GeoCommunity 2011 – 2 more days of Love, Peace and Maps, Pt2 – Map heroes, friends and getting angry

Another day of geo starts in Nottingham. Thanks to

The second day of a conference always faces the challenge of the morning after syndrome, even more so after a monster bash of geonerds trying to relive their student drinking days and drain the bar dry. In my opinion it was a good thing that we were thrown out of the bar at 1.00 am, I shudder to think what mayhem might have ensued if we had been allowed to carry on! One of the great memories of this year’s conference will be Conor Smyth, Head of Geo Services at EDINA and Cameron Easton, Head of Spatial Information at the Scottish Executive holding each other up as they weaved their way back to their rooms. Enough, lest you think the whole of GeoCommunity is dedicated to having fun!

Surprisingly after a good dose of coffee most of the delegates seemed ready for the morning’s activities, still as I tweeted “Geohangovers are for geowimps”. Even so it was going to take something a bit special to kickstart the morning and we got it. I wish Danny Dorling had been teaching geography when I was at school. Danny is my kind of geographer, with an interest in applying geography in ways that matter and might make a difference and a rare talent for illuminating a jumble of data with his weird and wonderful Twisted Maps (aka cartograms).

Danny gave us a whistle stop tour of how different projections and cartographic techniques can provide insight and highlight trends in ways that shaded polygons just can’t. I think a challenge for most of us in understanding these twisted maps (Danny’s description not mine) is the extent to which geographic outlines have become iconic and are almost hard wired into the spatial part of our brains, changing our internal projection systems is not easy. If you are not sure, go have a look at OSM-GB, at the moment the very rough map is just up there as a place holder until the project starts munging and hopefully improving OSM data, you know this is GB but it just doesn’t look quite right (WGS84). Now look at this map by Ben Hennig, one of Danny’s PhD students, at Views of the World

Not many hungry kids in the US


You get the high level picture pretty quickly don’t you? It will take me a while to adapt and drill down into the detail in this view though as all of my geomemory is baffled by these unfamiliar outlines. I think it is a tribute to the GeoCommunity in this country that we have a Social and Spatial Inequalities Group at one of our universities – maybe that says more about me than anything else.

Vanessa Lawrence was the next speaker (Ordnance Survey were a Platinum Sponsor of the event, thanks guys). I don’t always agree with Vanessa and I I may have been mildly critical of OS on the odd occasion but Vanessa’s irrepressible enthusiasm and belief in the contribution that geography can make to Britain and the world, combined with her pride in the OS have to be admired. This was a very wide ranging talk that started with world wide developments in mapping (China is investing $1.5bn to turbocharge their GI industry) through to the way Ordnance Survey is adapting to an era of Open Data. Lots of good material and very upbeat. A little moment of personal pride came up when in the course of her presentation Vanessa referred to the combination of industry and practitioners across the private and public sectors as the GeoCommunity, 5 years after we launched this event and created the brand it has become common parlance as high up as the DG of OS – nice.

5 years ago Jo Cook was almost a lone voice championing Open Source GIS, I remember her approaching me at the first GeoCommunity trying to persuade me that the AGI should be supporting Open Source (not Open Sores as John pepper described it in his Soapbox). I think I waffled about broad churches, even handed and stuff like that, shame on me. In 2011 there was an “Open” river (as opposed to a stream) running through the conference and the unconference, Open Source Geo is definitely established as part of the landscape and Mike Saunt’s debunking of the 3 myths of Open Source was a great response to those still trying to spread FUD. Jo  Cook is the chair/lead/coordinator of the UK chapter of OSGeo, inadvertently she tweeted out that the chapter were bidding to bring the annual FOSS4G (Free and Open Source Software for Geo) conference to Britain in 2013, a new hashtag was born and then renamed. Just imagine how much fun it could be to back to back GeoCommunity and FOSS4G in 2013, a solid week of mapmadness and geolove in GB! The best place (at the moment) to find out more as it happens or to offer help would be to sign up here.

Part of the fun of GeoCommunity is the chance conversations that you stumble into. Over lunch with Mark Iliffe, Jo Cook, Conor Smyth we got into a conversation about enterprise in the third world, Mark had been working in Africa recently (see yesterday’s post for details of his talk) and Conor had worked in Latin America when he was younger. Conor told us about a project in the slums of the Philippines to make solar powered lights from 2 litre plastic drinks bottles, cool stuff, not very geo but just why you want to be at GeoCommunity.

A robust discussion about Open Data. Thanks to

Then we were back in the main auditorium for the annual debate “Open Data – what could possibly go wrong?” (title suggested by yours truly). Some of the AGI debates in the past have fallen a bit flat, some have been gentle conversations and rarely has there been a strong contrast of positions. The panel consisted of people who are all old friends, Gesche Schmidt (LGG), Bill Oates (WAG), Trevor Adams (Met police), Bob Barr and me. I though that this was a rather tired old topic and when in preparation several of the panel planned to speak in favour, I offered to take the debating position of opposing Open Data (even though I don’t really) on the basis of economics, innovation and who might be the ones holding government to account. Just for the sake of argument of course. Well that didn’t last very long, when Gesche and Bill went off on one about personal data I went mildly ballistic, when Bob started waffling on about the benefits of OpenStreetMap (which I fully agree with) trying to identify the economic benefits of releasing Open Data I lost it completely, Bob was so far off track that I almost stood up to physically drag him back “on topic”. Interestingly, what the panel illustrated was the deeply ingrained tendency for people working in the public sector to focus on the difficulties in opening up data and the reasons to say no. I say “Just say Yes” and “JFDI

At last we got to the final plenaries. Kimberley Kowal is the Curator of Digital Mapping at the British Library, if there is a cooler job than this then please tell me about it (if KK could be persuaded to go for it I could volunteer to be her standin at the British Library until they appoint a replacement). There was a wondrous look on the faces of the assembled map geeks as images of fascinating, exquisite maps from the BL collection flashed up on the screen. My favourite was the 18th C strip map of directions from London to Paris with textual directions, small drawings of points of interest and compasses, pretty much like Google route directions today without the map. I wish I had some images from the presentation to share, maybe later but in the mean time you will have to live with a couple of the comments from the tweetstream “I’m in mapheaven” and in the vernacular of the backchannel “#mapporn“.

Gary Gale is an entertaining presenter who produces work of art zen slide decks full of humour, weaving his way through some deceptive paths to deliver you to his final message. His closing plenary was a cracker about place, context and a next generation of smarter location based capabilities (note that I am not saying apps). I am not sure whether the multiple references to “checking in” were included just to wind me up or whether Gary is still hooked on becoming a Mayor, that aside this was a funny and thoughtful presentation and a perfect counterpoint to Kimberley.

OK, it’s time for a rant! Why oh why do people skip out of an event before the final plenaries? Those of you who did missed 2 of the best speakers of the conference to get home an hour earlier. IMHO dumb.

So that’s it from me and GeoCommunity for another year. I was able to enjoy the event as a delegate rather than an organiser this year and for me it was probably the best yet although I might try not to commit to two presentations, 2 panels and 2 soapboxes next year. We launched OSM-GB and will be back next year to talk about our successes and lessons learnt. I made new friends, drank too much for a man of my age, probably inadvertently offended someone via the twitter stream, had a lot of fun and most of all realised how lucky I was to be a part of the GeoCommunity.

A big thank you  to Jeremy Morley and his conference team and the remarkable, unflappable AGI core staff who achieve so much with such a small team.

Thanks to Gary, the tweet stream is here so those of you who were not there can get an irreverent flavour of the conversation around the event. These wordles from Chris over at Web-GIS are also worth a look.

Same time (roughly), same place, next year

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