Open Geospatial Analytics: Aesthetics, Technology and Ethics

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This Monday in NYC, visionaries from Foursquare, MapR, Chartbeat and Acxiom, among other companies, converged to discuss the unique advantages and pitfalls of open source solutions at the Open Analytics Summit. Among the presenters was Alyssa Wright, vice president and director of solutions at OpenGeo, a provider of commercial geospatial software. During her presentation, she discussed Web mapping software (or the lack thereof) and the options available in the open source space. Information Management’s Whitney Eden sat down with Wright to discuss the unique intersection of open source geospatial analytics and where she sees the field heading.

Information Management: So you’ve worked for OpenGeo for more than four years. So what kind of trends do you see leading the space?

A couple of things. The same way that you’ll see social [media] joining mapping visualization, which I do think is happening more, I think you’ll see other metrics in terms of time. So maps that aren’t just spatial but added the dimension of time or 3D, [especially] in terms of open source tools. You start to see the idea of being able to tell stories through time. And you’re seeing that in a couple different kinds of [work] throughout the industry. 

We’ve been working on this project that’s just about distributed editing. So if you’re out in the field for humanitarian work, you might be without Internet, but you want to be able to say there’s a landmine or there’s danger here or you’ve covered this area. It can be really difficult to do that kind of information collection and bring it back to a central place. So there’s a big initiative right now … and that’s why [there’s a] trend of distributed networks when it comes to creating spatial data. I think you’ll see that more and more with open tools because almost every player now has some sort of open tool, with the idea of open data … and crowdsourcing. This has been an ongoing trend … that will continue to grow bigger.

So I just came back from the OpenStreetMap conference. Right now they have 1.2M registers users and it just keeps going. What I’m interested in is making that a diverse community as well. Right now it’s predominately white, well-educated men, so I’ve been working on [diversification]… these are really important models … these are things that I really believe in. I would like to think that one of the trends is having more diverse voices in the conversation, not just globally … but also gender, class, etc. 

There’s a lot going on. That’s what is exciting about geo right now is that [when] you put the combination of open and geo together, it’s a really exclusive field. We have just really started with geo and Google has done amazing work to help us with a certain amount of literacy around spatial. As a culture, it’s going to be a more and more of a natural way to understand the world, and I was interested in it because in this overwhelm of data. And big data maybe makes it worse, but I’ve been overwhelmed with data for a long time. Putting in on a map helps you; [it] really grounds you. 

How established do you think the field of geospatial and geospatial analytics is? 

I think it’s really advanced, actually. I mean, look at ESRI. There’s a lot to do still. And bringing in different data, the data can be really siloed. You have scientific data in a particular format, and [data] you’re collecting on your cell phone. It can be really difficult to align different data sets because there are many different kinds of formats. But, that said, historically, the ESRI toolset … that’s what spatial analysts do. They are trained experts in this space and they’ve been doing analysis for a long time. 

I think what’s not advanced is real time. You’re able to bring in lots of different kinds of information and communication ... I can think of a little bit of transparency about the algorithms but also communication back to whoever your major stakeholders are. So communication flow … can break down.

So how long have you been involved in the open source community?

About four years. I had heard about it, but I didn’t really get it until I started working at OpenGeo. For me that’s actually been more transformative than the “geo” part, as far as what’s exciting about open source geospatial. It’s a very different way of looking at development and also you have the tools you provide; you’re not just a simple consumer. There’s a much more interesting dialogue. 

What are the unique challenges and/or advantages of open source in geospatial analytics?

So I was reading (Evgeny) Morozov, and he is very hesitant about this idea of analytics and predicative analytics. He’s sort of grumpy about everything and I appreciate it because in this space of, “It’s a utopia,” you have someone who’s saying that there are a lot of things that we need to look at very critically, in a way that’s accessible to different kinds of people. And one of the things he says is that there’s this lack of transparency when it comes to analytics and what’s really powerful having open source and open data (or just the concepts of openness involved with conversations around analytics) is that you have the potential for a lot more transparency. And communities, other organizations, other developers can take the same basis of analysis and make their own stories. That’s fundamentally what maps are. The outcome of any analysis is a narrative and there are many different types of narratives that you can create, so that’s in part why I like maps. Having it open allows you to have the subjectivity that’s part of data and the subjectivity part of analysis a little more visible.

So mapmaking is driven by data and aesthetics; how do you balance the two? Because I see them as two disparate fields and you’re trying to bring them together.  Do you see that as being an issue?

There are multiple types of aesthetics. There’s the aesthetics of the tools and the usability of the tools. There have been a number of smaller companies (and also Google) that have really been pushing the entire industry forward in terms of making tools, [making them] not just aesthetically pleasing but [also] follow some kinds of normal Web ways and metaphors. So the aesthetics of the tools are increasing, and that’s exciting. But in terms of cartography, I’m not trained as a cartographer and we don’t do much about cartography, but I think it’s always a balance between engineering priorities. Sometimes I think that there’s not there’s not much of a difference between engineering and aesthetics, but I think any community can start to value one over the other. The people that are doing aesthetics in the space are what distinguish good tools from bad tools or good communication over others. 

So I think aesthetics are really important, and I think that aesthetics are becoming more important in the dialogue, not just as a communication tool. I would add a third idea of balance and that’s ethics. So technology, aesthetics and ethics. I would imagine that anytime you’re working with an analysis that ethical questions aren’t too far away, so I think it’s good to be aware of that, especially as you work with larger organizations. [For example], where is the data coming from? That’s part of the balance. You’re not necessarily going to hire an ethical officer because you hope that it’s part of the dialogue when you’re creating tools and visualizations.

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