Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Out and About

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I’ve been out at a couple of Association for Geographic Information (AGI) events over the last couple of weeks- organised by their Northern Group. Their main function is to organised events in the North of England (hence the name), but the outgoing chairman Rollo, has been really pushing for events with a national attendance and relevance. I spoke briefly at both events, and my talks can be found on slideshare and on my talks page here.

The first event, a couple of weeks ago now, was Where2Now– a lively scamper through some leading edge ideas, mainly about geographic location for the masses rather than technical GIS per se (yes, I’m trying to avoid using the word NeoGeography, but that’s what I’m talking about). There were speakers from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, OpenStreetMap, Geovation, Ordnance Survey- in fact if you attended the Geoweb stream at the main AGI conference you’ll have a good idea who spoke! I did a short talk on the impact of “open” (access/source/data) as a disruptive technology (as far as I’m concerned this neo/mashup/open era wouldn’t be here without it), and attempted to demo a couple of deeply cool new toys that we’re working with at the moment- mapchat and gvsigmobile, both of which I think have the potential to be incredibly useful and really big. Unfortunately my laptop had stage fright and refused to speak to the monitor, so I couldn’t do a live demo of gvsigmobile as I wanted to.

Perhaps my favourite talk of the day was John McKerrell, talking about, with his geo-clock (if you’ve read Harry Potter, remember the Weasley’s clock, with hands for each member of the family pointing to where they are at any given moment). Luckily John hasn’t found a need for a “mortal peril” setting yet! is great- it’s one of those ideas which can only work with the ubiquitous nature of geolocation these days, in phones, and with all the geo-location apis that you can use. Basically it’s a way of mapping where you are, and of plotting your location history, using feeds from twitter, email, google latitude, fire eagle etc.  Someone asked what it could be used for, but I think that’s missing the point somewhat- John has provided the basic idea,  and it’s up to the user to figure out what to do with it!

Again, the #geocom twitter stream going on in the background provided an interesting counter-point to the talks, although it’s increasingly worrying as a speaker not knowing if there’s a discussion about how rubbish you are going on while you’re giving the talk!

The second event I attended last week was a World GIS Day event at the Grammar School in Leeds. This followed on from the incredibly successful closing presentation at the main AGI conference, in which kids from the school, and a couple of their teachers discussed the way in which GIS is used throughout the whole school. The event last week was a chance for professional GIS users to talk a little about the way in which they use GIS, and also to see in more detail how GIS is used in the school. We also attended part of a sixth-form geography lesson, which was really interesting (not the least for the looks of abject trauma on all the attendee’s faces at sitting in a class room again after many years).

With my “open” hat on, I was quite uneasy about the way in which ESRI is synonymous with GIS in that environment, but to be fair it’s because they have worked extremely hard to provide the material for the teachers, which isn’t yet available anywhere else. My other concern was that teaching GIS seemed to be more about teaching which buttons to press to get a particular result, rather than teaching the theory and asking the kids how to figure it out in that particular software package. My “open source” side is frustrated that they are producing a generation of kids who will think ESRI is the only GIS to use, and when they are in  a position to influence the use of GIS themselves, within organisations,  or other schools, that’s the route they will choose. However, where in a school curriculum is the chance to give kids a choice, and how can open source provide them with that? Things to think about…