens can continue to monitor our authorities’ actions rather than be locked out of decision-making. But ultimately, a slowing of economic and social life under COVID-19 may not be such a bad thing, for nature and humans alike.

Reflections on OpenStreetMap

The second Canadian OpenStreetMap (OSM) developer event held at Ryerson’s Geography department started today with a series of presentations and workshops introducing students and members of the broader community to OSM. Toronto OSM guru Richard Weait gave another one of his engaging OSM-or-nothing speeches, telling tales of trap streets and mappy hours. He also got attendants to edit the OSM data and submit a few new features based on their local knowledge of their neighbourhoods or the university campus. Geographic Analysis student, GIS consultant, and spatialanalysis.ca blogger Michael Markieta guided us through the querying of the OSM “planet file” from a PostGIS/PostgreSQL database and its mapping in the open-source Quantum GIS package (see photo).

michael-teaching-osm-queries_08march2013

As most of you will know, OSM is a global volunteer project to create a free geographic base dataset. OSM data have been shown to be more detailed and accurate than commercial data, at least in some areas of the world. There was some interesting discussion this afternoon about potential liability issues due to inconsistencies in OSM data used in professional applications. The concern that OSM contributors could be held liable for erroneous contributions was countered by noting that commercial data vendors provide their data “as is” in just the same way, and that their data are out-of-date most of the time. That certainly seems to be true for my car navigation system! Still, the possibility of downloading OSM data for a professional map at a moment where a misuser has modified or deleted information that has not been detected and reverted by the community makes me uneasy. Also, the thought that detail in OSM, e.g. in rural areas, may depend on whether or not there is an avid mapper living in the area, is unsatisfactory.

Further, the challenges resulting from free tagging of new features were brought up at today’s event. There are support sites such as taginfo.osm.org and the map features list on the OSM wiki, but I cannot help but think that the OSM community is repeating mistakes that were addressed (at least to some degree) by research, development, and best-practice in GIS over the last couple of decades.

Whatever your position with regards to these issues, OSM is playing an increasingly important role in government and business. Our students need to know about it, and I think today’s workshops went a long way to achieve this awareness. Thank you to Mike Morrish and the Student Association of Geographic Analysis (SAGA) for their tremendous support in organizing this educational event and for sponsoring food and drinks today.

From a research perspective, OSM is a fabulous subject too. My interest in it was discussed in a section of an earlier post about volunteered geographic information (VGI) systems. The OSM developer weekend is focusing precisely on hardware, software, and provider/user issues that are not well explained by the VGI label, but captured within our concept of VGI systems to be presented at the 2013 AAG conference.

Awards Season

Regular readers of this blog, if they existed, would have noticed a new static “page” listing various awards, scholarships, and bursaries for students in Cartography, Geography, and GIScience. January/February and the spring seem to have clusters of deadlines for these competitions, in which we will see more Ryerson Geography students participate this year!

Today, Ryerson University officially announced the recipients of the research awards handed to faculty members, and you will find yours truly as one of two awardees from the Faculty of Arts: http://www.ryerson.ca/ryersontoday/data/news/2013/02/src_sawan_awards.html. Ryerson maintains a comprehensive approach to faculty contributions to knowledge, which is labeled as Scholarly, Research and Creative Activity (SRC). This year’s Faculty SRC Awards recognize outstanding achievements by faculty members in the 2011/12 academic year.

I would like to acknowledge my students, who continue to play a significant role in my research program, including those in our BA in Geographic Analysis and Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) programs. For example, both peer-reviewed journal articles contributing to the above SRC Award were based on MSA students’ major research papers. As always, details on my team’s scholarship can be found on my homepage, http://www.ryerson.ca/~crinner/, and many publications are posted with full text in Ryerson’s institutional repository, http://digitalcommons.ryerson.ca/do/search/?q=author%3ARinner.

Call for applications to the MSA program

‘Tis the season… of admissions to graduate programs and I want to share the call for applications to the MSA program that I am sending to colleagues across Canada :

I am emailing colleagues who have provided reference letters and advice to students from their institutions applying to our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program. We are always very grateful for your assessments and I would like to thank you personally for the time and effort spent speaking with your students about graduate school and writing those letters.

I would be grateful if you would again recommend the MSA program to your senior undergraduate students. The program homepage at http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/ contains relevant information for prospective applicants. Graduate funding is provided based on incoming qualifications, research interests, and time of application – first-consideration deadline is January 13th, 2013.

The MSA program is an intense one-year program with strong connections to potential employers in the Toronto area, as well as a rigorous research component. A range of research themes, in which MSA graduates have recently published or presented, are listed below. Also listed are additional areas of interest of potential MSA supervisors.

Recent graduates were employed by major retailers and banks (e.g., Canadian Tire, McDonald’s, Walmart; RBC, Scotiabank); environmental and health agencies (e.g., Ministry of Environment, TRCA; St.Michael’s Hospital, Toronto Public Health), police services, GIS vendors, and spatial data producers, or they are pursuing further graduate degrees (including MBAs and PhDs).

Thank you for forwarding this call to your students.

Kind regards,
Claus

 

Selection of recently published MSA research by field of study:

ENVIRONMENTAL ANALYSIS:
– lake and river sediment contamination
– wildfire modeling
– land-use change detection
– the urban heat island
– urban reforestation
– renewable energy site selection

BUSINESS GEOMATICS:
– Canadian retail trends
– consumer segmentation
– the effect of business improvement areas
– spatial patterns of TV consumption

SOCIAL/COMMUNITY APPLICATIONS (incl. HEALTH, CRIME):
– access to primary health care
– newcomer health services planning
– local news coverage
– food deserts
– the geospatial web
– public participation GIS

(See details at http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/publications.html.)

Additional areas of interest of potential supervisors include:
– agent-based modeling, self-organizing maps
– economic geography
– environmental justice
– ethnic retail
– geographic visualization
– immigration and settlement patterns
– neighbourhood wellbeing indices
– real-estate valuation
– transportation planning

(See also http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/spatial/faculty.html for program faculty members.)

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.

50 Years of Geographic Information Systems

Some 50 years ago, the Canadian government started the development of a computerized land inventory which would become the prototype of geographic information systems (GIS). Its early history is detailed in a blog post by leading GIS vendor ESRI at http://blogs.esri.com/esri/esri-insider/2012/09/07/the-50th-anniversary-of-gis/.

In addition to the interesting links they provide at the end of their post, I really like the three-part documentary “Data for Decision” on the Canada GIS, which you can access via the GIS and Science blog at http://gisandscience.com/2009/01/25/data-for-decision-42-years-later/, or directly at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAFG6aQTwPk (part 1).

Ryerson’s Department of Geography (formerly School of Applied Geography) has a long tradition of using GIS in research and in the classroom/lab, and thereby training a modern type of geographer and contributing to a new perspective on the study of social and earth systems.

The Death of Evidence: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.

“The scientific community is sad to report the death of evidence, which passed away June 18th, 2012, after an over six year battle with Harper government policies. Objective and honest, evidence was heavily involved in all aspects of Canadian prosperity and will be sorely missed by all Canadians, whether they currently realize it or not.”

Cited from one of the most distressing Web sites out there, http://www.deathofevidence.ca/.

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.