Archive for December, 2005

Google Earth, part 2

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Good article in the NYTimes on how Google Earth is worrying some governments (including the US) because of what the remoted sensed images–satellite images and aerial photographs–reveal. Governments such as South Korea and India have petitioned Google to remove images of sensitive features. Military bases spring to mind but, for India, features even include bridges. The conclusion of the article? Governments may be concerned; however, the “cat is out of the bag”. Now that the images are in Google products–indeed, now that the images have been shot–they can’t be kept from widespread distribution.

The article mentions potential applications of Google Earth for emergency services such as firefighters. I can’t wait to see applications for environmentalists. Depending on how easily the keyhole software (the basis for Google Earth) can be interfaced, all sorts of filtering algorithms could be applied to, for example, check patterns of land use or deforestation.

Here’s a previous post on Google Earth.

I was asked recently whether online mapping technologies such as scalable vector graphics could rival Google Earth in becoming the next killer app. Saying that SVG is competition is missing the point. What Google Earth (and, more recently, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth) does is marry mapping functionality with data. Without the data, users will always have to scramble to find the information they need. Irrespective of added functionality–SVG and online GIS have far greater mapping functionality–these other technologies will be displaced by Google Earth and Google Maps. Google mapping products may become ubiquitous to the extent that they may become the de facto interfaces to other GIS software packages.

investigative journalism

Monday, December 19th, 2005

The term ‘investigative journalism’ shouldn’t leave the onus on the journalist… here, you, the reader, can now spend 2 exciting hours reading this fire-fight over “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and its treatment of global warming, overpopulation, energy, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, et al., starring Prof. Lomberg himself and 4 high-profile Scientists.

Be sure to click all of the links in sequence.
Skepticism toward The Skeptical Environmentalist

‘It can be written’

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

There is an old Yiddish saying that goes, ‘It can be written’. What can be written? Anything. When it comes to blogs, that is the law of the land. Anybody can write a diatribe on anything, feel proud and righteous, and call it a latte. Presented here are two sides of the story, with apologies to Dave Eggers (‘How We are Hungry’ short stories) and NYTimes’ John Horgan (a one-sided rant on the true Republican screwing with science).

On the one side, from powerful youth groups (read: naïve groups), we get this sort of stream-of-nothingness: boasts for Kyoto’s longevity (a self-defeating compromise on the alter of feel-good cooperation), backing for Socolow’s carbon ‘stability wedges’ (which are grossly underestimated, according to a deluge of literature on energy and climate issues), and happy rants against the US for its unwillingness to bleed a bit of economy to back-track under the UNFCCC. A friend of mine branded this as “streetpunk neo-anarchist alt-self-realized-educated politics.” This, from an environmentalist worried perhaps a bit too much with his leanings for liberal elitism.

In a glance, all you need to read right here.

Then, a splash of cold water to the face from another blog, from a well-educated, clear and concise writer.

Un-doing the Spin on Environmental Spin-Doctoring. Really, it helps. This stuff is stronger than Brazillian coffee.

I really tire of going into the hard facts about renewables, socio-economic reform with conserving and switching energy sources, and elimination of already-present energy sources, so, in better words already written, a primer on some hard-to-swallow wake-ups.
Sp!ked, from the UK.

Global Warming Bingo

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

From the dregs of slashdot comments comes a link to Global Warming Sceptic Bingo. I can’t recommend watching the video clip suggested to play it to, it’s not terribly interesting, however you can probably play a pretty effective game any time the topic comes up on television or shows up in a discussion forum. The links it has to refute each of the points are generally pretty good, many go to the relevant posts on the RealClimate blog.

Wired reefs

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

The Australian government is looking to computing technology to curtail water-borne pollution, which is destroying the Great Barrier Reef. The government intends to wire the reef network with a network of sensors that will relay information on water quality. Wiring will start with the Davies Reef and will build on the weather station already at the reef. Reef-based sensors will initially measure salinity, humidity and light. Rivers that open onto the reefs will contain sensors that will measure non-point source pollutants such as fertilizers.

Wiring the reefs is not easy:

Creating a wireless sensor network is challenging. An added difficulty in this project is the deployment of sensors in a marine environment: saltwater is corrosive and tropical waters encourage the growth of biological life on surfaces.

Data from the sensors will be used as inputs to computer models to project impacts on the corals, fish and overall reef quality.

For other instances of wired habitats, see the post on wired woods.

Friday night cat blogging

Friday, December 16th, 2005

Couldn’t resist this “flying fox”.

USGS Water Watch

Friday, December 16th, 2005

Thanks to Miki in the Intro GIS course, who chose this application because it connects geology to GIS (and may help her find a job!).

An GIS called online United States Geological Survey (USGS)Water Watch displays real time stream flow and compares it with historical stream flow for the day of the year the site is being observed. As a geology student, job options are in the resource companies, research facilities or environmental consulting companies. Jobs also are available in federal agencies, which is why I chose to show a GIS application from the USGS.

The initial spatial layer shows the United States stream flows for that day, and gives the user the option to zoom in to specific states. By clicking on a state, you can view the stream flow for that state at much closer inspection. Then you can move your cursor over a specific site and see attribute data about drainage area, discharge, gage height, percentile and class symbol. Click on specific sites and you can see all available parameters for the site, specify the number of days you want to see, and choose to graph the data or see it in a table.

Water Watch helps the user understand how the stream flow on that day compares with the average from the past 30 years. If there was a huge flood, one could view the map and see how much higher the water is on that day than it usually is. So for the situation in New Orleans, one could view how the water levels compare with water levels from the exact same time of year (same day) in the past. I found the posted information to be informative and self-explanatory.

The site also contains some poignant messages that imply the high cost of maintaining the data collection:

Due to the loss of funding from the Atlantic Salmon Commission, the streamflow data for Pleasant River at Crebo Flats, 01022220, is no longer available. If the streamflow data is important to you, and you would like to become a partner in funding the collection of this important data, contact Gregory Stewart at (207) 622-8201 x 118, or email gstewart @

Drought monitoring

Friday, December 16th, 2005

One more post from a student in the Intro to GIS course.

Climatologist Dr. Steven Quiring has developed an interactive, web-based research tool to help farmers predict when to plant and when to fertilize. The name of his project is “Developing a Real-Time Agricultural Drought Monitoring System for Delaware Using a Geospatial Framework”. It uses information collected from databases and from nine environmental observation stations across the U.S. State of Delaware to show rainfall and model soil moisture content in a GIS. Eventually, Quiring wants the program to allow users to simply click on a spot on a map and get crop yield predictions for an area as small as 2.5 square miles. Quiring said:

The purpose is to allow the farmer to make decisions based on current soil moisture conditions and how they will impact yield and to use that information to make decisions like should I fertilize, should I irrigate. If they have better information, they can make better decisions, which will put more money in their pockets.

Quiring hopes to post a public interactive monitoring web site very soon, which he believes will have commercial applications as the site tracks reservoir levels, likely mosquito-breeding sites and additional agricultural data. Sounds like a pretty great project to me!

More information on Quiring’s work can be found here.

Microsoft’s entry into online mapping

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Here is Microsoft’s entry into online GIS/remote sensing for the masses: Virtual Earth. Some of the images are much clearer than Google’s, although Google Earth is supposed to have far greater coverage. Who knew that online mapping/digital gazetteers would become the killer app?

Now let’s see Microsoft release an api.

Cyberactivism in animation

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Check this out for cyberactivism: a short film on the French riots.

GIS, maps, and borders

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Thanks to a student in the introduction to GIS course.

Maps have been used throughout history to illustrate and dispute political borders. Maps first were used for navigation purposes and, among other regions, helped explorers chart the New World. As charting was inextricable from claiming ownership, European powers began using maps to chart borders. Each country produced its own maps, and the maps often purposely drew borders to benefit the mapmaker’s home country. The first such map to employ this technique was produced in 1656 by the French. Since much of the interior of North America was unexplored at this time, liberties were often taken with cartographical features. In the particular map Le Canada ou Nouvelle France, the cartographer places Lake Erie very near the border of Florida, at that time a Spanish possession. This placement maximizes the amount of French territory by squishing the English colonies right up to the coastline. Does this represent an unintentional distortion because of minimal knowledge of a region or a deliberate distortion to maximize ownership? Sometimes it may be hard to tell.

Like other economic powers of the time, the French continued to use this technique of selective border placement. A map published in 1718, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi, claimed the Carolinas for France, in addition to placing Lake Champlain entirely within French territory. This map also minimizes the amount of territory shown as being controlled by the English, by squishing the colonies against the coast. After years of map-making by the French, the English fought back cartographically by publishing their own map. Their 1755 map of North America showed the borders of the British colonies extended over the Mississippi River. Maps like these continued to be published until the world became accurately charted to minimize scale distortions. Border disputes are another matter entirely and not a matter of navigational skill and cartography but of politics.

On the other side of the world, China and India have had a long running dispute over the province of Arunachal Pradesh, located in North-East India. The territory was ceded to India by Tibet while Tibet was an independent nation. China, however, never recognized the independence of Tibet, and thus claims that Tibet did not have the right to cede the area to India. Although the territory is presently controlled by the Indians, maps published in China extend China’s political boundaries to include the territory, without mentioning there is a territorial dispute. In addition, the Chinese maps also show the Paracel and Spratly islands as being entirely under Chinese control, ignoring the fact that they are claimed by no fewer that eight different countries!

The advent of GIS, remote sensing, and Global Positioning Systems presumably should put an end to border disputes. These tools are sold largely on the basis of their ability to accurately depict where locations (borders) are, characterize what’s going on at particular locations, and allow flexibility when users want to make changes. In theory, these tools should ensure that borders around the world are accurately delineated. Because GIS allows for extensive attribution of features, areas and regions could be characterized by their social, historical and ethnic makeup. Negotiators acting in good faith could create a GIS that determines whether peoples are closer culturally to the Chinese or to the Indians. Areas that are more Chinese could be awarded to the Chinese and vice-versa. A further application of GIS in this dispute could be to use remote sensed and raster images. Negotiators could analyze the topography of the region to decide what areas of the region could be better economically integrated as a part of India or as a part of China. Because the area is quite mountainous, such an analysis could indicate the feasibility of transportation links that could facilitate economic development. Most importantly GIS offers more flexibility than a map in terms of changes. Each side could view changes visually to see how it would affect them; if changes need to be made then they could be made quickly. In the past this was not possible and each time border negotiations occurred, paper maps had to be produced, thus dragging out the process. From all of this, spatial technologies should help avoid border disputes, and when they do occur, also should aid in solving them.

[Of course, borders disputes aren’t solved with new technologies. Borders aren’t rivers or mountains but political, social and historical creations. Greater accuracy and precision don’t make for smoother negotiations but may actually work in the converse: to give greater technological ammunition to each side that his/her case has the stronger argument and is therefore, right. This is one more example of the need to temper technology with political context.—sieber]


International Map of Tibet
Chinese Map of Tibet
Look closely in the south-eastern portions of the map. In the Chinese map, Arunachal Pradesh is part of China. A closer examination reveals that that there are no roads or towns in the region. On the Western map, the disputed area is clearly indicated.

Le Canada ou Nouvelle France
Note the positioning of Lake Erie and the border of Florida.

Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi
The text below ‘Carolina’ clearly indicates that it is French territory, although in reality they had no claim to it.

This article discusses how GIS helps solve border disputes.

Telephone Protests

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

On December 3rd thousands of people rallied in support of a strong united stance against increasing emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At the end of the march in Montreal those with cell phones were asked to dial a phone number and leave a message on the phones of decision makers. This is not virtual activism in the sense of using the Internet to transfer information but it does use new technology previously unavailable. Is this more effective then emailing? Is it just another tool added to physical protest? Which technologies are having the greatest effect in the environmental movement?

GIS and Hate

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

Just came across a very interesting application of GIS: tracking the spatial distribution of hate. This is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that was created in 1971 to follow, report on, and litigate against hate groups in the U.S. The site, a part of SPL’s Intelligence Project, shows the point distribution of Neo Nazis, racist skin heads, White Supremicists, Ku Klux Klan, as well as Black Separatists. It also shows the cartographic power in choosing appropriate symbology. Like the disaster wiki, this application demonstrates the benefits of GIS.


Thursday, December 8th, 2005

No, not intelligent design. Instead it’s incompetent design. Read a great conversation with Don Wise, professor emeritus of geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

He points out that one of the significant examples of incompetent design is our own skeleton.

No self-respecting engineering student would make the kinds of dumb mistakes that are built into us.

All of our pelvises slope forward for convenient knuckle-dragging, like all the other great apes. And the only reason you stand erect is because of this incredible sharp bend at the base of your spine, which is either evolution’s way of modifying something or else it’s just a design that would flunk a first-year engineering student.

GIS and the Art of War

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

The hypothesis of MO in the Intro GIS course:

Since we talked in class about GIS as a tool for war, I thought that it would be good to find an application about one of the most controversial wars, the war in Afghanistan. This war implicated the U.S. alone. We know that the Pentagon bought the commercial rights of the images of Afghanistan that can be distributed since 9/11, so we might think of a reason for that: maybe stopping the terrorism is not their ultimate goal. Maybe they target a more ‘in-depth’ objective.

This article explains the technologies, such as maps, sensors and aircrafts, used to cover the country of Afghanistan. The introduction is particularly interesting since I pose a hypothesis of hidden truth as a motive for the U.S. to engage in a war in Afghanistan. The primary source of images for the US to map the Afghanistan are optical satellites, such as the French SPOT, the Indian IRS, the European ERS-2 and the Canadian Radarsat. The advantage of these last two is that they can operate under all weather conditions, as well as during the day or night. Two of the Lacrosse satellites that belong to the U.S. were operational before September 11, 2001. One of these satellite has a resolution of 1 to 2 meters per pixel. Some satellites are comparable to the Hubble telescope in terms of targeting specific points at a very high resolution. This might be considered ‘defective’ because the satellites can observe an area for only 10 to 15 minutes a day. A solution to this problem is the use of aircraft, which can observe a specific area through clouds for a longer period of time. Furthermore, these aircraft, at any altitudes, cannot be reached by Taliban weapons. The most effective of these technologies is the U-2 aircraft, which operates with electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) imagers and can exchange data in real time with the ground stations.

In this selection from the National Geographic, there are examples of the type of maps the US created on Afghanistan. You can select different views among the cities and attacks, the satellite view, the northern alliance, Taliban and refugees, the ethnic groups and the drought and vegetation. It appears that the US authorities know everything about Afghanistan. With their high surveillance technology, they can observe whomever they want, whenever they want. They know the behaviour of people, they know where the supposed “terrorists” are, they know where the civilians are and they know what those people do each single day of their life. I presume they can even spy these people on their telephone lines. As we can see, the Afghan community is completely checked and watched. The US has the absolute power over them. This power is the ultimate goal of the war in Afghanistan because it is the key to give the US the freedom of their political and especially economical actions, without any restrictions, over this country.

GIS and the prevention of human trafficking

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

Thanks to MG from the Intro to GIS course.

UNESCO’s Regional Office for Culture in Asia and the Pacific is charged with preserving cultural heritage. UNESCO has completed quite a few interesting projects involving GIS as a tool to analyse the results and to manage the newly obtained information. One of the projects lead by UNESCO Bangkok is called GIS-Linked Social Sentinel Surveillance Project. People in the project have created several interactive maps predominantly with the purpose of establishing the patterns of trafficking routes, the trade in girls and women, the manifestation of AIDS, and the movements and migrations of people. In this mission, GIS makes intervention much more efficient because it enables various trends to be mapped and the information to be stored for future uses.

One example of the problems stated above is the human trafficking of women, which is the main cause for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Thailand. Thailand’s sex industry draws women and girls from China, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Mostly minority women are targeted for this trade due to their poor monetary situation and ignorance about their rights and the threat of trafficking. UNESCO, government organizations and non-governmental organizations have been gathering data to enable the development of specific objectives through GIS analysis of the data. For example, project members could build an educational plan in a particular region of Thailand if it is what’s needed there. Intervention groups could make linkages between the different maps and aim for a solution that really targets the sex industry and its components. Furthermore, intervention groups and the government could produce maps to continually monitor and thus dismantle networks of girl trafficking.

The UNESCO Bangkok website hosts a GIS Map Collection on issues such as sex data, migration, economics, and highland people. Here is an example animated choropleth map showing the dramatic increases in HIV/AIDS 1989 and 2003.

Getting ready for the IPY: International Polar Year (2007)

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

Climate change has shown to greatly affect Polar Regions. However, more research is needed to fully understand how these ecosystems work. There have been several attempts to unite scientists from all over the world to better contribute to the knowledge of the Polar Regions. The last initiative was the International Geophysical year in 1957-58. The IPY in 2007-08 will attempt to narrow the gap between generations of scientists as well as increase public awareness on the vulnerability of the Polar Regions.

The University of Alberta is currently working on a website concerning projects that have been done so far in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. This website provides a useful geographical database and map server by locating the different projects and showing the ranges they cover. In this way, people can see what has been done. Researchers can not only see their own projects but also find useful contacts to work in projects of their interest.

Creators of the website are working on representing not only Canadian lead projects, but also international IPY initiative. Therefore, this website acts also as a promotion tool for the IPY Canadian Secretariat and the International Program Office (IPY IPO).

Both the Arctic and the Antarctic projects are represented on the interactive map server. ArcView 3.2 is used to create the shapefiles of each project. Arcmap 9 is then used to transfer the shapefiles into the maps shown in the website. Finally, ArcIMS is used as a server transition to create the website.

Hat tip to a O. in the Intro GIS course.

the winners

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

Rolling Stone (bless your heart) recently tossed a bunch of names into a list of 25 movers and shakers. Scrolling through, you’d be surprised (or not?) to see J. Lash of WRI, Sen. McCain and Sen. Lieberman, Amory Lovins, and many more.

See the list here

GIS and archaeology

Monday, December 5th, 2005

Archaeology provides us with a historical timeline of human life and development that dates back over one hundred thousands years. The discipline is a means by which we can track changes in various aspects of human culture, making it a two-dimensional field of study, comprised of both a spatial and a temporal aspect. There has been increasing interest in integrating GIS, remote sensing and GPS into archaeology. These tools can be used for large-scale research and data processing, acting as a means to combine results of different archaeological studies into an integrated database.

One such way GIS is applicable to archaeology is in something called “aerial archaeology”. Aerial archaeology encompasses satellite imagery, whether it be from SPOT or GPS satellites, color aerial photography or high-resolution height data, that are then used to generate digital terrain models (DTM) of archaeological sites and monuments. With DTMs, GIS provides a form of landscape management through an easily accessible computer database, which allows for analytical purposes.

The initial stage of aerial archaeology involves digitizing. A scanner digitizes the surface of an artifact or monument in the form of x, y, and z co-ordinates. A connectivity list describes the relationship of the points to each other. Through computer aided design (CAD), the DTM of the archaeological site or object is created. After RE (reverse engineering), which is the process of acquiring point data from the surface of the artifact, the point co-ordinate data is then converted into a physical prototype using an RP (rapid prototyping) technique. The final digital 3-dimensional replication of the object or monument can then be accessed, altered, or analyzed with ease by archaeologists. Here’s an example of modelling artwork and archaeological forms.

This is one example of how GIS can be used as an interactive tool for modeling and analyzing archaeological information. Who knows, maybe in the future this will replace traditional archaeological methods.

Thanks to MP for the post.

For another instance of GIS and the social sciences and humanties, see the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, a spatially catalogued digital library of cultural and historical resources.

GIS and the tracking of AIDS

Monday, December 5th, 2005

As we have just observed World AIDS Day, it’s a good time to examine the application of GIS to this global epidemic.

The BBC has an in depth feature that shows the progression of HIV/AIDS in the world. It really helps demonstrate the most affected areas and the progression throughout the years, especially in Africa. I think it is a cool application of GIS because the maps help you see just how big the spread of the virus is. I personally did not know until I saw this, that HIV was a major problem in Russia. I find the BBC uses GIS alot, they have another section helping visualizing the spread of the avian flu.

A specific instance of the BBC’s use of GIS in tracking AIDS is the best case scenario for 2010. The Best case scenario in 2010 is based on a study that estimated the possible effects that preventative action could have on the spread of HIV/AIDS. It contrasts predicted infections with figures from 2002. Even though the disease is still predicted to expand greatly, the estimated 29 million people that could be spared from infection is demonstrated by the grey persons. The areas that would benefit the greatest from these preventative measures are Sub- Saharan Africa and South and South East Asia. The use of a person icon as a symbol–each person represents about 1 million people–helps the viewer see just where the disease is more prevalent. Moreover, after looking at all the maps, one can obtain a full understanding of the future of HIV/AIDS virus. We are so often bombarded with facts about HIV/AIDS, this application brings greater meaning and understanding to all the statistics and predictions about its spread.

The use of GIS when dealing with these topics, I find, helps people see the global ramifications and understand such widely discussed topics better.

Thanks to a student in the Intro GIS course for the post.