Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

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AGI GeoCommunity 09 Catch-up- Day One

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The AGI conference last week in Stratford-upon-Avon was well worth attending, with (I thought) a really good vibe and some great presentations. I thought the twitter feed, new for this year, was a real hit, as was the ability to see talks online via slideshare soon after they had been given. The twitter feed in particular gave you a chance to see what other people watching the same presentation were thinking, and occasionally caused some jealousy as people realised they’d picked the less interesting track!

Steven Feldman’s final introduction as chairman of the conference is probably a good place to start for a feel for how it went. Attendance was up from last year (600+), which was reassuring, given the financial circumstances, with a more international spread of attendees- great for a predominantly UK-based conference. He said it was no longer about “how” you did something, in other words using packages X and Y, but “why”.

The conference tagline was “Realising the Value of Place”, which is quite clever and multi-faceted. “Place” is not the same as “location”. It’s about asking why people feel happier in one place than another, and why life-expectancy differs between London Boroughs. “Value” can also be taken in a number of ways. There’s the value of a place, mentioned above, but also as an industry in a recession we need to learn how to get financial value from what we do, and controversially, how to get value from “free” (Steven’s term, not mine), as it’s not going to go away (Yay).

The two keynotes, from Peter Batty and Andrew Turner were also interesting. Peter described the current climate as a geospatial revolution, as the industry migrates from the more established mainstream technologies such as desktop GIS to more disruptive technology such as the web and crowd-sourcing. This was the first mention of OpenStreetmap, and in particular Walking Papers, but believe me it wasn’t the last…

Andrew Turner stirred the Neo/Palaeo pot (again not the last time this came up), but perhaps came closest to defining the difference between the two- as a shift from tool-centric to user-centric. Actually this ties in very well with Steven’s comments about moving from the “how” to the “why”, and also with Peter’s comments about disruptive technologies. I think the one thing that’s very clear is that it is a total mind-set shift, and people (or organisations) that don’t adapt or evolve will be become irrelevant. Someone asked the question “how do we make money from this?”, and again there is a total shift here. Massive license fees simply won’t work in a market where people know about crowd-sourcing, free data and micro-payments a la iPhone apps.

Surprisingly, the best paper I saw in the two days, and a deserved winner of the committees best paper, and a runner up for the attendee’s best presentation, was Robert Barr’s talk on Core Reference Geographies (CRG). I didn’t even know such things existed till then, though logically they should. From the UK’s Location Strategy these are: “Commonly used geographic datasets that provide a framework for linking and integrating other geo-referenced information as well as providing key contextual information”.The establishment of CRG in the UK have been talked about for several years, but only ever talked about, yet they should be absolutely fundamental. There needs to be a cost/benefit study for creating these CRG and making them available, and also an analysis of what it costs not to do it. Robert made the comparison between the CRG and other Core Reference datasets such as DNS. The same sort of funding method (pay for inclusion but not for use) could potentially be used to fund the CRG. The one negative point I had was the lack of reference to the spatial data themes talked about in the INSPIRE directive, as it seems to make sense to ensure that these (if mandated) are all core datasets.

Another stand-out presentation on Day One was on the historical development of “place” by Martin Laker. He talked about how current boundaries in fact have a heritage going back to the Black Death, and even earlier. Clearly the geography of the UK has always been tangled up and complicated (cf with the difficulty in setting up the CRGs), so all government has to do now is blame it on the Plague…

James Cutler from emapsite presented on the Geoweb’s cultural heritage (sorry, can’t find the link), but I got frustrated when he basically dismissed the problem of data licensing by saying that it’s not really all that expensive. It became clear to me that archaeology, and perhaps other environmental disciplines, have a use-case that is totally under-represented in the great licensing debate.

Day One concluded with the GeoCommunity Soapbox, a new invention for this conference. Speakers were given 5 minutes and 15 equally spaced slides, to talk about anything “geo” that they wanted. When coupled with a live view of the twitter feed and free geobeer this was a recipe for carnage and I think it’s probably good that the wifi (and hence the twitter feed) collapsed under the strain early in the proceedings. The best soapbox rant was definitely Ian Painter’s, now a veritable internet sensation.

General trends- lots of Neo/Palaeo discussion, despite exhortations that “I’m not Neo/Palaeo (delete as appropriate) but…”. This mind-shift clearly worries a lot of people, and the industry is in a process of change as it tries to re-position itself. OpenStreetMap and allied projects are definitely on the up. The back-channels (twitter in particular) were just as important as the presentations and the face-to-face discussions.

Day Two to follow…

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