Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Back From AGI Geocommunity 2008, Part Three

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OK, day two of the AGI conference. This started with three more excellent keynotes, from Charlie Pattinson of the Environment Agency, Charles Kenelly of ESRI and Stuart Haynes of the Defence Geographic Centre.

Charlie’s post was about flood risk management in a changing world. This begs a question posed initially by Steve Feldman in his opening speech as conference chair- are we shaping the world or being shaped by it? This is highlighted by the fact that people used to talk about flood defence, now we talk about management. it’s no longer possible to defend against floods, only mitigate the risk they cause. The 2007 Pitt review had some recommendations to make about GIS, amongst other things- though I find it quite odd that it takes a massive flood and an expensive review to tell them that they need to establish better methods of sharing data between organisations. We (in the UK) also have three separate initiatives all about sharing information in government- Inspire, the Athens Initiative, and the Location Strategy. Surely it would be better just to get on with it? I digress, however- it was a sobering and interesting talk that warned about complacency- most flooding last year was caused by the drainage system being overwhelmed, not by surface water. I certainly felt guilty as I always assumed I’d be fine living half way up a hill!

Charles Kennelly from ESRI UK talked about “GIS beyond barriers”. Most barriers to traditional GIS have now gone, but there are new barriers instead. These are things like the user interface, data sharing, and an understanding of data confidence and quality. Furthermore, GIS has become much more familiar to people, but is still seen as an addendum to most business processes rather than an integral part, and it must become more integrated to achieve it’s full potential.  As an example of how GIS should be integrated, Charles showed a case study from the Foresty Commission, which hid all the maps behind an outlook-like interface so as not to scare the accountants.

I was most impressed with the work of the Defense Geographic Centre, who provide all the mapping for the UK military operations in Afghanistan, for example. The rapid turn-around that they need, and the constant need to adapt to changing requests from “the theatre” were astounding. One example particularly struck me, about the need to provide detailed off-road contour information, classified into what was safe to drive on and what was not, because it is no longer safe to drive on the roads. Again, this shows that we as GIS specialists are being shaped by the world as much as we are shaping it.

So, to the controversial paper of the day. Mark Bishop of Mapinfo did a paper on “The Hype of Web 2.0”, which won best paper. It was possibly the least geographically-related, and a number of people have expressed suprise as to why it won. I liked it, but did feel that he glossed over some things that are actually fairly important in what we do. For a start, metadata and tagging are apparently one and the same and were invented by Tim O’Reilly. I totally disagree with this- they are really the antithesis of each other (but can be used together very well). Metadata is about data veracity and quality, and should (if done properly) be totally reliable. Tagging is about loose, flexible aggregations of data, and tells you nothing about how reliable your data is, or whether it’s fit for purpose.

I did agree with the way in which Mark applied the Web 2.0 paradigm to mapping. Priorities should be interoperability and useability, and only then additional features. Colleagues/customers and clients all have different expectations of mapping now because they have been exposed to the Google Effect. It’s important that we recognise that. I also like the notion of participation as opposed to publishing.

The final talk that I attended was from Nick Black, talking about Cloudmade and Openstreetmap. His thoughts on the changing business model that free data provides were really interesting- basically the value (monetary?) is pushed further up the train to the third-party applications and devices. He also made the very good point that maps are only useful if they are reliable. Now, to me that chimes slightly awkwardly with the openstreetmap approach (you don’t have a measure of completeness) but when I spoke to Nick afterwards he said the Cloudmade were looking at that sort of thing, which is very interesting indeed. He also pointed out that Cloudmade also have shapefile downloads of openstreetmap data, so I guess I’ll have to amend my post on that from a couple of days ago…

I missed most of the “Big Debate” in the afternoon so I can’t really add to the analysis that has been written elsewhere on the subject, although I can see where they are coming from. Any reservations that people have had though, have been related to general attitudes rather than to the conference itself,  so I guess the Debate has worked on one level because people have gone away to talk about it. Maybe next year attitudes will have changed!

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