Creative Commons for the Ordnance Survey?? We can but hope . . . .

Friday, 16 December, 2005

The Journal of Maps has hit many problems when trying to publish maps containing Ordnance Survey data. So much so that we recommend that authors donot submit maps containing OS data licensed through JISC (distributed from Digimap). At the Journal of Maps I have also listed papers I have had published related to the work we do and one of the “common threads” is the problem in publishing third-party data. One partial solution to this problem is the “relaxing” of license conditions for the non-commercial use of copyright data (through a creative commons style license). This has been adopted by the forward thinking Creative Archive Group, which includes the BBC. This allows limited free access for non-commercial use of their data.

Can the OS adopt a simlar “style” license?? We can but hope, however its gratifying to note that people within the OS clearly think this is a good idea (see Ed Parson’s blog).

Buncefield Air Pollution Monitoring

Thursday, 15 December, 2005

Nobody can have missed the massive explosion (supposedly the largest peacetime fire in Europe) that rocked the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead, UK, this week. I actually live within 10 miles of the depot and felt the blast wave early on Sunday morning. The depot is sited close to a motorway within an industrial estate. And although there is residential housing close by, the area is primarily light industry. Safety concerns rapidly moved from those close by, to the effects of smoke as they rapidly covered London and the south-east. Sunday was an unusually windless day and, due to a winter temperature inversion, the effects of both the sound of the blast and the pollution, were concentrated at lower altitudes and not dissipated.

Satellite imagery has played a key role in monitoring the spread of smoke and two key sensors have been employed:

  1. MERIS - mounted on board the European Space Agencies ENVISAT, MERIS is a hyperspectral system with a 300m spatial resolution. With a rapid 3-day revisit capacity it is very good at monitoring a variety of environmental phenomena.
  2. MODIS - mounted on board NASA’s TERRA and AQUA satellites, MODIS offers daily revisits at 250m spatial resolution and, because there are two satellites, two images per day are available (AM for TERRA and PM for AQUA). One of the key sites for environmental monitoring is the Rapid Fire system. Near-real time imagery is delivered to the site for download and use. If you look through the archives for Sunday (11th) and Monday (12th) there are images of the fire available.

Bluetooth Folding Keyboard

Sunday, 4 December, 2005

A while back I purchased I purchased a Freedom Keyboard. This is a very neat bluetooth folding keyboard that is compatible with a wide variety of PDAs and Smartphones. An ideal companion for work on the move and exceptionally well designed. I got mine from Proporta who sell (and manufacture) a whole host of PDA accessories (including the excellent aluminium case). They also have one of the best no-nonense guarantees I have come across.

Remote Control

Saturday, 3 December, 2005

I regularly need to log back in to my broadband (1Mbit) system at home and have used a variety of different bits of software to do this. I’ve brought together a quick summary of the more useful ones:

  • UltraVNC (open source) - a very good development of the VNC product that allows you to “remote control” your system by viewing the remote desktop screen. Typical configuration involves the use of a server (on the remote machine) and client that you use to connect to it (although there are a variety of variations on this theme). Of all the VNC developments this is one of the fastest and has added extra developments including file transfer. Simple to set up as well.
  • Barracuda Drive (freeware) - a web based (both http and https) server that allows you to log in to your file system and upload, download or delete files. Very handy for quick access to files; it’s to simple install the server and then simply use a web browser to access it.
  • OpenVPN (open source) - VPNs are the most grown up solution to remote access. They require both a client and a server to allow you actually become part of the computer network on the remote machine, meaning you can access resources as if you were physically on the network. As a result they tend to be more expensive and require more knowledge to setup. OpenVPN is a robust open source VPN that works very well. Only really suited to combining disparate machines together (e.g. home and office) rather than access your home machine on the hoof.

It’s worth noting that if you have a “home” broadband connection you need to know the IP address of your connection and this is often prone to changing. A very good solution is to use a free service like DynDNS which can monitor changes in your IP address and dynamically map those changes to a fixed URL (e.g.

Coffee Grinders

Friday, 2 December, 2005

As a footnote to the earlier blog on good places to buy fresh coffe, it goes without saying that coffee beans remain fresh far longer than ground coffee. Good coffee means coffee beans, which means a coffee grinder.

There are quite alot of grinders (or add-ons for blenders) available around the 20 mark, however they are all based around blades that chop the beans up. Although it works, it generally produces a poor ground coffee for two reasons. Firstly, it generates quite a lot of heat which starts to “cook” the beans releasing essential oils (you might notice the beans becoming oily). Secondly, it is actually quite difficult to get a consistant (and fine) grind. The (recommended) alternative is to get a burr-type grind which crushes the beans. These are (naturally!) more expensive but produce a reliable grind. I personally use a Dualit Grinder which has been faithful.

By the way, for a good laymans guide to all things coffee I highly recommend The Joy of Coffee by Corby Kummer.

Portable Coffee

Wednesday, 30 November, 2005

Of course you can’t always been near a quality espresso all the time which means the need for portable coffee solutions. My two favourites (because the are neat in a “portable” way) currently are:

  • Swiss Gold Filter - this is an “on-cup” filter that is re-usable (rather than the disposable version used in restaurants). Drip filter coffee provides a good brew and the simplicity of the design, as well as portability, make this a great office device. It incorporates a gold-plated filter for a btter brew.
  • Smart Cafe Travel Cafetiere - cafetieres also produce nice brews, although they tend to be fuller and less smooth than filter or espresso. The Smart Cafe design is clever and ideally suited to hotels and cards.

New GPS Kit

Monday, 28 November, 2005

We use GPS fairly regularly in the Centre for GIS at Kingston so tend to keep an eye on developments in kit, particularly those that are useful for human geography/geoscience. We currently use (in conjunction with PDAs running ESRI’s Arcpad) some Fortuna Slim bluetooth GPSs which are cheap and sufficient for many purposes.

Recent announcements up the ante for low-cost, accurate, GPS. In particular the fully integrated Trimble GeoXH which claims a <30cm post-processed accuracy. For a little bit more money you can acquire the Thales Promark 3 which boasts <1m real-time accuracy and <1cm post-processed.

Blackboard Experiences

Sunday, 27 November, 2005

I don’t know about other users, but I have a mixed reaction to the use of “virtual learning environments” (in my case Blackboard). On the one hand I am a proponent of the web based dissemination of learning materials. If you are to integrate this within an environment that incorporates enrolment, then the benefits can be clearly seen (e.g. summative and formative testing, access restrictions etc). However this is not a grown up networking environment; just look at the rich facilities available to users of Microsoft Sharepoint. The overarching web-based, group-based, environment is still the same, but the facilities and power are so much more apparent. That said, Sharepoint is clearly not directed at educational environments. So for the moment Blackboard it is and, to a large extent, it does a reasonable job. However one key area is dissemination of learning materials and in Blackboard this requires adding learning materials one at a time; a painfully slow experience. Not only that, but if you come to download past modules, then the XML-only format is painful-in-the-extreme to work with.

One of the features supported by Blackboard is the uploading of “package” files. These are standard ZIP files that you can use to contain mini web sites. For me, they are the ideal means to create your own easily updatable material that can be uploaded to Blackboard. Not only that, but they are easy to extract from the debris of an exported Blackboard XML file should you so need. You can also apply your own design, including the use of forms, to create a bespoke and, if you’re good enough, rich environment. A little bit of flexibility and lateral thinking is a good thing, particularly in the world of Blackboard.


Saturday, 26 November, 2005

At Kingston University we use Blackboard as our learning management system for registering students on modules and allowing interaction with course material. Specifically I use Blackboard for the distribution of lectures/practicals (including data), assignment submission, sitting exams and group interaction.

Something I have been increasingly using is the exam mode where students take formative and summative exams. The benefits for me are a unified environment for sitting exams, automatic grading, instant feedback and easy to download marks. In addition I can monitor at how students perform on different parts of the exam and so help me write better exams in the future. This semester I have been experimenting with weekly formative multiple choice questions (MCQs) and have generally been pleased with the rapid feedback and progression of the students. Setting MCQs takes considerable time (I have written well over 100!) which then requires them to be incorporated in to the Blackboard environment. KU have therefore invested in Respondus for generating tests and uploading/integrating them in to Blackboard. I have to say that I am converted to using Respondus; it is relatively simple to use, generates fully operational questions and has so far seamlessly integrated in to Blackboard. And if you purchase the “campus” version it can publish to multiple courses.

For me the benefits are off-line exam composition, local storage of exams and easy upload/setup of exams. Its not perfect though as it uses an almost completely non-standard window environment that feels antiquated and loosely based upon an HTML page. It does try to present a wizard-style interface but I personally don’t like it. It also insists upon storing all exams in a “data” directory; yes you can change this to any directory on your system (and I have changed this from its location in “Programe Files” to “My Documents”), however this is irksome as I much prefer working in a file-based manner. This means I would normally store the exams with the other teaching materials for a module and then double click on it to start Respondus. Not so, you have to start Respondus and then load a file from its data directory. I can only request that software companies try to stick to default windows work methods otherwise you end up with a horrible mush of usability add-ons that end up confusing the user. That said, it does what it says on the tin and does it very well.

Prosumer camera RAW files

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

As part of my project exploring the use of kite-based remote sensing I have been using a Nikon D70 to take aerial imagery. Initially I have been shooting images and storing then as RAW mode files. This is an interesting area as, for the D70, the images are initially captured in 12-bit mode (per channel). I was quite surprised by this as I had been expecting 24-bit colour images, with 8-bits for each of the red, green and blue channels. The Nikon is somewhat unusual as it stores then in the proprietary Nikon NEF format; this can be uncompressed or compressed. It would appear that the compressed format (the only one available for the D70) quantises the data down to 9.5-bit, although the dynamic range is maintained.

Anyway, once you have NEF files (or any other RAW mode files) you need to convert them to something that most bits of image processing or remote sensing software can understand. I had initially used Adobe Photoshop, however it applies a shed-load of post-processing to the file (to make it look nice). If you are interested in “raw” pixel values then you need something else. Thankfully DCRAW came to the rescue. This is a command line programme that has reverse-engineered the structure of a whole swathe of commercial RAW files, allowing you to convert them to PSD (Photoshop) or TIFF formats. Usefully for an impatient person like me, RAWDROP has provided a graphical frontend to this. The final result does not look nice, but you do get the raw pixel values to play with.