Archive for the ‘201’ Category

can geospatial technologies benefit the poor?

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

From student, AK, Intro GIS, taken from GIS, GPS, and Remote Sensing by Uwe Deichmann and Stanley Wood

The role of information and communication technologies in assisting rural development is drawing increasing attention. It promises to help isolated and disenfranchised communities transform themselves into development participants who are better informed and integrated.

GIS provides tools for visualizing, integrating, and analyzing spatial data and a unique capacity to merge information from many sources. By using a common spatial framework, GIS enables users to analyze how physical, social, and economic factors interact. Constraints to widespread use of GIS have been its high cost and complexity and the difficulty of obtaining geographically referenced (geo-referenced) data. However, as the technology has become cheaper and less complex, it has become more accessible to non-specialists.

GPS and remote-sensing techniques have reduced the problem of obtaining geo-referenced information. For instance, most field surveys now use GPS to capture the location of sample points, such as plots or households, enabling easy visualization of survey results and integration with other geographic data. GPS receivers range from the handheld models that are inexpensive, easy to use, and provide coordinate accuracy of about 10 meters to differential receivers that yield accuracy in centimeters. Great advances also have been made in remote sensing and aerial photography. Image processing techniques generate digital maps from aerial photos or satellite data that combine the accuracy of a topographic map with the richer contextual information of a photograph.

Until recently, geospatial technologies have benefited the rural poor mostly indirectly, by generating improved information for research, policy analysis, planning, and monitoring. Precision farming techniques are used in high-intensity commercial agriculture, where detailed location information determines, for example, the level of fertilizer applied to each portion of a field. However, the capital, maintenance, and training requirements are well beyond the means of most farmers in developing countries, particularly smallholders whose small field sizes make these technologies uneconomic.

One of the most direct applications of GIS in developing countries is participatory mapping, where, for example, specialists interact with farming communities to create spatial inventories of natural resources, property status, land-use rights, and perceived problems. Such inventories feed into a consultative process aimed at building consensus on more equitable and sustainable resource-management arrangements. Community mapping can also help foster the process of transferring greater decision-making power and fiscal responsibility to local levels of government. GIS is increasingly being used widely in parcel mapping. Without proper land registration, it can be argued that formal land markets are less efficient and the incentives to invest in land conservation might be limited.

Questions can arise about the political economy and sustainability of GIS approaches applied at the community level, and research on those issues has given rise to a literature on Public Participation GIS (PPGIS). Research primarily addresses concerns about GIS as an invasive technology that benefits a few elites and institutions while marginalizing the very people it’s supposed to help. While this work has often focused on developed-country experiences, its concerns are even more pertinent to poor communities in developing countries. PPGIS issues include:

  • Changes in local politics and power relationships resulting from the use of GIS in geospatial decision-making.
  • The effects of differential access to GIS hardware, software, data, and expertise
  • The educational, social, political, and economic reasons for lack of access and exemplary ways in which communities have overcome these barriers
  • The ways in which socially differentiated communities and their local knowledge might best be represented within GIS
  • GIS as local surveillance
  • Identifying public data policies that positively or negatively influence small-scale local businesses.

Geographic information technologies will continue to provide considerable indirect benefits through better-informed policymaking, research, planning, and development support by both government and non-government agents. But we need to continually reexamine the direct benefits.

Take for example, the “2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment“. This is an initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to develop a shared vision and a consensus for action on how to meet future world food needs while reducing poverty and protecting the environment. Through the 2020 Vision initiative, IFPRI is bringing together divergent schools of thought on these issues, generating research, and identifying recommendations. In an initiative such as this, GIS can be used extensively to identify and model any aspect that is spatially distributed, for example, mapping gender assets, tracking movement of food from rural to urban areas, conducting site selections of optimal farming locations by crop, modeling equitable water allocation, and possibly applying precision agriculture.

IFPRI promotes a vision for food access for the greatest good, that assists the poor while not irreparably hurting the environment. But who might get left out in a consensual “greatest good” vision? Women’s subsistence farming but not men’s cash crop farming? Women in these developing countries often have their own local knowledge about food production that differs from men. What if the communities themselves want to map and analyze: do they have the access to the satellite images and computers? Communities may have their own alternate or small scale means of producing food that varies from getting out food to the largest number of peoples. Technologies have been developed like Google Earth and have been used by indigenous people to monitor illegal activities on their land, for example logging. What happens after the experts leave? It’s these things that we need to reflect on when we promote GIS for rural development.

Peter A. K. Kyem, James Saku. 2009. Web-Based GIS and the Future of Participatory GIS Applications Within Local and Indigenous Communities. GISP Department of Geography Central Connecticut State University New Britain, USA. EJISDC Vol. 38.

Daniel Weiner, Trevor M. Harris. 2003. Community-Integrated GIS for Land Reform in South Africa. URISA Journal, Vol. 15.

Renee Sieber. 2006. Public Participation GIS: A Literature Review and Framework. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Volume 96, Number 3 , pp. 491-507.

GIS Applications in Epidemiology

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Thanks, JZ for the post

Applications of GIS aren’t new to epidemiology. Dating back to 1854, during a cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district, Dr. John Snow plotted the location of every individual case on a map and determined that they were distributed in a certain pattern that was linked to a contaminated water pump used by the local citizens. Now GIScience is being used to used to track the spatial distribution of all sorts of diseases.

H1N1 is a current epidemiological problem. Although H1N1 has been tracked since the outbreak, a lack of effective analysis tools (and countermeasures, of course) meant that the flu spread throughout the world within a few months. According to the latest update from the WHO, over 11,516 have died in the pandemic.

ESRI’s GIS is being used to track H1N1. According to ESRI’s own whitepaper, ‘GIS and Pandemic Influenza Planning and Response’, ESRI believes that geographic accuracy is essential in any infectious disease outbreak, and GIS applications can be critical in assessing risks, evaluating threats, tracking outbreaks, and ensuring the focused allocation of resources (e.g., vaccines and antivirals).

GISs tend to be rather static in their ability to model time. What is especially important is to be able to dynamically run a geospatial model of the outbreak. According to a recent article in Nature, agent-based modeling (ABM) can be used in modeling the disease’s possible spread, and designing policies for its mitigation. The ABM is basically an artificial society. Every person is represented by an autonomous software agent. Agents interact with each other; the computer tracks the agents’ health status as they interact in the virtual social network. Unlike classical epidemic modeling which based on differential equations, the ABM can simulate the complexity of social network. ABMs can be used to answer questions like, ‘What if a significant number of people refuse the H1N1 vaccine out of fear?’ ‘What is the best way to allocate the limited supplies of vaccines?’ or ‘How effective are school closures?’

A U.S. scale ABM (containing 300 million agents) can be run in approximately 10 minutes and can present the results on a map-based interface. Thus GIS and ABMs can provide the decision-makers a quick feedback on how their interventions work. As H1N1 moves through time and space and other possible pandemic influenza emerge in the future, GIS and ABM will play important roles in improving the efficiency of health agencies.

Geospatial Technology to for Wildlife Management and Conservation

Monday, December 28th, 2009

From KT, Intro GIS.

Geospatial technology, especially GIS, is often viewed as an application for analyzing and understanding social distributions (e.g., literacy rate, birth rate, and death rate). Increasingly, geospatial technology is used to monitor wildlife migration to better understand and develop conservation and management techniques.

In the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in India researchers measured a variety of variables to determine suitable habitat space for tigers. To develop the model, GIS data layers for the area were created by digitizing topographic maps (i.e., contours, roads, and settlement patterns). Satellite information was used for forest type and forest density. Forest type information was derived using a false colour composite. To complete the data sets, researchers also collected field data on the ground truth of forest type, current habitat area and the habitat area of prey. They also performed a statistical analysis. The result was a map that illustrates habitat suitabile for tigers.

A similar study was undertaken in Florida to analyze suitable habitat areas for the highly endangered Florida panther. The method of this study however differed slightly from that of the tiger study. Here, researchers used GIS to overlay maps of many different parameters (i.e., land type, road structure, vegetation, and protected areas). They obtained shapefiles from government and private sources. Their conclusions mimicked what was seen in the tiger study: only small regions are suitable for long-term panther sustainability.

The GIS approach to these problems is particularly important because it is repeatable over time as variables such as land use and forest type change. It also gives researchers a large spatial context and ensures that maps and models only contain relevant information. I think these models are very useful, as they provide a way for a researcher or conservation official to easily look at many variables and how the variables overlay each other spatially.

preserving North American indigenous cultures with GIS

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Thanks, NM for this post…

GIS is the branch of geography that generates the most interest from the wider public these days, with geographic apps ranging from Google Maps to trip advisor. Yet when it comes to talk up about its integration in indigenous communities, this optimism suddenly turns into mistrust because of the history of Western imposition of culture (including technology!) on traditional cultures. Nevertheless, it has been proved in many of those same communities that it can constitute an effective tool for perpetuating their cultures.

The idea is fairly simple. By going into North American Native communities, researchers have been able to collect certain types of information on the environment and pinpoint it in GISs, which can then be used to educate the community. This information includes photographs, videos, stories and other traditional knowledge elements in both English and the local language. An example of this is the Names-Places Project, which has been active in Idaho with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for more than fifteen years and for which Elders have shared their knowledge about the environment.

According to senior archeologist Ben Hjermstad, who works with Saskatchewan’s First Nations, it is a good way to contribute to youth education. “It is showing them how people have used the land for hundreds of generations” as he says, while also creating “a link between the Elders of the nation and the youth”. GIS also can be a useful tool for land management for indigenous peoples as it displays both scientific and cultural information about the landscape, thereby giving them greater ability to negotiate when a development project is proposed to the community. For instance, if a project of forestry activity comes up in the nation, they will know whether or not the area is already reserved for gathering traditional medicinal plants or if it contains burial grounds.

It is clear that such a body of cultural information might end up in the hands of malicious people if it were to be available to everyone. This is why a confidentiality agreement, which stipulates that the information displayed on the maps is the local communities’ property, exists between First Nations and the people who help create the maps, and why indigenous communities are glad that they can password-protect those maps.

Many indigenous peoples like the idea that there is a way to digitally take stock of their environment, but their satisfaction lies in the fact that this information can also be cultural. Indeed, this method may enable them to perpetuate a rich culture that is intertwined with a deep respect for nature. “The land is our heaven and our wealth” says Innovative GIS Solutions president Jhon Goes In Center, a Lakota Indian in Fort Collins, Colorado. Moreover, the fact that such work can be made available in both English and indigenous languages, that is in the languages the people who both study and live the effects of land exploitation, might also show an open-mindedness that will prove increasingly fruitful as issues such as climate change must be addressed.

opening up GIS to urban planning through open source

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Thanks, PB, for the post

Geospatial technologies have once again paved the way for a new social learning experience. Mark Gordton, the mind behind Limewire, has teamed up with a team familiar with geospatial editing to bring you GeoServer: an open source urban planning app. This new project allows users to map out their transportation routes and daily geographical events to then vote for more bicycles paths or public transportation. Also, users will be able to vote on whether they would rather have a gas station or a public park built on a new piece of land. Much like Google Maps allows its users to customize maps to display routes on a pre-existing grid, GeoServer hopes to provide similar urban planning opportunities.

Thomas K. Wright, who is executive director of the Regional Plan Association, is very positive about its potential:

“99 percent of planning in the United States is volunteer citizens on Tuesday nights in a high school gym….Creating a software that can reach into that dynamic would be very profound, and open it up, and shine light on the decision-making. Right now, it becomes competing experts trying to out-credential each other in front of these citizen and volunteer boards… [Gorton] could actually change the whole playing field.”

GeoServer is allowing citizens to voice their concerns and be engaged in community planning processes.

This is going to have some very beneficial effects on the way urban planning can and will be undertaken. Planners will now have access to information from the people themselves about what they want and what they think would be beneficial for the neighbourhoods with which they are most familiar. With these tools at their disposal, non-expert residents will be more involved and tools like this will allow for more of a democratic approach to urban planning decisions.

Possibly the most important aspect of allowing the average person to voice their concern without having knowledge of planning practice and/or Geospatial Information Systems is the question of compatibility among user information and program datasets. Luckily GeoServer can display the spatial and mapped data people upload to a P2P server onto various mapping software/application [ArcGIS or Google Maps]

This new program is just another step in the growing world of open source media and peer to peer sharing of ideas, files and information. GeoServer is just another step in adapting to and planning for our world’s ever increasing complexity and interconnectivity.

Use of Digital Earths for Good and Evil

Friday, December 18th, 2009

CH, from Intro GIS, continues our surveillance posts

Google Earth is a virtual globe that contains fairly high resolution images of certain locations on the globe. A multi-featured version of Google Earth has been freely available to the public since its release several years ago. Users can browse the entire globe where they can search and zoom into cities, places of interest and specific addresses. Anyone who has the minimum requirements necessary to run Google Earth, can use it however they please. This unrestricted use of Google Earth may pose an alarming security threat. Although certain government facilities are hidden on it, terrorists and criminals have used what is available to commit crimes with precision and efficiency thanks to the satellite pictures. It is alarming that a group like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have admitted to using this freeware to plan and execute attacks on Israel. The use of Google Earth for attacks like this is one of the results of such accurate, complex imagery being provided for anyone and everyone to access.

Another example of when this information has been accessed by the wrong people was the 2008 Mumbai terror attack on two luxury hotels. The terrorists responsible were able to familiarize themselves with the area of their attack that left 171 dead. There is no question that without free programs such as Google Earth, terrorist attacks will not stop, but they simply make it that much easier for the terrorists to carry out such attacks. It makes sense to block out sensitive information and images; however, this alone will not prevent the ability to plan attacks on the public. It would be far to difficult for authorities or Google to screen each user, every time they look something up. This would also raise privacy issues for the common user. The concept of virtual earths is a complicated one that will always have safety and privacy issues due to the function it performs.

Africa GIS International Conference

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

The Africa GIS International Conference is held every two years to discuss problems with and applications of GIS across the African continent. The conferences in 2005 and 2007 were held in South Africa and Burkina Faso respectively, while this year’s conference was held in October in Kampala, Uganda. The conference deals with identifying the limitations of Africa’s current geo-information technologies and systems and its goal is to discuss possible solutions and set up relationships between individuals and organizations collecting data throughout the continent. The conference is a place for geo-information specialists to gather and share new developments, as well as to find others who would be interested in contributing to new projects. It also provides a forum for data and ideas to be shared, and for pressing issues to be brought to attention.

The problems facing Africa today numerous and complex, and every two years the conference draws up a list of themes to focus on and invites people to present papers and projects in those fields. This allows the conference to focus on problems that are unique to the continent, and create geo-information systems and datasets that are specifically suited to these problems. The themes for this year’s conference were climate change, natural resource management, challenges created by urbanization and the business aspect of creating and storing data in Africa. From these themes we can see that the difficulties are all related to development. The countries themselves are still developing and coping with impacts on their environment and natural resources, as well coping with the emergent infrastructure that is lagging behind the rapid development or urban centers and the rapid rise in population. GIS can be used to monitor these changes and to analyze them to be better prepared to respond to them, but a lack of infrastructure will limit their data collection and distribution, as well as storage and analysis. Since the first conference in 2005, Spatial Data Infrastructure has been an important topic, and part of Africa GIS’ goals is to bring people together who can created this infrastructure, share information and communicate with outside sources who could provide data to fill in the gaps, such as high quality satellite imagery.

The challenges of a developing nation can be overwhelming, and these conferences may be placing a lot of hope in Geographic Information Science to resolve these issues, but since a recently developed technology is being applied to a situation where nothing of the sort has previously been attempted, it can be done right the first time instead of having to correct datasets and procedures that were begun decades ago. This is a chance to create a community of geo-information specialists in Africa where data and ideas are shared to bring new developments and advances to this system as soon as they arise. Hopefully this conference can facilitate the sharing of information and the creation of a standard for GIScience in Africa, and can be used to find new approaches to the problems at hand.

Thanks to VB, Intro GIS

all eyes on North Korea

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Though stringent border security and diplomatic isolation may give North Korea the reputation of a “hermit kingdom,” geospatial technology allows Westerners, from the comfort of their personal computers, to view past the smiling gymnasts of the Pyongyang Mass Games and explore the workings of the world’s most secretive society. An initiative called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth as a platform for mapping North Korea’s features- from power lines to government offices to forced labor camps. Since it launched in May 2007, the project has added features successively to their publicly-available map. The latest version, released in June 2009, contains thousands of point, line, and polygon features sorted into dozens of layer categories and hundreds of subcategories. As a mashup, the project maintains active links between locations on the map and online information resources; for example, at the mapped entrance to Labor Camp 15, users can click on a link to a Youtube video containing footage of the camp.

To supplement Google Earth’s remotely sensed images of North Korea (most of which come from SPOT), the project matches higher-resolution aerial photos and maps to the ground layer of satellite imagery. For instance, see the image embedded below containing a high-resolution photo of Camp 15 matched to the SPOT satellite graphic.

The creators of the project are receptive to user-contributed content. Because very few members of the general public have access to information on North Korea, most information comes from self-selecting experts including former members of the US military, political researchers, and North Korean expatriates. Curtis Melvin, who began the project, cross-checks all submitted information to maintain the site’s credibility and accuracy. Information is contributed to the system in a method known as “crowd sourcing.” When the project was launched, the directors posted it on relevant websites in an effort to attract attention and information from the “crowd,” or unidentified public. The submitted information becomes the property of the project itself, rather than the submitter. Many nonprofit internet information projects use this same model, as do many private businesses (which sometimes even offer financial rewards for information submissions). The key uniqueness and power of crowd sourcing is that, by encouraging any member of the informed public to contribute their knowledge, valuable information can come from sources the project organizers would never have known to consult.

The implications of a project like “North Korea Uncovered” shake our notions of power structure in the age of the Internet. Thanks to the simple technique of crowd sourcing and the knowledge of scattered members of the public, anybody with access to the Internet can view information which a totalitarian regime has dedicated itself to restricting. However, questions must be drawn to Google’s role in disseminating and controlling such information. With its history of catering to China’s demands on restricting information, can users rely on Google Earth to provide a groundwork for information sharing of a controversial nature? If a similar project called “The US Army Uncovered” were initiated by members of the public to investigate conditions at US war prisons, would Google make its system equally available to their use? It is ironic that in this age of information overload, crowd sourcing, and public data sharing via the Internet, we still rely on either private corporations or government agencies, in spite of their priorities or agendas, to provide us mediums for information exchange such as Digital Earths and search engines.

From JL, Intro GIS

Greener Streets Thanks to GPS?

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Nitrogen oxide and reactive hydrocarbons from motor vehicle exhaust make up the majority of urban pollution. This, along with ever increasing congestion, has prompted Dutch legislators and environmental activists to attempt to change driving patterns. The Nederlands government has decided to abolish its annual road and car purchase tax for drivers and instead to charge the average car 0.03€ per kilometre driven, and an even higher rate for driving done during rush hour or periods of congestion. For larger automobiles, trucks and commercial vehicles, this charge will be even higher, considering that these motor vehicles emit more pollutants. The kilometre tax will increase every year until 2018 (when it will reach 0.068€), and will be augmented if driving patterns do not change. But how will the government monitor how much each individual is driving and during which times? By using Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking technology. By 2012, a monitoring device will be installed in every car in the Netherlands and will track the amount of kilometres traveled, the time of travel and the location of the vehicle. This information will then be sent to a billing agency.

The Dutch government is pressed to do something about vehicle use, because their road network has some of the most congested and often used roads in all of Europe. With the GPS technology in place, the Dutch Ministry of Transportation hopes that congestion will decrease on roads during rush hours, and there are already estimates that overall driving will decrease by 15 percent and that rush hour congestion will be halved. On top of this, the ministry also hopes that car accidents will decrease by 7 percent due to less stressed drivers, and that carbon emissions will decrease by 10 percent. There are several opponents in this debate, because firstly, people who drive for business reasons will be heavily taxed, and it could cost the government over 1 billion Euros ($1.5 billion US) in tax income that would otherwise be earned by an annual road tax. At the same time, some argue that the GPS system will be like “Big Brother” –-constantly monitoring the locations of drivers at all hours. However, the Ministry of Transportation has assured the public that the information from the individual GPSs would be “legally and technically protected” and that the data would only be available to the government for the purpose of kilometre billing.

Other countries are also considering this option as a way of reducing car use, but it must be remembered that the Netherlands is roughly the size of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and, unlike Canada, has an extensive and highly developed public rail and transportation network. This means that commuting from rural to urban areas or vice versa is far less of a problem than it would be in a Canadian city. If this kilometre tax were to be implemented in a city like Toronto for example, those living in rural areas and being forced to commute into the city would often have no choice other than to drive, there being no alternatives available. At the same time, it has not yet been talked about what occurs when an in-car GPS system breaks down. And what happens when the noise, bias or blunder errors from GPS are so bad that individuals are being charged fines that do not correspond to the number of kilometres they drove? Lastly, GPS satellites are owned by the U.S. military. Without an agreement or contract, the Dutch government cannot be sure that this service will be available to them forever and at all periods of time. Despite these possible problems, it is good to see that governments are finally taking serious action to decrease the use of motor-vehicles, even if this means accepting a little help from Big Brother.

Thanks, MV, Intro GIS

Redistricting, Gerrymandering, and the role of GIS

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

The periodic redrawing of electoral district boundaries through the process of “redistricting” is necessary in a representational democracy with changing population distributions and compositions. In the redistricting process electoral districts are manipulated to achieve fair representation and competitiveness in elections. For example, redistricting can ensure that minority communities of interest receive fair representation through the creation of districts where these communities have a local majority. However redistricting can also be used maliciously, for example to generate electoral outcomes that favour one political party over another. The process of intentionally manipulating electoral district boundaries, through the creation of unusually shaped districts to produce desired electoral outcomes is known as “gerrymandering”. Historically gerrymandering has been difficult to prove; however, the widespread development of GIS in the 1990s fundamentally changed the redistricting process and generated hope of a solution to the problem of gerrymandering. It was initially thought that this technology would increase transparency, making gerrymandering easier to distinguish and prevent. While GIS has revolutionized the process of redistricting, producing many benefits, it has not yet provided a solution to gerrymandering. According to some, GIS has exacerbated the problem.

GIS enables those who are adept to manipulate, analyze, and cartographically display spatially-referenced population data with greater ease than ever before and has certainly made redistricting far less labour intensive. This has made the process of redistricting more open to citizens and various interest groups. The ability to display and represent vast amounts of information has made the identification and location of communities of interest infinitely easier. GIS has also been effectively used to monitor and enforce voting laws. For example in the United States the Department of Justice has used GIS to enforce the Voting Rights Act, helping to democratize political participation. However some argue that it is the political parties who have benefited most from GIS technology. Through GIS, political parties have gained the ability to generate and compare thousands of gerrymanders very quickly, while the use of analytical GIS techniques allows parties to predict electoral outcomes with increasing precision. The end result being that political parties are now able to produce increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders.

GIS has not increased our ability to identify precisely what a gerrymander is and when one occurs. This is largely due to the fact that the definition of gerrymandering remains ambiguous. GIS may be able to analyze spatially-referenced data, helping us to identify and locate communities of interest; however it cannot tell us how to make socially acceptable redistricting decisions regarding the community. Ultimately the decision as to whether a community should be concentrated in a single electoral district or dispersed through many districts, and what constitutes an unusually shaped district, is a value-based judgment made by people. Therefore, although GIS has undoubtedly transformed the process of redistricting and facilitated desirable analyzes, it has not provided a solution to the subjective process of defining and identifying gerrymandering.

Eagles, M., Katz, R.S., Mark, D. 2000. “Controversies in political redistricting: GIS, geography, and society”. Political Geography. 19 2, pp. 135-139

Forest, B. 2005. The changing demographic, legal, and technological contexts of political representation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America.

From CE, Intro to GIS

assessing sea level rise using geographic information systems

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Increased attention is given to environmental issues at the meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere due to anthropologenic activities, more and more solar radiation gets trapped inside Earth’s atmosphere, increasing the average temperature. This had a direct impact on continental glaciers as well as alpine glaciers, causing them to melt and flow into the oceans. A large part of Earth’s freshwater (about 70%) is stored in glaciers, which is why their melting has the potential to increase sea levels of several meters. This rise can cause many problems for people living on islands or in coastal regions. As water rises, part of land will be completely submerged and others will get severely eroded due to the increase in wave energy and increased storm magnitudes. Expensive operations like community relocation or community protection will have to be put in place in order to avoid human losses. To be able to assess the need for action, several methods have been developed, using GIS.

Scientists at the University of Kansas have developed a technique for analysing the internal structure of glacial ice, which will then help them assess the status of the glacier. When more ice melts from the glacier than is accumulated due to precipitation, the glacier shrinks. This is the current state of most of he world’s glaciers. Although they have rates of decrease that seem insignificant at a human time scale, these rates are very fast when analysed at a geological time scale. By looking at glacial profiles using radar, not ice cores, the analysis becomes less time-consuming and data easier to gather although the costs may be higher.

In Australia, GIS is incorporated in a climate model to allow for the fast first analysis of impacts of sea level rise at the scale of a beach. This method is cost-effective as it does not involve expensive aerial photography on a range of years. It allows a management committee to have an overview of the upcoming situation without spending large amounts of money that could be better invested in damage control.

For the general public, a Google Maps application has been developed to visualize sea level rise. Users can choose three values of sea level rise, each of which corresponds to a colour. When the user runs the app, a series of coloured dots appear on the landmasses displayed on Google Maps. The use of this app requires no computing skills and is very fast. It is perfect for educational purposes or for aspiring environmentalists, although it is insufficiently accurate to use for spatial analysis that would eventually lead to decision making.

thanks to CA, Intro to GIS, for the post.

livestock in Kenya aided by remote sensing and cellphones

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Imagine being a livestock herder, subsisting in a small community south of Nairobi in Kenya. Drought is a cyclical phenomenon in your grassland environment, and whenever it hits, you might come across a zebra carcass, or weep at the loss of one of your own cattle. One of the largest repercussions begins the moment drought becomes pervasive; everyone starts trying to sell animals before they die, and the price for livestock plummets. This is potentially the original meaning of the “stock” market, and the large investment you made in your animals over time is now nearly worthless. Frustrated, you wish you had sold your animals earlier, just before the drought when the price was normal.

The technology of remote sensing actually has large repercussions for communities such as yours, because of its capacity to observe large-scale trends and extrapolate into the future. Data collected by satellite avoids the high cost of groundwork in such large areas, and can provide global climate information that is not otherwise evident to people on the ground. Many researchers have extolled the virtues of remote-sensing operations for predicting drought and enabling mitigation strategies by those who would otherwise be adversely affected, and advocate for local policy-makers to institute this technology.

Hearing this, as a member of the local community, you might wonder how you will receive such information. You are aware that your tribe has extensive methods for predicting droughts, but feel open to the idea of reinforcing your predictions based on remote sensing data. However, you are not regularly in touch with the Internet. The families of your tribe are located at great distances throughout the landscape so it is difficult to approach everyone at once. Here, again, geospatial communications technologies can serve their own purposes! All the adults you know have a cell phone (even if they don’t read), and everyone can be connected to a larger network of information dissemination almost instantly. This type of alert has been proposed for fires in South Africa, and could revolutionize your access to drought early-warning systems. If everyone who was interested was able to register their phone number at the outset, information could be transmitted easily and quickly around the area, in a fashion timely enough for people to hedge their bets on when to sell their animals and prepare for a coming drought. Indeed, a relatively easy-to-use cell phone alert platform has been developed for crisis situations in developing countries. It is thought-provoking to anticipate that the food insecurity pervasive in the current Kenyan drought could be potentially mitigated.

Thanks to EC, Intro to GIS, for the post

microbe diversity

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

GIS has been an integral part of epidemiological research for more than a decade and its roles in this particular field of research have been diverse: the mapping of disease incidence and prevalence, modeling of patterns of spread, correlation of morbidity and mortality to specific geographical, climatic or political zones. It has often also been used in projection modeling – for example to attempt to estimate the changes in disease vector range in response to climate change. McGill’s own Dr. Lea Berrang Ford’s work is a prime example of the modern applications of GIS in public health science.

Another field where GIS has penetrated quite rapidly was that of biodiversity and conservation. Neither of these disciplinary partnerships are particularly surprising, considering the strong spatial component of both areas of research.
Never the less, it is always possible to count on GIS to surprise us with its potential to drastically change the direction of a long-lived scientific debate, methodology or paradigm. As I [MP] was browsing through New Scientist during one of those procrastination moments typical of undergraduate midterm period, I stumbled upon an article that did just that. It was about microbial diversity. Whenever was microbial diversity a subject for debate? Oh, only since the very beginnings of evolutionary science. The problem is an interesting one: considering the thousands of species that can be found in a mere 30g of soil (usually, this is defined by bacteria that differ in more than 30% of their genome), the diversity of microbial life on earth must be staggering. It is also incalculable – one cannot sample all bacteria found in soil. At best, we can only extrapolate. When biologists do, they tend to place their estimates of bacterial diversity to about 1011 species worldwide. That’s 1011 different types of organisms, fulfilling myriads of different functional roles, living in myriads of different environments. How do we study their response to human processes like agriculture, or their response to phenomena like climate change? How do we integrate them in disease spread models? How do we know when a keystone organism has gone extinct?

David Wilkinson attempted to answer (more…)

Technology as Accomplice: The use of GIS in criminal activity

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Last month, GIS and satellite imagery made international news when it was shown that a group of teenaged burglars who are being called the “Bling Ring” used voyeuristic websites dedicated to celebrities as a tool to take jewelry from stars’ homes. These burglars monitored victims through gossip sites like TMZ and studied their houses from satellite imagery available online.

One site used by the burglars that has come under great scrutiny was Torontonian David Ruppel’s The site offers “unprecedented access to the sort of lifestyle your favorite celebrity can afford” as well as satellite images of these homes and information on their layout.

While various applications of GIS have been used in crime prevention—by police mapping out better routes based on the frequency of crime during certain times of day or year, or by citizens reporting crimes via Google Earth pushpins—the use of this same technology by criminals is a legitimate concern.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, David Ruppel defended his use of satellite imagery for profit as simply a modern version of a “star map.” He professes no guilt about providing critical information to the Bling Ring, nor about using technology to surveil the lives of stars.

When people debate whether or not certain uses for GIS constitute an invasion of privacy, it is often in a theoretical sense. Arguments made reference “Big Brother” and often hinge on slippery slope fallacies. In a recent L.A. Times editorial on the burglaries, the columnist claims that “it’s not long before a satellite is capable of zooming in on a nude sunbather inside his or her own fenced backyard.” While that comes off as a bit absurd, these burglaries are a concrete, demonstrable situation in which the use of satellite imagery had a negative impact on the lives of individuals.

In weighing the benefits of public access to GIS technologies against harm caused by crimes like these, there are a few key questions: By making surveillance of victims easier, does GIS technology—like satellite imagery or Google’s new Latitude application that tracks your real-time location—encourage crime? Would these crimes still have transpired? Did GIS give the criminals advantages they wouldn’t have had otherwise?

From AF, Intro GIS

Let’s Celebrate Geography!

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The wait is over, it is National Geography Week once again in North America. Local schools across the continent are taking part in the celebration, having students complete Geography related assignments and activities all week. Teachers are raising awareness of geography and connecting students with the world in new way, once never thought possible. “Geography Week: Mapping Europe”, a new toolkit, available for free on their website. Students in Collinwood TN are taking advantage of the program, spending the entire week making giant political maps of Europe, studying the specific cultures. Students even made food place mats of famous European Landmarks, and postcards for the various countries.

Cedar wood School in Louisiana is also taking part in the festivities. The “Pege Cogswell Memorial Map-a-thon” is well underway, where students learn world maps for a worthy cause. The students have collected over $500 for student in Afghanistan who are in need of basic school supplies. Students collected monetary pledges per each country a student correctly identified, although, a lump sum pledge is of course, always accepted. The children are rising to the challenge. Student, Muhammad Alwan, exclaims, “I learned all the flags, all the shapes of the countries and then all the cities and landmarks. I don’t call myself really competitive, but if there’s a competition, and I am in it, I will strive to be Number 1!”

This year’s theme for Geography Week is “Get Lost in Mapping: Find your place in the world.”

Just a Cool Video

From BW, Intro GIS

Software helps traditional tracking practices move into the future!

Friday, December 12th, 2008

Thanks, WR, Intro to GIS

Cyber Tracker is downloadable software that can be used on a smart phone or any handheld computer device to record a variety of observations, everything from infected gorillas in the Congo to alleged criminals in the Table Mountain National Park in South Africa. The Cyber Tracker was created by the South African non-profit group, Cyber Tracker Conservation. The software was originally developed to aid semi-literate to illiterate traditional animal trackers in southern Africa. It allows conservationists to record their observations in the field on handheld computers linked to global positioning system, or GPS. The program’s visual components allow non-experts to accurately map any animal’s movements and display using icons and/or text. The software also includes a simple interface for viewing data in tables and charts.

Originally developed in 1996 by CyberTracker Conservation founder Louis Liebenberg and computer scientist Lindsay Steventon, the software continues to improve and is currently running its third edition. The idea for CyberTracker was born while Liebenberg was hunting with the indigenous Bushmen tracker in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. Liebenberg has been fascinated with tracking since childhood and hopes the CyberTracker will be able to retain much of this traditional knowledge that often times cannot be stored on other, more text based, tracking systems.

It has been used in tracking the spatial distribution of disease for gorillas in the Congo, to plot the migratory patterns of birds in the Kalahari, and is currently being developed for more extensive conservation use in the United States.

For further information, see the article in Wired.

“The Biggest Drawing in The World”

Friday, December 12th, 2008

Thanks, MM, Intro to GIS

Artists love to innovate and create new mediums with new technology. GPS has provided another opportunity. GPS has enabled artists to discover a new canvas, the Earth. The technology has inspired artists to create the catch phrase: “The GPS is my brush and the world is my canvas.” One individual, Erik Nordenankar, determined to create the largest drawing in the world for his graduation project, in Advertising and Graphic Design at Beckmans College of Design. The artist created a GPS unit, which he placed inside a durable case. He then plotted an extremely detailed navigational course that would trace the picture with connected GPS points, taken at periodic intervals. Erik arranged to have his GPS case shipped around the world by DHL on a detailed journey that would take 55 days.

The resulting image would be comprised of one giant line that was 110 664km long and pass through 6 continents and 62 countries. The canvas would be 40,076,592M by 4,009,153M to produce the largest drawing the world has ever seen. The drawing would be of Erik’s face. This new form of art is known as “Positional Art” and proposed an interesting idea: the globalization of art.

Unfortunately (and unbeknown to many people) Erik’s GPS unit was never shipped around the world because the fees needed to ship his package exceeded his $3,370 USD budget. In addition there were, um, several flaws in his process. Perhaps the most major flaw would be the case he constructed to transmit the GPS signal. The GPS device would be protected in a heavy-duty case, but the problem was that it would block the GPS signal and render the equipment useless if the case was closed (which was for the duration of the journey). As Erik suggests, there is more that the artist needs to learn in to technologically participate in the new artistic field of GPS.

Many considered this project a failure and a hoax because the drawing was never completed. Erik addresses this issue with a disclaimer that his project is fictional. People fail to realize that Erik was not necessarily trying to make the biggest drawing in the world but to create an advertisement. After all, Erik’s project was for his degree in advertising and graphic design. Also DHL has seen a huge increase in press as a result of this project, which makes Erik’s work a big success. In this respect critics should open up their minds to great idea, whether it be acted on or not.

To see images of the drawing, the case Erik constructed to hold the GPS unit, and the detailed navigation instructions, visit Erik’s website. Erik also created a YouTube video on the making of the drawing: