London Words

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 15.46.02

Above is a Wordle of the messages displayed on the big dot-matrix displays (aka variable message signs) that sit beside major roads in London, over the last couple of months. The larger the word, the more often it is shown on the screens.

The data comes from Transport for London via their Open Data Users platform, through CityDashboard‘s API. We now store some of the data behind CityDashboard, for London and some other cities, for future analysis into key words and numbers for urban informatics.

Below, as another Wordle, are the top words used in tweets from certain London-centric Twitter accounts – those from London-focused newspapers and media organisations, tourism organisations and key London commentators. Common English words (e.g. to, and) are removed. I’ve also removed “London”, “RT” and “amp”.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 15.56.57

Some common words include: police, tickets, City, crash, Boris, Thames, Park, Festival, Bridge, bus, Kids.

Finally, here’s the notes that OpenStreetMap editors use when they commit changes to the open, user-created map of the world, for the London area:

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 16.10.50

Transport and buildings remain a major focus of the voluntary work on completing and maintaining London’s map, that contributors are carrying out.

There is no significance to the colours used in the graphics above. Wordle is a quick-and-dirty way to visualise data like this, we are looking at more sophisticated, and “fairer” methods, as part of ongoing research.

This work is preparatory work for the Big Data and Urban Informatics workshop in Chicago later this summer.

Thanks to Steve and the Big Data Toolkit, which was used in the collection of the Twitter data for CityDashboard.

Visit the new Shop
High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien
Electric Tube
London North/South

The 2011 Area Classification for Output Areas

The 2011 Area Classification for Output Areas (2011 Output Area Classification or 2011 OAC) was released by the Office for National Statistics at 9.30am on the 18th July 2014.

Documentation, downloads and other information regarding the 2011 OAC are available from the official ONS webpage:

Further information and a larger array of 2011 OAC resources can also be found at

Additionally, an interactive map of the 2011 OAC is available at

For the 2011 release it has been agreed that a less centralised version of the OAC User Group will be beneficial. The new home of the OAC User Group is located at and enables a more decentralised way of organising meetings / events or accessing supporting materials. If you have any questions or comments regarding the classification then this is the place to visit.

This means will no longer be maintained. There will be no future posts and no upkeep of links or other materials currently available. Any bookmarks you have for this page should be redirected to

Temporal OAC

As part of an ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative grant Michail Pavlis, Paul Longley and I have been working on developing methods by which temporal patterns of geodemographic change can be modelled.

Much of this work has been focused on census based classifications, such as the 2001 Output Area Classification (OAC), and the 2011 OAC released today. We have been particularly interested in examining methods by which secondary data might be used to create measures enabling the screening of small areas over time as uncertainty builds as a result of residential structure change. The writeup of this work is currently out for review, however, we have placed the census based classification created for the years 2001 - 2011 on the new website, along with a change measure.

Some findings

  • 8 Clusters were found to be of greatest utility for the description of OA change between 2001 and 2011 and included
    • Cluster 1- "Suburban Diversity"
    • Cluster 2- "Ethnicity Central"
    • Cluster 3- "Intermediate Areas"
    • Cluster 4- "Students and Aspiring Professionals"
    • Cluster 5- "County Living and Retirement"
    • Cluster 6- "Blue-collar Suburbanites"
    • Cluster 7- "Professional Prosperity"
    • Cluster 8 – "Hard-up Households"

A map of the clusters in 2001 and 2011 for Leeds are as follows:

  • The changing cluster assignment between 2001 and 2011 reflected
    • Developing "Suburban Diversity"
    • Gentrification of central areas, leading to growing "Students and Aspiring Professionals"
    • Regional variations
      • "Ethnicity Central" more stable between 2001 and 2011 in the South East and London, than in the North West and North East, perhaps reflecting differing structural changes in central areas (e.g. gentrification)
      • "Hard-up Households” are more stable in the North West and North East than the South East or London; South East, and acutely so in London, flows were predominantly towards “Suburban Diversity”

Google’s 3D London gets better

We woke this morning to find Google has made some improvements to its 3D model of London in Google Earth. All the city’s buildings are now based on 45-degree aerial imagery, which should mean a marked improvement in accuracy of building shapes. So how much has it improved?

Firstly to compare the new Google London against an earlier version of itself, here are screenshots of the British Museum:





A mixed improvement. The computer game-style model of 2010 (I believe partly the product of crowdsourced individual 3D building models) is replaced by a continuous meshed surface. But as Apple found two years ago (embarrassingly) this method is prone to the inclusion of errors and artefacts – the BM’s roof is a big improvement, but its columns are now wonky and the complex shapes in the neighbouring rooftops are a bit messy. But we should recognised that this is an inevitable consequence of the shift to a more fully automated process – presumably the constraints on data size and processing power limit result in a trade-off between its resolution and accuracy. But to remedy this there seems to have been some manual correction to parts of the model – e.g. the London Eye looks touched up (despite some tree-coloured spokes):

London Eye

To compare the model with its main competitor, Apple Maps I’ve done a few screenshots, firstly

St Paul’s Cathedral

Google Earth


Apple Maps


Google’s far superior St Paul’s again suggests manual correction or, possibly, their retention of the original model.

10 Downing Street

For anyone who hasn’t been there (author included) this is Mr Cameron’s back garden.





Apple have clearly done a better job on the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. The contrast and brightness make for a much clearer and realistic depiction, partly due to Apple’s higher resolution and partly because the time of day of Google’s survey meant more shadows.

Center Point

Chosen because Google are unlikely to have manicured a building site. As you can see Google still have some work to equal Apple’s resolution.





Buckingham Palace

Last but not least, the house of someone called Elizabeth Windsor who judging by Google’s model likes to have receptions in her expansive back garden.





Overall I think it’s fair to say a necessary improvement by Google but still very much work-in-progress. It is worth mentioning that Google provides a more move immersive environment (the interface lets the camera go lower and to angle horizontally) whereas Apple’s feel like a diorama (e.g. no sky), albeit one that interacts much more smoothly. And of course Google Earth is much more than just a 3D map. But given their better resolution and seeming clarity of imagery in my opinion Apple keeps the crown for best 3D model.

CASA at the Research Methods Festival 2014

As you can see from the image below, we spent three days at the NCRM Research Methods Festival in Oxford (#RMF14) last week.


In addition to our presentations in the “Researching the City” session on the Wednesday morning, we were also running a Smart Cities exhibition throughout the festival showcasing how the research has been used to create live visualisations of a city. This included the now famous “Pigeon Simulator”, which allows people to fly around London and is always very popular. The “About CASA” screen on the right of the picture above showed a continuous movie loop of some of CASA’s work.


The exhibition was certainly very busy during the coffee breaks and, as always at these types of events, we had some very interesting conversations with people about the exhibits. One discussion with a lawyer about issues around anonymisation of Big Datasets and how you can’t do it in practice made me think about the huge amount of information that we have access to and what we can do with it. Also, the Oculus Rift 3D headset was very popular and over the three days we answered a lot of questions from psychology researchers about the kinds of experiments you could do with this type of device. The interesting thing is that people trying out the Oculus Rift for the first time tended to fall into one of three categories: can’t see the 3D at all, see 3D but with limited effect, or very vivid 3D experience with loss of balance. Personally, I think it’s part psychology and part eye-sight.

Next time I must remember to take pictures when there are people around, but the sweets box got down to 2 inches from the bottom, so it seems to have been quite popular.




We had to get new Lego police cars for the London Riots Table (right), but the tactile nature of the Roving Eye exhibit (white table on the left) never fails to be popular. I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent demonstrating this, but people always seem to go from “this is rubbish, pedestrians don’t behave like that”, through to “OK, now I get it, that’s really quite good”. The 3D printed houses also add an element of urban planning that wasn’t there when we used boxes wrapped in brown paper.


The iPad wall is shown on the left here with the London Data Table on the right. Both show a mix of real-time visualisation and archive animations. The “Bombs dropped during the Blitz” visualisation on the London Data Table which was created by Kate Jones ( ) was very popular, as was the London Riots movie by Martin Austwick.

All in all, I think we had a fairly good footfall despite the sunshine, live Jazz band and wine reception.




Vespucci Institute on citizen science and VGI

The Vespucci initiative has been running for over a decade, bringing together participants from wide range of academic backgrounds and experiences to explore, in a ‘slow learning’ way, various aspects of geographic information science research. The Vespucci Summer Institutes are week long summer schools, most frequently held at Fiesole, a small town overlooking Florence. This year, the focus of the first summer institute was on crowdsourced geographic information and citizen science.

101_0083The workshop was supported by COST ENERGIC (a network that links researchers in the area of crowdsourced geographic information, funded by the EU research programme), the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC), Esri and our Extreme Citizen Science research group. The summer school included about 30 participants and facilitators that ranged from master students students that are about to start their PhD studies, to established professors who came to learn and share knowledge. This is a common feature of Vespucci Institute, and the funding from the COST network allowed more early career researchers to participate.

Apart from the pleasant surrounding, Vespucci Institutes are characterised by the relaxed, yet detailed discussions that can be carried over long lunches and coffee breaks, as well as team work in small groups on a task that each group present at the end of the week. Moreover, the programme is very flexible so changes and adaptation to the requests of the participants and responding to the general progression of the learning are part of the process.

This is the second time that I am participating in Vespucci Institutes as a facilitator, and in both cases it was clear that participants take the goals of the institute seriously, and make the most of the opportunities to learn about the topics that are explored, explore issues in depth with the facilitators, and work with their groups beyond the timetable.

101_0090The topics that were covered in the school were designed to provide an holistic overview of geographical crowdsourcing or citizen science projects, especially in the area where these two types of activities meet. This can be when a group of citizens want to collect and analyse data about local environmental concerns, or oceanographers want to work with divers to record water temperature, or when details that are emerging from social media are used to understand cultural differences in the understanding of border areas. These are all examples that were suggested by participants from projects that they are involved in. In addition, citizen participation in flood monitoring and water catchment management, sharing information about local food and exploring data quality of spatial information that can be used by wheelchair users also came up in the discussion. The crossover between the two areas provided a common ground for the participants to explore issues that are relevant to their research interests. 

2014-07-07 15.37.55The holistic aspect that was mentioned before was a major goal for the school – so to consider the tools that are used to collect information, engaging and working with the participants, managing the data that is provided by the participants and ensuring that it is useful for other purposes. To start the process, after introducing the topics of citizen science and volunteered geographic information (VGI), the participants learned about data collection activities, including noise mapping, OpenStreetMap contribution, bird watching and balloon and kite mapping. As can be expected, the balloon mapping raised a lot of interest and excitement, and this exercise in local mapping was linked to OpenStreetMap later in the week.

101_0061The experience with data collection provided the context for discussions about data management and interoperability and design aspects of citizen science applications, as well as more detailed presentations from the participants about their work and research interests. With all these details, the participants were ready to work on their group task: to suggest a research proposal in the area of VGI or Citizen Science. Each group of 5 participants explored the issues that they agreed on – 2 groups focused on a citizen science projects, another 2 focused on data management and sustainability and finally another group explored the area of perception mapping and more social science oriented project.

Some of the most interesting discussions were initiated at the request of the participants, such as the exploration of ethical aspects of crowdsourcing and citizen science. This is possible because of the flexibility in the programme.

Now that the institute is over, it is time to build on the connections that started during the wonderful week in Fiesole, and see how the network of Vespucci alumni develop the ideas that emerged this week.


From Oculus Rift to Facebook: finding money and data in the crowd – Times Higher Education

Times Higher Education

From Oculus Rift to Facebook: finding money and data in the crowd
Times Higher Education
Crowdsourcing could revolutionise the way scholarly research is funded and conducted over the next few years, an academic has suggested. Andy Hudson-Smith, director and deputy chair of the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University ...

New Paper: Assessing the impact of demographic characteristics on spatial error in VGI features

LISA analysis of positional accuracy for the OSM  data set
Building upon our interest in volunteered geographic information (VGI) and extending our previous paper  "Assessing Completeness and Spatial Error of Features in Volunteered Geographic Information" we have just published the paper with the rather long title "Assessing the impact of demographic characteristics on spatial error in volunteered geographic information features" where we explore how demographics impact on the quality of VGI data

Below is the abstract of the paper: 
The proliferation of volunteered geographic information (VGI), such as OpenStreetMap (OSM) enabled by technological advancements, has led to large volumes of user-generated geographical content. While this data is becoming widely used, the understanding of the quality characteristics of such data is still largely unexplored. An open research question is the relationship between demographic indicators and VGI quality. While earlier studies have suggested a potential relationship between VGI quality and population density or socio-economic characteristics of an area, such relationships have not been rigorously explored, and mainly remained qualitative in nature. This paper addresses this gap by quantifying the relationship between demographic properties of a given area and the quality of VGI contributions. We study specifically the demographic characteristics of the mapped area and its relation to two dimensions of spatial data quality, namely positional accuracy and completeness of the corresponding VGI contributions with respect to OSM using the Denver (Colorado, US) area as a case study. We use non-spatial and spatial analysis techniques to identify potential associations among demographics data and the distribution of positional and completeness errors found within VGI data. Generally, the results of our study show a lack of statistically significant support for the assumption that demographic properties affect the positional accuracy or completeness of VGI. While this research is focused on a specific area, our results showcase the complex nature of the relationship between VGI quality and demographics, and highlights the need for a better understanding of it. By doing so, we add to the debate of how demographics impact on the quality of VGI data and lays the foundation to further work.

The analysis workflow
Full Reference:
Mullen W., Jackson, S. P., Croitoru, A., Crooks, A. T., Stefanidis, A. and Agouris, P., (2014), Assessing the Impact of Demographic Characteristics on Spatial Error in Volunteered Geographic Information Features, GeoJournal. DOI: 10.1007/s10708-014-9564-8

New Paper: Assessing the impact of demographic characteristics on spatial error in VGI features

LISA analysis of positional accuracy for the OSM  data set
Building upon our interest in volunteered geographic information (VGI) and extending our previous paper  "Assessing Completeness and Spatial Error of Features in Volunteered Geographic Information" we have just published the paper with the rather long title "Assessing the impact of demographic characteristics on spatial error in volunteered geographic information features" where we explore how demographics impact on the quality of VGI data

Below is the abstract of the paper: 
The proliferation of volunteered geographic information (VGI), such as OpenStreetMap (OSM) enabled by technological advancements, has led to large volumes of user-generated geographical content. While this data is becoming widely used, the understanding of the quality characteristics of such data is still largely unexplored. An open research question is the relationship between demographic indicators and VGI quality. While earlier studies have suggested a potential relationship between VGI quality and population density or socio-economic characteristics of an area, such relationships have not been rigorously explored, and mainly remained qualitative in nature. This paper addresses this gap by quantifying the relationship between demographic properties of a given area and the quality of VGI contributions. We study specifically the demographic characteristics of the mapped area and its relation to two dimensions of spatial data quality, namely positional accuracy and completeness of the corresponding VGI contributions with respect to OSM using the Denver (Colorado, US) area as a case study. We use non-spatial and spatial analysis techniques to identify potential associations among demographics data and the distribution of positional and completeness errors found within VGI data. Generally, the results of our study show a lack of statistically significant support for the assumption that demographic properties affect the positional accuracy or completeness of VGI. While this research is focused on a specific area, our results showcase the complex nature of the relationship between VGI quality and demographics, and highlights the need for a better understanding of it. By doing so, we add to the debate of how demographics impact on the quality of VGI data and lays the foundation to further work.

The analysis workflow
Full Reference:
Mullen W., Jackson, S. P., Croitoru, A., Crooks, A. T., Stefanidis, A. and Agouris, P., (2014), Assessing the Impact of Demographic Characteristics on Spatial Error in Volunteered Geographic Information Features, GeoJournal. DOI: 10.1007/s10708-014-9564-8

Research Fellow Post at LSHTM

We are seeking to appoint a Research Fellow to work on an exciting project as part of a randomised controlled trial investigating the impact of living in the East Village (a neighbourhood based on active design principles in the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park) on physical activity and health.

The post is full-time for two years. The post will be based in the Healthy Environments Research Programme in the Department of Social and Environmental Health Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The post will suit a candidate with a strong background in social or environmental epidemiology, spatial analysis and/or quantitative health geography, especially in the field of neighbourhood built and social determinants of health. A higher degree (ideally PhD) in a relevant field is essential. Skills in quantitative data analysis using longitudinal and/or spatial approaches as well as some expertise in the using of GIS are desirable. The successful candidate will be required to collate, create and analyse secondary data on environmental exposures related to physical activity and other health behaviours and write up findings for peer-reviewed publication. The post is supervised by Professor Steven Cummins ( and Dr Daniel Lewis (

Closing date: 27th July 2014

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are – Milton Keynes MKWeb

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are
Milton Keynes MKWeb
The map was designed at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis by Oliver O'Brien, and goes by the name of DataShine. Recording religion - the most religious areas are shown in red - is far from the only thing this map can show, it also shows ...

and more »

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are – Northampton Herald and Post

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are
Northampton Herald and Post
A NEW interactive map will show you just how religious your neighbours are - and that's not all that it can do. The map was designed at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis by Oliver O'Brien, and goes by the name of DataShine. Recording religion ...

and more »

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are – Bedfordshire News

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are
Bedfordshire News
A NEW interactive map will show you just how religious your neighbours are - and that's not all that it can do. The map was designed at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis by Oliver O'Brien, and goes by the name of DataShine. Recording religion ...

and more »

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are – Luton On Sunday

Interactive map will show you how religious your neighbours are
Luton On Sunday
A NEW interactive map will show you just how religious your neighbours are - and that's not all that it can do. The map was designed at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis by Oliver O'Brien, and goes by the name of DataShine. Recording religion ...

and more »

How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map of Britain can tell you… – Metro


How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map of Britain can tell you…
The map, called DataShine, was created by Oliver O'Brien at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and shows, among other things, the atheist hot-spots around the UK. Pulling data from a survey, that map was constructed to show areas where at least ...
How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map could tell youDerby Telegraph

all 2 news articles »

How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map could tell you – Derby Telegraph

Derby Telegraph

How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map could tell you
Derby Telegraph
A NEW map has been released which shows online visitors how religious different parts of the country are. Called DataShine, the map was created at University College London's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and shows the atheist and religious ...
How religious are your neighbours? New interactive map of Britain can tell you…Metro

all 2 news articles »

La UPM apuesta por los referentes en el diseño de la ciudad del futuro –

La UPM apuesta por los referentes en el diseño de la ciudad del futuro
La presentación de la iniciativa contó con la intervención de Michale Batty, director del Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) del University College de Londres y autor entre otros de New Science of Cities, su última obra. Batty subrayó la ...

Ciudades del futuro: La UPM aborda el ecosistema urbano desde el principio –

Ciudades del futuro: La UPM aborda el ecosistema urbano desde el principio
La presentación de la iniciativa contó con la intervención de Michale Batty, director del Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) del University College de Londres y autor entre otros de New Science of Cities, su última obra. Batty subrayó la ...

and more »

Where do atheists live? Maps show the ‘godless’ cities of England and Wales – The Guardian (blog)

Where do atheists live? Maps show the 'godless' cities of England and Wales
The Guardian (blog)
DataShine, a new census data visualisation tool from Oliver O'Brien at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, shows 'no religion' hotspots in Brighton, Bristol and Norwich; while Bradford and Leeds are clearly split and Liverpool keeps the faith.

No more busywork! DRY up your NSString constants

Preamble In the last few years, Objective-C has become enormously DRYer. For example: in the past, adding a property to a class meant adding several of: an ivar, a @property, a @synthesize, a getter/setter, and a release call in dealloc. Worse, renaming or deleting the property meant updating all these. This was error-prone busywork, and […]

Crowdsourced Geographic Information in Government

Today marks the publication of the report ‘crowdsourced geographic information in government‘. ReportThe report is the result of a collaboration that started in the autumn of last year, when the World Bank Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery(GFDRR)  requested to carry out a study of the way crowdsourced geographic information is used by governments. The identification of barriers and success factors were especially needed, since GFDRR invest in projects across the world that use crowdsourced geographic information to help in disaster preparedness, through activities such as the Open Data for Resilience Initiative. By providing an overview of factors that can help those that implement such projects, either in governments or in the World Bank, we can increase the chances of successful implementations. To develop the ideas of the project, Robert Soden (GFDRR) and I run a short workshop during State of the Map 2013 in Birmingham, which helped in shaping the details of project plan as well as some preliminary information gathering. The project team included myself, Vyron Antoniou, Sofia Basiouka, and Robert Soden (GFDRR). Later on, Peter Mooney (NUIM) and Jamal Jokar (Heidelberg) volunteered to help us – demonstrating the value in research networks such as COST ENERGIC which linked us.

The general methodology that we decided to use is the identification of case studies from across the world, at different scales of government (national, regional, local) and domains (emergency, environmental monitoring, education). We expected that with a large group of case studies, it will be possible to analyse common patterns and hopefully reach conclusions that can assist future projects. In addition, this will also be able to identify common barriers and challenges.

We have paid special attention to information flows between the public and the government, looking at cases where the government absorbed information that provided by the public, and also cases where two-way communication happened.

Originally, we were aiming to ‘crowdsource’  the collection of the case studies. We identified the information that is needed for the analysis by using  few case studies that we knew about, and constructing the way in which they will be represented in the final report. After constructing these ‘seed’ case study, we aimed to open the questionnaire to other people who will submit case studies. Unfortunately, the development of a case study proved to be too much effort, and we received only a small number of submissions through the website. However, throughout the study we continued to look out for cases and get all the information so we can compile them. By the end of April 2014 we have identified about 35 cases, but found clear and useful information only for 29 (which are all described in the report).  The cases range from basic mapping to citizen science. The analysis workshop was especially interesting, as it was carried out over a long Skype call, with members of the team in Germany, Greece, UK, Ireland and US (Colorado) while working together using Google Docs collaborative editing functionality. This approach proved successful and allowed us to complete the report.

You can download the full report from UCL Discovery repository

Or download a high resolution copy for printing and find much more information about the project on the Crowdsourcing and government website 

Mapping Research on Urban Sustainability

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

In this guest post by anthropologist Charlotte Johnson, she discusses her perspectives on the PICKs project (published earlier this month in Sustainability: The Journal of Record and available open source).

When asked to ‘map all the research related to cities and resources at UCL’ my first thought was ‘eek’, and not just due to the overwhelming size of the task (UCL has a research body of over 4000 people). But from a critical perspective mapping can be an act of epistemic violence – what gets put on the map and why, who gets to decide on the parameters? For me, a map is an object fraught with imperial overtones not to mention the hubris in attempting to comprehensively represent an ever-shifting landscape.

Coming from background in social anthropology and geography, I’ve been trained to treat representations of communities with scepticism and to question whose interests they serve. My default position is to dig behind a map’s seductive simplifications and look for how power is consolidated via tools that define people through their practices and the territories they operate in.  But of course maps are useful things and, as any participatory planner will argue, they can be developed to serve the needs of a community, to empower groups rather than govern them.

Mapping research landscapes does seem like a good idea, particularly for an ever-more loosely delineated research field like urban sustainability and particularly in today’s universities – full of research collaborations and consultancies.  It’s not uncommon to go to a workshop at the other end of the country and meet a person from somewhere in your own campus. Or hear a conference talk précised with a confession that the presenter is moonlighting as an urban sociologist from their day job in chemical engineering. Research relevant to your interests might be happening in your vicinity, but can be hard to locate. Researchers may not be in the departments you expect them to be in, or may not be working on topics you’d imagined.  There’s a sense of uncertainty that you might be missing something crucial, or overlooking some radical collaboration because you’re unaware of them, or find it hard to position your research interests relative to others’.

These were the kind of issues that came out when I was interviewing UCL staff about whether they thought a sustainability research map might be useful and what they thought should be on it.  Through these discussions I understood the potential benefit of mapping to open up routes for collaboration.   But I was also open to the argument that ‘sustainability’ is now too broad to be a useful signifier of a research field, or worse, it hides within it normative assumptions about capitalist relations of production and economic growth.  As more and more research areas are drawn into the sustainability field, they can feed a pervasive acceptance that life as we live it today can and should be sustained and avoid questioning the power imbalances that are also sustained or the alternatives that are silenced. The mapping process also had to offer a way to critique this ever expanding territory of ‘sustainable cities research’ and draw out the range of critical positions relative to research on how cities use resources.

These interviews helped to shape an idea of a useful mapping tool, but importantly, also put me in touch with Martin at CASA, who luckily knows how to make map type visualisations. (He also came up with a name – PICKS or Post-dIsCplinary Knowledge Space – he plays fast and loose with capitalisation when it comes to acronyms).

Martin makes force graph visualisations – see his blog post here for more detailed description.  But for the non-programmers, his visualisations let you to create dynamic Venn diagrams helping you to identify people who are working on similar issues to yourself (you can have a go via this link here).  It lets you cluster your own cohort of researchers from across a university within the deinstitutionalised (or “post-disciplinary”) terrain of the map.

We decided to make the research issue the priority and the way to navigate the different types of work being done, but also to include different research perspectives.  So you can click the ‘water’ node and all the researchers with this interest are pulled out of the sea of sustainability researchers, regardless of whether they’re an artist, a biologist, or a civil engineer. But you can also click nodes related to the research approach, and tease out whether the research is using sustainability as a useful metric, or critiquing it as capitalist ‘greenwash’.

We’ve just had the paper we wrote about this process published, which you can read here.  It talks about how university research landscapes are changing as established knowledge hierarchies are challenged by the cross disciplinary collaborations assembled to tackle applied issues. We argue that mapping is a process that helps to document this change, and enable new collaborations and perhaps produce useful tools to support the new science collaborations needed for sustainability research and to create counter narratives.

The broader issue here is that traditional disciplinary boundaries aren’t really demarking the territories of expertise being deployed to tackle the urgent questions of climate change and urban resource use.  Mapping can be a process that helps reflect on this change, but also serve the scholars who are forging new research communities beyond the established and institutionalised parameters of academia.

Against the Smart City


Absolutely the best thing to read on the corporate hype and innuendos from the big computer companies pedalling the idea of ‘the smart city’. Adam Greenfield’s new book – that you can only get on Kindle and which was my first Kindle purchase that I read on my iPad (a success I must say) – is a wonderful and eloquent essay on the extreme hype surrounding the top down new town-like smart cities of Songdo (in South Korea), Masdar (in the UAE), PlanIT Valley (near Paredes in Portugal). He also comments on Singapore, Rio de Janeiro and some of the other established cities who are injecting automation into their urban services and other functions from the top down. His message is that most of the smart cities hype associated with IBM, Cisco, and Siemens amongst others which he recounts in detail is based on the most simplistic of notions as to what a city actually is. There is a nice summary on the Urban Omnibus Blog

Readers of this blog will know that I espouse the notion that cities have almost infinite complexity and that their planning is entirely contingent on the people and places for which we might identify problems to be solved. Plans throughout the 20th century have failed entirely to anticipate this complexity and the diversity that characterises our cities has been trampled over and often destroyed in the name of planning. The modern movement in architecture but also the scientism that accompanied the early arrogance in public planning, particularly housing and transportation, are examples. The prospect that the same is happening again with the ‘smart city’ is what Adam Greenfield is so concerned about and rightly so. The image of the smart city which comes from the corporate world betrays a level of ignorance about how cities function that is woeful and dangerous while the notion that all the routine functions of cities can be nearly ordered and automated is simply fanciful. Adam does a great job in describing this world and this is by far the best, in fact perhaps the only, really detailed and incisive critique of what are in fact the ‘smart city new towns’.

In fact smart technologies – I still have problems with the term ‘smart’ in this context as it is so un-English English – are being employed quietly and less obtrusively in many contexts. Transport for London are a major agency in a world city that is at the forefront of new technologies with their smart ticketing, APIs telling you where trains are located, and their focus on trying to minimise disruption. But so are many places which you have never heard about. I went to Zurich last Monday and as ever was amazed by the calm, considered integration of the different modes on the transport system that enabled me to use bus and train to get to ETH from the airport with virtually no wait and with me being informed at every stage of the journey (in English) of where I was and how long it would take me to get to my destination. New information technologies lies at the basis of all of this. In fact it would now appear in many cities that smart systems technologies are being introduced faster and more efficiently from the bottom up in the classic and necessary incremental, evolutionary fashion that all complex systems build upon. Adam makes all these points and more in his essay which might be summed up in the simple notion that the smart cities corporate world sees cities as being ‘complicated’ rather ‘complex’. Complex is of course the emerging wisdom of how we need to treat cities so that we can avoid being entrapped in the mesh of wicked problems that emerge when life is treated too simplistically, when life is considered to be based in immediate order effects, not on order effects that can persist and grow in time often the further away you are from the initial source. A key message of complexity theory.

But Against the Smart City comes with a warning. We need to temper the corporate response to automating the city if only to avoid the kind of things that have plagued public intervention many times before when new technologies are imported into political contexts. The experience with urban models half a century ago in New York City and other places around the world must not be repeated. I wrote about this in my last but one blog post – two below this one – where I directed the reader to the commentaries that myself and colleagues wrote on the notable article by Douglas B. Lee published 40 years ago in 1973 called ‘Requiem for Large Scale Models’. To avoid a ‘Requiem for Smart Cities’, we need to take Adam Greenfield’s message to heart and these should be essential reading for all of us who are involved in the smart cities movement.

Mapping the Densification of Cities in England & Wales using the 2011 Census

UK cities have been undergoing significant change over the last decade, and the 2011 census data provides a great basis for tracking current urban structure. I’ve mapped population and employment density for all of England and Wales in 2011, using a 1km2 grid scale approach-


The main themes that emerge are the dramatic intensification of London, high densities in some medium sized cities such as Leicester and Brighton, and the regeneration of the major northern conurbations, with Manchester and Birmingham as the largest employment hubs outside of London.

Mapping all of England and Wales together is a useful basis for considering city-regions and their connections (note Scotland has not yet published census 2011 employment data and is not mapped). Certainly this is a major theme in current policy debates grappling with the north-south divide and proposed high-speed rail links. I’ll be looking at densities in relation to network connections in future posts as this topic is part of ongoing research at CASA as part of the MECHANICITY project.

It is also possible to directly map changes in density between using the same visualisation approach (note the grid height describes density in 2011, while colour describes change in density between 2001-2011)-

Population Density Change 2001-2011

The change map really highlights the pattern of city centre intensification combined with static or marginally declining suburbs in England and Wales. This trend was discussed in a previous post. The two statistics of peak and average densities reinforce the city centre versus suburbs divide, with peak density measurements growing much more than average densities. But the peak density statistic is somewhat unreliable (such as in the case of Birmingham/West Midlands) and we will be doing further work at CASA to define inner cities and produce more robust statistics of these trends.


Notes on the Analysis Method-

The density values were calculated from the smallest available units- Output Area population and Workplace Zone employment data from the 2011 census. This data was transformed to a 1km2 grid geography using a proportional spatial join approach, with the intention of standardising zone size to aid comparability of density measurements between cities. The transformation inevitably results in some MAUP errors. These are however minimised by the very fine scale resolution of the original data, which is much smaller than the grid geography in urban areas.

The workplace zone data is a very positive new addition by the Office for National Statistics for the 2011 census. There is a lot of new interesting information on workplace geography- have a look at my colleague Robin Edward’s blog, where he has been mapping this new data.

Defining city regions is another boundary issue for these statistics. I’ve used a simple approach of amalgamating local authorities, as shown below-




Gender in urban workplaces

In my previous post I plotted a map of London’s workplace (biological) gender divisions, which demonstrated some interesting spatial patterns of gender distribution across the captial. I decided to replicate this to get a more representative picture of how things look across the nation (in this case England and Wales given the extent of the data, the 2011 Census published by ONS via Nomisweb). Here I’ve plotted the same for 28 of the principal urban centres of England and Wales. The colours are scaled by quantile according to the data distribution for the whole of England and Wales. The city maps are all plotted to a 7 km square, which enhances comparability but clips London to The City (see last for the full London map).


The most immediately striking observation is that workplaces in higher density urban areas seem to have higher female workforce proportions, in some cases by a quite significant margin. There also appear to be some interesting suburban clusters of both male and female dominated workplaces, particularly in larger cities (e.g. Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol). To validate the observation here is a density plot (utilising the Loess method of R’s ggplot2 package) of gender proportions by distance from these city centroids. Firstly the aggregate plot:


A trend of significantly more female workplaces in the central 2kms of cities is strongly supported. Plotting individual density plots for each city:


.. demonstrates the varied picture across England and Wales (OK.. Cardiff). The density curves corroborate the trend in many cities, with only London (strictly speaking the City) really bucking the trend.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t say anything about the types of industry that dominate these areas, or about important gender-related trends (such as pay-levels, job type and seniority) that will certainly underlie these figures. For instance some high female-proportion areas may reflect industries employing many women on lower-than-average pay, while others reflect much higher skilled professions. More analysis would need to tease these trends out.

Notes on city selection:

The cities plotted above were selected by a process that sought to identify the approximate positions of the highest density urban centres according to the data. The centre haven’t been chosen entirely arbitrarily although some arbitrary decisions did factor in the process – I aggregated the data to 1 kilometer resolution on the British National Grid, sorted it by population density and sifted out the top 28 squares that were not within 20 kms of one of higher density. This doesn’t mean these cities are the most populous or high density, but that by this data and these parameters (resolution and distance threahsold) these were found to be the highest. 20 kms was chosen to remove London’s immediate satellite towns, but it had the effect of removing Bradford for its proximity to Leeds, likewise Bath due to Bristol.

Third day of INSPIRE 2014 – any space for civil society and citizens?

At the last day of INSPIRE conference, I’ve attended a session about  apps and applications and the final plenary which focused on knowledge based economy and the role of inspire within it. Some notes from the talks including my interpretations and comments.

Dabbie Wilson from the Ordnance Survey highlighted the issues that the OS is facing in designing next generation products from an information architect point of view. She noted that the core large scale product, MasterMap has been around for 14 years and been provided in GML all the way through. She noted that now the client base in the UK is used to it and happy with (and when it was introduced, there was a short period of adjustment that I recall, but I assume that by now everything is routine). Lots of small scale products are becoming open and also provided as linked data. The user community is more savvy – they want the Ordnance Survey to push data to them, and access the data through existing or new services and not just given the datasets without further interaction. They want to see ease of access and use across multiple platforms. The OS is considering moving away from provision of data to online services as the main way for people to get access to the data. The OS is investing heavily in Mobile apps for leisure but also helping the commercial sector in developing apps that are based on OS data and tools. For example, OS locate app provide mechanisms to work worldwide so it’s not only UK. They also put effort to create APIs and SDKs – such as OS OnDemands – and also allowing local authorities to update their address data. There is also focus on cloud-based application – such as applications to support government activities during emergencies. The information architecture side moving from product to content. The OS will continue to maintain content that is product agnostic and running the internal systems for a long period of 10 to 20 years so they need to decouple outward facing services from the internal representation. The OS need to be flexible to respond to different needs – e.g. in file formats it will be GML, RDF and ontology but also CSV and GeoJSON. Managing the rules between the various formats is a challenging task. Different representations of the same thing is another challenge – for example 3D representation and 2D representation.

Didier Leibovici presented a work that is based on Cobweb project and discussing quality assurance to crowdsourcing data. In crowdsourcing there are issues with quality of both the authoritative and the crowdsourcing data. The COBWEB project is part of a set of 5 citizen observatories, exploring air quality, noise, water quality, water management, flooding and land cover, odour perception and nuisance and they can be seen at COBWEB is focusing on the infrastructure and management of the data. The pilot studies in COBWEB look at landuse/land cover, species and habitat observations and flooding. They are mixing sensors in the environment, then they get the data in different formats and the way to managed it is to validate the data, approve its quality and make sure that it’s compliant with needs. The project involve designing an app, then encouraging people to collect the data and there can be lack of connection to other sources of data. The issues that they are highlighting are quality/uncertainty, accuracy, trust and relevance. One of the core questions is ‘is crowd-sourcing data need to different to any other QA/QC?’ (my view: yes, but depending on the trade offs in terms of engagement and process) they see a role of crowdsourcing in NSDI, with real time data capture QA and post dataset collection QA (they do both) and there are also re-using and conflating data sources. QA is aimed to know what is collected  - there are multiple ways to define the participants which mean different ways of involving people and this have implications to QA. They are suggesting a stakeholder quality model with principles such as vaueness, ambiguity, judgement, reliability, validity, and trust. There is a paper in AGILE 2014 about their framework.  The framework suggests that the people who build the application need to develop the QA/QC process and do that with workflow authoring tool, which is supported with ontology and then running it as web processing service. Temporality of data need to be consider in the metadata, and how to update the metadata on data quality.

Patrick Bell considered the use of smartphone apps – in a project of the BGS and the EU JRC they review existing applications. The purpose of the survey to explore what national geological organisations can learn from the shared experience with development of smartphone apps – especially in the geological sector. Who is doing the development work and which partnerships are created? What barriers are perceived and what the role of INSPIRE directive within the development of these apps? They also try to understand who are the users?  There are 33 geological survey organisations in the EU and they received responses from 16 of them. They found 23 different apps – from BGS – iGeology and provide access to geological amps and give access to subsidence and radon risk with in-app payment. They have soil information in the MySoil app which allow people to get some data for free and there is also ability to add information and do citizen science. iGeology 3D is adding AR to display a view of the geological map locally. aFieldWork is a way to capture information in harsh environment of Greenland.  GeoTreat is providing information of sites with special value that is relevant to tourists or geology enthusiasts. BRGM – i-infoTerre provide geological information to a range of users with emphasis on professional one, while i-infoNappe tell you about ground water level. The Italian organisation developed Maps4You with hiking route and combining geology with this information in Emilia-Romagna region. The Czech Geologcial survey provide data in ArcGIS online.

The apps deal with a wide range of topics, among them geohazards, coastline, fossils, shipwrecks … The apps mostly provide map data and 3D, data collection and tourism. Many organisation that are not developing anything stated no interest or a priority to do so, and also lack of skills. They see Android as the most important – all apps are free but then do in app purchase. The apps are updated on a yearly basis. about 50% develop the app in house and mostly work in partnerships in developing apps. Some focus on webapps that work on mobile platform, to cross platform frameworks but they are not as good as native apps, though the later are more difficult to develop and maintain. Many people use ESRI SDK and they use open licenses. Mostly there is lack of promotion of reusing the tools – most people serve data. Barriers – supporting multiple platform, software development skills, lack of reusable software and limited support to reuse across communities – heavy focus on data delivery, OGC and REST services are used to deliver data to an app. Most suggesting no direct link to INSPIRE by respondents but principles of INSPIRE are at the basis of these applications.

Timo Aarmio – presented the OSKARI platform to release open data to end users ( They offer role-based security layers with authenticates users and four levels of permissions – viewing, viewing on embedded maps, publishing and downloading. The development of Oskari started in 2011 and is used by 16 member organisations and the core team is running from National Land Survey of Finland. It is used in Arctic SDI, ELF and Finish Geoportal – and lots of embedded maps. The end-users features allow search of metadata, searching map layers by data providers or INSPIRE themes. they have drag and drop layers and customisation of features in WFS.  Sharing is also possible with uploading shapefiles by users.  They also have printing functionality which allow PNG or PDF and provide also embedded maps so you can create a map and then embed  it in your web page.  The data sources that they support are OGC web services – WMS, WMTS, WFS, CSW and also ArcGIS REST, data import for Shapefiles and KML, and JSON for thematic maps . Spatial analysis is provided with OGC Web Processing Service – providing basic analysis of 6 methods – buffer, aggregate, union, intersect, union of analysed layres and area and sector. They are planning to add thematic maps, more advanced spatial analysis methods, and improve mobile device support. 20-30 people work on Oskari with 6 people at the core of it.

The final session focused on knowledge based economy and the link to INSPIRE.

Andrew Trigg provide the perspective of HMLR on fueling the knowledge based economy with open data. The Land registry dealing with 24 million titles with 5 million property transaction a year. They provided open access to individual titles since 1990 and INSPIRE and the open data agenda are important to the transition that they went through in the last 10 years. Their mission is now include an explicit reference to the management and reuse of land and property data and this is important in terms of how the organisation defines itself. From the UK context there is shift to open data through initiatives such as INSPIRE, Open Government Partnership, the G8 Open Data Charter (open by default) and national implementation plans. For HMLR, there is the need to be INSPIRE Compliance, but in addition, they have to deal with public data group, the outcomes of the Shakespeare review and commitment to a national information infrastructure. As a result, HMLR now list 150 datasets but some are not open due to need to protect against fraud and other factors. INSPIRE was the first catalyst to indicate that HMLR need to change practices and allowed the people in the organisation to drive changes in the organisation, secure resources and invest in infrastructure for it. It was also important to highlight to the board of the organisation that data will become important. Also a driver to improving quality before releasing data. The parcel data is available for use without registration. They have 30,000 downloads of the index polygon of people that can potentially use it. They aim to release everything that they can by 2018.

The challenges that HMLR experienced include data identification, infrastructure, governance, data formats and others. But the most important to knowledge based economy are awareness, customer insight, benefit measurement and sustainable finance. HMLR invested effort in promoting the reuse of their data however, because there is no registration, their is not customer insight but no relationships are being developed with end users – voluntary registration process might be an opportunity to develop such relations. Evidence is growing that few people are using the data because they have low confidence in commitment of providing the data and guarantee stability in format and build applications on top of it, and that will require building trust. knowing who got the data is critical here, too. Finally, sustainable finance is a major thing – HMLR is not allowed to cross finance from other areas of activities so they have to charge for some of their data.

Henning Sten Hansen from Aalborg University talked about the role of education. The talk was somewhat critical of the corporatisation of higher education, but also accepting some of it’s aspects, so what follows might be misrepresenting his views though I think he tried to mostly raise questions. Henning started by noting that knowledge workers are defined by OECD as people who work autonomously and reflectively, use tools effectively and interactively, and work in heterogeneous groups well (so capable of communicating and sharing knowledge). The Danish government current paradigm is to move from ‘welfare society’ to the ‘competitive society’ so economic aspects of education are seen as important, as well as contribution to enterprise sector with expectations that students will learn to be creative and entrepreneurial. The government require more efficiency and performance from higher education and as a result  reduce the autonomy of individual academics. There is also expectation of certain impacts from academic research and emphasis on STEM  for economic growth, governance support from social science and the humanities need to contribute to creativity and social relationships. The comercialisation is highlighted and pushing patenting, research parks and commercial spin-offs. There is also a lot of corporate style behaviour in the university sector – sometime managed as firms and thought as consumer product. He see a problem that today that is strange focus and opinion that you can measure everything with numbers only. Also the ‘Google dream’ dream is invoked – assuming that anyone from any country can create global companies. However, researchers that need time to develop their ideas more deeply – such as Niels Bohr who didn’t published and secure funding – wouldn’t survive in the current system. But is there a link between education and success? LEGO founder didn’t have any formal education [though with this example as with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, strangely their business is employing lots of PhDs - so a confusion between a person that start a business and the realisation of it]. He then moved from this general context to INSPIRE, Geoinformation plays a strong role in e-Governance and in the private sector with the increase importance in location based services. In this context, projects such as GI-N2K (Geographic Information Need to Know) are important. This is a pan European project to develop the body of knowledge that was formed in the US and adapting it to current need. They already identified major gaps between the supply side (what people are being taught) and the demand side – there are 4 areas that are cover in the supply side but the demand side want wider areas to be covered. They aim to develop a new BoK for Europe and facilitating knowledge exchange between institutions. He concluded that Higher education is prerequisite  for the knowledge economy – without doubt but the link to innovation is unclear . Challenges – highly educated people crowd out the job market and they do routine work which are not matching their skills, there are unclear the relationship to entrepreneurship and innovation and the needed knowledge to implement ideas. What is the impact on control universities reducing innovation and education – and how to respond quickly to market demands in skills when there are differences in time scale.

Giacomo Martirano provided a perspective of a micro-enterprise ( in southern Italy. They are involved in INSPIRE across different projects – GeoSmartCities, Smart-Islands and SmeSpire – so lots of R&D funding from the EU. They are also involved in providing GIS services in their very local environment. From a perspective of SME, he see barriers that are orgnaisational, technical and financial. They have seen many cases of misalignment of technical competencies of different organisations that mean that they can’t participate fully in projects. Also misalignment of technical ability of clients and suppliers, heterogeneity in client organisation culture that add challenges. Financial management of projects and payment to organisations create problems to SME to join in because of sensitivity to cash-flow. They experience cases were awarded contracts won offering a price which is sometime 40% below the reference one. There is a need to invest more and more time with less aware partners and clients. When moving to the next generation of INSPIRE – there is a need to engage with micro-SMEs in the discussion ‘don’t leave us alone’ as the market is unfair. There is also a risk that member states, once the push for implementation reduced and without the EU driver will not continue to invest. His suggestion is to progress and think of INSPIRE as a Serivce – SDI as a Service can allow SMEs to join in. There is a need for cooperation between small and big players in the market.

Andrea Halmos (public services unit, DG CONNECT) – covering e-government, she noted her realisation that INSPIRE is more than ‘just environmental information’. From DG CONNECT view, ICT enabled open government, and the aim of the digital agenda for Europe is to empowering citizen and businesses, strengthening the internal market, highlighting efficiency and effectiveness and recognised pre-conditions. One of the focus is the effort to put public services in digital format and providing them in cross border way. The principles are to try to be user centred, with transparency and cross border support – they have used life events for the design. There are specific activities in sharing identity details, procurement, patient prescriptions, business, and justice.  They see these projects as the building blocks for new services that work in different areas. They are seeing challenges such financial crisis, but there is challenge of new technologies and social media as well as more opening data. So what is next to public administration? They need to deal with customer – open data, open process and open services – with importance to transparency, collaboration and participation ( The services are open to other to join in and allow third party to create different public services. We look at analogies of opening decision making processes and support collaboration with people – it might increase trust and accountability of government. The public service need to collaborative with third parties to create better or new services. ICT is only an enablers – you need to deal with human capital, organisational issue, cultural issues, processes and business models – it even question the role of government and what it need to do in the future. What is the governance issue – what is the public value that is created at the end? will government can be become a platform that others use to create value? They are focusing on Societal Challenge   Comments on their framework proposals are welcomed – it’s available at 

After these presentations, and when Alessandro Annoni (who was charring the panel) completed the first round of questions, I was bothered that in all these talks about knowledge-based economy only the government and the private sector were mentioned as actors, and even when discussing development of new services on top of the open data and services, the expectation is only for the private sector to act in it. I therefore asked about the role of the third-sector and civil-society within INSPIRE and the visions that the different speakers presented. I even provided the example of mySociety – mainly to demonstrate that third-sector organisations have a role to play.

To my astonishment, Henning, Giacomo, Andrea and Alessandro answered this question by first not treating much of civil-society as organisations but mostly as individual citizens, so a framing that allow commercial bodies, large and small, to act but citizens do not have a clear role in coming together and acting. Secondly, the four of them seen the role of citizens only as providers of data and information – such as the reporting in FixMyStreet. Moreover, each one repeated that despite the fact that this is low quality data it is useful in some ways. For example, Alessandro highlighted that OSM mapping in Africa is an example for a case where you accept it, because there is nothing else (really?!?) but in other places it should be used only when it is needed because of the quality issue – for example, in emergency situation when it is timely.

Apart from yet another repetition of dismissing citizen generated environmental information on the false argument of data quality (see Caren Cooper post on this issue), the views that presented in the talks helped me in crystallising some of the thoughts about the conference.

As one would expect, because the participants are civil servants, on stage and in presentations they follow the main line of the decision makers for which they work, and therefore you could hear the official line that is about efficiency, managing to do more with reduced budgets and investment, emphasising economic growth and very narrow definition of the economy that matters. Different views were expressed during breaks.

The level in which the citizens are not included in the picture was unsurprising under the mode of thinking that was express in the conference about the aims of information as ‘economic fuel’. While the tokenism of improving transparency, or even empowering citizens appeared on some slides and discussions, citizens are not explicitly included in a meaningful and significant way in the consideration of the services or in the visions of ‘government as platform’. They are reprieved as customers or service users.  The lesson that were learned in environmental policy areas in the 1980s and 1990s, which are to provide an explicit role for civil society, NGOs and social-enterprises within the process of governance and decision making are missing. Maybe this is because for a thriving civil society, there is a need for active government investment (community centres need to built, someone need to be employed to run them), so it doesn’t match the goals of those who are using austerity as a political tool.

Connected to that is the fact that although, again at the tokenism level, INSPIRE is about environmental applications, the implementation now is all driven by narrow economic argument. As with citizenship issues, environmental aspects are marginalised at best, or ignored.

The comment about data quality and some responses to my talk remind me of Ed Parsons commentary from 2008 about the UK GIS community reaction to Web Mapping 2.0/Neogeography/GeoWeb. 6 years on from that , the people that are doing the most important geographic information infrastructure project that is currently going, and it is progressing well by the look of it, seem somewhat resistant to trends that are happening around them. Within the core area that INSPIRE is supposed to handle (environmental applications), citizen science has the longest history and it is already used extensively. VGI is no longer new, and crowdsourcing as a source of actionable information is now with a decade of history and more behind it. Yet, at least in the presentations and the talks, citizens and civil-society organisations have very little role unless they are controlled and marshaled.

Despite all this critique, I have to end with a positive note. It has been a while since I’ve been in a GIS conference that include the people that work in government and other large organisations, so I did found the conference very interesting to reconnect and learn about the nature of geographic information management at this scale. It was also good to see how individuals champion use of GeoWeb tools, or the degree in which people are doing user-centred design.

Data visualisation: a postgrad course that makes stats come alive – The Guardian

The Guardian

Data visualisation: a postgrad course that makes stats come alive
The Guardian
"We teach them a suite of visual tools and technologies in mapping, geographic information systems, 3D design and data visualisation," says Dr Martin Austwick, lecturer at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. "We take people who are interested in ...

Second day of INSPIRE 2014 – open and linked data

Opening geodata is an interesting issue for INSPIRE  directive. INSPIRE was set before the hype of Government 2.0 was growing and pressure on opening data became apparent, so it was not designed with these aspects in mind explicitly. Therefore the way in which the organisations that are implementing INSPIRE are dealing with the provision of open and linked data is bound to bring up interesting challenges.

Dealing with open and linked data was the topic that I followed on the second day of INSPIRE 2014 conference. The notes below are my interpretation of some of the talks.

Tina Svan Colding discussed the Danish attempt to estimate the value (mostly economically) of open geographic data. The study was done in collaboration with Deloitte, and they started with a change theory – expectations that they will see increase demands from existing customers and new ones. The next assumption is that there will be new products, companies and lower prices and then that will lead to efficiency and better decision making across the public and private sector, but also increase transparency to citizens. In short, trying to capture the monetary value with a bit on the side. They have used statistics, interviews with key people in the public and private sector and follow that with a wider survey – all with existing users of data. The number of users of their data increased from 800 users to over 10,000 within a year. The Danish system require users to register to get the data, so this are balk numbers, but they could also contacted them to ask further questions. The new users – many are citizens (66%) and NGO (3%). There are further 6% in the public sector which had access in principle in the past but the accessibility to the data made it more usable to new people in this sector. In the private sector, construction, utilities and many other companies are using the data. The environmental bodies are aiming to use data in new ways to make environmental consultation more engaging to audience (is this is another Deficit Model? assumption that people don’t engage because it’s difficult to access data?). Issues that people experienced are accessibility to users who don’t know that they need to use GIS and other datasets. They also identified requests for further data release. In the public sector, 80% identified potential for saving with the data (though that is the type of expectation that they live within!).

Roope Tervo, from the Finish Meteorological Institute talked about the implementation of open data portal. Their methodology was very much with users in mind and is a nice example of user-centred data application. They hold a lot of data – from meteorological observations to air quality data (of course, it all depends on the role of the institute). They have chose to use WFS download data, with GML as the data format and coverage data in meteorological formats (e.g. grib). He showed that selection of data models (which can be all compatible with the legislation) can have very different outcomes in file size and complexity of parsing the information. Nice to see that they considered user needs – though not formally. They created an open source JavaScript library that make it is to use the data- so go beyond just releasing the data to how it is used. They have API keys that are based on registration. They had to limit the number of requests per day and the same for the view service. After a year, they have 5000 users, and 100,000 data downloads per day and they are increasing. Increasing slowly. They are considering how to help clients with complex data models.

Panagiotis Tziachris was exploring the clash between ‘heavy duty’ and complex INSPIRE standards and the usual light weight approaches that are common in Open Data portal (I think that he intended in the commercial sector that allow some reuse of data). This is a project of 13 Mediterranean regions in Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Montenegro, Greece, Cyprus and Malta. The HOMER project (website used different mechanism, including using hackathons to share knowledge and experience between more experienced players and those that are new to the area. They found them to be a good way to share practical knowledge between partners. This is an interesting side of purposeful hackathon within a known people in a project and I think that it can be useful for other cases. Interestingly, from the legal side, they had to go beyond the usual documents that are provided in an EU consortium, and  in order to allow partners to share information they created a memorandum of understanding for the partners as this is needed to deal with IP and similar issues. Also practices of open data – such as CKAN API which is a common one for open data websites were used. They noticed separation between central administration and local or regional administration – the competency of the more local organisations (municipality or region) is sometimes limited because knowledge is elsewhere (in central government) or they are in different stages of implementation and disagreements on releasing the data can arise. Antoehr issue is that open data is sometime provided at regional portals while another organisation at the national level (environment ministry or cadastre body) is the responsible to INSPIRE. The lack of capabilities at different governmental levels is adding to the challenges of setting open data systems. Sometime Open Data legislation are only about the final stage of the process and not abour how to get there, while INPIRE is all about the preparation, and not about the release of data – this also creates mismatching.

Adam Iwaniak discussed how “over-engineering” make the INSPIRE directive inoperable or relevant to users, on the basis of his experience in Poland. He asks “what are the user needs?” and demonstrated it by pointing that after half term of teaching students about the importance of metadata, when it came to actively searching for metadata in an assignment, the students didn’t used any of the specialist portals but just Google. Based on this and similar experiences, he suggested the creation of a thesaurus that describe keywords and features in the products so it allows searching  according to user needs. Of course, the implementation is more complex and therefore he suggests an approach that is working within the semantic web and use RDF definitions. By making the data searchable and index-able in search engines so they can be found. The core message  was to adapt the delivery of information to the way the user is most likely to search it – so metadata is relevant when the producer make sure that a search in Google find it.

Jesus Estrada Vilegas from the SmartOpenData project discussed the implementation of some ideas that can work within INSPIRE context while providing open data. In particular, he discussed a Spanish and Portuguese data sharing. Within the project, they are providing access to the data by harmonizing the data and then making it linked data. Not all the data is open, and the focus of their pilot is in agroforestry land management. They are testing delivery of the data in both INSPIRE compliant formats and the internal organisation format to see which is more efficient and useful. INSPIRE is a good point to start developing linked data, but there is also a need to compare it to other ways of linked the data

Massimo Zotti talked about linked open data from earth observations in the context of business activities, since he’s working in a company that provide software for data portals. He explored the business model of open data, INSPIRE and the Copernicus programme. From the data that come from earth observation, we can turn it into information – for example, identifying the part of the soil that get sealed and doesn’t allow the water to be absorbed, or information about forest fires or floods etc. These are the bits of useful information that are needed for decision making. Once there is the information, it is possible to identify increase in land use or other aspects that can inform policy. However, we need to notice that when dealing with open data mean that a lot of work is put into bringing datasets together. The standarisation of data transfer and development of approaches that helps in machine-to-machine analysis are important for this aim. By fusing data they are becoming more useful and relevant to knowledge production process. A dashboard approach to display the information and the processing can help end users to access the linked data ‘cloud’. Standarisation of data is very important to facilitate such automatic analysis, and also having standard ontologies is necessary. From my view, this is not a business model, but a typical one to the operations in the earth observations area where there is a lot of energy spend on justification that it can be useful and important to decision making – but lacking quantification of the effort that is required to go through the process and also the speed in which these can be achieved (will the answer come in time for the decision?). A member of the audience also raised the point that assumption of machine to machine automatic models that will produce valuable information all by themselves is questionable.

Maria Jose Vale talked about the Portuguese experience in delivering open data. The organisation that she works in deal with cadastre and land use information. She was also discussing on activities of the SmartOpenData project. She describe the principles of open data that they considered which are: data must be complete, primary, timely, accessible, processable; data formats must be well known, should be permanence and addressing properly usage costs. For good governance need to know the quality of the data and the reliability of delivery over time. So to have automatic ways for the data that will propagate to users is within these principles. The benefits of open data that she identified are mostly technical but also the economic values (and are mentioned many times – but you need evidence similar to the Danish case to prove it!). The issues or challenges of open data is how to deal with fuzzy data when releasing (my view: tell people that it need cleaning), safety is also important as there are both national and personal issues, financial sustainability for the producers of the data, rates of updates and addressing user and government needs properly. In a case study that she described, they looked at land use and land cover changes to assess changes in river use in a river watershed. They needed about 15 datasets for the analysis, and have used different information from CORINE land cover from different years. For example, they have seen change from forest that change to woodland because of fire. It does influence water quality too. Data interoperability and linking data allow the integrated modelling of the evolution of the watershed.

Francisco Lopez-Pelicer covered the Spanish experience and the PlanetData project which look at large scale public data management. Specifically looking in a pilot on VGI and Linked data with a background on SDI and INSPIRE. There is big potential, but many GI producers don’t do it yet. The issue is legacy GIS approaches such as WMS and WFS which are standards that are endorsed in INSPIRE, but not necessarily fit into linked data framework. In the work that he was involved in, they try to address complex GI problem with linked data . To do that, they try to convert WMS to a linked data server and do that by adding URI and POST/PUT/DELETE resources. The semantic client see this as a linked data server even through it can be compliant with other standards. To try it they use the open national map as authoritative source and OpenStreetMap as VGI source and release them as linked data. They are exploring how to convert large authoritative GI dataset into linked data and also link it to other sources. They are also using it as an experiment in crowdsourcing platform development – creating a tool that help to assess the quality of each data set. The aim is to do quality experiments and measure data quality trade-offs associated with use of authoritative or crowdsourced information. Their service can behave as both WMS and “Linked Map Server”. The LinkedMap, which is the name of this service, provide the ability to edit the data and explore OpenStreetMap and thegovernment data – they aim to run the experiment in the summer so this can be found at The reason to choose WMS as a delivery standard is due to previous crawl over the web which showed that WMS is the most widely available service, so it assumed to be relevant to users or one that most users can capture.

Paul van Genuchten talked about the GeoCat experience in a range of projects which include support to Environment Canada and other activities. INSPIRE meeting open data can be a clash of cultures and he was highlighting neogeography as the term that he use to describe the open data culture (going back to the neogeo and paleogeo debate which I thought is over and done – but clearly it is relevant in this context). INSPIRE recommend to publish data open and this is important to ensure that it get big potential audience, as well as ‘innovation energy’ that exist among the ‘neogeo’/’open data’ people. The common things within this culture are expectations that APIs are easy to use, clean interfaces etc. But under the hood there are similarities in the way things work. There is a perceived complexity by the community of open data users towards INSPIRE datasets. Many of Open Data people are focused and interested in OpenStreetMap, and also look at companies such as MapBox as a role model, but also formats such as GeoJSON and TopoJSON. Data is versions and managed in git like process. The projection that is very common is web mercator. There are now not only raster tiles, but also vector tiles. So these characteristics of the audience can be used by data providers to provide help in using their data, but also there are intermediaries that deliver the data and convert it to more ‘digestible’ forms. He noted CitySDK by which they grab from INSPIRE and then deliver it to users in ways that suite open data practices.He demonstrated the case of Environment Canada where they created a set of files that are suitable for human and machine use.

Ed Parsons finished the set of talks of the day (talk link , with a talk about multi-channel approach to maximise the benefits of INSPIRE.  He highlighted that it’s not about linked data, although linked data it is part of the solution to make data accessibility. Accessibility always wins online – and people make compromises (e.g. sound quality in CD and Spotify). Google Earth can be seen as a new channel that make things accessible, and while the back-end is not new in technology the ease of access made a big difference. The example of Denmark use of minecraft to release GI is an example of another channel. Notice the change over the past 10 years in video delivery, for example, so the early days of the video delivery was complex and require many steps and expensive software and infrastructure, and this is somewhat comparable to current practice within geographic information. Making things accessible through channels like YouTube and the whole ability around it changed the way video is used, uploaded and consumed, and of course changes in devices (e.g. recording on the phone) made it even easier. Focusing on the aspects of maps themselves, people might want different things that are maps  and not only the latest searchable map that Google provide – e.g. the  administrative map of medieval Denmark, or maps of flood, or something that is specific and not part of general web mapping. In some cases people that are searching for something and you want to give them maps for some queries, and sometime images (as in searching Yosemite trails vs. Yosemite). There are plenty of maps that people find useful, and for that Google now promoting Google Maps Gallery – with tools to upload, manage and display maps. It is also important to consider that mapping information need to be accessible to people who are using mobile devices. The web infrastructure of Google (or ArcGIS Online) provide the scalability to deal with many users and the ability to deliver to different platforms such as mobile. The gallery allows people to brand their maps. Google want to identify authoritative data that comes from official bodies, and then to have additional information that is displayed differently.  But separation of facts and authoritative information from commentary is difficult and that where semantics play an important role. He also noted that Google Maps Engine is just maps – just a visual representation without an aim to provide GIS analysis tools.

Active City: MRes Visualisation Projects 2013-2014

The MRes group visualisation projects are complete, and as predicted, rather impressive. This year the theme was “The Active City”, and students took this and ran with it in a variety of ways, whether viewing the activity of mobility-impaired users of the London Underground network, exploring the Thames as a driver of development and cultural activity, or looking at the cultural life of the city through museums and blue plaques.

Cloudy with a chance of metaballsCity of culture ( did just that, taking information from those ubiquitous London landmarks and linking it to Wikipedia, to not only draw out areas of the city linked thematically or within a particular historical period, but gathering information about the number of links to other wiki articles and recent page views to highlight the more culturally “significant” individuals. What they then did with this data was really impressive – creating online interactive visualisations and abstract flythroughs of this landscape populated with “metaballs” of cultural energy.

Activity Beyond Barriers ( used a sample of Oyster Card data* to explore how people with mobility issues accessed the tube, pairing it with census data via some nice GIS approaches to look at how well used accessible stations are relative to the populations they serve. This built into some very whizzy 3D visualisations of the journeys of users on the tube, and even an app prototype which lets users find information about their local station.

Last but not least, Active Thames ( used the River Thames as a starting point to explore history, tourism and transport. This diverse project incorporated Cellular Automata modelling, live streams of Instagram images of open house London locations, animations of Thames clippers and river boats, culminating in a scene which drew these disparate sources together, using detailed 3D models and Augmented Reality techniques.

Every year I feel excited and proud to have had some involvement with the genesis and evolution of these projects whilst at the same time facing the terrifying revelation that another cohort of students has successfully synthesised the knowledge of our MRes course and in doing so surpassed the capabilities of any one of their lecturers. I especially liked the cultural bent taken this year (it was a nice departure) – although, that said, the way that Activity Beyond Barriers integrated real GIS analysis and data crunching into their work was exciting. I’ve been banging on for ages about datavis being a tool to help researchers frame their research approach as well as being a tool for communicating outputs, so it’s nice to see visualisations which sit as part of the research process.

The MRes is a small course, populated by architects, geographers, software developers, mathematicians, landscape architects, urban planners and the occasional philosopher, and it is at this time of year that I start to feel a bit warm and glowy about having helped to support some of the cool stuff that this mix of people get up to. Some come with technical skills wanting to learn more about cities and space; some come with substantive humanities or social science chops wanting to broaden their horizons with new computational and mathematical approaches. We’re a broad church, the main prerequisite is a desire to challenge yourself, and to learn.

Ok, before I start blubbing, I have to let you know: entry to study the course in September closes in less than two months, on August 2nd. If you’re a UK/EU citizen, the deadline for part-time study is the start of September – if in doubt, get in touch.

Oh! And before I forget, CASA is offering an incredible opportunity: four years of funding to study an MRes and a PhD. Sadly, these sorts of funding opportunities are hard to come by, so please take advantage of it.

*journey data on the London smartcard travel system that covers the underground network

Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science and INSPIRE

The INSPIRE 2014 conference marks the middle of the implementation process of  the INSPIRE directive (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community). The directive is aimed at establishing a pan-European Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI), and that mean lots of blueprints, pipes, machine rooms and protocols for enabling the sharing of geographic information. In GIS jargon,  blueprints translate to metadata which is a standardise way to describe a GIS dataset; pipes and machine rooms translate to data portals and servers, and the protocols translate to web services that use known standards (here you’ll have a real acronym soup of WMS, WCS, WFS and OGC). It is all aimed to allow people across Europe to share data in an efficient way so data can be found and used. In principle, at least!

This is the stuff of governmental organisations that are producing the data (national mapping agencies, government offices, statistical offices etc.) and the whole INSPIRE language and aims are targeted at the producers of the information, encouraging them to publish information about their data and share it with others. A domain of well established bureaucracies (in the positive sense of the word) and organisations that are following internal procedure in producing, quality checking and distributing their information products. At first sight, seem like the opposite world of ‘upscience‘ where sometime there are only ad-hoc structures and activities.

That is why providing a talk in the plenary session that was dedicated to Governance and Information, and aimed to “assess how INSPIRE is contributing to a more effective and participated environmental policy in Europe, and how it provides connectivity with other policies affecting our environment, society, and the economy” was of concern.  So where are the meeting points of INSPIRE and citizen science? 

One option, is to try a top-down approach and force those who collect data to provide it in INSPIRE compliant way. Of course this is destined to fail. So the next option is to force the intermediaries to do the translation – and projects such as COBWEB is doing that, although it remain to be seen what compromises will be needed. Finally, there is an option to adapt and change procedures such as INSPIRE to reflect the change in the way the world works.

To prepare the talk, I teamed with Dr Claire Ellul, who specialises in metadata (among many other things) and knows about INSPIRE more than me.

The talk started with my previous work about the three eras of environmental information, noticing the move from data by experts, and for experts (1969-1992) to by experts & the public, for experts & the public (2012 on)

As the diagrams show, a major challenges of  INSPIRE is that it is a regulation that was created on the basis of the “first era” and “second era” and it inherently assumes stable institutional practices in creating and disseminating and sharing environmental information.

Alas, the world has changed – and one particular moment of change is August 2004 when OpenStreetMap started, so by the time INSPIRE came into force, crowdsourced geographic information and citizen science became legitimate part of the landscape. These data sources are coming from a completely different paradigm of production and management, and now, with 10 years of experience in OSM and growing understanding of citizen science data, we can notice the differences in production, organisation and practices. For example, while being very viable source of geographic information, OSM still doesn’t have an office and ‘someone to call’.

Furthermore, data quality methods also require different framing for these data.  We have metadata standards and quality standards that are assuming the second era, but we need to find ways to integrate into sharing frameworks like INSPIRE the messy, noisy but also rich and important data from citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Claire provided a case study that analyses the challenges in the area of metadata in particular. The case looks at different noise mapping sources and how the can be understood. Her analysis demonstrates how the ‘producer centric’ focus of INSPIRE is challenging when trying to create systems that record and use metadata for crowdsourced information. The case study is based on our own experiences over the past 6 years and in different projects, so there is information that is explicit in the map, some in a documentation – but some that is only hidden (e.g. calibration and quality of smart phone apps).

We conclude with the message that the INSPIRE community need to start noticing these sources of data and consider how they can be integrated in the overall infrastructure.

The slides from the talk are provided below.


The latest outputs from researchers, alumni and friends at UCL CASA