Presenting GeoWeb 2009

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Industry News
Presenting GeoWeb 2009
By Susan Smith

I did not attend GeoWeb 2009 this year, but have compiled a view of the conference from interviews with some of the invited speakers and their videos which are available on YouTube. Those invited speakers presenting at GeoWeb 2009 this year were actually speakers who were for the most part, not directly involved in technology, but who understand the importance of technology in achieving the goals their organizations have set forth.

Presenter Ken Greenberg spoke on “City Building – A New Convergence” in which he talked about gaining a better understanding of how cities work. Greenberg is an architect, designer and city planner, who focused on the challenges he experiences in his practice, and how information technology influences those challenges.

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He spoke about a number of projects, but for the purpose of brevity here, the focus will be on the Lower Don Lands in Toronto, where a team of specialists looked at various issues such as flooding, ecology, development lands and critical infrastructure.

Greenberg’s team won an international design competition to plan out this site. The project ultimately involved a multidisciplinary team involved in the biology, physics of the river comprising a 325-acre site known as Waterfront Toronto. It was an exercise in collaboration, rather than a traditional approach which would have employed separately hydrology experts, ecologists, urban designers, transportation engineers and utilities experts.

Geospatial information was used to correlate the different types of information accrued in city building and produce iterations as the team learned of how one change or addition affects another. “You have problems with enormous organized complexity; it’s not chaos,” explained Greenberg. There are very complicated relationships but you have so many variables where everything touches everything else, and you need to understand how one thing affects another.”

Greenberg said the 19th century insurance atlases for cities were hand wrought on linen. This essential Phase I historical information source tracks the changing landscape and property uses of approximately 12,000 American cities and towns since the late 19th century. These maps were extraordinarily detailed and illustrated, and now we have the capability with GIS to layer all this information and portray a plan with information from different viewpoints. In the Don Lands case, environmental scientists would add habitat and wetlands, flora and fauna data, and scenarios of how those would survive different development scenarios. Others could assess wind, microclimate, and others, solar exposure, while architects might look at building types, densities and land uses. Other issues to take into account might be transportation, school, daycare, library, parks, and shopping. All of this needs a way to be simulated before construction takes place.

“What has been very damaging for most of the 20th century is we had narrowly defined technology specialists who could juggle one ball at a time, traffic engineers who thought only of moving traffic and who never considered the impacts on the environment or pedestrians, cyclists or land values or anything they were impinging on,” said Greenberg.”

Javier de la Torre, founder of Vizzuality in Madrid, Spain and an agriculture engineer from the Polytechnical University of Madrid, talked biodiversity which is defined as the result of 4 billion years of evolution on the earth. “If you have a place with a lot of species, then you have a place with a lot of biodiversity,” he said.

He spoke about two different projects: 1) the Encyclopedia of Life, which is a Wikipedia treatment for collecting information from different project sources for all species on the earth. The Encyclopedia is a place where scientists and the public can go to obtain information on all the species on the earth, which they are in the process of collecting.

2) The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) currently under construction connects biological collections that know where species are located. The GBIS provides one single source where people can go to get data that is aggregated from many different sources. Natural history museums or academies collect primary data by sending scientists into the field to collect specimens or make observations. What constitutes primary data for biodiversity are: what species, where and when.

With primary data, scientists can track where a species might move due to global warming.

De la Torre said most people don’t see the biological collections in museums. The Smithsonian, for example, has 2-3 billion specimens from around the world, in boxes.

It is useful to know where the species is found and its range, for the purpose of tracking the effects of global warming or to determine where to put national parks.

To do this kind of analysis, de la Torre said you need a lot of data. There are more than 170 million records of primary data, which is not a large amount, compared with the number of species that are on the planet. “We have possibly 250 million species of birds on the earth and we don’t know where some species are,” he said. “Even if we have a lot of data, we probably don’t have it in the correct places if we want to understand biodiversity.”

Their aim is to put the primary data together with biodiversity hotspots where a lot of one species are congregated.

A possible solution is to find where species are by using layers, such as summer precipitation, winter precipitation, etc. that will help you project data against different scenarios such as global warming. From this data you may be able to determine where a species might move in response to climate change.

The database is a centralized architecture so the data stays within the collection, for example, the Natural History Museum in London or the Smithsonian Museum in the U.S. keep their databases and they install their software on top. The data stays within the individual collections, but for some research it’s necessary to have it aggregated in one single database, and that’s where the GBIS portal comes in. They expose web services and they then aggregate all this data and create a common database, which creates a distributed information network. An example is data that is on the Encyclopedia of Life web page: "you look for a species you will find a map with where this species is in the world,” said de la Torre. “This data is taken from this network of distributed databases around the world.”

Providers of data can go to the GBIF website and connect their databases. Another way data is collected is from amateurs. An example is a UK website which allows people to make their observations on birds. Vizzuality is trying to connect this user-generated data to the network.

Vizzuality also creates the infrastructure for the format and standards of projects to share all this data. The work done by these organizations is relevant to the GeoWeb as all the information is brought to the Web and made available without any charge for scientific use.

One project Vizzuality did this year was intersecting data from this network primary biodiversity data with the world database of protected areas, a joint project between GBIS and the World Conservation and Monitoring Centre that is part of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Vizzuality worked with them to create the visualization and analysis. “We are creating applications where you can access biodiversity information in the context with other things, so we were analyzing how much information we have about biodiversity for protected areas and the presentation focused on Banff,” de la Torre said. “There are a number of species in the area, and you can see what the different species are and you can also see which providers are institutions. So in Banff, you can see there is data coming from the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.”

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