Project Description

"This blog is updated by the JISC funded G3 Project (#jisc3g) team. We are building an framework for teaching and communicating relevant geographic concepts and data to learners from outside the world of geography and GIS. We think this blog will be of particular interest to those working or teaching in HE and FE and those interested in teaching and learning and e-learning."

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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Reflective Teaching Practice (2) - Do I need to Know There is Such a Thing as an R-Tree Index?

I've recently been working on a paper about teaching database and spatial database concepts to GIS graduate students, using a self-paced tutorial, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Open Data (PostgreSQL/PostGIS, QGIS and Open Street Map).  Once of the aims when setting up the tutorial in 2010 was to open the material to other students - i.e. to make it available to non-GIS specialists.   At the time, I didn't realise that that would be exactly what this JISC G3 project is aiming to do to but now I find myself faced with a similar question to the one raised previously on this blog:  

Once we get to including material about Spatial Databases (in an advanced version of G3), what content is relevant to non-GIS specialists?

Here are my first thoughts:

What We Should Include:
I think that any material relating to databases should certainly explain their advantages - concurrent access, central storage, security, single source of truth.  We should also include information about data types - text, number, date, and in particular the spatial data type - how to store points, lines and polygons in the database. Connecting the GIS to the database and viewing and editing the data is also fundamental.  

R-Tree Index (from:
As a more advanced topic, I would also include at least some SQL querying in the material - with links to further information, and some information on indexing and spatial indexing.  These days, students are sometimes dealing with quite large datasets and I think it will be useful for them to know how to improve the performance of their system. So, for me, the R-Tree should be there (yes, it is complicated so perhaps we can leave out the detail?)

What Should Be Left Out:
E-R Diagram (from
I think that for most students there is no need to include concepts of Entity-Relationship diagrams.   Similarly, conceptual, logical and physical design and concepts related to normalisation should be excluded.  Most of the JISC G3 users will be using data that has already been modelled, and very few of them will be collecting data from scratch and therefore require tutoring on how to model the real world in a database.

As you can see, overall I found myself erring on the side of 'include', most likely as I am an "expert" in the subject and for me all of it is important.  I suspect that this dilemma will face us again and again as this project grows and more material is added.  This also highlights the importance of the use-cases and talking to end-users when developing this type of material.  

(With thanks to Kate Jones for the re-use of the title of one of her blog posts.) 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

State of the Map EU - Presentation

Just a quick pointer to the recording of my presentation here at SOTMEU. So, far a great and vibrant conference, and our research into usability issues in OpenStreetMap was well received. I was particularly pleased by the positive reaction from a lot of conference attendants to our work, it seems that most core community members are well aware of the issues we raised, and recognise the need for improvement.

This small research project from us then represents the first of an ongoing effort to better embed and implement a usability engineering culture in this great project!

Dr Patrick Weber talks about Potlatch Usability

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

GIS are still hard to use! The interface design of a desktop GIS ensures they are NOT easy to learn....

Desktop Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are not user friendly they require time and effort to learn and remember. They are not intuitive and for new learners the first time they are faced with a GIS can be overwhelming experience, where do you start? These difficulties are nicely summarised in the user interviews I have been conducting.

One of our specialist users described their first and so far only encounter with a GIS. They were looking to just explore what the software could do – without being able to dedicate any real time to learning it. They successfully downloaded some geographically referenced data from Digimap (it was actually MasterMap). They then started the GIS programme and spent 5 to 10 minutes trying to open the data that had just obtained, in that time they did not succeed to open the data so they gave up and made their map in Photoshop. They found GIS too difficult to use. From a usability perspective this represents an issue in learnability. The design of the desktop GIS meant that the new learner failed in the first hurdle- adding existing geographical data to a map.

The notion that desktop GIS are hard to use is not new. More than 15 years ago in 1995 Traynor and Williams discussed the issues of usability in GIS presenting a paper with the title, "Why Are Geographical Information Systems hard to use?" at the annual ACM conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Link

Today, desktop GIS are still just as difficult to use!! The interface design really does not make them easy to learn. Will this change as the development of VGI web-mapping interfaces progresses since they rely on contributions by the general public?

Open Street Map: State of the Map presentation

Just a quick note from the JISCG3 team, Kate and Myself we will be presenting our usability research on VGI editors at the the 1st European State of the Map Conference of the OpenStreetMap project held 15th-17th July 2011 in Vienna, Austria.

The talk will draw upon our previous work in evaluating the usability of the Potlatch editing environment, an online data editing interface for OpenStreetMap.

This presentation presents one of the first systematic investigations into the usability of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) editor front-ends, using established best practice in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research. The two front-ends evaluated are Potlatch 2 and Google Map Maker, to present contrasting views of the user experience of two major VGI projects. Two user groups with no prior experience of VGI contribution were instructed to enrol and contribute data to both VGI projects, and their interaction with the two services were monitored using a mobile eye tracker and video screen capture software in a computer lab environment. The resulting data was analysed to reveal how users interact and experience VGI editors, as well as highlight deficiencies and differences between Potlatch 2 and Google Map Maker. The results from this research project are a set of recommendations for the future development of these editors, specifically relating to improving the user experience and ease of use of VGI editors.

The talk will be recorded and hopefully put online after, I will link on this blog to it as soon as possible afterwards.

Hope to see you there, and looking forward to the discussions!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Prioritising Geographic Concepts for Teaching New Learners GIS: results from our blog poll

We asked readers of the blog to identify the priority of teaching certain Geographic Concepts to new users whilst quite a few people viewed the questions only 21 readers completed the poll. Firstly, I would like to thank the blog readers who completed our quick survey. The table below summarises the concepts that we used in the poll. A graph at the bottom of the blog post shows the results.

Geographic Concept



Beginning mapping

importance of location

zoom, pan, layers

Geographic data modelling

raster versus vector

Points, Lines, Polygons and Pixels....

Cartographic theory

fundamental principles of cartography

simplicity, harmony, no map junk ...

Data generalisation

introduction of types of and need for generalisation

Simplification, Selection, Omission, Displacement, Aggregation...

Data classification

introduction to data classification rules and type of classification

Natural Breaks, Quintiles, Geometric Progressions ...

Mapping conventions

elements that enhance user understanding of the map

scale bar, legend, north arrow, symbology....

Simple spatial analysis

introducing simple analysis computed using GIS

buffer, distance, overlay....

Uncertainty in geographic data

Impact of uncertainty on data

Modifiable Areal Unit Problem, ecological fallacy

With such a small N we do not have a any statistically valid results but what we do have is some useful thoughts that support the thinking of the project team and the development of the scenarios and resulting site development.

We asked readers to prioritise the concepts based on a linear scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 1 represented a concept that was not relevant to new learners and a score of 5 signified a must teach concept for new users. Using these values, I have calculated a quick and dirty Score of Importance for each of the priorities, see the graph at the bottom. This score alongside the free text comments helps us to identify quickly what our readers think are the most important concepts to teach new learners of GIS.

Results :

  • All of the concepts are relevant for new users of GIS to learn – but the timing of when they are introduced is what is most important
  • The most important concept is associated with beginning mapping and why spatial is special
  • New users need to be aware of the issues that result because GI models are simply an abstraction of reality and they need to be familiar with how reality is represented using data models.
  • Principles and practical cartography were rated (slightly) more important to teach before introducing simple spatial analysis and uncertainty
  • The details of datums and map projections are beyond the scope but it is important for users to recognise the internal bias that may result from a map projection