Mobile Phones

I thought I would write a short blog about my mobile phone. Sounds a bit sad really, but, much like your desk, your phone says alot about you! Unlike most of the population in the UK, I have not really found mobiles to be particularly exciting: they make phone calls. OK, if you like your Crackberry then they can do more than that, but if Im not at my PC then I dont want to “do” email. Ringtones: sad. Games: pathetic. Pictures: take a proper camera. So what do I use?? Well its a Motorola T180 (right). It was bottom of the range in 2001!!! I’ve had one replacement battery, which lasts all week on one charge, and nothing else. Its been accidently catapulted across the room countless times and still works fine. Does everything I want and keeps on working.

That Abomination Called Sat-Nav

Whilst being a big user of GIS, I am NOT a fan of sat-nav or GPS for that matter. I am very much of the opinion that paper maps have a very specific domain and that the use of technology for the sake of it is not a good option. Being able to read a map and navigate to your destination is by far the most preferable option. This was reinforced to me recently when a colleague mentioned they had been following a sat-nav system and hit a road that was temporarily closed. At that point the sat-nav became useless, leading to a situation of “flounder-and-panic”. I also similarly think that, given the high quality topographic maps we have in the UK, there is no place for GPS in hiking situations. You need to be able to read a map. If you can’t, a GPS will be of no help. So please don’t buy an in-car sat-nav system; instead use your brain to navigate. This engages you as a driver and, when things do go wrong, you will actually be spatially aware as to alternative options open to you.

Guardian Continues the “Free Our Data” Campaign

The Guardian continues its campaign to Free Our Data this week. Whilst Tim Berners Lee was the “headline” discussion, with further comment from Ed Parsons, what the article was really trying to get across was that the OS is being publicly hit again for restrictive practices with respect to its data. In particular the article reports on the Office of Public Sector Information’s review of the OS and its (to be frank “scathing”!) criticism of their licensing practises, particularly with respect to derived data. Any commercial licensee of OS data will be put off by the “we own anything you do with our data” policy which many commercial GI companies DONOT insist upon. So, the campaign continues….

Google Mars

In between all the legal filings last week, Google somewhat quietly launched Google Mars. And we thought they were content with just global domination; the universe beckons! Anyway, wrapped up in the standard Google Maps interface, Google has allowed access to three main NASA datasets:

OK so we cant really use this for quantitative work, but it again leverages the ability to explore large datasets very easily. I know we will be using it in our planetary science classes.

External HDD Problems

Given that I work at home as well as in the office, it is imperative that I maintain a single working “copy” of my data. To this end I realised a long time ago that some kind of synchronisation was necessary and, in the end, I’ve focussed on an external HDD, principally because of the speed/capacity benefits. What this means is that when I’m in the office I work straight off the drive (including my portable email client which has a 1Gb message base) and when I’m at home this gets synchronised to the main system, and I then work off that copy. As a side note that means I have two copies; the data directories get backed up daily to a single internal HDD and then this (and all the versioning) gets backed up once a week to another external HDD.

So the main HDD I use in work is a small 2.5” (as used in notebook PCs) drive which has the benefit of being bus powered. I recently upgraded from the 20Gb drive (formatted as FAT32) to a newer 80Gb drive (due to size I formatted it as NTFS); a problem of the gradual accumulation of both data and MP3s. It was at this point I came across a problem which took quite a while to solve.

THE SYMPTOMS: having refreshed all my data on to the drive I took it in to work. I could read and write to the drive, but I couldn’t alter data currently on the drive.

THE SOLUTION: A bit of poking around led me to the Security tab (on the file Properties dialogue) which showed me that only Administrators were allowed to modify data. A file settings problem then which would have to be repaired at home. At home there was no Security tab which, after a bit of head scratching, turned out to be because I am running XP Home at home. One of the subtle differences between XP Pro and XP Home. Further scouring of the internet led me to a “patch”, originally released by Microsoft for NT4, which adds the Security tab. Sure enough this worked on XP Home and let me add the requisitie file permissions to my drive.

All in all this was quite an accumulation of problems which would easily have defeated the average Joe in the street!

Future of Ordnance Survey

An article in the Guardian entitled Give Us Back Our Crown Jewels seems to have caused a bit of a stir in various quarters. On the one hand we have the strongly “pro” free access to public data lobby, such as Jo Walsh, whilst on the other we have the slightly more sceptical stance taken by Ed Parsons (CTO at the Ordnance Survey). The article takes the position that various “public bodies” have a mandate to collect data. Examples include the Hydrographic Office, Meterological Office and Ordnance Survey. This data is expensive to collect/collate and this expense ensures that these organisations hold an effective monopoly over the markets they enter. As part of the (Tory) government of the period, to ensure that these organisations were “efficient” they were required to “pay their own way” and therefore sell their data. This may well seem a good idea, however as Arthur and Cross illustrate this can be counter-productive to the “wealth of the nation”. To a certain extent the current government realises this (e.g. Hansards), however the Office of Fair Trading’s investigation into these effective monoplies illustrates the problems that still exist.

Ed Parsons rightly points out some significant factual flaws in the article. For example the OS is not a government agency but a Trading Fund with a controlling stake held by the government. Also, the success of Google Earth is down to the commercial data is has licensed, paid for and is currently leveraging.

However the central idea in the article in well expressed. The OS does produce one of the best, if not the best, mapping products in the world (significantly better than the US). However the pricing and licensing structures donot benefit the nation as much as it should. To say that the OS is not government funded is slightly economical given that nearly 50% of income is from government contracts. This uncovers a certain unease beneath the surface in that it makes you wonder how much more the data would be used by government if it were truly “free”. Indeed the Environment Agency have acknowledged that whilst MasterMap is the best product to help with flood modelling, the ludicrously strict intellectual property rights attached to it (i.e. “anything you “derive” from our data we own”; I know I’ve mentioned this in several articles so don’t get me started!) meant they they devised an entire modelling strategy based around not using OS data!!! BUT THEY ARE (essentially) TWO GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS!!! And then we have the whole debacle about creating a single address database for the UK, organised between the OS, local government and the Post Office. Local government have a mandate to collect and maintain this information, whilst the OS and Post Office develop and use products based upon it. Except some in local government are not keen in handing over address data as they believe they will have to pay to use their own data if they give it to the OS. And then we have the IPR issue again.

This really is a complete and utter mess. Mapping (and the national geospatial databases) are absolutely vital to the wealth of the nation. Of course the OS didn’t ask to be a Trading Fund. That is the remit it has to operate in and the alternative, at the time of its creation, was to become a commercial entity. Arguably the worse option. So the question is what to do now?? Well Arthur and Cross clearly want back the “Crown Jewels”. And rightly so however this is out of the hands of the OS. We need strong leadership from the government to say that we need a properly funded national mapping agency to maintain is tradition of standards of the highest quality, whilst truly benefitting the nation.

Please enable extensions, I just won’t tell you!

OK, so I seem to be getting a bit frustrated with ArcMap at the moment. Perhaps it’s because I use it a fair bit and it really is very good at pulling data together to play with and produce output. Anyway, I was delivering a class on planetary GIS to 2nd year specialists at Kingston and was showing them how to open MOLA DEM data, add projection information and then, using Spatial Analyst, produce some relief shaded images. I also got them to further explore aspect and slope images as well. I then got them digitising geological landforms in order to produce some rudimentary maps. All very good except that well I loaded the Spatial Analyst toolbar all the options were greyed out.

I should say I am partly to blame here because I have twice before come across this and fixed it after a little head scratching. But I had forgetton yet again. Even if you haven’t purchased any of the extensions ESRI sell, they are installed, but not enabled by default. So yes you can load the Spatial Analyst toolbar, but unless you enable from the Tools->Extensions menu then it won’t work. Simple enough to solve but why can’t I get a sensible error message??

Blackboard Content Management System

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I upload my entire learning materials for a module as a “packaged” ZIP file in to Blackboard. This, for me, is the best (flexible) scenario for managing my learning materials. Well, Bb have realised that their current system is, well, not great and when institutions archive material and copy across the previous years module to the following year, there are enormous space implications. Hence the arrival of the Blackboard Content Management System. Which is essentially a users’ own little portion of hard disk space that they can do with as they choose. The nice feature for instructors is that you can link entire modules to specific directories/files, rather than having to upload them individually or as package files. And the CMS is WebDAV enabled meaning that you can drag and drop files to upload them. This combines a great deal of robustness and flexibility. Which for me means that I still create and HTML index page to all my materials, but these are now fully located within the CMS. And of course if you have to edit the index page and upload one file, its easy to do. So thumbs up from me for the moment.