My research at UofT has been focused on figuring out the best way to describe a map in order to attach a text description to interactive maps online and therefore satisfy an important accessibility requirement.

I chose this topic not just because I am interested in accessibility and think that it’s a worthwhile cause and will hopefully contribute to peoples lives in some way…but also because it is related to what I do at my full-time job at Environment Canada.  As a government agency, we are required to satisfy the WCAG checkpoints for everything we release online, as every single Canadian citizen is entitled to access the information.  My group is a major hub for web-mapping development at Environment Canada and groups like ours across the federal government were getting alot of questions concerning the accessibility of web-mapping applications.  Web-mapping accessibility was a great unknown and there were no standards that fit with online maps.

So we did what we could in order to create an accessible web-mapping template, and we’re still working on it.  The biggest and most difficult unknown, how to describe the map, was left to my research…as it was something too far out of scope for any project we were working on.  But in the meantime we finally have a dev link that can be accessed by the public.  We made this temporary site so that other government agencies could view and contribute to our accessible template, but I see no harm in sharing it with interested parties outside of the government realm, as any feedback from Canadian citizens is worthwhile in my opinion.  This template is meant to be general and not geared towards any specific government agency even though it is being hosted by us at EC, it is the result of many peoples work and contributions.  Please feel free to test out the WMAT and provide me with any questions/comments/feedback.  If you are not familiar with the project or accessibility in general it may not be obvious as to what has motivated the various design decisions.  One of my first tasks once I get back to work is to draw this up in order to help explain it all.   There is also an ever-expanding list of features and ideas for whenever we have the resources to implement them, we would be happy to add more.

When we first made this template we basically stripped out all features and made it as basic as possible in order to allow for device-independent navigation.  We had to create two different applications, one accessible and one fully-featured as the accessible one proved pretty unusable for a general audience that is used to the world of google/bing maps.  And we still hadn’t accounted for Javascript or the use of embedded data in the map, among many other things.  You can see one of our first iterations here which might make it easier to understand where we started.

Finally though, because we had a proper basic version to work with, we have been able to slowly add more features through progressive enhancement, which you can see through turning Javascript on and off.  It’s finally starting to be more usable to a general audience…although we still have a ways to go.

So why is this a big deal you ask?  Well, I’ve always hated the idea that we had an accessible version and a full-featured version.  Ideally I wanted a working version that could be used by all, and this is a step in that direction.  Also, it’s alot easier to convince developers and clients that they can satisfy accessibility without compromising the “wow factor” (sorry, that’s a terrible term we use at work all the time, but I’m drawing a blank and can’t think of a better one) of an application when you have something to show them.

Hmm, I always mean for these posts to be short and sweet…but I really like to talk/write/chat/communicate…especially about accessibility 😉

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So this whole thesis writing thing is kind of hard.  It’s taking a bit of getting used to, coming to the lab everyday instead of work.  I feel like I’m in a bit of a bubble.  It’s definitely more of a solitary existence than I’m used to, I’m not exactly a solitary kinda gal.  But I’m finding positives and negatives to it. I wonder if it’s acceptable to thank Lady Gaga in the Acknowledgments section of my thesis…because really, I don’t know what I would do without her.

There seems to be some confusion…I have NOT quit my job to become a full-time academic.  I took some short leave so I could concentrate on writing, I will be back at EC in September don’t you worry 🙂  Both my advisor AND my manager are eager to see me finish up, so it was supported on both sides.  I’m lucky to work at a place that offers the flexibility to do things like this…I know that’s not the case for everyone.   I love the environment and Canadian citizens, so how could I leave?  Plus I thrive on client interaction, they aren’t going to know what hit em when I return.  I miss my guys (and my two girls – the reality of IT work) alot…the atmosphere here in the lab is pretty different.  But again, I’m not complaining…just sharing.  I can’t wait for the graduation party my work guys throw me though *hint hint*.

What the heck…why do my blog posts keep sounding like dear diary entries lately? I think I’m feeling reflective and wistful as a result of this thesis, uhoh.  Ok let’s move on.

If you recall from my last post I was pretty gung ho about my process and framework.  Weeeeeell I got a little sidetracked and went back to the results.  It messed up my flow, but I guess I had gotten ahead of myself.  I am delving deeper into my classifications, and will post it up again as soon as it’s done. I have penciled a milestone into my calendar for friday of next week.  Hoping to have some sort of draft to put up.  And as soon as I hit “Publish” that deadline will become much more of a reality to me.

To summarize: Tuesday – productive, Wednesday – not so much, Thursday – frustrated, and Friday – I’m in love…I mean productive.

Look out weekend, here I come.

As most of you who read this blog (yes, all 3 of you) know, I am now in thesis writing mode. Today was my first day, and I told my gracious, witty, and oh so kind advisor Greg (yup, that was me sucking up) that I would try to blog regularly about my progress.

Thanks to Jorge (yay Jorge!) I now have a plan of attack. I came to the lab today with a framework of my thesis. The general structure, chapters, paragaphs, topics etc that my thesis will cover and the order. So I spent most of today going further with this and outlining the message I wanted to convey in each paragraph and writing up general notes. I started with my Background chapter (made sense), currently on the topic of Web Accessibility.

I also found that I did quite a bit of reading, or re-reading if you will.  And I think this will continue for the next while.  Quite a bit of time has passed since I first started researching my topic, and with the conducting and analysis of my research study, staying up on the topics took a backseat.  So now I guess I must review everything so that it’s fresh in my head and I can start writing about it.  Thank goodness for Delicious tagging!

What I am also finding helpful is the final project from Steve‘s class last year.  We had to design an empirical study and write-up a conference-style paper about that study.  Most of us used our research topics, and although mine wasn’t fully fleshed out yet a lot of it is still applicable to my final result.  I’ve been able to look back at it to figure out where I want to go with my write-up.  I also took a look at this over the wknd when writing up my framework.

I’m not really sure what to blog about aside from that. Should I post up the pages of notes I wrote out today? I don’t think I feel good about that, I mean I don’t exactly keep a serious face on (if ever) when I write these posts, but that doesn’t mean I want you all reading my nonsensical notes.

I heard through the grapevine that when Aran was writing his thesis he would post up the drafts even though they weren’t all shiny and glossy. That is a level of transparency that I am comfortable with, so when I have a working draft I will be sure to do so.

Aside from that, my plan is to work Monday-Friday approx 8-6 and keep the wknds for sanity. The first time in 3 years where I will only have one full-time job instead of both work and school! I allowed myself access to social media at lunch…but am seriously going to have to limit that in the weeks ahead. And I plan to meticulously track my progress so I don’t sway too far from my goal.  Ok this starting to sound like a journal entry instead of a blog-post…you may want to unsubscribe now, as in a couple of weeks these posts may just be long-winded rants of thesis writing frustration…but hey, I’m staying positive!

Oh, also, it was very hard to resist the hilarity and charm of Jono today…I hope you can all appreciate how focused I am going to *try* to be!

Ok so you saw my rough wordles from the map descriptions, and the classification system that I drew up as a result of these.  Now I want to add the backgrounds of the participants that described the maps to see how the rankings of the categories are influenced.  So far I have divided the participants occupations into:

  1. Geography
  2. Information Technology
  3. Academia
  4. Other

I also classified their knowledge of Cartography, Web-Mapping, Web Accessibility and Visual Impairment into:

  1. Little to None
  2. General
  3. Expert

I made some charts using swivel over the weekend and I have been procrastinating putting them up because I’m not very happy with them, or swivel, as I feel like I spent all sunday formatting data…but for now it will have to do.  Plus they aren’t accessible!  I will re-post the participant data as soon as I have the patience to reformat the data into html tables…I promise.  But for now here are the graphs in swivel *grumble*.

Ok, now that dreadful work is out of the way 😉 just thought I’d post an update of my progress.  General results are done and in, I’ll try to get them up in an appealing format on Sunday for your viewing pleasure.  Now I just need to figure out what they all mean, and then write a thesis paper about it…small potatoes.  Ok, ok, don’t take my nonchalance to heart, I’m actually quite nervous now that I’m at this point.  I’m taking 5 weeks off of work (without pay! ack) in order to write my research paper and I am freaking out a bit about now having a set in stone deadline…part-time students have a lot more wiggle room when it comes to this.

Does anyone have any tips as to a process that worked for you, or mini-deadlines I should set for myself to ensure I stay on track?  I am not on campus much so I wasn’t always there to witness the struggle firsthand.  I am going to *try* to be uber-organized and focused, Greg has already started the tough love which I appreciate, most of the time!  Pretty much everyone I have befriended at dcs is finished their Masters sooooo if you could give me one piece of advice (or two, or three) what would it be?  Shoot.

The conference had a huge showcase and map display which I was able to walk around now and then throughout the week.  Here are a few links from the people I spoke to and found interesting…they aren’t ranked or anything, so I really recommend clicking on all of them if you have the slightest interest in maps, multimedia, or environmental sustainability!

Global Action Atlas

US Forest Service

Data Basin a portal for conservation datasets, tools, and expertise.

The Green Belt Movement Approach: Responding to Climate Change from the Grassroots.  A program in Kenya that utilizes community groups to engage in climate change through, mitigation, adaptation, and promotion.  The greenbelt was also brought up in the United Nations session I attended, and it was highly regarded.  This program sounds amazing…I even checked out their work opportunities in Kenya as they have a specific program concerning the effect of climate change on women living in poverty, hello dream job, sigh.

19.20.21 A case study of 19 of the worlds biggest cities to explore the impact of population on urban and business planning.

Put your GIS skills to good use and volunteer with GISCorps

Project BudBurst a field campaign for citizens that I think one of the programs at EC should run.

So overall, the trip was great, although very busy.  Our group would most likely benefit from the developers conference as opposed to the user conference but it was useful to attend certain talks to see what people want out of the data they have…which is basically the service our team provides.  Also, it was nice to see what other government agencies and NGO’s are doing.  Plus it was all pretty much new to me, so it was useful for me to get more acquainted to all things ESRI.

It was my first time to San Diego, and California.  So beautiful, and yes obviously the weather was awesome.  Great place to vacation, but I like a little bit of grit to the cities I live in, I kind of felt like I was in a cookie-cutter Pleasantville sometimes! But at least I can tick San Diego off the list 😉

Here’s a photo of me at the entrance to the gala held on the last night…yup, fun follows me wherever I go, can’t help it.

Last post for the esri user conference…I apologize to all those uninterested parties for filling up your rss readers.  Now back to research.

Thursday morning I was up bright and early to walk around Balboa Park. It was so nice even though it was a little difficult to get to, it seems it is assumed everyone has a car in California.  So even though I didn’t have much time to get out of the city, I was still able to go on a tiny bit of a nature walk.

Deploying ArcGIS Server in a Cloud Hosting Architecture

It’s all about cloud-computing.  It seems we have a few options in regards to accessing “the cloud”.  The esri session was mostly focused on the Amazon cloud, as ArcGIS10 supports Amazon but I also spoke to a company Arc2Earth that uses Google.

Getting started: can come out of the box as a deployment option.  ESRI services will get you started

  • need to consider uptime needs
  • Common Deployments
    • Data Management – Geodatase
    • Planning and Analysis – Geoprocessing
    • Field Mobility – Mobile
    • Operational Awareness – Web APIs
  • Elasticity
    • can adjust for peaks and troughs
  • Customizable storage options
    • Won’t need racks and machines is using the cloud
    • can run desktop and server onsite which then push to servers on cloud
    • or can keep both desktop and server on cloud
    • can choose what to keep on cloud: development, staging, production, all or some
  • Increase time to market
    • Don’t have to wait for data center for infrastructure installation of code uploads
  • Cloud may not be reliable enough or secure enough
  • May not be compliant – what are your green standards
  • Subscription Sizes
    • Standard – 7.5 GB – 4 EC2
    • High CPU – 7 GB – 20 EC2
    • High Memory – 64 GB – 26 EC2
  • what is your budget? hourly rate

Thoughts: It seems we can’t have a conversation at EC today without talking about cloud-computing, which is why I went to these sessions.  I have a bunch of take-away pamphlets and information to deliver to the decision-makers, as I am just a cog in the wheel 😉

Mobile GIS Applications

This session featured a bunch of case studies presented by esri developers and a company Accela, showing apps they have developed for various companies and communities in order to showcase the usefulness of mobile apps.

I won’t go into describing each app, as I don’t really see how that will be of help.  I will just summarize the general take-aways of the session.

Main technology used:

  • ArcGIS Server
  • ArcGIS Engine
  • Network Extension
  • Accela Automation
  • Accela Mobile Office
  • Accela GIS

Advantages:

  • can eliminate the need for dual-entry of asset data
  • empowers field and office staff
  • mapcentric leveraging and single GIS environment
  • one solution – many departments
  • real-time updates
  • heightens time management

Thoughts: Generally the case studies where done for cities and states in the area of inspection and enforcement.  The  consolidated data aspect is huge for us, and I have links to all of these apps which will come in handy as I see this taking over a huge chunk of our projects.  I’m sure if we had more people to do the work it already would have.

ArcGIS Server Performance and Scalability – Testing Methodologies

I attended this session in general interest to our group.  But instead of blogging about it I will submit my notes to Langhi and Ali and discuss with them.  We all know I’m the worlds worst tester…and add on the fact that we were talking about geodatabases and geoprocessing I was a little lost.  So before i write up all the notes i took and put them out on the interweb, I’d like to ensure I actually understand them first 😉

Thursday night was the esri gala, an event everyone assured me I should not miss.

Ok back to finishing up my thoughts on the conference and my time in San Diego.  It was a busy few days as I tried to squeeze in both conference attending and site-seeing which made for pretty full days.  I am just going to transcribe the notes I took with my trusty lo-fi notebook and pencil.

Working with Image Services and ArcGIS Server

I am starting out the morning looking into Image Services as it is something we have just begun to use for E2MS, in order to overlay nautical maps onto our base map.  First off,  sound is bad and I’m having trouble hearing the speakers.  I seem to be missing much of the explanations so I guess I’ll be going off of the slides for most of the session.

So the idea behind Image Services is to use a web service to serve up a raster image, which can then be use the same way as any other GIS service layer.   This was more of a tutorial talk, which showed:

  • image services in geoprocessing as raster data through making an image server layer tool
  • using image services in mobile applications though making a live connection to the image service
    • NOTE: if there is no live connection, either export from the image service or use a map cache containing the image service in the mxd

Showed a demo using image services in a web app, which utilizes the same qualities as the desktop apps.

  • REST and SOAP support modifying all image service layer properties
  • can create a mosaic
  • go to arcgis.com “my map” for more info showing the REST API
  • export image

Thoughts: I have used the online resource center offered through esri, but I am starting to realize I was using it all wrong.  There seems to be much more available than I initially thought and I was only using it for the forums.

ArcGIS Mobile – Using the ArcGIS Mobile SDK

This session was jam-packed! Actually all of the mobile session I have looked in on have been very popular…hmm wonder why 😉  We actually haven’t been able to get into mobile apps yet due to priorities and lack of resources, but it is something high in demand at EC.  Mostly handheld devices for field work, but also some mobile phone apps (ie during the olympics) so hopefully it will be involved in an upcoming project.

The session outlined the general components of ArcGIS mobile development. Notes are as follows:

  • everything covered concerning the Windows Moblie Application SDK with documentation is available at the online resource center and community.
  • Mobile apps are good for certain types of functions, you should design with this in mind and leave certain functionality to web apps and/or desktop apps.  Good for:
    • task driven procedures
    • data collection
    • map viewing
  • Mobile Positioning
    • custom mobile extension
    • ready-to use framework
  • Mobile apps have a small footprint in order to have high performance
    • this means the framework has limited functionality as it has a paired down library
  • Visual Studio 2008 support
  • Multiple Connectivity scenarios – you don’t need to be online
  • Mobile Geodatabase
    • scaled for field use
    • Multi-user
    • support of full geodatabase in the office
    • operational layer vs basemap layer requirements
      • permissions
      • global ID
      • versioned vs non-versioned

Thoughts: It’s obvious that this is where most of development is headed, especially due to the client interest.  It seems that the mobile framework will fit in nicely with the our already existing framework.  I will definitely try to squeeze in another Mobile session tomorrow.

After the final session I ran out of the conference to catch a ride to La Jolla for a surf lesson…my first time ever.  It turns out I am uncoordinated on both land AND water…so yeah, lose-lose situation.  It was still fun to get beat up by the waves for an hour and attempt to surf, although the bruises all over my body may lead you to believe otherwise 🙂

Ok ready for another day of maps, gis, data, and all things esri.  For all who were concerned, managed to eat some nachos at Canada Night last night, so vision became unblurred and blood sugar levels returned to normal…funny that they serve nachos and beer at Canada Night, they totally know us!  It was like an EC and esri contractor reunion, finally put faces to names for the esri guys on E2MS and also met some west coast EC colleagues.  Daniel was missed…he’s like Mr.EC-GIS, big man on campus…don’t worry Dan, you would have been proud of your team lastnight, social butterflies 🙂

Anyways, started today off with a 6am run along the waterfront…beeeyooooteeeefulll.  I miss that saltwater air, I haven’t been home to NS for over a year now.  Have a stomach full from breakfast, and I’ll be sure not to make the same mistake and actually take time to eat today so I can continue filling you all in on the action you’re missing!

First up:

Using ArcGIS Schematics to Visualize Data

We don’t use ArcGIS Schematics (as far as I know) but as I am the visualization person, thought I’d take in the session to see what it’s all about and if it would be of use to us.  Serguei is covering the Flex API session…so we are splitting up.

Schematics…many definitions:

  • a simplified representation of an object or set of objects
  • a drawing or diagram representing a set of relationships
  • a way to represent any type of network and diagram within a symbolic system in a defined space without scaling constraints

What is ArcGIS Schematics?

  • automates diagram generation
  • multi-representational views
  • data-driven solution
  • multiple data source access
  • dynamic interaction with GIS
  • business rules

How does it work?

Data in -> process data -> apply data rules -> tools to apply diagram modifications -> schematic diagram out

Demo

Thoughts: As I am new to the web-mapping team, it means I am also pretty much at a loss concerning all of the desktop software.   So this session was good info as to what is available  and how the data gets manipulated before we publish to the server.  I guess I didn’t realize there were so many options in ArcInfo to visualize the data, as I’ve never taken the time to explore it, I’ve just worked with Langhi on modifying what was already in place.  It *seems* pretty straightforward and customizable.  It makes me grateful for people on the team with skills like Grace, somebody who is taking the time to actually work with the data and ensure that it is being visualized in a clean way that makes an impact on the users.

****

Ok so the whole “live” blogging thing didn’t work out.  Mostly because I got tired of lugging my laptop everywhere, so I went back and ditched it at lunch.  I think this means work should invest in an iPad, no?  Everyone else had them!  Anyways, just got back after another eventful day at the conference, but am off to another conference event soon and the internet connection at the hotel is sketchy at best…so will have to put all of notes up tomorrow if I manage to bring my laptop again, otherwise stay tuned!

Here’s an agenda to look forward to:

Working with Image Services and ArcGIS Server

Deploying ArcGIS Serrver in a Cloud Hosting Architecture

Mobile GIS Applications

ArcGIS Mobile – Using the ArcGIS Mobile SDK

ArcGIS Server Performance and Scalability – Testing Methodologies

and lots more….

Making Great Maps with ArcGIS: Large Scale Map Design

mappingcenter.esri.com

Large Scale: city scale, district scale, etc.

Ok I’m trying another Cartography session, hoping this may give tips on data organization.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Map Use

  • urban areas – immense amount of data,
  • map analysis – level of detail is a challenge while still making map readable
  • base map – context
  • special purpose maps (trails and transit)

Data

  • multiple sources – skewed or missing data – most likely have to add in attributes
  • “best” data

Map Design

  • features
  • labels
  • more space
  • more realism – balance the level of abstraction with the level of realism
  • more precision

Examples: World topographic map

– proceed to show us how to get various cartographic effects in ArcInfo

Thoughts: I am not a Cartographer, nor am I interested in becoming one…but I would like to see one on our team as I think it’s a gap we have right now.  The examples shown are very clean and beautiful, I can appreciate the work that goes into the design but I’ll probably be staying away from the Cartography sessions for the rest of the conf. as it gets pretty detail-oriented, something I don’t need.

Meeting with ESRI Product Engineers concerning Section 508, CLF, and Accessibility

So I had a bit of a “meeting” with various esri developers and Ihab, our esri canada developer to talk about the problems and solutions concerning accessibility within our group and the federal gov’t in general.

My general impression was that it wasn’t really on their radar.  Well actually it’s more of an impression, that’s pretty much what they said to me 🙂  I explained how currently we have developed our accessible template using the .NET ADF and that we are developing Flex applications now but we are still serving up the .NET template as the accessible option.  They said in all honesty they are concentrating on the new technology platforms – Flex and Silverlight and not much more development will be done on the ADF.  Also they said about 3 years ago they heard alot about accessibility from both the US and Canadian gov’t agencies, but since then it has been pretty quiet.

This would pretty much match what is going on at EC, wasn’t it 3 years ago that everyone got nervous about web-mapping accessibility and realized that there weren’t any standards to address it?  Which is basically one of the reasons I ended up here, we needed a solution.  Accessibility isn’t going away, and we are finally close to a formalized set of best practices and guidelines for web-mapping application that can brought to Treasury Board.  So after explaining what some of those best practices will most likely be and how they will affect a Flex app or a JavaScript app etc. I will follow up with the contacts I made concerning how exactly we plan to make our web-mapping applications accessible and what I think esri could do to help.  It’s not their fault that accessibility is not on their radar, it is up to us as clients to let them know what we need, and admittedly we haven’t known what was needed up to this point.  I think the excitement over Google, Bing, mashups web 2.0 etc etc etc has led to an accessiibility oversight…but I am here to correct that!

They were actually pretty surprised at some of the measures we would have to take to ensure an accessible site, and I got alot of the same comments and questions I get all the time about how accessibility has to catch up to the current technology in order to be viable or how accessibility isn’t possible in general, if you know me, then I’m sure I’ve talked (complained?) about these viewpoints with you already.  Then you also already know that this is where I go into my lecture on Progressive Enhancement…of which I will spare you right now 🙂

Anyways, Ihab was a big help, and the contacts have been made.  I will follow up when I get back to the office.

The United Nations: Climate Change and the Environment

Panel Discussion

This discussion went off topic a bit from GIS-related questions, and onto a heated discussion of the use of carbon credits in Kenya but it remained interesting nonetheless.  Climate Change has not really been on our groups list of priorities since a certain gov’t came into power a couple years ago (am i allowed to say that? uhoh.) but the panel of experts were able to discuss what the UN is doing worldwide with GIS in order to showcase both the problems and solutions of Climate Change.

Right now I’m just going to provide you with links, as I haven’t eaten in the last 10 hrs…and the screen is getting blurry.

Global Adaptation Atlas

UNDP – Adaptation learning mechanism

WMO climate service – targeted towards agriculture and meteorology

Challenges for collaboration – who has the access to information NGO’s private public

Hadley Center – develop models for IPCC, now doing training courses in Africa, forecasting and prediction

The Greenbelt Movement

Shortrun prediction? 5yrs instead of 10-20-30 and on a national level

How can GIS help change the situation?

  • This is a political crisis
  • alerting people to impact in a personal way through visualization using GIS