GISRUK 2013 – Liverpool

GISRUK 2013 was hosted by The University of Liverpool between April 3rd – 5th.  The conference kicked off with a Keynote presentation from Paul Longley. Paul is well known for his long research career and his excellent text books which form the cornerstone of so many courses in GIS.  The title of his talk was “A name is a statement” and investigated many aspects of geodemographics and genealogy.  Longley highlighted the work that the Wellcome Trust had been involved in that had created a map of Britain’s genetic make-up. From this work you could see how the south of Britain was all very similar but areas such as Orkney were distinctly different to the rest of Britain.  This perhaps relates to the influence of Vikings on the islands genepool (we will forgive him a slip referring to Orkney as the Inner Hebrides). But he pointed out that the patterns reflected the sampling strategy that was used to collect the base data. This was based on 2 premises:

  1. all participants were from rural, semi-rural areas as it was thought that urban medical centres would be busier and more likely to make mistakes taking samples
  2. participants had to be able to trace both sets of grandparents.

A nice study which demonstrates the power in datasets is the Wellcome Trusts DNA database however, care is needed when analyising results as they can be influenced by the sampling strategy.

Longley then moved on to show a number of studies that focused specifically on names.  CASA has been investigating links between names and place for a while.  Pablo Mateos has a number of papers which explore these links (2007 CASA Working Paper, 2011 PLOS One paper) including analysis of naming patterns across 17 countries around the World (2011 PLOS One paper).  For anyone looking for data about names, they should look at ONOMAP (although, Onomap site is down at the time of writing).  An alternative data source might be Twitter.  If you filter the account name to leave only the ones with a proper 1st and 2nd name you can then investigate details about them such as when/where they tweet, now often they tweet and what they tweet about. However there are considerations about the base data that you have to be aware of.  It is not representative of the population as a whole. Twitter users fall into the 20-50 age bracket and users tend to be middle-classed. (I might add that while you can infer ethnicity from the twitter name, it tells you nothing about what the user considers them self to be, i.e British/not British). The final aspect that Longley presented was some initial investigations into what a name can tell you about class and background. For example, Ryan is the 6th most popular name for professional footballers but doesn’t appear in the Top 50 names of Oxford graduates (not sure where these data sets came from). I might add that it only costs £35 to change your name.

Longley also commented on the information that the Census was gathering and questioned if it was still collecting the information that analysists needed.  There is an increasing desire to know about the use of digital tech but this sector develops at such a rate that a 10 year sampling interval would not be appropriate.

Onto the first of the parallel sessions and a brief scan of the program suggested that it would be difficult to decide which stream to attend.   Rather than describe each presentation, I have grouped them together into topic themes.

Stats using R

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that there were a lot of papers that used R.  There was a workshop on tuesday on the subject and Liverpool has a strong research group that use R as their stats tool of choice. Chris Brunsdon (Liverpool) outlined how easy it was to access data through API’s from R. The other nugget from Chris was that you could use R and Shiny to make web services, making your data interactive and allowing the user to perform some analysis over the web.  Certainly will be looking into these a bit further.

Mobile Mapping

There were a few presentations on mobile mapping apps.  Michalis Vitos (UCL) had created a pictorial based system that allowed illiterate users to record evidence of illegal logging in the Congo Basin. The app was stripped back to make it intuitive and easy for someone who may not be able to read or write to use.  Distances were estimated in terms of football pitches.  Michalis had used ODK Collect to build his app and initial tests in the field suggested that users could collect useful data through it.

EDINA showcased it’s new data collection app Fieldtrip GB which allows users to design and deploy data forms that meet the needs of their research.  Fieldtrip GB is free and is available for both iPhone and Android. Ben Butchart didn’t dwell much on the functionality of the app, choosing to explain some of the technical issues that had to be overcome by the development team.


SpaceBook is a project that William Mackaness and Phil Bartie (University of Edinburgh) are involved in.  Essentially the idea is to provide information to a user about what they can see or about how to get to a place using visual aids and human interpretable instructions (target is to the left of the Scots Monument which is the tall tower directly ahead). The app adopts a speech based approach ensuring that the users hands are free to do other things such as take pictures.  The app has to make some assumptions to extract the users orientation but it would be interesting to try it out. Certainly, Edinburgh’s hilly terrain lends itself to such an app as the skyline changes as you rise and fall across the City.


Empires decline – Pedro Miguel Cruz

The second Keynote was given by Jason Dykes of City University London. Jason is well known for taking a dataset and presenting it in a novel way.  With an hour to fill, Jason took us through some of the more interesting projects that he has been working on and, as usual, he ran live demo’s changing parameters and re-generating the visualisations on-the-fly.  The first visualisation was from Pedro Cruz and it showed the decline of the Empires through time.  It starts with 4 large “blobs” and these slowly fragment into countries until we have a semi-recognisable world map. This would be great as a teaching aid in schools.

London Bike Hire Scheme – Map view

Other visualisations that are worth a look include the BikeGrid which takes feeds from the London Bike Scheme and allows you to view them as in a standard geographic layout and then a grid. The example for London works well as the river retains an element of geographic separation when the gridview is used.  This idea of being able to switch between geographic and non-geographic views can be taken further if you switch to a relationship view, where cluster of similar things are formed. In one example you could vary the amount of geographic control was exerted on the view and see whether or not geography was the reason for the relationship (i cant find the link to this at the moment).

London Bike Hire Scheme – Grid View

All the wiz-bang shown in Jason’s presentation is linked from his webpage. In addition, there are links to the giCentre’s utilities which should help anyone who is interested in using packages such as “Processing” to visualise data.

Other interesting things of note

There were a few other items that are worth mentioning that perhaps dont fit neatly into my hashed themes. One of these is, from Jonathon Huck, Lancaster University.  This site allows people to reate simple questionairs and then they can interact with a map to convey how strongly they feel about the topic using a “spray can” technique. The service is free and allows users to perform basic fuzzy geographic analysis through participatory science. The technique seems to lend itself well to applications such as locating new windfarms, or perhaps monitoring anti-social behavior in a neighbourhood.

Candela Sanchez discussed the Map Kibera project which saw slum communities map their neighbourhoods. Candela applied a similar approach to map the Shankar Maharaj Slum in India.  Candela looked at how easy it was to impliment the Kibera formula and what possible issues it threw up. The issues related to power, the local knowledge that slum dwellers had and the possibility that once mapped, the land could be “valued” and residents taxed or moved on by the landlords. Community buy-in and involvement throughout such projects is critical if they are to benefit the community itself.

Candela received the best “Open” paper award from OSGeo.  Phil Bartie won the overall best paper award.  GISRUK 2014 will take place in Glasgow.



AGIScotland 2013 – New directions in Geo

The 2013 AGI Scotland event marked a slight change in direction for the AGI, this being the first “showcase” event that they have run. 6 showcase events and the annual GeoCommunity event are scheduled across the year.

It was fitting that the first plenary speaker was from the Scottish Government. Mike Neilson is the Director of Digital and represents the top end of the digital restructuring that has occurred in the Scottish Government. Mike reinforced the importance of digital in governing a country and that there was a push to make more public services available on line. This would encourage the public to get online, but Mike was acutely aware that there was a danger that moving services online would exclude those who could not get online, perhaps due to financial constrains. Improving digital connectivity was important as Scotland, especially Glasgow, currently lags behind the UK average which impacts on the social and economic development of the Country.

At a recent meeting of the Spatial Information Board, 6 priorities were agreed and these will form the focus of activities in the immediate future. These are:

  1. effective use of spatial data thru inspire
  2. data sharing and collaborative procurement
  3. build GIS capabilities capacity
  4. embed spatial data within broader data agenda
  5. promote awareness of benefits of wider use of spatial
  6. mechanism for hosting spatial data

The restructuring of digital data teams in the government seems to make sense and looks to provide sensible, hierarchical structure. However, the Scottish Government are looking for feedback and input from the GI community on what they see as being important and where they think digital data is going.  To provide feedback you can contact shonna or follow them on Twitter @digitalscots

The second plenary speaker was Anne Kemp, Atkins. Anne pointed to the changing role of the GI professional and urged us to step out of our insular groups and comfort zones and to interact with other groups who use spatial data. Anne strongly believes that Building Information Models (BIMs) are the future for many aspects of GIS. BIMs focus on the lifecycle of anything in the built environment, from planning to operational management. Calculations suggest that effective use of BIMs can save 20% in the cost of construction and operation of new infrastructure.  The use of BIMs has been mandated by the government for England and organisations, such as the Environment Agency and Highways Agency, are currently aligning themselves to meet the 2016 target. Interestingly the Scottish Government does not have a similar mandate and seems to have no plan to do so. This raises interesting questions. Many large engineering companies and consultancies are GB wide organisations and tend to operate to organisation wide best practices, of which BIM is almost certainly going to be. Will much of BIMs seems to just represent industry best practice, mandate from central government which then filters down through local government would ensure best practice and potentially interoperability across infrastructure. Certainly the feeling from the floor was that if BIM was being adopted wholesale south of the border and that BIM management was seen as an exportable skill-set, it might be sensible to mandate it in Scotland as well. (cough trams, cough cough Scottish parliament, cough).

Next up was a double act from SEPA’s Dave Watson and Duncan Taylor who introduced Scotland’s Environment Web (  Scotland’s Environment Web (SEWeb) brings together information on Scotland’s environment. It merges environmental data, information and reports, from known and trusted sources, so they can all be viewed in one place. SEWeb links to 30 WMS which are organized in themed groups. Dave and Duncan outlined the pro’s and con’s of this approach.


  • Each organization is responsible for their own data
  • Reduces development time and maintenance
  • Maintains 1 version of the truth
  • No singl point of failure


  • Many points of failure which it is hard to track and sometimes confusing for the user to know who to contact if there are problems


  • No standard look and feel to symbology and styles
  • Issues with data scales.

The current work represents Phase One. Phase Two will allow users to download data and there is a business case to support forestry assessments.  There is a longterm aim to add WFS capabilities to SEWeb.

One of the sites that feeds data into SEWeb is Scotland’s Soils, run by the James Hutton Institute.  The soil map is based on the 1984 1:250,000 mapping and has 580 different mapping units although the web map uses a simplified unit scheme. You can also access the data through an iPhone app which gives you access to the soil structure at over 600 points across Scotland.

It is great to see this data being made available, but I can see the “ugly” issues mentioned by Dave and Duncan.  Just move from Scotland’s Environment to Scotland’s Soils and the maps are very different. From a usability side of things the map controls are completely different.  We, as GIS professionals, have no problem knowing how to use either. They are intuitive to us, but we are experts. The average member of the public may well struggle. Imagine if they finally learn to use 1 map interface then find that the map on the other site is completely different. Not ideal. The solution would be to develop a consistent interface and share the code. However, this would mean that all partners would have to agree to use the same libraries to build their web maps.

Other highlights from the event included Astun Technologies Mike Saunt who talked about “Doing something with this Open Stuff”.  Mike showed how local government was making data available, and importantly, accessible. Councils could then share data feeds automatically therefore saving time and money. However, Mike highlighted some of the problems that arose when making data open with examples where url’s did not resolve because of typo’s. More worryingly was an organization that was promoting it’s WMS but was also serving a WFS. The organization was not promoting or linking to the WFS and Mike suggested that they may not be aware that they were serving the WFS.  The solution is to ensure you understand what you are making available and why. If you don’t have the skills in house then get someone in to ensure everything is set up correctly.  This is kind of what Astun do and using services like theirs is a cost effective way of working.

Another talk that really shone was Crispin Hoult from Link Node. Crispin introduced the concept of GIality which is the use of geospatial data in augmented reality. This makes a lot of sense. You have a location aware device with a host of sensors in it and can use this to visualize changes to a landscape while you are actually in that environment. This semi-immersive technology would certainly help the visualization of developments like windfarms or new housing estates and takes us beyond the “comfortable” use of overlays on paper maps.

The day finished up with Anne Kemp talking about the future of AGI Scotland and the strengthening community of GIS professionals in Scotland.  There was mention of the Chartered Geographer in GIS qualification but it was pointed out that to become chartered you had to join the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) which did not have a remit in Scotland. Anne noted this and said she would look into it.  She also mentioned other recognised professional qualifications such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) who offer a GIS orientated qualification. Will be interesting to see how the CGeog GIS issue progresses this year.  It does seem the best suited but is not perfect if you are living and working in Scotland.

OSGIS 2012 – Day 2


The second day of OSGIS 2012 saw a full day of short paper presentations and a couple of workshops.  The day started with a keynote from Prof. David Martin, University of Southampton.  David is  Director of the ESRC Census Programme and his talk looked at the data that will come out of the 2011 census. It also discussed the future of census programs in the UK.  The take-away points for David’s talk included:

  • Lots of new fields such as “do you intend to remain in UK?”
  • 16th July 2012 – age/sex distribution LADs released
  • Nov 2012 – release to the OA level which will be of interest for Geographers
  • Spring 2013 – multivariate stats and some new stuff like time dependant location data which will be interesting for disaster management/response and answering questions such as “who is where/when?”
  • Access to longitudinal data and data about individuals will still be restricted to secure labs

David made some interesting points including crediting the CDU in Manchester for making the census data far easier to access and analyse.  The data is in excel format and has the crucial area codes which we geographers love.  

He showed some analysis of work place zones which modifies the census units based on where people are during the day (work place) which should make disaster planning more efficient. It was also noted, light-heartedly, that this could be used to determine where to locate your burger van during the week.  

Next up was Ian James, Technical Architect for the Ordnance Survey. Ian’s presentation was on how the OS was embracing the open source opportunity.  The OS now use open source solutions for internal activity and client-facing interfaces.  It took a while to convince the whole organisation that open source solutions were more than capable of handling large and valuable datasets.  It is now clear that some open source solutions are in fact better than their proprietary counterparts.  However, Ian stressed that open source was not free.  There is always a cost associated with software, with open source solutions there is no up-front licence fee, but there is cost associated with training users and administrators or buying 3rd party support.

After coffee, the conference split into parallel strands, I switched rooms to catch certain presentations and my write up will reflect this.  You should be able to watch the presentations on the OSGIS 2012 website.

Matt Walker, Astun Technology demonstrated the open source system Loader, a simple GML loader written in Python that makes use of OGR 1.8.   Matt showed us how Astun were providing TMS/WMS for various clients and how they managed to run it all through Amazon web services.  Top tips from Matt included:

  • Amazon web services are great, you can even have fail-over instances, but be sure to manage your system or risk running up bills quite quickly
  • Use PGDump to increase postgres load times (4x quicker)
  • MapProxy rocks
  • UbuntuGIS makes life easy
Next up was Fernando Gonzalez who presented the possibilities of Collaborative geoprocessing with GGL2.  GGL2 is an evolution of GGL which was a scripting application for GIS.  GGL2 makes scripts much simpler, fewer lines of code makes it easier us humans to read.  GGL2 is available as a plugin for gvSIG and QGIS.  If you want to find out more about GGL2 the look at
EDINA’s Sandy Buchanan gave a demonstration of Cartogrammer which is an online cartogrammer application. It allows users to upload shapefiles and KML files and then create cartograms.  This is very neat and really does remove the technical barrier in producing interesting info-graphics.  The service makes us of ScapeToad and is available as an online service, a widget and an api which can be called from your own website.  We will let you know when it goes live.
Anthony Scott of Sustain gave an excellent presentation on the work he has been doing for MapAction.  If you don’t know what MapAction is or what they do, they provide mapping and GIS services areas that have suffered natural and humanitarian disasters.  Infrastructure is important if aid is to be delivered and this requires knowledge of the what is on the ground at the time, and in some cases, what is left. Take 5 minutes to look at their website and if it sounds like something you would like to support, hit the big red donate button.
Jo Cook, Astun Technology, looked at how you might use open source software and open data to do something useful.  She looked at taking GeoRSS feeds from sites such as NHS Choices and PoliceUK to extract location specific information, link it with other open data and then make this publicly available. According to Jo, you can do quite a lot with very basic python scripting. The last slide of Jo’s presentation has a list of useful resources, seek it out when it is made available on the OSGIS website.
The best presentation prize went to Ken Arroyo Ohori, TU, Delft. Ken demonstrated some code that he had written which fixed overlapping and topologically incorrect polygons.  PPREPAIR looks brilliant and is available in GitHub.  Ken plans to make it into a QGIS plugin when he has time, i think this will be really useful.  Nice aspects include being able to set a “trusted” polygon class which would be assumed to be correct if two polygons intersected.  Ken demonstrated ppgrepair’s capabilities fixing polygons along the Spanish/Portuguese Border. Because two mapping agencies have mapped the border independently, when you combine the two datasets you get horrible overlaps. Ken’s presentation was clear and informative and his ppreapir really does look useful.
The event finished with Steve Feldman of KnowWhere Consulting.  Steve has been working in GIS for many years, but is, by his own admission, not a techie.  He approaches the subject with a business hat on and it is useful to hear this perspective.   Steve reiterated the point that Open Source was not Free software.  It is commercial software with no massive up front lumps sum and no long term contract. You can pay for implementation and support.  You can fund developments that you want, rather than functionality you dont need. Steve suggested that the “Free” was a confusing term, but a member of the audience suggested that Free also related to not being tied to a contract or service provider.  You can opt in and out as you wish.

FOSS4G 2013

Steve then took the opportunity to officially launch FOSS4G 2013, which will be held in Nottingham in September next year.  This event will be huge and is definitely one to put in the calendar now and make sure you get along to it.  There will be over 500 delegates from around the world all focused on doing more with open source geospatial tools.  In fact, better than that, volunteer to help at the event.  The local organising committee needs extra people to help make FOSS4G 2013 a success. If you want to help, pledge your support on the pledge page and someone from the loc will get back to you.
 So, another great event.  Thanks to Suchith, Jeremy and their team for making it happen.  OSGIS will not happen in 2013, but FOSS4G will more than make up for it.


OSGIS 2012 – Part 1

OSGIS is now in it’s 4th year and has really become one of the main events that brings together users and developers of open source geospatial tools.  The nice thing about OSGIS is that it attracts an even spread of delegates from the commercial, the public and the academic sector.  This cross-sector mixing is, in my opinion, very healthy for the geospatial sector.

Jeremy Morley at OSGIS 2012

Day One of OSGIS 2012 featured workshops where users could get hands on experience of software under the guidance of expert tutors.  The morning session saw an introduction to GeoNetwork, a geospatial catalog service, and and overview of the OSM-GBproject which has made in-roads in topologically correcting OSM data. These workshops are integral to the ethos of OSGIS as they are designed to empower both novices exploring the potential of open source software and the expert users looking to refine their skillset and discuss technical problems.

After lunch I opted to attend the session looking at the educational use of OSGeo Live. For those of you that have not heard of OSGeo Live, it is a bootable DVD which allows you to investigate OSGeo software without having to instal and configure it on your own computer. This is an excellent way to explore the functionality offered by the numerous packages such as uDIG, QGIS, Openlayers and GeoServer.

Barend Kobben of ITC in the Netherlands outlined how OSGeo Live was used in teaching and why it solved many issues.  Increasingly universities are assuming that students will want to use their own laptops rather than relying on open access labs.  This means that the tutors have no control of what computer students will use to complete course work. Supporting multiple operating systems and system configurations is virtually impossible.  Using OSGeo Live removes the necessity to configure systems. Just put the DVD in the computer,reboot and go. Well, most of the time.  Not all computers are set to boot from the DVD drive, users would have to access their BIOS to set their boot sequence. Running the OSGeo Live from a USB stick or on a virtual machine potentially reduces the hassle of dealing with boot sequences.

Jeremy Morley of Nottingham Geospatial Institute echoed Barend’s experiences.  Jeremy had used Oracle VirtualBox and then taken snapshots on a Storage Area Network (SAN) to ensure that students work was backed up.  This looked promising but didn’t scale when 20+ students tried to access the SAN. Unfortunately, the snapshots were tied to a single machine ID, students would have to use the same machine eachtime they accessed their work.  This was not an acceptable solution. Jeremy switched to running OSGeo live from a USBstick and this was an improvement, but again, was not without it’s own issues.  The FAT32 format reduced the usable space on the 8 Gb drives to just under 5Gb and cheaper USB sticks were prone to burning out and failing.  But, the solution was acceptable and Jeremy was able to deliver the course to to the students. Next years course will be refined in light of discovering these issues.

As an aside, Jeremy flagged the potential need for more Geographic Information Systems courses to support the wide and varied technical applications which require in depth knowledge of computing.  There has been a trend of Geographic Information Science courses over recent years where students are taught how to apply GIS to solve scientific problems.  However the maintenance of systems and interfaces which allow data to be published and interacted with is important but forms the base of only a handful of course at the moment.

During the discussion of these two papers, it ws suggested that a Cloud Space to run GIS would be useful, if you could configure what tools you wanted.  A figure of 4Gb was suggested as a reasonable workspace.  This would allow users to analyse data but would have to carefully manage their space.  You could always “do with more space” but you could teach with about 4Gb of space.

The first day closed with a presentation by Jiri Kadlec of Aalto University, Finland. Jiri, by his own admission , was new to open source GIS and set himself the challenge of managing and translating data in differing coordinate systems. Projections and coordinate systems are always a challenge.  The theory is that you should be able to get from any “system” o any other “system” by passing through WGS1984.  Jiri found QGIS to be the bet of the bunch but it was not perfect.  Juiri also put together a neat little projection comparison tool which many of the audience thought would be an excellent aid when teaching students about projections, or for showing representations of land areas in different projections.

The day finished with a drinks reception and a visit to some of the sights of Nottingham. Fortunately, some of the best historic sites just so happen to be pubs and the Jubilee Campus is the site of the old Raleigh bicycle factory.

Historic Site


GA Conference 2012

Last Friday and Saturday (13 – 14 April) the Digimap for Schools team joined the Ordnance Survey on their stand at the GA Conference in Manchester.  It was a fantastic couple of days and we welcomed many visitors to the stand.  In fact, some people had to come back on the Saturday to see us because the stand had been too busy when they stopped by on Friday!

Digimap for Schools received lots of positive feedback from teachers currently using the service and those interested in signing up.  Visitors were impressed with the new enhancements released a couple of weeks ago (read about them here) and were very interested in the new secondary and primary teaching resources recently added (download resources here)

It was an excellent conference for us, providing a great opportunity to meet new and familiar teachers to demonstrate the service and to hear feedback from those already using it.

The Education team from Ordnance Survey also held a workshop on Friday afternoon demonstrating Digimap for Schools.  The room was crammed full of eager teachers to hear about the history and development of Digimap for Schools, as well as getting  chance to have a hands-on session to have a look at the service themselves.

From the buzz on various blogs and Twitter, I don’t think we were the only people to think that the conference was fantastic, a job really well done by the GA!