AGI GeoCommunity ‘08: Hits and Misses

By Adena Schutzberg

_At the second iteration of AGI's GeoCommunity Conference, held in Stratford-on-Avon in the United Kingdom last week, I was looking for very specific things I could "take home." Perhaps that's because I had not attended an event "across the pond" for a number of years. Or, perhaps I felt an event outside North America would provide novel insights on geotechnology. In truth, my anticipation may have sprung from simple boredom, having heard too much about the same topics lately. The good news is I found a few great presentations that had me thinking differently, which I'll document in depth. I'll save electrons by summarizing the more familiar papers in a few sentences.

The Best Presentation
Usability and GIS - Why Your Boss Should Buy you a Larger Monitor
Muki Haklay, University College London

I should first point out that this presentation (now online here) received "runner up" for the attendee-voted "best presentation." For more on the winning presentation, see my write up at All Points Blog.

This was one of the presentations to which I'd been looking forward because I devote a full lesson in my course at Penn State to usability issues. When I documented the lack of writing on the topic related to geospatial software, I received a comment from Haklay on his work. As a community we do not seem to put enough emphasis on the topic and this presentation gave specific reasons why we should.

Haklay was quick to point out that GIS has particular challenges when it comes to usability and user interface design. For one, the required language comes from several disciplines - from databases, cartography and CAD to name a few. (Traynor and Williams) As an example, consider how many different meanings the term "field" may have in a GIS!

One of the manifestations of poor usability, Haklay argued, is the difficulty GIS professionals have moving from one GIS to another. When questioned (by me), he described it as being far more difficult than switching between CAD packages such as AutoCAD and MicroStation (I disagree) and far more difficult than the switch "back in the day" to Excel, from Quattro or Lotus 123.

To enhance usability, GIS software developers need to implement ideas from usability engineering including learnability, efficiency (how fast you can complete a task), memorability (the ability to remember how to do something after a break of hours, days or weeks), error rate (how the software causes and deals with errors), and user satisfaction.

Haklay offered some examples of these ideas.
  1. MapInfo, in its older interfaces, had huge, long menus, each with many options. That made it hard to recall from one session to the next where tools were located.
  2. Even today, error reports rarely explain "what went wrong" when a crash occurs so that in future it might be avoided. For example, he suggests when a crash occurs the software should explain, "The software crashed because your dataset was too large. Next time, try a smaller dataset." My sense is that it's not always easy to determine the exact cause of a crash, but I'm not a programmer, nor an interface expert. Another solution, from my research, would be to prevent a user from reaching such a "failure" situation in the first place!
  3. Two positive examples of use of these four ideas: Manifold warns users when a projection is not set (limiting errors) and Google My Maps offers "how to draw" information right on the screen for its casual user base (increasing learnability, efficiency and probably memorability).
The title of the presentation suggested that attendees would gain information to take to their bosses to request a larger monitor. One challenge of computer monitors when it comes to maps, explained Haklay, is that they are not paper. Paper has a high dot per inch (DPI) resolution of about 1200, in contrast to a monitor with 96 DPI. Thus a monitor typically shows far less detail in the same space than a printed map. Because much of the meaning and usefulness of maps comes from context (the part of the map around the area of interest), print maps are often seen as more useful. (That's also a good argument for slippy maps on screen. They retain context as you pan, in contrast to "move and redraw" solutions.) The question then: how do you get more context on your monitor?

Haklay's research pitted interns in his GIS lab with 1024x768 resolution monitors against those with 1920x1200 resolution monitors. The goal: perform a simple task using MapInfo, a package with which they were familiar. Those with the smaller monitors/lower resolution took 69% more actions and two minutes longer to complete the task.

The larger monitor area meant a larger area for the map on the monitor, which tends to enhance productivity because it provides extra context. Said another way, there was far less panning and zooming! When the folks at Manifold learned of this, they changed the interface to allow the map to be more than the original 60% screen. ArcGIS and GeoMedia, Haklay noted, have many "inactive" areas on the tool bars which could be better used. ESRI is clearly looking at such issues: a preview of a future release at the ESRI User Conference showed "auto-hiding" of the Table of Contents, allowing for more map area on-screen.

Haklay's research also found that more experienced users typically set their map areas to be larger than beginners, with the map area covering up to 70% of the application window. ESRI users, he noted, typically had the map areas set to about 56%. (The very interesting paper is here (pdf).) He argued ArcGIS users tend to "dock and save" tool bars, shrinking the map, because they feel if they do not, they will "lose the toolbars" and the memorability to do the task, in the future.

What then, needs to change? We need to introduce a culture of usability into desktop GIS. We are in a better position today with the interest in Web maps and Web GIS since there is already a culture of usability on the Web. Finally, the big takeaway, as promised, boiled down to this: To be as productive as possible with GIS, make the map as large as possible. One way to do that (along with modifying the interface) is to request as large a monitor as possible.

One final point on interface evolution came out in a question: The new "smart" task-based ribbon interface (which cost Microsoft quite a lot of money and time, and demands a large monitor) may be one step toward better GIS interfaces. I have yet to use it, so I can't comment.

Second Best Presentation
Neogeography, Gaming and Virtual Environments
Andrew Hudson-Smith, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), a research center at University College London

Again, I, not the attendees, selected this as "runner up" for best presentation. While the videos and graphics made this presentation entertaining, the issues it raised were - for me - the takeaways. They are non-geospatial "gotchas" that we are facing and will deal with into the future.

CASA's MapTube is essentially a "maps hosted elsewhere" gallery of maps. Those maps are created using CASA's GMapCreator and once registered with MapTube they can be overlain with any others on the site. Hudson-Smith described MapTube as The Pirate Bay of mapping. The Pirate Bay is a Swedish website that enables individuals to share movies, music and the like by hosting an index and the BitTorrent distribution system. However, The Pirate Bay doesn't host any of the content, so it can't be liable if there are copyright violations. (In January of this year the principles were charged for encouraging others to break copyright.) The reason why MapTube does not host the data? And here's the first "gotcha": We in the geospatial community are not yet ready for the "cloud hosting" of our data. That issue is stalling some related efforts to some degree, I think, including those of WeoGeo and GeoCommon.

Hudson-Smith also showed a graphic I'd seen before of activity of searches for the terms GIS, Google Maps and Google Earth. From 2005 to the recent past, GIS has been steady, if low, and perhaps dropping. Google Maps trends steadily upward. Google Earth had a big spike around launch (2005) and now trends downward. You can pose quite a number of hypotheses why this may be true. That's left as an exercise for the reader. (Homework!)

After showing off some nice 3D visualizations in inexpensive X-box software, and comparing them to the somewhat more clunky ones from GIS software, Hudson-Smith pointed to Autodesk's recent deals (3D Geo and Ambercore are the two that immediately came to mind for me) and suggested that "things may look a lot better soon." He was not the only person to imply that "something is going on with Autodesk." I agree, something is going on.

The second "gotcha" Hudson-Smith highlighted was a running theme at the conference, something one attendee aptly described as "licensing 1.0." Licensing of data from the Ordnance Survey, in particular, seems to be limiting the possibilities of a research institute like CASA and no doubt, many others. While attendees tossed out possible technology "solutions," I was informed there are other more appropriate events for such discussions, so this discussion was capped during the session. If readers have the chance to be a fly on the wall at these discussions, I'd love for them to contribute a report to Directions. The worldwide community needs to learn about all the possible options going forward.

Second Day Keynotes
I summarized the three first-day keynotes, one of which I found very valuable, the others somewhat valuable, at All Points Blog.

Alas, the second-day keynotes were not as inspiring as those from the first. Charlie Pattinson, head of Resources and Information Management, Environment Agency, read a paper highlighting the organization's use of GIS in flood risk management. He pointed to the need for new models and visualizations going forward. One shocking statistic: In Sheffield, one of the areas worst hit during the 2007 floods, just 11% of residents signed up for alerts. He hopes his agency can better engage the public since the future looks grim; more risk is expected from more frequent, larger flood events. He pointed to new approaches, collective response from government, agencies and individuals, enhanced data sharing and interoperability to help limit destruction in the future. (Of the five or six print publications made available in the conference bag, I felt I read that same material a few times on the trip home.)

Charles Kennelly, CTO, ESRI (UK), highlighted how many of the barriers to GIS implementations have diminished or vanished in recent years. Among them: communication of value, cost, access to data, technology and approaches, capacity, bandwidth, display technology, publishing medium issues, storage capacity, knowledgeable users, lack of 3D, common standards and platforms, database support and integration. Then he asked this rhetorical question: "With those no longer huge barriers, what are we geospatial professionals doing?" The answer: "The same things we did before, just with more ‘flashiness.'"

What are the "new" or "current barriers?" He listed: user interfaces, business integration, access to models, data sharing, understanding and manipulation of data and confidences, understanding of value and potential of GIS.

In response to these current barriers he showed what he "hoped" would be a "boring demo." The "map-less" demo included just results - numbers and graphs derived from map-based analyses to enable the daily workflow for the UK forestry commission. It was boring. His conclusion: We've lost our excuses for not making GIS ubiquitous. The biggest barrier is now the communication of geospatial technology's benefits - showing "zooming in and out" is no longer enough. We now must sell the true benefit of GIS: analysis.

Stuart Haynes, the director of Defence Geographic Centre (DGC), explained that the Centre delivers (not necessarily creates) GEOINT. The 560 staffers collect and store data in a paper map library and in digital form to support UK defense efforts. Basically, he stated, "if we fail people get killed." He went on to describe the changing world of defense since 9/11 and the move from wars between countries to those between individuals. He showed many of the products required for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Short Presentation Summaries
Web Map APIs - Your GIS is Dead?
Tim Warr, Multimap
I could not attend this presentation due to a conflict, but Warr not only blogged the event, he posted his presentation slides (download). I've been very impressed that the Multimap/Microsoft team seems so outspoken, though Warr admitted to me he did push the envelope on this topic to help stir things up. Still, I'm not used to this sort of thing in presentations in the United States.

GeoInt 2.0: Using Neogeography to Drive Geospatial Intelligence
Jeff Bird, Defence Geographic Centre
Bird showed how open source intelligence could be gathered using GI tools. That was basically an exercise in finding and adding Web-accessible data to ArcGIS Explorer focusing on a hypothetical event at Heathrow. Some of the content was user generated (from Wikipedia) while other content came from trusted sources. The project took a week and the big challenge was finding all the sources of geotagged data.

Though interested by the presentation, I was more taken by his terms; that is, what we used to call the "doer, user, viewer" in the pyramid. The few doers were in the apex of the pyramid, the users in the middle and the many, many viewers, using easy-to-use Web tools made a large base. His version used terms more aligned with the earth, a nice touch:
  • geo farmers are advanced users, have their own tools (high end GIS) and know how to use them
  • geo miners are intermediate users, have some tools/knowledge, but a full GIS is overkill, and a browser not quite enough, they are users of ArcGIS Explorer and comparable technology
  • geo explorers are beginner users, have few tools, a Web mapping solution might be right
Using Geo-Tagged Images in GIS
Tim Woolford, Trek Wireless
There are many solutions for geotagging. They have pros and cons. In particular, all-in-one solutions, like cameras with embedded GIS, typically cannot have components upgraded. Start now - don't wait. Watch for "gotchas" like the iPhone stripping out EXIF information when e-mailing geotagged pictures.

CAD & GI - Breaking Down the Invisible Wall
Greig Richardson, Benchmarq
This presentation was a summary of the benefits of CAD/GIS data sharing. The technology to do it is far better than it was, but the challenges of getting disparate teams to work together remain.

Using Web Services to Integrate GI with Corporate Systems
Danny O'Reilly, DARD (NI)
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development manages £300 million per year in funds from the European Union that go to farmers working some 750,000 fields. The
EU requires the use of GIS to verify subsidy claims. DARD uses Oracle Spatial and an APIC 4 custom app/Web app.

Is Your Web Map Fit For Purpose?
Vyron Antoniou, University College London
Raster delivery of mapping data has benefits, but so does vector delivery. There is no "one size fits all" solution, so the developer must focus on user need to find the appropriate solution. Hybrid solutions (raster/vector) are likely to be a popular compromise.

The Hype of Web 2.0
Mark Bishop, Pitney Bowes MapInfo
Bishop used many non-geo and few geo examples to distinguishing Web 1.0 from Web 2.0. See also coverage at All Points Blog.
Web 2.0 Hype Paper Wins Top Presentation at AGI

The Ripening of Digital Globes - From Earth Viewing to Decision Support
Johannes Kebeck, Microsoft
Kebeck offered a brief history of Web mapping at Microsoft, up to and including the decision to acquire Vexcel to develop its own 3D city models. There was a brief nod to the new version of Virtual Earth and many demos of business apps built on the Virtual Earth platform. He also outlined options for integrating GIS with the platform (producing lightweight GIS apps such as those from IDV and MapDotNet), integration via standards, integration via infrastructure tools such as Safe's FME, integration via databases such as SQL Server and direct integration with ESRI and Snowflake's solutions.

If we Have Google do we Need the OGC?
Jeremy Morley, University College London
APIs and open standards are different things. Which you choose depends on what you want to do. You probably do not need OGC standards for mass market apps, but you should consider implementing them if you want to host your own basemaps, perform complex overlays, connect to desktop GIS, mix data from different services, or support complex models or services. Martin Daly had it 100% correct: the answer was no and yes.

Some New and Overused Terms
Steven Feldman, the conference chair, noted a few new terms that we'll need to know in future. He picked these up during the first day of the conference and shared them as we geared up for the second day. He didn't offer definitions for these, but I will:

prosumer - either a blend of producer and consumer or a person between a consumer and professional (I suspect either definition could apply; I'm not sure of the context in which the term was used)
gen y - generation of people born in the 1980s and 1990s (or a slightly different set of dates)

He also noted some terms that are overused and that we are likely to hear less in the next year or two:

neo - as in neogeography, it'll be "old" by then
2.0 - as in Web 2.0 or pretty much anything 2.0

Quotes of Note from Attendees
  • "Geodata licensing is still very 1.0."
  • "There are a lot of presentations here that we really don't need."
  • "Death by PowerPoint"
Four Letter Words
On the first day, not one but two references to words made up of random characters ("&%$#") came up in presentations. One concerned a Facebook group titled "&%$#" a large software vendor." The other referenced the pronunciation of Phuket, a city in Thailand, whose 3D model was used when a large data provider would not allow the use of London data.

The Big Debate
I was invited to participate in the panel that wrapped up the event. The question posed: "Mainstream GIS: An Own Goal?" I didn't understand the question on first reading, but an "own goal" (definition) refers to the same idiom as "shooting oneself in the foot."

It didn't really matter what the question meant, since it was not really addressed. Instead we danced around what a GIS professional was, the role of GIS professionals/practitioners, how we teach people to use all these data that some organizations are making available (should you learn using the "riding a bike" analogy that involves falling down a bit?), liability related to sharing data, etc. Ed Parsons of Google, who was in the audience, noted some other topics.

Was it a big debate? No. Was it a conversation? Yes, one that included the panel and the audience. We need to keep having those conversations outside those large rooms at conferences, outside that handful of events where we meet up face to face. This final session helped tease out the issues on attendees' minds for further rumination, but achieved little else.

Disclosure: The AGI covered the author's travel, lodging and registration for the event.

Published Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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