Category Archives: geospatial

*mashup Event: Location: It’s moving on….

Perhaps somewhat ironically, finding the mashup event on location was difficult, even with a smart phone , which brought out some of the pros and cons of using location.It was raining hard so rather than juggle my umbrella and my phone I had a quick look at the map on my phone before I got out of the tube station at Aldgate then didn’t refer to it until I was lost.

Onto the meeting itself and it was the usual vibrant mix of entrepreneurs and those interested in the subject material.  That meant a lively meeting with plenty of audience questions and some thought provoking views from the panel, who included Vodafone, Yahoo, Broadsight and Rummmble (hope I have that name right).

Broad points that came out of it that we need to be considered in academia were, I think:-

  • It’s going to be the tools in the background such as OpenStreetMap and GeoNames that do the heavy lifting to make location successful (or not).  This could equally apply to the geo services we run in education such as the Geo suite from EDINA;
  • Audience is nothing without data.  It’s notable that the services that have started up and failed are the ones that provide a service and don’t get data from users.  I think this could apply to academia too.  Whilst services need to provide value to the user they also need to have some route to being sustainable and having data about what users are doing is going to be valuable in providing this but in a different way to the commercial sector.  Academic geo services are going to have to work out who wants this data and what they are going to do with it in a way that is acceptable to users (for more on this see below);
  • Where you have been is more important than where you are.  Linked to the above, location data is useful over time but it a lot less useful when you have a very slender slice of time over which it is measured (ie now!).  For academic use, I think this is particularly important to bear in mind as there is potential to use geo data for one application and then use the derived data set from usage for an entirely different application – that derived set is only going to get more useful as more time is spent on the original application.  As an example, many campuses are now using interactive campus maps that use geo services and pass back a user’s location.  Analysing this data could well be very useful for a range of applications such as understanding human searching behaviour in a physical environment or even analysing the physics of crowds;
  • It is vital to understand what the use case is for location and then bring the tools to the use case rather than bringing the use cases to the tools.  It sounds simple but how many times have we done the latter in higher education?
  • It is easier to move users to new technology such as geo-location in small steps than to move them in one big step.  Again, this seems a relatively simple assertion but it is immensely useful in terms of how geo-location is introduced.  Taking our campus map example above, it has a use case, the applications often sit on top of what students already have in terms of hardware and it is building on what they use already.  More complex geo apps can come over time;
  • Users are likely to want applications where they can see other users and yet they themselves can’t be seen.  There’s an obvious flaw in this but it’s something that I would imagine is going to be a particular problem in academia with concerns over privacy.  There needs to be some resolution to it, which could be aggregation via anonymisation or what seems to be becoming a standard approach of giving granular controls over who can see where you are and how accurately they can see where you are, ranging from city level right down to where the device they are carrying can locate the person;
  • The Janus face of location – there are good and bad sides to geolocation.  It’s likely the bad side is going to cause more press and raise more concerns. has been the most recent, where those who share their location on Foursquare have had that data used to show when they are away from their house.  There are obviously patterns that can be discerned here too.  However, the flip side is that any would-be criminal could far more effectively do this by simply sitting outside someone’s house so it’s important to appreciate the risks but not overstate them;
  • Privacy of data v usefulness of releasing it– as with all business events, there had to be an equation.  This one is going to prove important in academia.  There will be a sweet spot where the value of the information that users give away is balanced by the utility of what they get out of the application.  Again, a bit of a no-brainer but in the time of fEC and reduced spending then any application/service but particularly new ones are going to have to prove their worth to stay sustainable.  It will be interesting to see whether this is at a different place for academia and what the tradeoff is.  In a commercial world it is relatively easy to see that a large number of people are happy to give up, say, their shopping habits to well-known supermarkets for vouchers.  What will be the equivalent in HE and FE?
  • Smartphones aren’t it – we keep on talking about what devices apps are going to run on and what we have seen at JISC so far is that smartphones have been a popular platform.  However, only a small percentage of the population are going to have smartphones so what happens for the others?  That’s going to need some thought as to have equal access then it’s a question that needs resolving.  A thought provoking insight from the panel was to ask how many people carried an Oyster card then to reveal that it is a location device that benefits both you and the provider.  Could access cards in institutions prove to be the first location device that is broadly adopted on campus and what would they be used for?
  • Aggregators.  The panel argued that the iPhone is a good example of this.  Apple didn’t provide anything novel in the individual features; they’d all been seen before.  What was novel was how it was brought together.  There was a strong feeling that this moment was yet to happen for location but once it had happened it could have a large impact;
  • Beware what location data can be used for – the panel raised the point that Google carried out the StreetView project then shortly afterwards they ended their relationship with Teleatlas for map data.  Whilst location data can be obtained for one use it could prove to be useful elsewhere.  Perhaps something to bear in mind for academia working with commercial providers.

mashup Augmented Reality Event, 2009

I went along to the Augmented Reality(AR) mashup event  yesterday evening to see what was happening outside the education sector for augmented reality.   JISC has been involved in a number of projects using smartphones and the Walking through Time project is looking at using AR to be able to show users what streets used to look like (see the project video of what the project is doing).  I can see that JISC are likely to do more with AR.  The uses in research, particularly, could be very exciting.  Imagine an archaeology dig, for example, where you could have layer and finds information overlaid on what you were seeing through the camera on your smartphone.

The first thing that struck me about the event was the popularity and range of people there.  When I arrived at 6pm, there was a queue at the reception desk of those who had turned up on the night and failed to get a place and the attendees included small private companies, large multinationals, government agencies and representatives of national interest groups.

The event had a multitude of themes running through it both in the room and on a lively Twitter backchannel (#mashupevent).  I’ve tried to pick out a few of those below that I think are particularly relevant:

–          What do we mean by AR?  This was an interesting question because some apps are fairly close to traditional multimedia apps.  It was also useful to be reminded that AR has been around for 15-20 years.  The reason for the current excitement is the potential of putting it into people’s hands through their phones and laptops; devices that they have easy access to rather than expensive specialist devices that are only used for AR.  The eventual definition that the meeting seemed to settle on was any application that added information to what the user was currently seeing and so augmented their reality.  I think it’s going to be important to settle on one meaning and work with that but not spend too much effort getting there;

–          AR has the potential to excite users because of its very visual nature.  This has both an upside and a downside.  What we’re seeing at the moment looks spectacular but how useful is it, which is a particular concern when we get to education?  I loved what companies such as Total Immersion were doing, using 2D images on paper to trigger generation of 3D images on screen; it grabs your eye immediately.  But there was a question of whether the dull but useful apps such as Connected’s education app that reads bar-codes and then triggers media launching on PlayStation Pockets (PSPs) would ultimately have more impact.  My feeling is that researchers would probably want functionality first.  Another interesting reflection was on not creating a PR soufflé – one company had Stephen Fry endorsing their product but still hasn’t had it approved by Apple, meaning their consumers are excited but don’t have anything to buy.  I think that is equally a useful lesson to take away for JISC; if we develop some cool AR apps then we need to make sure they can be available if they are taken beyond prototype;

–          AR is a medium but not an end in itself.  There was a feeling that what we are seeing at the moment are more gimmicks than solid apps because the apps focus on AR.  Indeed, one brand advisor is more concerned with telling companies NOT to develop an AR app for their brand!  It was agreed that there needs to be a focus on solving the problem by blending AR into the solution.  I think this has a lot of resonance in research applications and there is an argument to explore AR on a small scale at the moment and wait for it to mature before committing to larger projects;

–          For AR to be successful, it needs to have the hardware to be able to run it.  What was noted was that this did not necessarily mean having smartphones and one person even suggested that there may be AR phones.  My personal feeling is that for the hardware to be rolled out on a mass scale then devices need to be cheap, they need to be carried by a large retailer and they need an indispensable AR app.  A good example of how this is being done in another area is  INQ’s Facebook phone, which is now being carried by a major supermarket retailer in the US;

–          Data was a very interesting topic and unfortunately not one that had much discussion.  AR can give a lot to the user but I think Dan Rickman,  the Chair of the BCS Geospatial Group had a good point when he said that metadata would prove crucial.  I think having attention data geo-located could prove immensely important, bringing space into the equation and allowing us to personalise information and bring it to the researcher based on where they are; it would also make the time dimension more valuable.  There were some apps that showed how useful this could be without attention data including one that showed the nearest tube stations and directions over your cameraphone view (NearestTube by AcrossAir).  This also brings up privacy and how a user controls what data they share about where they are.  Again, a fairly short discussion on this at the meeting but a major issue to be addressed considering many institutions still face considerable challenges on how basic personal data is managed;

–          Standards was another area that was kind of touched on.  Somewhat worryingly, some of the panel felt that it was important to develop proprietary apps and then sort of get to the standards from there.   I think there needs to be a bit more work here as otherwise we’re going to end up with a mess of uninteroperable apps.  Sure, build the standards alongside practical experience but don’t wait until there is a wealth of practical experience and try to build from there;

An interesting comment from one of the panellists, to sum up, was ‘augmented reality is about looking through the window and not just looking at the window’.  I think when we can get to that state then AR will have truly taken off.  Until then, there is quite a bit more exploring to do to make it practically useful for researchers.