Archive for Ron

Happy Birthday Copernicus

google copernicus canvasGoogle decided to highlight that today is the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The honor bestowed by Google has resulted in dozens of articles in the mainstream media, from The Washington Post to BGR India.


Who is he? And why would we care after 540 years?

podpisCopernicus was a big-idea man – arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun (heliocentric model) when his contemporaries believed otherwise.

A mathematician, physician, and astronomer of Polish descent,  CopernicSystemCopernicus’ heliocentric theory wasn’t published until after his death in 1543 at age 70 from a stroke. And it wasn’t until 60 years later that the much-noted opposition from the Roman Catholic Church became official.

Copernicus was a visionary, a big thinker ahead of his time. And he took a stand, believing what he observed and measured, despite it being contrary to popular belief and doctrine at the time. In an age when big ideas now seem to become accepted within months, it seems ridiculous that such a central truth of the universe waited a hundred years before acceptance, helped along by Galileo Galilei. Perhaps if Copernicus had been able to spread his theory faster, acceptance would have come sooner. However, maybe the culture of thinking has simply evolved to the point where the barriers to innovation are few, and the environment for critical thinking is open.

The birthday is also a reminder of how specialized we have become – what person today can claim to know astronomy, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics while being fluent in five languages? Copernicus developed his ideas based on seeing connections between these fields, and his observations.

A systems-level view, and the connections between components of the whole are fundamental to the science of geography. Copernicus also represents a zeal for the truth, and the gumption to go against common thinking.


A New Look at the Earth: Landsat 8 Launches

Yesterday, NASA launched the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) carry a new Landsat 8 satellite. According to NASA:

LDCM is a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Landsat program has been providing uninterrupted imagery of Earth since the first Landsat in 1972. About three months after liftoff, USGS will take control and the spacecraft will be renamed Landsat 8. Once on station 438 miles above Earth, LDCM will orbit every 99 minutes and image the entire Earth every 16 days.

There’s not much technology that could claim to have contributed to observing the Earth than the Landsat satellites. Since 1972, The Landsat program has provided imagery used to study the Earth, including changes over the last 40 years. The program was almost not started, then had a history of funding trouble, with a stint at being privately run from 1983-1992.

As a graduate student, I studied Landsat 4 imagery to ascertain its cartographic value. While the spatial resolution improved over the previous Landsat imagery, from 75m to 30m, there were still challenges using the data for any robust accurate mapping. According to the USGS, Landsat 5 delivered high-quality, global data of Earth’s land surface for 28 years and 10 months.

This infographic is a good summary of the history and technical information.

A USGS study showed recent Landsat imagery top five uses as forestry, fire, land use, agriculture, and education. The uses of Landsat data continue to be important to society, as detailed in many articles on this NASA Landsat page.


Geography of Personality

Map clip - geography of personality

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries the article, The United States of Mind: Researchers Identify Regional Personality Traits Across America which discusses findings published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

In A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics researchers from  the University of Cambridge,  University of Texas at Austin, and Atof Inc. “present a theoretical account of the mechanisms through which geographic variation in psychological characteristics emerge and persist within regions.” The study maps personality traits by geography alongside geographic indicators of crime, employment, health, social capital, religiosity, and political values.

The study found fascinating correlations, such as high-anxiety states having higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy. See the cool interactive map and decide whether you fit your state’s rankings.

Should You be Making Maps?


A couple of recent blog discussions reminded me of an age-old controversy around computers. Computers automate tasks and allow wider information access, making it easier for more people to do more things with more information. The computer tools continue to improve as more data goes online, thereby accelerating this ongoing trend. Clearly, this has changed many common human activities and given the masses the tools to do things once done by limited circles of people.

Activity in the world of maps, with the rapid growth of online mapping technologies and geographic data, reflects this trend. However, along with the automation comes some heated discussions about the role of professionals.

Google’s Ed Parsons, in “Cartography is dead, long live the map makers” argues that because the display mechanism for maps is now usually computer screens and not paper, that the skill is becoming less relevant.  As I commented on his blog, I think the paintbrush treatment of a complex subject does it some disservice. Do we need cartographers to make all maps? Absolutely not. Do we need them for some maps? Absolutely yes. We also need maps, online or paper, to reflect sound cartographic principles because those principles are based in years of research. Ed’s definition limiting cartography to print is erroneous.

Importantly, and often overlooked, just because it is easy to make maps online does not mean that it is easy to make good maps online. Anyone can use a word processor to write, yet much of what is written is useless to most people.


Much about online mapping is problematic, not only to cartographers but to many disciplines. So called mashups can combine data that is, yes, geographically overlapping. Yet the data is often from sources of different accuracies, time, and scale. Data sources vary in reliability also. So what results from the mashups? Without proper oversight and discipline, mashups are often meaningless or worse, misleading.

I’m all for the explosion of maps and wider uses of geographic information, online and off. But to cast aside cartography, a discipline that was, in part, responsible for us getting here in the first place, and is still actively improving geographic visualization, is simply wrong.

Along these same lines, Sean Gorman recently wrote “The Professional vs. the Amateur: Thoughts on the ESRI UC” about the delineations between “professionals” and “amateurs” made at the user conference. Sean thinks ESRI and other vendors define GIS professionals as those knowing how to use their software, rather than those with expertise in the field of study. This may be true, yet I’ve heard Jack Dangermond discuss this topic and his main issue seems to be on the data side – people with questionable authority providing geodata to be used by others. There is risk in the map making for sure, but if the data sources are unreliable, the resulting visualization will be questionable regardless of the level of expertise of the map maker.

Simply put, good maps come from good data combined with the application of sound cartographic and geographic analysis principles. Both are necessary and whether they come from certified professionals or not is a side issue.

3D Cities to Virtual Worlds

Berlin Molkenmarkt

Recently, The members of the Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. (OGC) adopted version 1.0.0 of the OpenGIS® CityGML Encoding Standard as an official OGC Standard. According to OIGC, CityGML is an open data model framework and XML-based encoding standard for the storage and exchange of virtual 3D urban models. Also, CityGML is an application schema of the OpenGIS Geography Markup Language 3 (GML3) Encoding Standard, an international standard for spatial data exchange and encoding approved by the OGC and ISO.

According to the CityGMLWiki, “targeted application areas explicitly include urban and landscape planning; architectural design; tourist and leisure activities; 3D cadastres; environmental simulations; mobile telecommunications; disaster management; homeland security; vehicle and pedestrian navigation; training simulators; and mobile robotics.”

CityGML derived from efforts in Germany to integrate and link building information to the surrounding land. Traditionally, this integration has been weak, resulting in many challenges to the building industry as well as planners. And it’s not only technology where there are gaps, the entire building and GIS industries have been at arms length for decades. The hope is that CityGML can provide the standards necessary to bridge those gaps so that models can more accurately reflect the real-world juxtaposition and interrelationships between buildings and land.

In my opinion, all of this leads to virtual worlds. Now, virtual worlds are primarily the domain of gamers and socializers. But virtual worlds are no passing fad. According to a recent Technology Intelligence Group report Virtual World Industry Outlook 2008-2009, “Over one billion dollars were spent by the venture community on startups directly within or supporting virtual worlds between August 2007 and August 2008, and according to virtual world vendors and developers …”

Exciting to me is that with the inevitable merger of real-world models with virtual world technologies, sometimes called the Metaverse, geography and geographic information will be critical. According to the Metaverse Roadmap Overview, the Metaverse is the convergence of 1) virtually-enhanced physical reality and 2) physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either.

I’ve written about The Business Relevance of Virtual Worlds. Others have discussed 3D models in the context of the GeoWeb, which is happening now and will be the precursor to geographically accurate virtual worlds. All of the big players are in this – Autodesk, Bentley, ESRI, Google, and Microsoft, as are some smaller companies such as Galdos Systems and Onuma. The Metaverse requires standards for interoperability, and CityGML is an important standard for now and the future of geographic information online.