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My advisor-motivator-friend Greg Wilson has recently turned his attention full-time to working on his Software Carpentry course.  He is blogging about his work on the course here and posts updates here.

I am writing in hope that this post will extend to the far corners of my office building in Downsview and reach the dark and dusty cubicles of the scientists at Environment Canada, who are busy coding away in fortran.  This could be the answer to your prayers.

If you want anymore information don’t hesitate to ask me or contact Greg…he’s a pretty pleasant guy to chat with 😉

Take a look at the mission statement for a full description of the course.


This morning as I was dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of my ethics submission form, I was talking to Jon about the specifics of my study.  I expressed my worry concerning the fact that packaging the study as a game will inevitably cause participants to form descriptions of maps in such a way that will ensure points and win the game.

This became apparent in some trial runs of my study when the person describing the map formulated their description so their partner could easily distinguish between the 3 maps that were being presented to them.  Instead of just concentrating on the map in front of them the person describing the map was thinking about the fact that their partner has 3 maps with the same extent in front of them, but with a different spatial distribution of points.  They were trying to pinpoint features that would allow for easy comparison of the differences in the maps in order to win the game.

For example when asked to describe this map:

Thematic Map Example

Thematic Map Example

One participant wrote:

« Exactly 2 dots under St. Catherines Rd. »

From the perspective of the game, this is a great description, and their partner knew the answer right away.  They’ve chosen to focus on a small part of the map that, chances are in the three maps their partner is faced with will differ in some way.  From the perspective of the study though, we are trying to extract a meaningful description of one map in general.  If you were given this map and had to describe it to someone who couldn’t see it, would “Exactly 2 dots under St. Catherines Rd.” really give you a good understanding of the spatial distribution of the points in relation to the base map?

Here’s another example…..

Thematic Map Sample

Thematic Map Example

One participant chose to describe this map by writing:

« 2 dots that touch the “y” in label “Cemetery” »

This description gave enough clues to which of the 3 maps were correct, but to use this description on its own would be useless.  How would you know where the label “Cemetery” would even be on the map? The fact that they are near a label is not as meaningful as referencing the actual geographic location is.

In the player’s defense they aren’t doing anything wrong, they are just trying to win the game, I’m afraid though that I’m posing the game in such a way that will result in descriptions that won’t actually be useful.  I would be able to extract common trends and words, but are they common because the players are trying to win the game or because that is actually how they would describe the map to somebody who couldn’t see it?  This got Jon and I talking about how else we could present this as a game, or if it should even be a game at all?

Changing up the design…

Instead of having one partner guess which map out of 3 possible options is the one being described, maybe I should have the person draw the map from the description given by their partner?  In this scenario they wouldn’t actually be drawing the base map, but they would have to distribute the points onto the map.  Their partner would be able to see what they are doing, and thus edit their description in order to address the shortcomings in the map being drawn.  This would result in a sort of drag and drop game; the person responsible for “drawing” the map can drag the points around the map and update it as their partner updates their description.

How would you win this version of the game?  I think that the person describing the map should decide when they think their teams map is similar enough to the original, but I think it should ultimately be the game that checks the map to ensure the points are placed in the correct spot.  But will having the game be responsible for the final check result in having the descriptions target certain areas just to get points and win the game? If so, I’ve just redesigned this game, but still have the same problem.  No matter what, packaging this as a game will result in a certain amount of “gaming” (obviously), but I would just need to mitigate it as best I can.

Why a game at all?

I had thought that a game would encourage participants to think more about their descriptions.  The meaning that is drawn from a map is taken for granted by sighted people.  It is a visual tool that conveys an immense amount of knowledge.  Describing what exactly that knowledge is isn’t something that people usually have to do, and I think it would be difficult for participants to understand why they are being asked to describe it and how exactly to go about doing so. Having a partner and making it a game was supposed to help with this.  But maybe if I take away the game factor, thus taking away the desire come up with strategies to win the game, descriptions would align more with the purpose of the study.

I conducted a pseudo-study the other day to see how my idea for a research study would work out.  I need to show how people would describe a map to another person, as this is not something we usually need to do. Using 4 volunteers I had them work in pairs, where one person describes the map to the other.  I am bundling this as a game, as I would like to create an extensive knowledge base, and hopefully a game would encourage this more so than a questionnaire.  Basically, Player 1 gives hints while Player 2 guesses which map they are describing.  This game will be played online, but in the meantime I used a very low-level prototype (a booklet of photocopied maps)  in order to iron out kinks before I set forth developing the online game.

I used maps of all different extents and locations ranging from rural to urban.  Over each map I placed a thematic data layer, and also varied it’s distribution map to map (clustered, spread out etc.)  Player 1 had one map in front of them, while Player 2 had 3 maps to choose from, all with the same base layer, but with the thematic layer varied.  Each set of partners went through the 8 maps, and then switched roles and repeated the game again.

Here is a list of things I will change/add and then perform the test again:

  • I included the same title on each map that was tested.  It was a very general title, and while the volunteers said it provided them with some context, it was very limited.  Next time I will vary the titles and try to make them more detailed.
  • The game was too easy, although I could tell the players enjoyed it and wanted to win so I need to institute some features that will make it more challenging
  • Enforce a time limit for giving hints and guessing
  • Give players a word limit for their hints
  • Include maps at different zoom levels so that people are less dependent on labels – less labels would make it harder to provide hints
  • Switch maps totally after each round, as during this test I only changed their order but were still made up of the same maps
  • Switch up partners after each round, the volunteers got to one another from the way they gave hints in the round before.
  • Have levels that would increase in difficulty as the game progresses

I will add to my test study and grab a few coworkers when I get back into town to test it out.  Hopefully it will be a bit harder, and then I can compare the quality of descriptions that were given here.  Stay tuned.


What I imagine the interface for Player 1 would look like.

What I imagine the interface would look like for Player 2

What I imagine the interface would look like for Player 2

I met with Byron Moldofsky on May 20th, who is the manager of the Cartography office at the university.  He was very helpful in pointing me to people that could help me in my research, as well as giving me his general comments.  He also gave me NPRI maps that his own team had already made, which I thought was a pretty funny coincidence, and my team appreciated them, they are now hanging in our GIS pod 🙂

Fraser Taylor seems to be the person to talk to, as he coined the term “Cybercartography”.  He is a Geography and Environmental professor at Carleton University.  We have touched base through email, and he has pointed me to some of his students who are working around the area of web-mapping accessibility.  One is interested in the policy side of accessibility which will be handy from an Environment Canada point of view.  We shall see what will develop.

I’ll be in Ottawa in June for work, so hopefully I can meet with Fraser and his students then.

I have a preference for the way accessible web-mapping is presented and I think I need to put it out there.  I have had this “argument” with other developers on my team (you know who you are), and while I understand their viewpoint, I am leaning toward the opposite camp.

Call me a dreamer, but I would like to work towards an interface that doesn’t separate the two streams of users that I am addressing here with my research, the visually impaired, and everyone else.  I think that to truly make the web accessible to all, then there should be no division.  I mean sure, you should have the ability to choose your preferences, and tailor your web experience in a way that best suits you, but I don’t think that it should be two totally separate applications.

I see the textual description as a complement to the visual map, an enhancement.  As a sighted user, I may also want to interact with the textual component, not just the visual map and vice versa.  May I remind you that visually impaired does not only include people who are blind.

But will this approach to design create an application that in the end, just frustrates all users?  This is a risk, and maybe the fact of the matter is that it would be better for all users to have the seperate streams.  I don’t technically know the answer, I just have a personal ideal solution..and it’s my research, I can conduct it how I want to, can’t I?  I will look into it to see if there has been any research done on this and keep you posted.  But in the meantime, you could put in your 2 cents…