GIS usage

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Pages 11 and 32 – Mobile phones; Pages 83, 92 – GIS]
 I’m just recently back from two weeks in Japan visiting Hokkaido in the north and Kyoto. The second largest economy in the world, it’s a fascinating country combining a willingness to embrace and shape the future with a strong sense of tradition and reverence for old ways.

I travelled out when the news stories about Apple’s iPhone and its touch screen features were at their height so it was a good opportunity to catch up on developments and the use of mobile phones over there. The Japanese have a strong record for innovation with mobile technology and were the first to introduce camera phones in 2000 and to upgrade to third generation (3G) broadband networks to allow widespread downloading of music and video.

By the end of last month the Japan Times (February 8th) reported that over 100 million people (78% of the population) owned a handset or keitai, as they are called. According to the Philadelphia News (21 January 2007) Japan is “far ahead in reinventing use of cell phones.”

As you would expect there’s plenty of use for texting, snapping photos and web browsing, but keitai are also a tool or ‘second self’ for watching TV, accessing trains, storing data, updating blogs, downloading games and paying for cinema tickets, books, coffees etc.

For the sheer variety of sizes, shapes and features of Japanese phones take a quick look at this recent video from mutant’s musings (3 January 2007) of available phones and for comparison with the iPhone’s features see comments from Japanese on the street in this short CNN video.

The Wikipedia entry lists 27 additional features now on many keitai including a pedometer, MP3 player and ‘read aloud’ system – 10 more than I listed 12 months ago when doing a final draft of Digital Nations in the making! Despite some very attractive features the iPhone simply doesn’t compete for versatility.

A couple of news items caught my eye. The first was the announcement (Japan Times January 11th) by KDDI Corporation, Japan’s second largest mobile operator that it was launching a new child’s handset which would allow parents to track their children’s location and movements every five minutes.

This uses GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite based technology and is already being copied by the country’s two other main operators DoCoMo and Softbank. It’s an example of the use of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) that I wrote about in Digital Nations in the making and is getting mainstreamed now because there is apparently a likely income stream from anxious parents.

The other development was a fascinating story, Big Books hit Japan’s Tiny Phones of how mobiles are being used to write novels by mostly high school girls with no previous experience of writing. The first mobile phone novel was written six years ago and the trend has accelerated recently with writers posting to very popular community sites, like Magic iLand. The novels, 200 – 500 pages in length, can be downloaded by readers to their mobiles for about $10 each .

Young people in Japan have taken to new technology perhaps more quickly than they have elsewhere. Could they be setting trends in the use of mobiles for the two young girls in Manchester in the photo below, who are already proficient in using digital cameras?  Do mobile novels have any potential for adult education in the UK, with for instance tutors with Skills for Life and ESOL learners exploring their use for publishing short stories?

Young girls in Manchester taking digital photos at a wedding reception.


Fred Garnett, ACL policy advisor at Becta, has for long been telling me of the need to link information technology to environmental issues and has been exploring this in Deptford through his involvement with the Creekside Education Trust since 1999. His has been a lonely voice, but it would be good to hear of similar work elsewhere. Post a comment here if you have any information on this or know of a good environmental project with adults in the UK. There's lots of potential here for community learning courses and projects, as councils start to promote green policies more energetically.

In Seattle where I 've been for the last two weeks, this theme has a much higher profile. Last week I was down at City Hall to hear presentations from a roomfull of some 120 pupils from five high schools about surveys they had done with maps and GIS to discover issues about their environment and its social impact through the Homewaters Project, a nonprofit body based at North Seattle Community College. This inquiry based system is linked to the Green Map system and supported by the City's Department of Information Technology.

The results and work of the students were impressive and reminded me of some of the North American environmental projects involving adult learners which I looked at for my book, Digital Nations in the making. This was not an isolated example as Jean Godden, Chair of the City's Energy and Technology Committee reminded us.

The building itself was the only green City Hall in the US, using many recycled materials and meets many of the criteria for the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification – which is being pushed strongly by a number of cities keen to promote effective environmental policies. It was also a very pleasant environment with a small stream running through the hall and down the steps outside. (See photo).
Aerial view of stream and steps leading down from Seattle City Hall.

There's a lot of information available about energy efficiency to be found on the Alliance to Save Energy's website; and there's plenty of interesting work being done elsewhere in the US. In Massachusetts there's an Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP) Procurement programme, which has available downloadable tools  to show how substantial savings can be made on items like light bulbs and toner cartridges. You can read a Q&A article about the EPP work in e-Gov Monitor, which points out that the savings have been 22 times the cost of running the programme.

With its population of 3.5 million, Seattle has a reputation as being one of the the top 10 cities in the US for quality of life, but don't imagine that it is all perfect! Hills and lakes can make it difficult to move from area to area and the public transport system is pretty poor for some parts. Cars flourish in this environment and congestion on the big roads can add long tedious delays. Number 1 priority for Mayor Greg Nickels is to "get Seattle moving".

As you'd expect in a city with big name companies like Microsoft and Amazon, technology can help a little, in the form of a sophisticated network of traffic cameras for the Puget Sound area. You can enjoy the videos from your armchair back home! The montage below is of traffic roaring across the Montlake Bridge over the canal, which links Lake Union and Lake Washington. At least it was moving this time!

Photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.
More photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.

I was out today for the open source mapping event in Manchester, organised as part of the wider project to create free mapping data under the auspices of About  40 people turned up and took to the streets in an experiment in ‘citizen cartography’. Armed with a cheap GPS, camera, pencil and laptop volunteers spread out by foot, bike and car across the centre of Manchester to create GPS tracks; and by the end of the weekend had a good base for a test case city centre mapping guide for the Futuresonic International Festival to be held in the city 20-23 July, which Drew Hemment is organising. See detailed results from the weekend here.

Interesting discussions with Chris Perkins and  Martin Dodge from the University about possible linkups with the WEA Community Grid for Learning. I’m convinced that this has great potential for developing a range of community learning projects and scenarios. They are ahead in the use of GIS in North America as I found out when researching Digital Nations in the making, but things could be taking off here. When I asked Steve Coast from what was his aim, he answered simply: “To map the world.” Well why not?

Mapping Manchester among Sunday walkers in Piccadilly.

I first got interested in the relationship between technology, travel and place back in 1991, when our 16 year old daughter Chloe returned from a British Schools’ Exploring Society’s expedition to Iceland. Her description of a 12 day hike across Europe’s largest glacier sounded a bit scary. “How did you know where you were?” I asked her. “Easy. We carried a big GPS on a sledge. Worked like a dream.”

Since then we’ve got satnavs in the car, handhelds for walkers and Google Earth, but I’ve thought there must be other uses Geographical Information Systems (GIS) could be put to for local communities. Thus my enquiries about what the technology centres and others in the US and Canada are doing with GIS for the disabled and the environment when I was researching Digital Nations in the making.

Up in West Cumbria last week, I was out on the fells on two successive evenings and it got me thinking a bit more about the relationship between technology and people. At the West Cumbria Orienteering Club’s first summer meet in Grisedale Forest, I found 80 people after work enthusiastically tackling graded routes on tracks, trails and through the ‘fight’ (dense forest). Advanced technology in the form of customised large scale OS maps with information about clearings and plantings, updated by members, plus finger entry data clocking at each of the waypoints made it all possible. A great evening I thought, safely and efficiently organised.

On the Friday, again after work, I did Catbells to catch the sunset and got crystal clear views from north Lakeland’s best vantage point. I could almost touch Sergeant Man to the south.

Derwentwater, with Keswick and Skiddaw in full view looking to the north.

The surprise? I had the mountain to myself. Yet there’s enough up there to rivet anyone’s attention for hours. Mining, enclosures, big peaks, England’s highest sessile oak forest, a farm in continuous occupation by the same family since the 17th century, Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of Little Town (see below) for the tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle. Is there a technology solution waiting to be found here, which could bring this rural scene alive for thousands in the way that Orange’s Urban tapestries project has experimented with mobile phones in cities?

Little Town, below Catbells.

One interesting development on this front I’ve just found is a scheme to create an Open Source map of Manchester which is being organised for the weekend of 13-14 May by Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins at the University’s School of Environment and others. It could lead to some interesting projects. They are looking for volunteer citizen cartographers, so I’ll try to get along. The event is being hosted at the offices of the Manchester Digital Development Agency at 117-119 Portland Street, Manchester M1 6ED, where drinks and a sandwich lunch will be provided.