Archive for December, 2007

are you naughty or nice? Santa uses his geodatabase to find out

Monday, December 24th, 2007

(h/t M. L.)

After delivering countless presents and tidings of joy to the people of the world, Santa Claus is finally taking his operations into the twenty-first century. Data was painstakingly collected by magical GPS technicians, statisticians and advertising companies, and all the Christmas elves have been trained to use state-of-the-art GIS software to improve the efficiency of Santa’s Christmas Eve global journey.

The elves created numerous layers of data, both raster and vector, that will provide Santa and his reindeer with vital information. A vector layer of lines joining cities around the world allows the elves to do shortest path analysis to ensure the trip is completed well before sunrise. Another vector layer consists of points representing every house in the world; symbology is used to differentiate houses with chimneys from those that will require a little more Christmas magic to infiltrate. Also within this layer is data on the location of naughty and nice children, which permitted Santa’s apprentices to make selections and create a new layer consisting only of the houses where nice children live. Raster layers were also created, namely one representing population densities within cities worldwide. The reindeer must know the location of suitable landing areas, and by creating buffer zones around these areas, Santa knows how many houses he can visit without using his sleigh. Finally, another raster layer representing the distribution of Christmas cheer will serve as an indicator of his success in bringing happiness to the people of the world.

Although this information will speed up the Christmas Eve rush, the ridiculous amount of received gift lists was also taken into account. Santa paired up with Google to determine the interests and wants of each person in the world, young and old. The elves simply scrape relevant search subjects and relate it to the attribute table containing house points. Hence, there is no longer a need to check each list twice, which will greatly increase productivity in the workshop.

Evidently, governments are scrambling to get ahold of Santa’s new geodatabase. However, the GIS technology at the elves’ disposal is far too advanced for non-magically assisted computers. Besides, jolly old Saint Nick is keeping his data as elusive as his formula for Christmas spirit.

For a “real world” implementation geospatial technologies for Santa, NORAD created a system to track Santa Claus along his Christmas Eve journey. They use satellites, radars, fighter jets and Santa Cams to collect data for visualization on the Google Earth platform.

Forty seven radars positioned along the northern border of North America closely detect Santa’s sleigh taking off from the workshop. Then, geo-synchronous satellites, that is satellites that remain in the same spot over Earth, detect heat generated from Rudolph’s nose as the sleigh travels all over the world. Throughout the night of Christmas Eve, information on Santa’s whereabouts is loaded onto Google Earth and updated frequently. Numerous cameras used only on Christmas Eve photograph Santa and his reindeer. As the sleigh approaches North America, Norad fighter jets take off from Newfoundland to escort it in safely.

Another clever system for tracking Santa is SantaGPS, but unlike NORAD Tracks Santa, users must pay for the full version. According to feedback entries, the interface is quite easy to use and is easily understandable by children. The system has features like World Map Tracking View, Satellite Tracking View and other novelties like Santa Sounds and Christmas music.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find blogs by other people who viewed GIS as an asset for Santa himself.

tracking is ubiquitous

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, R. P.)

The Washington Post’s article regarding the tracking power of cell phones would have been a much more interesting read several years ago. The reality is however, that in 2007, an article about tracking powers with mobile phones is nothing new. Don’t get me wrong, the technology that can facilitate the solving of even the most complicated crimes is remarkable. But again, can anyone really be surprised given how incredibly dependent modern society has become on technological devices such as cell phones, Ipods, and high-speed computers with ArcGIS 9.2?

The technology that allows us to do nearly anything we want with a pocket-sized gadget is obviously interesting, but what’s of greater concern here (which the article does touch on) is the issue of privacy! Is it okay to listen in on people’s conversations to help solve a crime? Is it possible to “permit surreptitious conversion of a cell phone into a tracking device” without finding out more information than one ethically should? According to the same article, Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesperson insists that

Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens. None whatsoever.

Some may disagree. Check out Google maps (particularly the satellite images or “street-view” options in major cities). I think almost anyone will agree that it’s fascinating how you can zoom in enough to the extent at which you can see your own house on the Internet. But is it okay that everybody in the known universe with a functioning computer can do so as well? In one controversial case, the street-view option of Google Maps allowed users to see a certain location in such detail, that the a resident of the area in question could see her cat “sitting on a perch in the living room window of her second-floor apartment.”

There have certainly been similar cases regarding privacy with satellite images and tracking information. Following September 11th, 2001, it appears that any authority figure will prosecute suspicious people regarding crimes (ranging the entire spectrum of crime severity). In her book, Silencing Political Dissent Nancy Chang confirms this movement towards “rapid disintegration of American civil liberties” as a result of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. In that regard, the technology has been welcomed in the same fashion that forensic science advancements have facilitated crime-solving (or so it appears on CSI Miami).

Another thing to remember is that most criminals are not stupid. As we become smarter in the development of tracking mechanisms, so too do criminals. No matter how good our crime-stopping technology gets, criminals will figure out how to beat the system.

We probably won’t know the consequences of this surveillance technology for a while, but when an Intro to GIS assignment involves choosing a suitable location for a new 5,000-inch flat-screen television in my room at home based on my room’s layout, we’ll know for sure.

animal tracks

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, S. M.)

Tracking animals and their migration patterns has always been immensely important in conservation work. These methods, all the more vital during an age of decreasing biodiversity, are diverse. The main way for tracking animals at the moment is to compile data from various sightings on where the animals have been. But there are problems in this approach. It’s hard to sight small creatures like birds. If an animal is observed, the everyday person cannot always be expected to correctly identify the species. Also, many people can report the same animal. These mis-sightings can skew data analysis.

The other method commonly in use is radio or satellite tracking. This involves a collar or implant being attached to the animal in question. The antenna sends a signal that is received by orbiting satellites, which is then analyzed. This method is much more reliable than the one mentioned above but it is much more expensive to initiate and maintain. Also, the animal to be tracked must be caught and tagged in the first place. In South Africa the Limpopo Wild Dog Project uses this technique to enhance conservation efforts.

A new method of tracking animals is coming into use that involves much more public participation. Many projects are requesting that people send them photos. In many cases scars or various markings can then be used to identify individual animals. Researchers at Save the Manatee use this method, among others. This method is useful because it gets the general public involved in conservation efforts and increases awareness. The one problem with this method was that the location of the animals was not always reported accurately. People failed to remember where they had taken the picture. But a new technology is entering the market that may make this much easier. GPS enabled cameras will allow people to know exactly when and where their pictures were taken. This could make things much easier for researchers and their conservation efforts (more info on GPS cameras.

GPS: savior or failure of the taxi industry?

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, A. O.)

We all know what GPS is. It is not the aim of this post to present the benefits of such a system but rather objectively consider the ramifications the use of GPS will play in the future of various industries. Consider the taxi industry. In recent times just the talk of making such implementation mandatory led to the city wide strike of thousands of cab drivers in New York City (NYC). Because of this – and for the fact that the image of a yellow taxi cab is synonymous with NYC – I will focus on the ongoing debate of GPS in the New York taxi industry.

In NYC there are 13,000 taxis currently in operation. If the GPS program was implemented, all cab owners will have to install a $5,000 system which includes a GPS tracking device, a credit card reader, and a touch-screen TV. The professed goal is increased user satisfaction and overall industry efficiency. (There are other objections are being made about the some of the devices, such as a 5 percent surcharge being removed on all credit card transactions), but I’m not considering these.)

GPS has become a mainstay in private automobiles. The ability to enter/utter a location and have directions returned to you is not only nifty, but also very useful and a great time saver. So why would taxi drivers object to having such a technology present in their cars? Well, the GPS system currently proposed is not the same as those we find in our cars today. It is actually just a tracking device that enables those in high places to see where all cars currently are, where they have been, and how long each fare was. As Bhaivari Desai – the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA) – points out: “[the GPS] is simply being used for tracking…They’re not navigational, cannot be used for dispatching, and serve no purpose to the driver or the public.” Bill Lundauer – also from the TWA – said: “It’s like we’re under surveillance. Not only are we under surveillance we have to pay for the dubious privilege.” So is New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) wrong to press for the installation of GPS in taxis?

Allan Fromberg (TLC) claims that GPS facilitates activities that drivers already and could assist passengers in finding lost items.

“Right now the first thing a taxi driver does is write something on a clip board. That information will now be electronically transferred [to the system],” …”GPS is used to facilitate an electronic trip sheet and to facilitate the return of lost property without the [passenger’s knowledge] of a medallion number. Of our 88,000 passengers [that lost something last year] the majority don’t know what cab they were in. With the vehicle location system we’ll be able to triangulate—take a snap shot in time—of several cars in the vicinity of a drop off,” to narrow down which car the passenger was riding in when the item was lost.

It all sounds good but couldn’t this be implemented within a ‘normal’ GPS system – one better aimed at the needs of the drivers? I think the technology exists to make this a worthwhile venture but once again apparent lack of foresight has led taxi officials to miss the mark with their current proposal. If tracking taxi drivers is their main goal then let’s just hope that – as proposed by Bhaivari Desai – this isn’t just a ploy to track the whereabouts of Muslim drivers.

Potential for GIS in E-waste

Friday, December 21st, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, B. W.)

Electronic waste, or E-waste, is an important emerging problem in the developing world as the rapid changes in electronic technologies have made it easy, affordable and preferable for the people of the Western world to keep buying the “renewable” and “better” electronics. This waste has resulted in a new industry, “E-waste recycling“. Illegal e-waste trades between “recyclers” and brokers have lead to the exporting of the Western World’s e-waste to developing countries such as Asia. causing serious environmental and health hazards in poor local communities, due to the hazardous nature of the components in electronics 4. In fact, 50-80 percent of the waste generated a year in the US finds itself in poor Asian communities, due to many loopholes in governmental policies that have been encouraging this harmful exporting industry.

The ITU has recently proposed a project to improve the living conditions for locals based on changing e-wastes streams, enhancing resource protection, reducing health risks, and improving their economic situation:

The project is producing a knowledge base on e-waste recycling in developing and transition countries published in the form of an e-waste guide as an interactive Website. Furthermore, the project is producing feasibility reports on improvements in sustainable e-waste recycling schemes in three pre-selected regions in order to select one region for detailed planning and implementation of an improved e-waste recycling system and to validate the guide and underpin it with concrete examples.

I believe that GIS holds great potential for this project. Non-profit organizations could assist locals from poor Asian communities that work in the e-waste “recycling” sector, to geolocate the major dumping areas and create attributes (e.g., soil contamination levels, water contamination levels, and harmful “recycling activities”). Various kinds of analyses could be conducted. For example, locations of sites could be compared to locations of sensitive facilities such as schools and hospitals, with the hopes that either the toxic sites or the sensitive facilities could be moved if one was too close to the other. The Basel Action Network (BAN) conducted an investigation in Guiyu, one of the large recycling centers in China, and discovered serious health and environmental problems in the region. BAN discovered similar problems in other recycling centers in Pakistan and India and suspects that many other sites exist but are kept secret. With GIS, this project could track and then reveal to the world the secret harm of this exportation to the developing world and potentially force governments to strengthen their rules on the export of E-waste.

tracking people

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, S. M.)

The world we live in today is constantly changing. With modernization, an increasing number of technologies are being developed and are being utilized in new ways. The development of technology has increased our ability as humans to understand more about the world in which we live. New geographic information systems (GIS) and geospatial technologies allow users and administrators to have access to enormous amounts of well-organized spatial data. Tracking devices (e.g., GPS) are a type of geospatial technology that have developed recently, and has evolved into something that was unimaginable just a few decades earlier.

Tracking devices stand on a very thin line regarding rights of individuals and consumers. Are these new technological advances are interfering with privacy? There are numerous benefits of such devices. For example, tracking devices implanted in humans can be of great assistance with emergency healthcare. If a patient is found unconscious with no identification information, an implanted device could provide vital information necessary to save their life. Knowledge of a patient’s allergies and health history is incredibly important information, and without this information easily accessible, lives could be put in jeopardy.

Tracking devices have been proven useful in regards to security and theft prevention. About a year ago, $25,000 of stolen oil equipment was recovered thanks to GPS systems. These technologies are useful in many cases and have benefited many users. However, with such great benefits, it’s easy to overlook the potential risks of such technologies. What if this technology ends up in the wrong hands? With every new technology, there’s always a risk involved. The more and more powerful we as human beings become, thanks to our technological advancements, the more vulnerable we are to disaster. Information is powerful, and can be used just as easily to harm people as it can be used for good. I believe that the development of this technology is incredibly useful, but must be monitored closely.

Even if the government has full control over tracking devices, they easily could be used in a negative manner and violate personal privacy rights.

In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime.

Though useful in many cases, such as catching criminals, this technology can very easily cross the line and violate privacy. This technology will likely grow and develop even further with time, and it is therefore necessary to closely monitor its usage to protect the privacy and safety of people.

The Monetization of Maps: Advertising Power in GIS and Google Earth

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, A. W.)

The advent of the online map has spelled a further expansion of advertising from the real world to the online world. Map users are increasingly using visual representations of geographic information (i.e., maps) and related software to, for example, find directions, familiarize themselves with an area, and navigate around areas. Now, users will need to face the reality that the online map is a great medium for marketing. Several GIS Marketing companies like Safarri and Lat49, plus search-engine powerhouses like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are taking advantage of what are excellent advertising platforms. When one thinks of the high costs of creating and displaying high quality online maps, most which are accessible to the public for free, it is logical that software companies would reserve the right to use those spaces for revenue. The use of text, banners, images, audio and video are all methods of advertising on electronic maps. Geocoded advertisements tie a particular message to a specific address or landmark based on its latitude and longitude. As a query response for information in a geographic region, ranked ads are plotted on or in association with a map or satellite photo (Google uses AdSense and AdWords). The number of ads either plotted or listed would vary as a function of the map type and image resolution. GIS Monitor Archive explains how ads are ranked or scored, with their attributes or features as a function of such a score or ranking.

Until recently, it was difficult to know at what map scale and extent to pitch a geocoded ad. This meant either insufficient information or an overcrowding of it depending on the map’s resolution. The user’s viewing area (i.e., map extent plus scale) may overlap multiple cities, regions or areas. This is unappealing to the advertiser who may want his/her ad to appear within a specific area. The solution would be to determine whether a map extent overlaps sufficiently with the advertiser-identified threshold area of a map. The inability of current mapping software to distinguish boundaries of geographical areas presents a problem. Even if an online electronic map was a copy of a printed map, the boundaries on the printed one would not necessarily be geocoded for the software’s use. The display issues haven’t been resolved.

Google has discovered a method to identify and locate these boundaries around geographic regions. This means it can build spatial indexes to service particular geographic areas related based on a geocoding principle. For instance, when the map user is doing a search at a city level, certain ads will appear to them that may not be visible at the state level. This is how it works, according to Google’s patent:

From a set of coordinates within the area (e.g., latitude/longitude coordinates), a grid of relatively small cells of geographic data is overlaid upon those coordinates and associated with the area. Each initial cell is iteratively replaced with a larger cell that encompasses the initial cell, unless the replacement cell intersects a cell associated with some other geographical area, or until some other boundary condition is met (e.g., a threshold number of replacements is performed).

The reality is that online maps are increasingly being used for advertising, and advertising is not likely to quell its intense interest in the medium. However, digital earths like Google Earth, which are opening the possibility of geolocating advertisements, may decline in popularity if the digital earths become overcrowded, since they are not primary tools for navigation.

GIS as an Aid to the Urgences-Sante in Montreal

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, L. M.)

Montreal is home to 1,620,693 million people and is ranked as the 2nd largest city in Canada. The city has countless events, exquisite restaurants, educational museums and highly regarded schools for its massive population. However a quick emergency response time is not one of them.

Currently the average emergency response time for an ambulance in the City of Montreal is nine minutes and 27 seconds. This number is highly dependent on the traffic and the time of day at which the ambulance is dispatched. Once we get into the suburbs of Montreal, that time can fluctuate a lot more to upwards of almost fifteen minutes.

According to CTV News, “Quebec’s health minister says Urgences-Sante, which serves both Montreal and Laval, needs to organize itself better, in order to reduce its response time.”

How can this be accomplished? The Grand Prairie Region in Alberta has found an answer in GIS.

For years GIS has been used as an aid to help firefighters and emergency response teams fight bush and forest fires. GIS and GPS tools are now being implemented in upstate New York to improve the emergency response time of their medical services. So why not try applying these new technologies to Montreal?

It could start simple, in the way that the Grand Prairies did, by creating hardcopy GIS maps for the emergency works to carry when they are in unknown areas of the city as well as in areas where GPS does not function well (e.g., in urban canyons). The next step would be to start creating categories of GIS-generated maps that illustrate dense traffic areas throughout the day. This way a clear route could be established for emergency crews to always find the fastest way to their destination.

We have seen GIS used in many measures for disaster management, now it is time to take one step higher and use GIS in Emergency Management Services, to prevent further disaster from occurring in our City of Montreal.

A Critical Look at Interactive Mapping Online

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, J. L.)

With the growing popularity of Google Maps and other digital earth platforms, it seems that there are an increasing number of interactive applications available to Internet users. Many are targeted at consumers and/or travelers and others are geared towards activists and those seeking to better understand the world around them. One example is the Crisis in Darfur project, a partnership between The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Google Earth. Another example is an interactive map of child poverty across Canada.

To understand exactly what sorts of information one is getting from these sources, one may want to question the way in which it is displayed. Consider the example of the child poverty map. This interactive map allows you to click on the province and “see how your province compares” with others. The information is derived from Statistics Canada’s 2005 figures and provides the total number of children living in poverty, as well as percentages, such as “children under 18 below low-income cutoff.” Unfortunately, the way in which this information is depicted can be rather misleading.

First, the map does not provide any information on sample sizes and for Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador (half of the provinces), “Statistics Canada warns of small sample sizes.” Second, although interactive buttons are displayed for the territories, when one clicks on the point, there is no information about child poverty available. Further, aggregated information is given for all of Canada, but when one clicks to see the information he/she discovers that the “[s]urvey does not cover residents of the territories and people living in institutions, on Indian reserves or in military barracks. Thus, considering the often extreme inequities experienced on Aboriginal reserves throughout the country, the statistics are most likely grossly underestimating the levels of child poverty in Canada. A student of GIS may also wonder about the oversimplification of the data. The differences in concentrations of poverty between rural and urban areas and within urban areas themselves are non-existent on this map. Thus, one can not critically assess “how his or her province compares.”

In conclusion, although interactive maps allow the user to become engaged in the learning process and hopefully become better informed about the world around them, as with any information that one acquires on the Internet, one must be critical of the content and delivery to assess the accuracy and presentation of the data.

GIS applied to climate change

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, N. G.)

These days, many people in the world have at least some knowledge about the process of climate change and the potential consequences we and the planet face if we continue to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One of the many tasks scientists have been working on is the process of predicting changes that could occur to the earth’s surface should the polar ice continue to melt at its present rate. GIS can become a very important tool in many of these climatologists’ efforts to track how rises in sea level will impact specific land masses, and its larger impact on the population in these areas.

The GIS Initiative Program run by the National Center for Atmospheric Research offers various climate change scenarios shown through GIS to registered users. In creating various climate change scenarios for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for use in research and conferences, such as the climate change meeting taking place in Bali this week, NCAR has decided to make their datasets available for public download. These models, showing various potential future scenarios of the impact of climate change, help to generate interest in the public and GIS community on the importance of climate change with the easy availability of datasets to manipulate.

The Arctic Institute of North America, located at the University of Calgary calls attention to the Beaufort Sea Project for Climate Change, a project that is using GIS to track various impacts of climate change in the northern Arctic. These activities include tracking the impact of climate change on fish and mammals in the Beaufort Sea as they pertain to the survival of the native groups there, changes in hydrology due to the breakup of ice in the Mackenzie River and the spread of water-bone contaminants due to the melting of the sea ice pack. The transformation of this data into GIS makes the relationships between the variables easy to present and communicate across wide audiences, helping to illustrate the impact of climate change in the Arctic.

Although projects such as these help to provide insight into the impact of climate change on the earth, one must keep in mind that these are only models meant to give predictions to what might happen due to shifts in our climate. Much more study and analysis will need to be done before more accurate statements can be made.

The Plague of Redundant Data Collection

Monday, December 17th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, H. C.)

Data access and sharing is an issue that I admit is very close to my heart. It’s hard to believe it hadn’t really crossed my mind until last summer, when I spent weeks upon weeks in the field in chest waders and 40°C Southern Ontario weather collecting redundant data. I say this data was redundant because most of it had already been collected by a partner organization to the Canadian governmental organization that employed me (the agency will remain nameless). And why, you ask? Because they had spent employee wages and Canadian tax payer dollars collecting it, but couldn’t decide how to price it out to sell to us. And even though the end result was equally beneficial to both partners, giving the data to us free of charge was completely out of the question.

On a government level, this seems to be a fairly common problem. The Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources (CGER) recommends that national policies be implemented to reduce pointless data collection. I think the Canadian government, as well as associated organizations on the provincial level, could benefit greatly from something like it. The United States, for its part, is considering something similar for Florida, and in the USGS Third Annual Caribbean GIS conference the advantages were discussed in detail.

Presumably, some of this redundant gathering is the result of uncoordinated guidelines of data collection. Taking an example from my own experience, the data being collected was physical measurements and locations of culvert barriers to fish mobility, and the other organization had not normalized barrier numbers, photo references, or GPS accuracy. For certain sites, then, it would have made sense for my partner and I to recollect the information we needed. However, for the cases where we actually ran into members of that organization checking their temperature monitors the same day we drove to out-of-the-way sites, we did indeed feel rather ridiculous waiting our turn to crawl down to the culvert and take ten minutes worth of measurements. It’s clear that data sharing would reduce the total cost and effort associated with any data collection initiative, but in the current situation it seems like data is more jealously guarded than shared, even between partners working towards a common goal.

GIS for history

Monday, December 17th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, B. Y.)

As a history major I was interested in finding practical applications of geographic information systems (GIS) in any field of history. Although we discuss possible applications of DEMs (digital elevation models) for Art History in class–it was about the Parthenon–I actually found a lot of interesting information and possibilities in archeology. In digging a bit further, it’s interesting that this topic is being widely debated and discussed. I even found a few monographs on the subject.

Within archaeology, the topic is known as GeoArcheology (which is actually more geological study of Archeology, but it involves spatial data management). ESRI actually has a page in its industry section for archeology. ESRI indicates five different possible applications for GIS in archeology: modeling, museums and public education, data management, research, and surveying and excavation. What is interesting about GIS’s application in many industries, but especially for me, is how interdisciplinary it can be. However, in a well established, and in many ways a very old field people may be resistant to the use of technology (think of my parents and computers and the Internet). When researching archeology and GIS you see that many people have acknowledged the boundless possibilities of this kind of union.

I’ve found out what some archeologists have had to say on the topic. According to Wikipedia (not always the best source), many archeologists were early adopters of GIS, many as early as ten years ago [earlier than that–Sieber]. Professor Mark Aldenderfer agrees that the field of archeology has been using GIS and even remote sensing for some time now, but these days the prospects are becoming more exciting due to innovations in the technology. What is most interesting in the article, which was a Q&A with Prof. Aldenderfer (the director of the office of information technology for the department of anthropology at the University of California- Santa Barbara) was the difficulties encountered by archaeologists with GIS. There are two basic kinds of problems: (1) data quality and accuracy, and (2) lack of training, support and infrastructure. Although GIS is becoming more popular in the field, Prof. Aldenderfer points out that there are still very few archaeologists who are GIS experts.

There are however, still many incredible things being done in association with archeology. A few examples illustrate this. One of the most interesting was about the mapping of mausoleums in China from the Tang Dynasty. These mausoleums cover up to 15 kilometers2, but there is not much left of them today except some unrecognizable mounds and a few very large statutes over an area of 5000 km2. Another interesting example is a way GIS supplemented data that was collected by W.E.B. Dubois in the 1890s. He went door to door collecting data for a book he wrote called The Philadelphia Negro. Nearly 100 years later it was reprinted, and the topic was reopened. A GIS analysis of the data was included and unveiled new questions and a potentially deeper analysis of a neighborhood that basically no longer exists (or at least as it was in 1896). These two examples are only a modicum of the information and the actual work going on in the field with GIS and archeology.

sustainable management by local people

Monday, December 17th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, C. N.)

As a GIS student who racks his brain over the quarks and particularities of the current softwares used to display spatial data, I would never have envisioned anyone short of a professional creating official maps. Furthermore, I would never have thought possible to map such intangible elements as cultural heritage, and to use such maps to create sustainable management plans for entire regions. Despite my skepticism, this is exactly what has been done for Fiji’s Ovalau Island.

Ovalau is one of Fiji’s largest islands with a population of 9000 and an area spanning ~10 by 13 kilometers. It is characterized by a rich cultural history dispersed throughout the villages that inhabit the island’s rugged landscape. Due to these conditions, any available spatial and resource data prior to Ovalau’s new mapping initiative, was of poor quality (relative to state’s needs) and only available orally through conversations and stories. In January 2005, an initiative using Participatory 3D modeling (P3DM) was implemented. The goal of the P3DM exercise – a derivative of Participatory GIS – was to create physical 3D relief models based upon local knowledge, and to use these models to propose a resource management plan. This methodology would ensure that the voice of local people was heard. After all, the proposed resource management plan would be based on their 3D model.

This is exactly what was accomplished in 2005. Base maps were constructed based on the consultations of 27 separate villages. Following this, students, teachers, elders and individuals trained in natural resource management, cartography, GIS, and community work got together for the construction of the 3D model. Throughout this construction, youth workers did much of the manual labor while elders spoke of the various resources and tales of the land. Based on the created map, the Vanua ko Ovalau Resource Management Plan was proposed and accepted.

Ovalau’s uses of P3DM show tangible real life implications for GIS, not just for the GIS professional, but also for entire communities. We are approaching the point in the semester in Intro to GIS, where GIS terminology and jargon seems to be taking over our brains, and we are wondering how long it will be before we will ever really understand the intricacies of GIS. Despite this, it is important to remember that GIS is not exclusive to those with thousand dollar programs and perfectly constructed data. Ovalau is a prime example of adaptations of GIS to participation. It demonstrates that the world of GIS is not restricted to a computer lab but can be used in entire communities, and that it is not limited to classifying well ordered numerical data but can handle cultural assets and heritage.

Ovalau’s success has also merited a World Summit Award.

The United Kingdom Identity Cards Act: A step toward public safety or a Big Brother state?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

(written by Jones, who’s also in Intro to GIS)

On the 30th of March 2006, the United Kingdom government passed the Identity Cards Act. Under this act, citizens of the UK who renew their passports during or after 2008 will be issued an identification card that is linked to a government database, which is composed of up to fifty attributes for each and every citizen. The government has stated that until 2010 a UK citizen not renewing his or her passport has the option to apply for a card or not, but regardless of one’s decision, one is still placed in the government database, formally called the National Identity Register (NIR).

The NIR is a geocoded database which includes data such as a citizen’s name, current address(es), previous address(es), gender, date of birth, and place of birth. In addition to the usual attributes to identify a person, the Identity Cards Act requires a citizen to provide biometric information. Biometric information includes fingerprints, signatures, iris scans, and shoulder and head photographs. The UK government claims that with all this information it can better serve the public interest through tightening national security, detecting crime, controlling immigration, detecting illegal employment, and securing the effective and efficient provision of public services.

The new act has been met with much resistance within the UK. Many believe that the new system is too costly, may promote racial and ethnic discrimination, and invades the rights and privacy of individuals. Not only is one’s address of residence known, but whenever one must present one’s ID card one’s location can be recorded and added to the NIR as an attribute. One ID card resistance organization, NO2ID, notes that ID cards are basically primary keys in a database, linking a person and all of his or her information to a plethora of other databases. To use a credit card, for example, one might have to provide one’s ID card to prove that indeed the credit card belongs to the right person. As soon as that credit card is used, the store’s location, the store’s name, and the items bought can be linked to the NIR database. Not only can the government determine where you shop and how often you shop there, but it can determine what you buy. One can imagine a number of instances when the ID card would be used to verify identification: when buying a car, when applying for insurance, when leaving or entering the country, when voting, and when borrowing books from a library. Ultimately, since each citizen with an ID card is effectively geo-tagged whenever the card is used, the new cards may facilitate a Big Brother State, where the government not only knows where one goes, but largely what one is doing.

The Identity Cards Act effectively geotags each citizen of the United Kingdom and continually geotags them as they use their ID cards to verify their identification. This information can be added to the already geocoded NIR, enabling government officials to better know where one goes and what one is buying. If this wealth of information actually fulfills the purposes that the government states it will, or if it facilitates the invasion of one’s privacy and personal life, only time will tell; though I’m inclined to predict the latter.

clothes for surveillance

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

(Written by Intro to GIS student, Z.J. It’s interesting that, of all the topics mentioned in the course, the one that elicited the greatest discussion was the surveillance potential for GIS.)


The Associated Press reports on Bladerunner, a clothing company in London, England that has developed a new jacket with a GPS tracker. The device is lodged within the jacket lining and can track the jacket anywhere in the world (with 43 feet resolution). Google Earth can be used to locate the individual. This raises the question: Have geospatial technologies gone too far? It isn’t so much that geographic information systems (GIS) pushes the boundaries in this case, but the product represents our desire to capitalize on any piece of technology as an expensive knee-jerk response to perceived dangers.

The company targets parents who are worried about missing children and, of course, lost jackets. The AP continues that the jacket “alerts” parents when a child skips school or goes places they aren’t supposed to. (I would imagine the child may have the sense to take the jacket off and leave it elsewhere when they don’t want to be tracked.)

The kid’s jacket costs $500; an adult size (presumably for Alzheimer’s patients) costs $700. A $20 tracking fee is charged monthly. I think that, for this price, it may just be more beneficial to save money and purchase a $70 jacket and a cellphone. [For all you parents out there, a cellphone would not necessarily be the cheaper option–Sieber.] The cellphone would allow for an open line of communication, and probably a healthier alternative in terms of trust in parent-child dynamics.

In terms of child safety, this jacket could prove beneficial in terms of kidnapping. However, at such exorbitant prices, you would potentially only be catering to overbearing, spendthrift parents who are likely already overprotective. In my opinion, it is just taking monetary advantage of overprotective parents. For instance, the battery for the tracker only lasts 18 hours and needs to be recharged, rendering it useless over a 24 hour period.

More importantly, is a jacket-tracker the best way to keep our kids safe? The company appears to have chosen an article of clothing that is commonly left in lockers, closets and the back of chairs, rendering it relatively useless in its capacity to ensure child safety. If a parent is so inclined to track his/her child then why not just spend $400 on a tracking device that can be placed in any article of clothing? Wrist GPS detectors are also available, yet I would imagine the alleged kidnapper may notice a cube with 3 inch sides weighing down a child’s arm. The site also says, “Big Brother, meet Big Mother”, which showcases the crossed boundaries encountered with this device. I advocate investing in regular jackets, cellphones, and GIS-free board games to strengthen that parent child bond.


Sunday, December 16th, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student KdS)

I am just now starting to understand the Geographic Information (GIS) world in its 2D frame. So a 4D GIS seemed like a far fetched idea. I was shocked to learn that it is in fact not that far off at all. 4D GIS is already being implemented in some very interesting ways and in ways that would put 4D GIS to positive uses.

When most people think of using GIS for mapping they think of 2D and maybe even some 3D (into the z-axis), but in the future 4D GIS might become common place. In the realm of physics the 4th dimension is usually associated with time. Applying this to GIS allow us to add time changes to data, creating maps that change as time changes. One could make real time queries and receive real time results.

I came across two examples that illustrate the potential of 4D GIS. The first is already in practice in Kyoto, Japan, called “Kyoto virtual time-space”. The second is a proposed idea for using 4D GIS to create constantly up-to-date maps that account for the constantly moving earth’s surface. This highlights two different but creative uses for 4D GIS technology.

At Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto Japan geography professors Yano Keiji , Nakaya Tomoki, and Isoda Yuzuru are working on a project titled Kyoto virtual time-space. This project utilizes 4D GIS to create a virtual environment of Kyoto Japan, by using 3D modelling that changes over time. One can travel through the streets of Kyoto in both space and time. The researchers hope to create a virtual museum of Kyoto that people would be able to access through virtual reality or the Internet. Aside from being useful as a historical tool, the program has very promising capabilities in urban planning and disaster management. The application can show to the public changes over time and hopefully achieve better social consensus around planning issues because the application can simulate reality. For example, realistic simulations can show the temporal impacts of building new high rises in a region or protecting certain areas. Researchers also talk about the application’s capabilities to create better disaster planning strategies and hazard maps.

The second example is proposed by Rahmi Nurhan Celik, N. Necla Ulugtekin and Caner Guney from Istanbul Technical University. The researchers are geodesists, so they are most interested in measurements and representations of earth. Their macro application of 4D GIS concentrates on the very base of map making so that the actual base map changes with changes of the earth. They argue that GIS, as currently envisioned, is based on stable geospatial information provision, including stable geodetic control and datum, when in fact it needs to be dynamic. In the universe there are no fixed points; everything is moving and so should GIS. The researchers focus on tectonic plates, the movement of which may be very small every year. However, in a earthquake prone area like Turkey a few centimetres can mean major damage and loss of life. They propose a system in which every time you query the data you get data from the time of the query. A series of control stations will always provide up to date data. The authors realize that the application will require considerable international cooperation, although they point out that organizations like the ITRF (International Terrestrial Frame) are already compiling global reference frames, an important step towards this 4D GIS future. They also point out the usefulness of the system for such issues as landslides or even tides. In the future a system like this could take this data and apply artificial intelligence to answer questions about the future of global change. They believe that even though it would require a large amount of effort, the application is well worth it and will soon be a part of the future.

What underlies disastrous decisions?

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

On November 21st, I attended a talk by Dr. Robert McKleman from the University of Ottawa regarding human migration and settlement patterns in response to climate change. As Culture Kid points out below, McKleman studied Oklahomans’ adaptations to the American Dustbowl of the 1930’s. He found that migration and settlement patterns were largely dependent on one’s capital endowments. He used capital in a very broad sense, to include economic capital (money, and material capital like cars), social capital (social networks and connections) and cultural capital (ethnicity, heritage, labour characteristics). For example, McKleman found that an Oklahoman was likely to migrate to Northern California if he or she had enough money and a means of transportation, had friends or family en route to and in California, and if he or she had skills and characteristics compatible with Californian culture. McKleman concluded that future human adaptation to climate change would likewise be constrained or assisted by one’s capital endowments.
I found McKleman’s argument quite intuitive. For example, if I were to pick up and leave home I would obviously need money, a means of travel, a place to go, and cultural characteristics that would be accepted at my destination. I felt, however, that McKleman’s analysis begged an essential question concerning human (non)adaptation: why did the Oklahomans find themselves in a position where migration and settlement was their only means to survive? Why did they not adapt before crisis came? If we could determine the answers to this question then we might be able to understand our current situation regarding climate change. In all likelihood, we’re on a path that will end in the need for many people to migrate and settle elsewhere, to give up their homes and livelihoods, or risk death. Why, then, are we not able to change course now, preventing the harrowing outcome of our current actions?
Many people are currently trying to change the course we’re on. Many others, however (McKleman included), have already resigned themselves to the fact that crisis is now inevitable. Did Oklahomans, with the soil turning to desert under their feet, also recognize the consequences of their actions? And if so, why didn’t they prevent the Dust Bowl from occurring?
As Culture Kid states below, McKleman’s talk invoked strong parallels to Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Diamond also asks questions similar to mine. He proposed a framework that might prove useful in addressing these questions. In his chapter “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?”, Diamond first suggests that a society may fail to anticipate a problem (Oklahomans may have failed to anticipate that intense agriculture would deplete their soils of nutrients and water). Second, Diamond states that a society might fail to perceive a problem as it’s occurring (soil nutrients are invisible, thus early farmers would not know why their crops were failing). Third, a society might fail to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived (maybe change was not in the interest of the powerful elite). Fourth, perhaps a society has values that predispose it to disaster (Easter Islanders cutting down the last trees to build statues to the gods). Last, even after a problem is perceived and society is committed to solving it, solutions might be unsuccessful. An interesting study would be to apply this framework to the 1930’s Dustbowl disaster, in addition to more modern examples. Determining the barriers to change before one’s only options are migration or death would not only help us understand past disastrous outcomes, but help us understand our current situation.

Ecosystem Services and Agricultural Lands

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

On November 12th, I attended a talk by Dr. Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. She talked a little about a number of topics including resilience, the Earth’s water balance, the effects of agriculture on global water vapor flows, and the types of ecosystem services fulfilled by agricultural (domesticated) lands. The last topic in this list is the focus of this post.

The idea that domesticated lands can fulfill a number of ecosystem services intrigues me for a number of reasons. First, as Gordon notes on her blog, ecosystem services that are usually associated with forest ecosystems such as carbon sequestration, erosion control and evapotranspiration, can be fulfilled by properly managed domesticated lands. The idea here is that domesticated lands (such as pastures, croplands etc.) can be managed in such a way that vital services are rendered available. This idea leads to my second point of intrigue.

As the human population continues to increase, so too will its food demands. To meet these demands a number of ecosystems will have to be domesticated (e.g. as forests are razed and replaced by croplands). One can easily foresee in the near future a number of conflicts will arise between conservationists and preservationists seeking to protect ‘pristine’ ecosystems and those responsible for securing food for the world’s growing numbers. In all likelihood, the needs of the hungry will trump the goals of the environmentalist. If, however, the newly domesticated lands are correctly managed, then valuable ecosystem services can be retained. There is ample room for both sides to achieve its goals.

To me, there is little doubt that an increasing percentage of the Earth’s land will be domesticated in the years ahead. This increase in domestic lands will come at the expense of a number of terrestrial ecosystems. If we can manage the newly domesticated lands so that they replace the services lost during domestication (carbon sequestration, erosion control etc.), then one of the most important aspects of ‘natural’ ecosystems will not be lost at all.

Though I desire a world where these concepts would not be needed, and where ecosystems would not be under constant threat of domestication, reality demands a number of compromises and trade-offs. As conflicts between environmentalists and those responsible for food security increase, knowing where we can compromise and where we cannot is essential. Thus, more research should focus on the types of services that can and that cannot be fulfilled by domesticated lands, and how best to manage and design these lands to carry out those services.

Remote Sensing Used to Unlock Africa’s Hidden Potential

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, J.J., who’s provided a review of the use of remote sensing for mineral exploration.)

As easily accessible resources are being used up, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new caches, even in resource-rich continents such as Africa. Cameroon has realized an advantage by using new satellite technology to catalogue its riches, while decreasing its exploration costs. As more foreign capital is invested in Africa – a record $38.8 billion in 2006 – the need to find blocks of previously undiscovered stores is becoming more urgent. Streaming data from 500 miles above the Earth’s surface, satellites use the STeP™ data processing technique (designed by Terra Energy & Resource Technologies, Inc.) to identify potential resource sites. Not only will this reduce the time needed to find, survey and extract resources at sites, but it will also allow the country to properly build infrastructure and allocate resources in a way that will also protect the economic and environmental future of Cameroon.

Satellite imagery has been used since the 1960’s to provide images of the Earth’s surface. In 1972 the United States launched the Landsat program to collect “spectral information from the Earth’s surface.” This has led to the creation of detailed archives that catalogue our interactions with the environment on a global scale, such as urban development and land use. Various other satellite imaging programs have sprung up since then, most notably in Europe with the ERS and Envisat systems. Satellite technology has come a long way, and newer industrial applications include geosensing (as in the case of Cameroon), agriculture, which can help in crop assessment, as well as environmental and meteorological change assessment, and real estate, where developers can use imagery to minimize construction costs and environmental impact.

STePâ„¢, has already seen success as a method for finding previously hidden resources. In 2002 it found a river in the west Saharan Desert 800 feet underground that today provides water to 50,000 citizens of Mauritania.

I believe that the practice of cataloguing a country’s resources will prove to be indispensable to every country in the coming decades. As preservation efforts increase in momentum, and calls for conservation of already used resources become louder, a complete roadmap for resources will aid in policy-making. With the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol coming a close in 2012 and the goals largely not have being met, we may find ourselves dramatically changing our resource consumption practices and an accurate schematic of global deposits may help with resource allocation.

Biodiversity Loss and Cascading Effects

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

On November 18, 2007 I attended a lecture by Dr. Ricciardi of the MSE entitled “The Future of Biodiversity: How biological invasions and extinctions, driven by human activities, are re-shaping biodiversity on a global scale.” Ricciardi’s talk was split into four parts: He first talked about how many species there are on the planet, then moved to discuss how fast we are losing species, what the causes of biodiversity loss are, and finished by talking about what the consequences of biodiversity loss are.

Most of the presentation was comprised of case studies of biodiversity loss both in Canada and abroad. The two main causes for biodiversity loss are invasive species introductions and land use change (although there are other causes): both driven by human actions. While none of the information was complicated to understand I found that the pace of the talk was a bit too fast and that there was not one clear story to tell, it was just a collection of evidence to support that biodiversity loss is a wide-spread problem. What I found to be the most important part of the talk were the consequences of biodiversity loss: 1) an increase of instability, and reduction in resilience, 2) Loss of ecosystem function and ecological processes. When biodiversity is lost, nutrient and energy transfer in the food chain is disrupted and much of these resources are processed inefficiently, or simply lost within the system. The loss of a or replacement of a species by an invasive can have impacts that cascade through the food web and not only impact the species itself, but every other biotic and abiotic form that it interacts with.

The article that we addressed last week by Finlay and Vredenburg (2007) observed these cascading effects by assessing how trout addition to lakes impacted the mountain yellow-legged frog. While I have always understood aquatic systems to be the ideal study area due to the clear boundaries of a lakeshore (you know what comes in and out), this study proved that the introduction of an aquatic species can have impacts that reach far beyond the shore. Here, the mountain yellow-legged tree frog, a terrestrial species, had fewer food resources (insects) from the pelagic zone of the stocked lakes. The reduced populations of the frogs due to the trout additions, no doubt has consequences for its predators. Many people study how land use impacts aquatic systems (e.x. damming, changing stream courses, pollution, erosion, etc), however perhaps we should start to look at the interactions that run in the opposite direction: how species invasions in aquatic systems can have serious impacts to terrestrial systems. I think that overall, knowing the interactions back and forth between systems (here, land and water) gives more insight to policy makers and managers. Further, understanding the linkages back and forth encourages people to look at systems from an ecosystem approach prior to making changes. The assessment of trade-offs, what you gain by changing the landscape/adding a species compared to what the larger costs are, is essential to balance biodiversity and ecosystem function with the services we want to get from ecosystems.