Code Sprint scholarship – Kenya

Kaizer Moreri, CEG PhD student from Botswana, researching aspects of Volunteered Geographic Information in improving Land Administration Systems, was awarded a full travel scholarship to contribute to a ‘code sprint’ in Kenya this week. Second from left in the attached photo, Kaizer was invited along with 25 others from Europe and Africa to develop and contribute code to enhance the Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM) – a pro-poor, gender responsive and participatory land information system developed by the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN). This intensive four day workshop was held at the Regional Centre for Mapping and Rural Development (RCMRD), a pan African institution located in Nairobi, and tweets ( report that this was an exciting event.

Kenya Code Sprint - Kaizer Moreri

International Map Year

Did you know that 2015-16 is International Map Year?  Newcastle University has representation on the working group promoting this UN-endorsed project. See for details about the world-wide nature of this set of events and awareness raising.

One IMY-badged event which took place in June 2016 in Newcastle, at the renowned Literary and Philosophical Society on Westgate Road ( was an exhibition by Karen Rann, tracing the history of the contour line.  There is some merit to the claim that Geordie mathematician and surveyor James Hutton was the first to apply contour lines to assist in the mapping of terrain.  The task of measuring the Scottish mountain of Schiehallion was a scientific project of immense significance and, as Karen describes in her extensive blog (, Hutton was charged with producing the equivalent of a surface model for the geophysicists to work with.  Karen’s blog relates her story of a dedicated search for the origin of the contour line, and her exhibition reflected that.

Cartographic methods of displaying terrain data have some synergy with the creative endeavour shown in Karen Rann’s work.  David Fairbairn’s contribution reproduced below considered some of the more traditional characteristics of contour mapping, as undertaken by geomaticians – but with an artistic output:

Representing the land surface using contours

As is evident from Karen Rann’s Great Lines project, a pattern of contour lines can be used to quantitatively model a rigorous framework for terrain, but can also be applied more impressionistically to convey a sense of the shape and variations of the earth’s surface.

Mapmakers have no control over the location of the contour lines which represent reality, but their graphical appearance can be modified to give particular effects.  For example, the colour of a contour line on a standard topographic map can be used to reflect the nature of the surface: blue contour lines over ice, black contour lines over rock, brown contour lines over soil:


Other characteristics of lines, such as form (dashed lines, continuous lines) and thickness, can be used to modify the appearance of the contour pattern.  An effective combination, varying colour/shade and thickness, is that proposed by Japanese cartographer Kitiro Tanaka in the 1950s.  Sometimes called ‘illuminated contours’, this method of rendering the contour lines shows them lighter if they are on a terrain slope facing towards the north-west, and darker on slopes facing south-east.  In addition, the lines are made slightly thicker if they face directly north-west or south-east, and thinner otherwise.  The example below shows this method applied to the contours of Schiehallion: the result is a pseudo-three-dimensional portrayal of the terrain surface, helping with the interpretation of the contour pattern:




ESRI UK User Conference Tuesday 17 May

This year’s ESRI Annual Conference took place once more in the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.  It was good to meet up with several Newcastle graduates, each making their mark on the GI industry.  The major ‘take-away message’ from this year’s conference was the increasing ease by which the traditionally ‘clunky’ ArcGIS desktop can be left behind in favour of developing using ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online, products with regular and frequent update cycles and increasingly comprehensive functionality.

From the perspective of ESRI, David Rix (1976 graduate) and Dominic Stubbins (1995) were amongst the welcoming corporate hosts, contributing to an efficiently-run and informative event, well worth the trip from the north!  Nathan Ward (1993) was manning the Leica stall, one of several associated partners exhibiting in the building.  Laura Hanson (2003 graduate), now with Arup, and Rachel Oldroyd (2011 graduate), now with the University of Leeds, were ex-staff members spotted, along with Meredith Williams (staff 2000-2010).

Joining Dominic from the 1995 cohort was Ian Moodie, whilst from even further even back, Rob Knight and Helen Durham (both 1985) are both thriving.  Clive Surman-Wells (1988) and Andy Hopkins (1996) made their presence known also, along with some 21st century graduates – Bruce Ford (2009), Claire Watkins (2009), Victoria Short and Matt Bowerbank (2010), Matthew Bierton (2014) and Jonathan Hallam (2015).

Next week, the re-unions will continue in London at the GeoBusiness event.  There is a formal Newcastle alumni meeting on Tuesday 24 May at 15:00 hrs.  Come along to the Business Design Centre in Islington, if you are in town …

GIS students present research projects Friday 13 May

This week saw the annual ‘Final Year Conference’, the showcase for the Stage 3 Geomatics students to present their dissertation research in a formal venue to their fellow students and to the staff and postgraduates in the School.  A total of 31 Newcastle Geomatics students delivered talks in two parallel tracks with themed session titles including ‘Built Environment’, Spatial Analysis’ and ‘Geovisualisation’.  The 12 final-year Geographic Information Science students’ topics were as follows:

Nada Alabdulwahed used an impressive range of satellite remote sensing imagery from the past 20 years to track the urban development of the city of Al Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia.  Standard image analysis and classification techniques along with ground truthing and integration with other data on population and land reclamation allowed for accurate quantification of urban growth.

Ed Drummond-Hay researched house price changes across England and Wales, using millions of records from Land Registry, ONS and commercial sources.  His hypothesis was that house price increases in London ‘rippled’ out from the capital to affect the rest of the country after a time lag.  The dynamic and animated representation of such patterns was an important part of the output from Ed’s research.

Emmanuel Egunyu aimed to create an online website resource to promote tourism in his native Uganda.  Using OpenStreetMap data and open source technologies with PostGIS and Geoserver, he reported on the creation of a map-based information portal for those planning to visit national parks and view wildlife in this country.

Alexia Fenn’s study concentrated on the validity and reliability of observations from GPS receivers worn by athletes.  A variation of sport/athletics course shapes, course distances, and exercise/movement intensities were examined.  Walking, jogging, and sprinting over various distances and in a variety of course configurations were examined, with GPS accuracies determined for each exercise regime.

Will Franklin developed a system to estimate the safety of junctions on the road network in Newcastle.  By calculating a Junction Risk Factor, based on a number of parameters related to road conditions and traffic volumes, he was able to develop a predictive model to determine the optimum location for investment in road network improvements.

Jo Gallagher’s interest in spatially-enabled Twitter data led to a study of the geolocation of football clubs’ fan base.  He found that the ‘bigger’ the club, the more dispersed the distribution of fans – backing up the popular theory that the mean location of a Manchester United fan is some distance from Old Trafford.

Patryck Janicki’s research aimed to develop a geodatabase schema able to hold both CityGML data at Level of Detail 1 and main Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) classes.  The ability of the schema to abide by standards, allow for SQL queries, hold geometry effectively, was to be supplemented by an effective visualisation flowline through export to QGIS.  The outcomes of this project have impact on the integration of BIM with GIS.

This was also the focus of the research of Anthony Morley, who examined current technologies for importing a BIM model into a geospatial environment and assessing interoperability.  This involved using a range of software and data formats, including ArcMap, ArcScene, ESRI City Engine, REVIT, AutoCAD and FME.  The geometric and semantic integrity of the model, and the needs of users were considered.

Amber Kaye-Kenyon chose the analytical capabilities of ArcMap, ArcScene and City Engine (including Buffer, Viewshed and Line of Sight (LOS)) to look at the modelling of an urban sensor network.  In the context of the instrumented city concepts being developed in Newcastle upon Tyne, particularly around the university’s new Science Central campus, ease of use, visualisation and effective monitoring of the sensor network were derived.

Ben Nicholls undertook a very detailed study of some of the rich cartographic generalisation tools in ArcGIS.  Applying these to different types of feature (railways, contours, buildings etc. as represented on large scale Ordnance Survey data), and in different locations (e.g. central urban zones, rural regions), Ben presented an impressive assessment of the data pre-processing, algorithm effectiveness and presentation quality of such procedures.

Josh Watson’s theme was a big data set dealing with cardiac arrests outside hospital.  The spatial and temporal distribution of these events was determined, as a precursor to understanding the nature of the phenomenon and to try to raise low survival rates in the North East.  Clusters of cases were apparent and these were linked to population distribution, to ambulance stations and response times, and to times of day, season and year.

Imogen Weight made a comparative study of several web mapping APIs, assessing data needs, scope of functionality, usability, and final appearance of maps created in Leaflet, Mapbox, and the dedicated Javascript APIs for Google Maps and for ArcGIS.

The remaining students (Surveying and Mapping Science students) pursued research topics in a wide range of other spatial themes, many of which have a GIS ‘flavour’.  Environmental monitoring of coasts, glaciers, urban heat, and floods used GIS tools, as did further investigations of BIM, and further social investigations of education from a GI perspective.

Reflections on GISRUK 2016

The 24th GISRUK conference took place last week in the University of Greenwich.  After significant Newcastle input to the 2015 GISRUK in Leeds, this year saw a smaller presence – just David Fairbairn and Kaizer Moreri attended, each with a poster, each on VGI and the fidelity and value of such citizen-sourced data for applications in national mapping and in land registration systems; the overall attendance and size of programme was certainly smaller than previously. 

The venue was certainly impressive, Greenwich (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) looking stunning in the spring sunshine.  The university’s vice-chancellor, David Maguire – GIS guru from his time at ESRI and his continued joint authorship of ‘the book(s)’ – welcomed us, thanking the main organisers, Zena Wood and Mike Worboys from the Greenwich GIS Research Group.

There was the usual variety of sessions and papers, with some unusual focus on gazetteers, on novel systems and applications (e.g. an innovative tourist guide to Lancaster), and on VGI issues and uses.  Those ex-Newcastle GISRUK stalwarts from Maynooth introduced us to some interesting personalities, responsible to addressing GIS concepts long before GIS was ever thought of …

Workshops and challenges, and an appeal to informality which benefits the large number of MSc students brought along to GISRUK every year, are what can be expected from this annual meet-up.

The three keynotes, well-scheduled throughout the programme, were the highlights: Ross Purves (University of Zurich) demonstrated the enduring value of his long-standing research on tags, semantics, ontologies, and full text retrieval and analysis; Nye Parry (University of Greenwich) took us on a tour of music (and dissonance) which had a spatial aspect to it; and Jeremy Morley (an external examiner at Newcastle in a previous life), demonstrated, amongst other things, the response of Ordnance Survey to changes and opportunities in GIS technologies, in a wide-ranging and thoughtful presentation.  Amongst his assertions was that fundamentally GIS has not changed in the past 30 years, and that all developments have been incremental ‘add-ons’.  It was ever thus, of course, with Ordnance Survey itself being recognisable, even today, to the apocryphal cavalry officer for whom its maps were created from 1791.  The main debate of the conference, and perhaps one its main outcomes, was about the nature of change in GIS, and whether GIS needs a revolution or continued evolution.

Geospatial in Budapest

The central location of Vienna has allowed me to engage with some more people in the past few weeks. I and the other two members of the International Cartographic Association Statutes Committee, Ferjan Ormeling (Netherlands) and Bengt Rystedt (Sweden) met here a couple of weeks ago to discuss proposals for the ICA General Assembly in August. We were joined by my host here, ICA President Georg Gartner, and the Secretary-General Laszlo Zentai from nearby Budapest. Ferjan, Bengt and myself also form half of the Working Group on International Map Year ( and were able to make some further plans for this UN endorsed event. My ICA work in helping organise our Commission workshop in Curitiba in August continues from afar.

I spent a couple of days in Budapest this week – giving a seminar on VGI at the Eotvos Lorand University Department of Cartography & Geoinformation (a lively group of half a dozen staff and plenty students). It was good to meet again with Laszlo’s colleagues with wide ranging interests (Matyas Gede is currently exploring cave surveying and 3D visualisation, along with citizen mapping of tourist activity; Zsolt Torok is a historian of cartography, but also researches eye tracking; Andrea Podor, from a nearby university, examines environmental GIS and educational issues).

Back in Vienna I have been meeting with colleagues in my extensive host department, Geodesy and Geoinformation which has 7 research groups ( Gerhard Navratil in Geoinformation has interesting views on the topic of VGI and cadastral systems, which I am continuing to engage with Kaizer and Mustafa back in Newcastle. And Gottfried Mandelburger, familiar to Newcastle geomaticians having spent some time with us, has discussed further the archaeological work I have been interested in doing with LiDAR.

I’ve been doing some ‘map use studies’ by finding orienteering events to participate in whilst here – and it’s great that some wonderful terrain is available so close to Vienna and accessible by public transport. I even had a run in the suburbs of Budapest in torrential rain one hour after my seminar finished: a bit beyond the call of duty, but good training for a main event – the academic orienteering championships at the Danube Park next week (yes, there are enough university staff and students in Vienna to have a formal closed championship).

David Fairbairn

Geospatial in the USA

Last week’s trip to the USA reminded me how cartography and GIS are central to American academic geography. I was invited to the Geography and Geology department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) to give a research presentation on my work using LiDAR-sourced data to examine archaeological landscapes. It was good to join later in some of Mike Peterson’s classes: it was clear that his new book, ‘Mapping in the Cloud’, acts as an excellent basis for the syllabus of a course on web mapping. I also discussed the August pre-conference joint ICA Commissions (Education & Training/Maps & the Internet) workshop in Curitiba, Brazil: I chair the former, and Rex Cammack from UNO the latter, so we were able to firm up some of the co-organisation in person.

A couple of days later and 500 miles to the east, the AAG conference in Chicago beckoned and my Education & Training hat was retained, presenting a paper about accreditation in cartography, participating in a panel discussion about the role of cartography in GIS education, and invited to sit in with the luminaries on the UCGIS board crafting the extended ‘Body of Knowledge’ in GIS&T. There was also time to visit the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Volume 6 of the History of Cartography (published by the University of Chicago Press, and covering the 20th century) was launched. At 1,960 pages with 1200 illustrations, in two enormous volumes, it was astonishing to see the magnum opus in print. Luckily, contributors have been offered a .PDF copy, so I did not have to check in excess baggage at the airport …

Back in Vienna this week, I visited Gilbert Kotzbek at the Universitat Wien (which celebrates its 650th birthday this year). I have been discussing his PhD work on the use of GIS to examine football data with him for some time now, and he has created some excellent Python-scripted ArcGIS tools to input, filter, and analyse the staggering amount of spatial and attribute data captured during a game and interpreted after (1/25th second interval positional data for every player and ball, plus information about every event – tackle, throw-in, offside, corner etc). What’s missing in the data is the third dimension – it would be interesting to contrast the style of a long-ball team which keeps the ball in the air a lot, with a close-passing, tiki-taka side. I also had the chance to remind myself of teaching in a classroom, when I had a class with the 15 students of the International Masters MSc course in Cartography (who are all studying in Vienna this semester, having been at Dresden and Munich for previous semesters). This is a very international bunch from Egypt, China, Canada etc and closer to home from close-by Slovakia. The topic was VGI, so I was able to convey some of the thoughts which came out of Maythm Al-Bakri’s PhD study from a couple of years ago, and outline what Kaizer and Mustafa are doing in Newcastle now.

bis zum nächsten Mal …

David Fairbairn

Geospatial in Vienna

It has been a good start to my two month sabbatical in Vienna.  Georg Gartner and his  team at the Technical University (TU) Wien Cartography department have been most welcoming, and my apartment (rented on the viewing of web-site photos alone) is gemutlich.  It is great to be staying in one of my favourite cities.

I remember watching the 2006 World Cup final in a bar in Vienna full of excited Italians.  By contrast, the Liverpool-Newcastle game was dull fare earlier this week: Flanagan’s was still smoky (I’d forgotten what watching a game in a bar where smoking is still allowed is like), but the capitulation of the Toon was no excitement for the (extremely small number of) black and whites.  From the ridiculous to the sublime, the walk back home took me past the final aria of that night’s Opera performance, being beamed live from inside the Vienna Opera House to a sizeable crowd outside.

Included in that crowd I spotted Prof Ana-Maria Coutinho, opera buff and cartography academic from Rio de Janeiro (also vice director of the forthcoming International Cartographic Conference in Brazil in August).  I caught up with her later in the week when she visited the department at the TU.  We had a good chat about the joint ICA Commission on Education &Training/Commission on Maps & the Internet workshop which I am co-organising in Curitiba, before the main event in Rio.

I have been able to put the finishing touches to my presentations for next week in the US, and also finalised some proposals in liaison with the Newcastle archaeologists.  And the texts for the Rio proceedings are due this month – my solo one already in, the paper by Kaizer, Phil and myself just about ready to go.

Auf wiedersehen …

Dr David Fairbairn