Wherecamp EU – Day 1

The first day of Wherecamp EU – a geo “unconference” – was today in London. Not having been to an unconference before, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but actually everything went pretty smoothly thanks to the efforts of the organisers. After a introduction session, talks (some lecture-style, some brainstorms/Q&As) were in six parallel streams, in strictly half-hour slots. People were given post-it notes and encouraged to stick on the “unconference wall” a topic that they would then talk about at the corresponding place and time:

The wall for today pretty much got filled, and there’s 15 up already for the final day, tomorrow, which is in the Guardian’s offices.

I generally enjoyed the talks I picked – particularly a talk by the ESRI UK CTO on the need to rethink how metadata in GIS is managed, especially in relation to delivering it through to mashups, to increase confidence in the final presented data. My favourite though was, without a doubt, a look at the ITO visualisations of OpenStreetMap and UK public transport datasets. The datasets are interesting on their own, but the polish on the visualisations are outstanding. For example, streams of sci-fi-style pulses representing the 24-hour flow of the UK long-distance coach network.

Tonight is “geo-beers” in King’s Cross, paid for by a sponsor – the entire conference is free, with free food and drink, thanks to the many sponsors of the event. Very impressed so far. Even the wifi held up. Possibly the only thing missing is a Twitter wall. Look forward to tomorrow’s sessions.

Conferences Data Graphics OpenStreetMap

Season’s Greetings

2010 promises to be a very exciting year for GIS, neo-geography and information visualisation.

Potentially one of the most interesting events that may happen next year is a big shift on access to mapping data in the UK. Yesterday, the Communities and Local Government Department (CLG) published the consultation paper for opening up Ordnance Survey data. The consultation is open until March.

Also in March is the first Wherecamp EU, right here in London. I’ve looked on enviously as the neo-geos and proto-geos do cool things with spatial data over in the States at Wherecamp, and its associated “regular” conference Where 2.0. Now we get to do the same!

Geomob’s next evening, at my alma mater City University in January, has an interesting lineup of speakers, possibly including the author of Information is Beautiful – the UK edition of which is out shortly after in February.

This year was pretty amazing for opening up access to data – there’s a lot of it out there, now we just need to visualise it. Here are some lovely examples.

Finally, the British Library is putting on a major exhibition of historic maps from April – Magnificant Maps, which will include the largest book in the world – six feet high apparently. I saw their “London: A Life in Maps” exhibition back in 2007 and was highly impressed. They have an impressive collection and I look forward to seeing next year’s exhibition.

Season’s greetings!

Bauble from the OpenStreetMap Wiki


RGS Annual Conference

As mentioned in my previous post, I was up at the RGS Annual Conference for a day last week. As well as my own session, I stayed to listen to a number of sessions, including the cartography one – titled “Why do Geographers Make Maps?”. This one, a double-session, was popular – the room was packed out, and I enjoyed the talks. But my highlight of the day was an evening trip to the John Rylands Library in central Manchester, for an evening viewing of the Mapping Manchester expedition – which got a lot of publicity on that day, in the national press, because of the “Soviet Invasion of Manchester” maps that form part of the collection.

I was delighted too, to see an old (1980) orienteering map in the collection, and a map showing the locations of all (1000s?) of the pubs in Manchester, was quite eye opening! The building that the collection was in was itself pretty awe-inspiring two – it’s neo-gothic style, and reminds me strongly of the (much older) Duke Humphrey’s Library which is deep in the Bodleian Library complex in Oxford. Basically, it’s straight out of “Harry Potter”.

Conferences Mashups OpenLayers OpenStreetMap

Education Profiling with an Open Source Geostack

I was in Manchester yesterday for the first day of the Royal Geographical Society annual conference. I gave a talk at the session called “New Urban Geography: Evolving Area Classification for Socio-Spatial Generalisation” which was convened by my boss Dr Alex Singleton and chaired by Prof Paul Longley, both also of the Department of Geography here at UCL.

My talk discussed a Web 2.0-style mashup of English school attainment and geodemographic data, which has been put together as an online “atlas” using OpenStreetMap data as a contextual layer, Mapnik to produce the graphics and OpenLayers to display them. The atlas is not yet complete, and the data is a little old, so it’s not being widely promoted yet, but if you are really keen on visiting it yourself you can find the URL by looking carefully in the presentation…

It is here.

[slideshare id=1914330&doc=openlayersandmapnik-090827073034-phpapp01]

Conferences OpenStreetMap

State of the Map 2009 Review


Just back from StateOfTheMap, the OpenStreetMap community’s international conference. I missed the first two conferences but made it along to this year’s in Amsterdam. I skipped the “business day” on Friday and joined the conference for the Saturday and Sunday, when it reverts to being a community conference.

My favourite talks were:

  • Andy Allan showing off some advance cartographic techniques that make “other” maps beautiful and how we could apply them to OpenStreetMap’s default renders.
  • Muki Haklay’s talk on measuring data quality and completeness – turning the “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns” is something that is becoming increasingly important as the community starts to “market” its data to a wider audience.
  • Mike Miguski’s Walking Papers was very well received and is a brilliant way to make mapping POIs and simple areas easier, without using a GPS. He also showed off some of the lovely looking Stamen map designs.
  • Richard Fairhurst’s lightning talk on Potlatch. Some people might have tried Potlatch a year back, thought “urgh” and gone back to JOSM, but the editor has come a long way recently. Version 1.1, released last week, allows drag-and-drop placement of POIs. Version 2.0 is also on the roadmap and promises a closer look to the Mapnik “default render”.
  • The “State of Japan” talk, while not revealing anything particularly innovative, was very funny and well presented – a simple “nice picture, map before, map after” sequence of slides for each of several shrines and castles in the country. The mapping is very high quality too and shows that OpenStreetMap is more about streets. As an aside, there seems to be a bit of an international “contest” to get the most detailed zoo mapped on OSM at the moment. Amsterdam’s zoo has the individual cages on it, as do several others. London’s is way behind, don’t even have the perimeter on yet.
  • Some of the international lightning talks, from people who had won scholarships from far-off places to come to the conference, were great. I particularly liked Abdel Hassan’s talk about OpenStreetMap in Cairo. GPS receivers have only been legal in Egypt since March!
  • Jorgen Topf’s primer on “proper” GIS and using OpenStreetMap data with it. A topic which the OSM community needs to know more about! It was only the tip of the iceberg, although there’s only so much you can say in 15 minutes.
  • Martin Lucas-Smith’s CycleStreets – attractive looking solution and with a good routing engine that will only get better as the data gets more complete.
  • There was a talk on browser-based rendering of OSM data, which looked pretty exciting.

It was also interesting, for me, to be able to compare with the OSGIS UK conference I also went to, last month.

What I liked more about StateOfTheMap was:

  • This was far and away the most social conference I’ve ever been to. Admittedly already knowing quite a few of the delegates, thanks to UK mapping parties and the London mapping marathon pub trips, helped break the ice, as did being in a city like Amsterdam which naturally lends itself to post-conference relaxing at a canal-side venue. Being stuck in a Travelodge on the edge of a town in the Midlands, or in a modern university campus when the students aren’t around, is never going to have the same opportunities.
  • The full-scale use of technology – not really surprising for a conference by a technology community of course, but it was good to see it being used well, e.g. the Twitter Wall on one of the big TV screens.
  • The conference venue was really nice! New, bright, colourful, with a view of the city. Very Web 2.0. The food and drinks were also excellent. The catering staff even got invited onto the stage at the closing session to be thanked for their good work.

What I liked about OSGIS UK more was:

  • The talks were more consistently high quality. SoTM’s talks were very variable in quality, some of them needed hooking off the stage with a walking stick!
  • All the speakers turned up to speak. Sounds obvious really, but at least two of the SoTM talks were skipped due to speakers not being present. Particularly disappointing was that one of them was the talk I was most looking forward to (about Processing.)

Noticeable about both conferences was:

  • More people than I expected from the big commercial players in the field, despite them in some ways being “rivals” to the concept of open source and OpenStreetMap.
  • Presentations were always short – never longer than 30 minutes and frequently never longer than 15 minutes (or 10 minutes in the case of the “State of Country X” talks, or even 5 minutes for the lightning talks). Even the keynotes were short. This is, by the way, a Good Thing.


Conferences OpenStreetMap

OSM Data & Choropleth Maps

Here is the presentation I was planning to give as a “lightning talk” at the StateOfTheMap conference this weekend. However, there were more speakers than places for these sessions – and quite a few of the speakers failed to appreciate that, by running over the five-minute limit, they would be denying other people the chance of speaking! So I didn’t get to present it. However, you should be able to get the gist of what I was going to say through the contents of the slides.

Conferences OpenStreetMap

State of the Map

I’m off to the State of the Map conference in Amsterdam on Friday. It will be interesting to compare with the OSGIS UK conference a couple of weeks ago.

I almost certainly won’t be live-blogging the event, thanks to data-roaming charges, but if I get around to setting it up, there might be a few text-message-powered short entries.

The schedule is full to bursting, with two parallel streams of talks and a workshop stream. I should, if all goes to plan, be giving a “lightning talk” on how we are using OpenStreetMap data here at UCL, in particular as a “context layer” for laying on choropleth maps. However, there are a lot of lightning talks and only a limited time in the schedule for them, so we shall see. Certainly looking forward to hearing about Steve8’s crowd-funded mapping expedition to Antigua last month! In the “main talks”:

  • Muki Haklay’s talk about quality should be interesting. OSM certainly has “quantity” now, with the ever-increasing numbers of crowd-mappers, thinking about how we measure and display the accuracy and completeness of data is something that is going to become more and more important.
  • Being a closet cartography enthusiast myself, Matt Millar’s stylesheet talk, and Andy Allan’s advanced cartography talk, will be of particular interest.
  • Sunday’s “secret geo-celebrity” keynote soudns intriguing.
  • Peter Miller’s talk “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Hmm!
  • Laura Slivinski’s TerpNav (OSM for pedestrianised areas.)
  • Vladimir Agafonkin’s Online map visualisations made easy – viz is always a crowd-pleaser and the IT-orientated community behind OSM is capable of some great off-the-wall viz thinking thanks to coming from a “different” background than the traditional geographers.

OSGIS UK Conference

I was on a very early train on Monday morning, to attend the First OSGIS UK Conference at Nottingham University, hosted by the Centre for Geospatial Science there.

Thanks to the the very tight schedule (speakers generally only had 15 minutes) I was able to see 23 presentations during the day. Most were good, and some were great – it was inspiring to see (a) what people were doing with open source GIS software and (b) how seriously everyone was using the tools – not just as an aside to their regular work but to create real, industrial strength applications for delivery to government bodies and industries.

Some themes came out very strongly – OpenLayers and the GDAL tools were, it seemed, mentioned by nearly every speaker. Certainly, the web browser is the point of delivery for many of the OS GIS projects happening now. Somewhat surprisingly, the map cartography engine Mapnik wasn’t mentioned at all. Less of a surprise, perhaps, was that OpenStreetMap was mentioned in just one talk. Indeed, there was little discussion of open data itself in general – the focus was much on utilising the open source applications and data formats, particularly those under the OSGeo umbrella. There was also no discussion on developing new revenue models from developing open source solutions. Maybe everyone has figured that one out already?

The audience, of around 150 people, was mainly commercial – ESRI and CadCorp (on the app side) and Ordnance Survey and EDINA (on the data side) were all in attendance. Only ~10% were in academia, although around half the talks were given by academics.

It might be the OSGIS UK conference, but there was an excellent representation from around Europe. One of the final sessions was by the European Commission, and many of the individual presentations were from universities around the continent. This reflects that much of the core OS GIS development itself has been driven by academia, such as GRASS in the US and gvSIG in Spain.

Though one of the keynotes was given by the head of the ICA (International Cartographic Association), there were hardly any cartographic presentations, and not really any on geovisualisation either. Perhaps I’m just now starting to appreciate that the “geo” world is actually split into at least four distinct fields – cartography, geovisualisation, GIS analysis and neogeo hacking, with less overlap than I might have thought. The State of the Map conference next month should provide me with my neogeo fix.

Anyway, the talk that won the best presentation award was the one I also liked best – it was well delivered and described a system that was designed for resilience and scalability – something that the best commercial systems can fail to achieve on launch day. It was Mapping Future Climate by Philip James et al at Newcastle University – the system was launched by the government last week and delivers complex models to any one that wants to see them, presented in an attractive way using Open Source tools. The talk also discussed the unusual projection system being used by the Met Office – yet another custom one, to join the thousands of EPSG-designated ones already out there! I also emphasised strongly, as did many in the audience, with the pains of adapting the site for use with IE6 – I’ve spent a couple of days recently pulling my hair out about this particular point. You can see the system here.

I also particuarly liked:

  • Map Warper by Tim Waters, which is essentially an attractive web-based GUI sitting on top of GDAL tools for georeferencing (or “orthorectifying”) rasters. It works well with scans of paper-based maps and aerial photos. I’ve used the Microsoft MapCruncher and the QGIS Georeferencer myself but this looks like a really nice way to do it. Mike also touched on the idea of getting an Open Historical Map project. This is something that the simple Marr Map Mashup in OpenLayers that Alex (my boss) and I did a couple of months back, could contribute to. Tim is also looking at orthorectifying the 10,000 scanned maps in the New York Public Library collection. I was particularly interested in his comments that the underlying GDAL tools are extremely fast, even for large and complex rasters. Not what I’ve found when using them myself, although I may be approaching them in a different way.
  • Sextante by Victor Olaya et al at the University of Extramadura (Spain), a very comprehensive set of over 230 geoprocessing tools, designed to integrate with the various Java-based OS GISes. Similar I think to the Arc Geotoolbox, it has a very similar GUI for building up chains and sequences of operations. In Quantum GIS (my GIS of choice at the moment) there is a similar plugin called fTools, and GRASS has all the operations you could ever need. But Sextante looks very feature rich and the web version uses the Ext-JS framework (as do a number of applications presented) which makes it look very polished indeed.
  • OS GIS for Teaching by Rita Engermaier at the University of Potsdam (Germany). An interesting outline of how students responded to being taught OS GIS applications compared with Arc. A pertinent question was asked at the end though – GIS-based employers will still be looking for specific Arc skills for some time to come. Another similar talk, on OS GISes being used in universities in general, raised the important challenges that (a) staff already know and have the proprietary GISes so why change, and that (b) it’s straightforward to justify purchasing them with departmental budgets, so there’s no perceived benefit of saving the money.
  • SPIRE and Open Source by Rob Booth (IBM) – looking at how open source tools were helping Defra manage and display some of its huge sets of diverse geographic data.
  • Aerial Photo Processing in GRASS by John Stevenson et al at the University of Manchester. This was excellent and a very close contender for my favourite paper – it showed off the power of using GRASS – on the command line no less! – to process remotely sensed data. I wonder if my void filling and hill-shading, that I’ve tried to do with the GDAL tools with only partial success, would be better done in GRASS. Its learning curve was acknowledged but it might be time for me to get stuck into it. I was also very interested to hear about GMT – a toolset which includes the capability to create attractive contours. My own contours, derived using GDAL tools from the SRTM DEM, are not very pretty, so I’ll have a look at it.

Everyone got a 2GB USB key with the conference papers pre-loaded on it which was a nice touch.

A few more notes on some of the other talks:

  • The Ordnance Survey have moved to the more up-to-date OpenLayers 2.7 for their OpenSpace fork. They are also overhauling their lower level OSGB Web Tools package to be a bit more user-friendly, and are planning several releases in the next few months.
  • PostGIS has applied to be part of the OSGeo family. Makes a lot of sense, it’s great to have an organisation packaging and marketing an excellent suite of production-ready OS tools, and with PostGIS, the full stack is there. Now let’s have Mapnik there too!
  • The European Commission have their own licence – the EUPL – for publically-funded work designed for use by public authorities. It’s “yet another” OS licence but is compatible with the various main OS licences (GPL, Apache) but designed to be enforceable across all the member states’ jurisdictions. It’s more of a “marketing” thing, apparently, to help encourage OS software use by administrations across the continent. They also have “yet another” code sharing platform,, where code can be hosted, if it’s publicly financed and open source. Sextante and gvSIG are two projects using the “GIS/SDI” area on OSOR – it can also act as the underlying repository while the project’s own development portal keeps its branding. The pan-European nature could potentially be very powerful for raising awareness of OS projects in the public sector.
  • There were some lower-level talks, on data and semantics – areas that might not be so glamorous, but are still interesting. These included an outline of the GeoSciML schema for describing geological data, and defining a rules-based language for geospatial constructs, such as how a feature can be identified as being a roundabout, for possible use in the pan-European INSPIRE initiative.
  • The OSGeo UK group is new and is perhaps still deciding what its true role is – whether it should be lobbying the government for even greater use of OS GIS tools, having a marketing role to organisations, or providing a forum for UK-specific discussion of OS GIS usage.
  • A common theme of the higher-level, application based talks was that the project designers were very impressed with the support they had received from the developers of the underlying tools – with patches often being delivered overnight. This is very encouraging and shows the healthy and active nature of the field.

Overall, I was most impressed with what I saw. There was a great buzz in the room – a diverse range of backgrounds, but everyone enjoying seeing what could be done with Open Source tools. There was perhaps a feeling that we might not be having to use Arc any more in the near future, perhaps?

Nottingham already have next year’s conference date set. Maybe I should do a talk on Mapnik’s capabilities at the next one…

Conferences OpenStreetMap

Open Source GIS is from Mars, OpenStreetMap is from Venus?

I’m going to a couple of conferences in the next few weeks – the 1st Open Source GIS UK (OSGIS UK) conference at Nottingham University, and State of the Map 2009, the 3rd OpenStreetMap conference in Amsterdam.

On the face of it, one might expect an overlap between the two conferences. In both cases, it is about a community geared towards developing and using open source (“free”) geo-applications to further understanding of spatial issues or “do cool things”.

But OpenStreetMap (OSM) is not in the title of any of the talks on the OSGIS agenda.”GIS” appears just once in the SOTM agenda titles – “Bridging the GAp: Using OSM Data with GIS Tools” by Jochen Topf should be an interesting talk.

I suppose the two communities are really separate, coming from two different sources, operating on two levels and with two aims.

  • The open source GIS community comes from academia, particularly Geography, and is interested in having the power to develop applications to advance research, without facing the user interface and functionality challenges of the big proprietary GISes, not to mention the expensive licensing costs. They already have the data – they’ve collected it, or negotiated academic rates for access to the national mapping agencies.
  • The OSM community comes from IT and just wants to do cool things with the data – but doesn’t have the willingness to pay commercial rates for the data – so they are more focused with getting the data in the first place. Once they have it, they are not willing to learn (or aware of ) GISes, which are complicated bits of software, at best, instead generally scripts for specific bits of functionality.

Two worlds, it seems, with “open” goals but seemingly little overlap.


MSc Dissertation

Last year (2007-8) I studied for an MSc in Geographic Information Systems, at City University London. The course was taught by an excellent team of academics and I can thoroughly recommend it as a good, technology-focused introduction to GIS. The highlight was the field-trip, a week away in the Lake District, carrying out three two-day projects, each involving planning, data gathering, preparing and presenting the findings.

The summer last year was spent researching and writing the dissertation. It is entitled “Use of a GIS for Production and Maintenance of Street Orienteering Maps: Can a GIS and Spatially Aware Data add Value to Orienteering?” and can be downloaded from here (24MB, 102 pages).

You almost certainly don’t want to read 102 pages, so there is an extended abstract here (1MB, 5 pages), entitled “Creating and Maintaining Street Orienteering Maps using OpenStreetMap”, which appears in the “Proceedings of the GIS Research UK 17th Annual Conference”, aka GISRUK 2009. I presented a poster summarising the work at the conference, which is reproduced below – linked to a larger version.

Poster for GISRUK 2009