On the 3rd to the  5th of April I attended GISRUK (Geospatial Information Research in the United Kingdom) to give a paper on Community Mapping as a Socio-Technical Work Domain. In keeping with Christoph Kinkeldey‘s love of 1990s pop stars Vanilla Ice made a second slide appearance, leveraging the fact it’s a very technical academic title. In short I’m using Cognitive Work Analysis (CWA) to create a structural framework to assess the quality (currently defined by ISO 19113:Geographic Quality Principles – well worth a read…) where there is no comparative dataset.

CWA is used to assess the design space in which a system exists, not the system itself. In taking a holistic view and not enforcing constraints on the system you can understand what components and physical objects you would need to achieve the values of the system and vice-versa. In future iterations I’m going to get past first base and look at decision trees and strategic trees to work out how to establish the quality of volunteered geographic data without a comparative dataset. Building quality analysis into day one, as opposed to being an after thought.

Written and submitted from Home (52.962339,-1.173566)


Wernigerode PhD Summer School

Another hectic few weeks draws to a close. The literature review is more grounded than before nearing 5,000 words and pretty much all of them are ‘good’. The past week has been spent in Wernigerode in the Hars region of Germany on an AGILE (Association of Geographic Information Laboratories Europe) PhD Winter School.

Mixing PhD candidates from research centres across Europe from GIS, Geomatics and other disciplines the event started with the customary ice-breaker. Even over (some very very good) local beer, it was clear that the participants were from very diverse backgrounds, most in the process of doing interdisciplanary research, with projects looking at conflating ontologies, predicting the location(s) of serious criminals, visualising change and crowd sourcing 3D building models among many others.

The first day started with introductions, followed by 10-15 presentations with questions on our topics. Taking all day it was good to see how other geospatial PhDs evolve in differing subjects and countries. During a very German (schnitzel) lunch we wandered in the forest surrounding Wernigerode. Though the place is quite of the beaten track it really is worth a visit if you want to chill out.

The second day started with a very good talk from Bénédicte Bucher from IGN about the differing research groups of the French National Mapping Agency, concluding with her thoughts on the PhD process. She noted that when you first start it’s like being in a Bazaar, you see the different pathways however, eventually, you’ll be forging your own path in the wilderness over tough terrain.

This followed into break out sessions with other participants to start either a paper or initiative on your subjects. Being in the Volunteered Geographic Informations group we went back to basics. Though we were from differing subsections of VGI (Crowd sourcing 3D indoor models, policy of VGI in government and myself in Community Mapping) our common ground was the lack of definitions in VGI, so we proposed an AGILE initiative to fix this.

After putting a 10 minute presentation together (where we managed to get MC Hammer into a slide, under the rather tenuous headline of “Break It Down”) we formally ended the winter school with our proceedings in hand. Then a spot of further networking in the only club in Wernigerode…!

Written and submitted from the DB RegioBahn Magdeburg – Berlin train.

Ergonomics of Hackathons and Code Sprints

I recently posted a rather long blog regarding my experience at the London WaterHackathon. Essentially over 48 hours we hacked Ushahidi, adding a triage system for reports. It was fun. Part of my PhD research is about the design and usage of tools in the space of community mapping. People like Muki Hacklay and his extreme citizen science group have made some massive in-roads into verifying the quality of OSM data, with very positive results for OSM. But this doesn’t say anything about the quality of the tools. In a previous life I trained as a computer programmer, I moved into geospatial afterwards, hence it leaves me with a few questions regarding the process and its output.

Designing Processes and Workflow

The software engineering rulebook was thrown out of the window with good enough is perfect taken as the mantra. Although I’m a great believer in the idea that something good and tangible can be created out of an all night – look at any of my coursework from my comp sci bachelors – I’m concerned about the sustainability of the code that it generates. While I have every intention of using the code from the hackathon in something very useful the design came about from a 15 minute brief with around nine whiteboards being used and data structures made on the fly. This especially applies to the SMS solution we wrote, it bellies the importance of good documentation.

From all of this, I would ask the following questions…

  1. How sustainable is the code developed at a hackathon?
  2. Are there any examples of code developed at hackathons being deployed directly with modification?
  3. What steps are needed before hackathon code can be used?
I’m not attacking the hackathon methodology – I do think hackers should be remunerated with some small token of appreciation though – I just question how positive the impact can be if the code isn’t documented. The hackers that came were either students or good industry programmers with a humanitarian interest. Realistically it isn’t feasible for them all to continue working on the project, this is where open-sourcing it all comes in.
From this approach, how would a community be built upon a good project dropping out of a hackathon. Part of our approach meant building upon an already existing open source application; Ushahidi. Should we now consider pushing our edits to the Ushahidi codebase? This has issues as we didn’t create a plugin, we dived right into the code. This was due to the unfamiliarity of hacking Ushahidi on the whole – This also makes a point about decision making, in hindsight with knowing the system better we collectively made a bad design decision.

Being the effect/de facto project/product manager I found the need to keep my team productive involved constant resupply of pizza, coffee and biscuits. The idea being that content and happy coders are productive ones. With the results this is definitely true. It also helped that the team was awesome, throwing themselves into the project with great gusto. Again in hindsight I wonder if a more considered approach was necessary, thinking about sustainability and reuse. We did follow the mantra of JFDI (look it up on urban dictionary), but in forging a massive path ahead have we inhibited further growth and expansion?

Are there design considerations and best practices to follow in hackathons, effectively creating good code that could be reused and used effectively i.e. ergonomics. If not where would be a good place to start?

Written and submitted from the Nottingham Geospatial Building (52.953, -1.18405)

Involvement of Community Organisations

Community Based Organisations Learning About Our Project
Community Based Organisations Learning About Our Project

The first community forum went well. It was deal breaker for the project in the sense that if we didn’t get the community to share our ideals and objectives, making them their own, then the project would fail. Now the map is basically complete for first draft. We have enough of a basemap so we can now support platforms like Ushahidi and enable blogs to be geolocated.

Collecting the data and producing the map, as I’ve previously mentioned is only a first step. The same can be said for involving the students and community members. By creating a small nucleus of highly engaged people, proficient in mapping and storytelling techniques understand the project, they can evangelise the project to others in their community. This ‘infects’ the community from the inside allowing for more people to interact and share the project without ‘outside’ involvement. This will in time hopefully reach a plateau where the entire process of updating the map, reporting and blogging becomes self-sustaining using only the initial equipment and investment.

With this in mind, in the build up to the final community forum of the project (where presentations will be made to the community as a whole ie. interested citizens, civil servants and politicians) we gave a ‘pre-release’ talk to ten community based organisations. The format for this was quite simple, the students introduced the map with it’s features and intended functionality and the community members introduced the storytelling elements.

Within this process I spent most of it being a photographer and an observer. It wasn’t quite seeing the monster you created evolve but when presenting both students and the community are owning the process. The community organisations engaged in a Q&A session then participated in reporting using Ushahidi.

During the Q&A many questions dropped out regarding the future of the project and how the map can be used further. Because we are still formulating the future strategy it is difficult to say what the next step will be, but it will be along the lines of franchising to other areas overseen by community, NGO/CBO and Ground Truth, constructing this framework will be taking place for much of the coming week.

We are also printing the map and distributing it. This is key; in using Open Street Map, the collected data is freely available for viewing and data analysis without restrictions like a prohibitive licence. However accessibility to computers and internet understandably is a problem in communities like Tandale. To enable the community to view their map we will be printing A2 maps for placement in the sub-ward offices and printing A4 sub-ward handouts.

By placing it in a communal areas for each of the communities, we aim to reduce the barrier of people using the map by making it accessible. This process has started with our small nucleus of students and community, expanded by involving community based organisations and will be expanded further by integrating the map into governmental offices at the sub-ward level. Having the map built into the fabric of the community from the beginning of the project should make further incremental additions easier.

Community organisations being fully involved in the project is the next step, the process has been started and the ball is rolling. However Eid is coming in the next week, so everything is going pole pole, Swahili for slowly slowly. However tangible results are starting to become very clear, on all levels with all stakeholders.

Written and submitted from Slipway, Dar Es Salaam (-6.75174,39.27117)

Water, Sanitation and Geography

I have been surprised with during the Tandale project with how community members are familiar with the geographic boundaries and extent of their community. On touring areas with community members, it was clear how they used geographic features to navigate. Also the administrative boundaries were formed through natural features like rivers, without being imposed upon by an outside force.

Previously when facilitating mapping (essentially “There isn’t anything here, go have a look”) the mappers would have a difficultly in collating the map and their own mental model. Here in Tandale reading of seemed to be a lot easier than when I have previously experienced.

Map reading is a difficult skill, essentially it starts with understanding that the map is an abstract representation of space. As a map is a representation of space; a visualisation of various elements is at the whim of the cartographer (in our case the esteemed people which write the map styles for OSM) and the data that the cartographer/surveyor collects.

The people of Tandale seem to have a spatial awareness down to a very precise art, using landmarks and features with which to demarcate areas. This also relates to official and unofficial landuse within Tandale. Because of the lack of formal solid waste collection, most of the waste is dumped in swampland or wasteland. Unfortunately these waste areas have no buffer with residential homes, further illustrating the potential for disease.

On a tour of the Sokoni sub-ward executive he spoke at length on sanitation and water security. The conversation turned to common diseases and illnesses within Tandale with Malaria and HIV unsurprising common. Also mentioned in the same breath was Typhoid and Cholera, which, according to the officer,  outbreaks are common. Looking at the state of sanitation and drainage this is very believable.

We believe that the first step to solving these problems is to have a map. Hopefully have enough data to give evidence of the problems, to both inside and outside the community. We have also mapped dumping grounds, formal and informal medical facilities, toilets, water points among many other things. Using the map as a basemap in Ushahidi instance allows for the community members to use the map that they have created. Now our focus turns to completing the feedback loop, so there is an interface for the reports. Funnily enough that’s where my PhD comes in…

Written and submitted from the City Style Hotel, Sinza, Dar Es Salaam (-6.47319,39.13199)

Supervision And Semantics

The first supervision meeting of a PhD is a big experience, especially with all the minds around the table. It was universally agreed that an interesting PhD is to be found in the fragmented mess that is the proposal, though that is being hacked to pieces to pass muster. The process will no doubt get there, hopefully sooner rather than later.

From my perspective one of the most interesting things to come out of the proposal process so far is the inability for other academics to name the same thing. So far the research could fall under ‘Crisis Mapping‘, ‘Time Critical Volunteered Geographical Information‘ (aka crowdsourcing) and ‘Crisis Informatics‘.

While the aims of this PhD are to interdisciplinary, eventually a contribution needs to be solidly made to a particular field, as such it needs to be within the vocabulary of that field (or does it?). For the time being we’re taking ‘Crisis Informatics’ to be the mcguffin that defines the PhD, but formalising how each of the terms and their definitions combine and affect the future research is something that I’ll be also working on in future, adding to the list of things to do!

Written and submitted from the Nottingham Geospatial Building (52.953, -1.18405)

Disconnection Friendly UI

I’m always ‘ON’. I’m plugged into the Apple ecosystem in a big way, with an iPhone, iPad and Macbook, consuming Twitter, Flickr and FYVM at an alarming rate, not mentioning the emails, phone calls and SMS’ that are send on a hourly basis. Over a curry with a friend we were talking about the pervasiveness/ubiquity of mobile devices (surprisingly we are both doing ubiquitous computing PhDs) and ways of switching off.

Apparently for him the best way is to have a Blackberry, allegedly the interface is so awful that one wouldn’t want to use it for extended periods of time, so no twitter updates, foursquare checkins and poor web browsing. I wouldn’t mind this approach too much, however the blackberry doesn’t have ‘Cut The Rope’.

Getting Into Writing

Good News! I am now doing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, funded through the Horizon DTC Project, which in turn is part of the UK government’s Digital Economy initiative. It should also prove good news for this blog with it’s naiscent ramblings submitted from time to time upgraded to more of a diary to aid the 100,000 words needed as I’m unsure after four years of blistering progress funnelling it all into 3 month hellish period could prove diasterous to any sleep pattern.

Currently the vague topic is Crisis Mapping. The species, place, space and time are yet to be determined. The next month will be spent on a review of the field and a presentation to my peers regarding the ‘gaps of knowledge’ within the field. A PhD is apparently about making an ‘original contribution’, what this entails within this context isn’t currently clear. However the contribution is defined, be it of a technological or more blue sky nature the process will definately be interesting.