Spatial Vision hosts hack day to broaden staff's cloud GIS experience

Spatial Vision has increasingly recognised the potential of cloud GIS services for our clients and has recently carried out a client survey on cloud GIS use and presented webinar on the topic.

To help our staff develop a very practical understanding of cloud GIS, Spatial Vision hosted the company’s first map hack challenge, splitting the company into six teams, each with just a day to conceive and deploy a cloud based GIS solution.

Some teams tried to highlight and address real problems affecting Victoria, such as the conversion of arable land into residential or offshore renewable energy sources. Other teams addressed problems more ‘fantastical’ in nature, optimising Jedi temples for the Australian populace and devising a strategy to put down English riots following an Aussie win at the Ashes.

Competing for a bag of unknown but presumably tasty prizes, the six teams’ projects were judged largely on their “beauty, usability and completeness” by Managing Director Glenn Cockerton at the end of the day, rather than perhaps their ultimate value.

At 10 in the morning, the six teams dreamed of great maps that would change the world but as their six hours waned, most teams had to narrow their scope a little to deliver a product on time.

Perhaps the team that coped best were the developers of “Fighting for the Republic”, a CartoDB powered map of English nationals across Australia and places they might gather should this Ashes tour spark a wave of Monarchist fervor. Over the six hours, the team managed to create an attractive heat map showing where English nationals live, drink and watch the cricket.

What proved too ambitious for the team however, was their planned dynamic Twitter integration. The team had planned to pull geotagged Tweets from Twitter’s API with hashtags related to the Ashes, however Twitter’s recent changes to user privacy complicated the process, which the team is confident they could have pulled off with another half day’s work. Without much time to go, the team simply overlaid a few Tweets over the map to communicate the general idea.

A team that perhaps had less success coping with the time limit was the aptly named ‘Smashed Potatoes’, who used ArcGIS Online to show the increasing division of arable land in the Macedon Ranges, due to the the rising demand for houses in the area. The team did successfully create a map that not only showcased the ever diminishing potato farming land over the last decade but also projected more than a decade of residential increase, represented along a timeline.

However, the team encountered difficulties synchronising the map’s content they never entirely resolved, as well as performance issues, the latter of which can be at least partially blamed on the team’s late 90s-esque animated image aesthetic for the page. Featuring somewhere between 20 and 100 animated GIFs of potatoes falling endless or being crushed by houses, the team’s leader admitted they had perhaps “spent too little time on the essay and too much drawing stars on its cover,” a lesson for any project.

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Many of the day’s project’s involved timelines, including one showing migration rates to Australia from the rest of the world between 1945 and 1952. Using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the team planned to shade each of the world’s countries to show how many of its citizens migrated to Australia each year since World War 2, in order to help contextualise the contemporary Australian debate about ‘boat people’.

However, the team used a CartoDB template called Torque to build the timeline of maps, which turned out not to support the polygons the team needed to shade in entire countries. Because they also waited until they had a large amount of their ABS data ready (it required a little massaging because countries keep changing their names), hours had already passed before the team realised Torque only supports point data.

This forced them to represent each country’s migration with a single dot, which scaled according to the quantity of migrants that year. The creation of these dots was fairly intensive, forcing the team to reduce the timeline’s scope from seventy years to about seven. Additionally a planned word cloud built on Wurdle refused to first embed properly on the web page and later render on Firefox, forcing the team to use screenshots of their word clouds, which turned out to be perfectly adequate.

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Another migration focused project was Spatial Vision: We Are the World, an ArcGIS Online powered map highlighting the many countries the company’s employees were born in and where they ethnically identified with.

Originally the team envisioned the map showcasing the complicated relationships between an employee’s: place of birth, where their parents were born and where they considered themselves from ethnically, however the links between these data points proved nigh impossible to elegantly represent on a 2D map in just six hours.

One of the day’s most ambitious projects was Seabreeze, which included both a timeline of offshore wind energy adoption across the world, a small pamphlet advocating offshore wind energy as an efficient renewable energy source for Victoria and a map of the state which features all of the variables which might affect an offshore wind farm, showing potentially viable locations.

While the team successfully executed on the timeline map and produced a wealth of literature about the necessity of offshore wind power in the state’s renewable energy future, the ArcGIS online map which displayed variables such as wind speed, shipping routes and water depth couldn’t be made to load by the end of the day.

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Lastly, one team sequestered themselves away in a meeting room with blackened windows all day, before emerging at the 4pm finishing time with a short spoof of The Phantom Menace and a heat map of Australia showing where most of the country’s census-Jedi Knights are located.

The team derived this data by comparing national and LGA level census results as reported by the ABS and using CartoDB, created a tab showing each of the three most recent census’ reported Jedi population, which apparently dipped in 2006 but came back strong in 2011.

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At the end of the day, Glenn decided to award the day’s prize to ‘Fighting for the Republic’ for its well thought through featureset, provocative premise and ultimately attractive presentation. He also praised the Seabreeze maps for being a very worthwhile use of GIS analysis and the We Are the World map for highlighting the company’s diverse workforce.

Speaking to all the entries, Glenn said he was impressed by the company’s enthusiasm and the way the teams “jumped on” to their projects. He said the day had developed a “better idea of cloud GIS” and how Spatial Vision can integrate cloud solutions into client thinking.

The take home message for staff at the end of the day was that although cloud GIS services such as CartoDB and ArcGIS Online offer great opportunities, the experience of the teams was that the traditional challenges of GIS such as creating fit for purpose data and integrating different technologies remain.

Spatial Vision sees great potential in cloud delivered services and is assisting organisations deal with some of the challenges. The hack day was a great way to raise staff awareness of the potential opportunities and pitfalls of utilising cloud.

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