I recently attended the 7th Spatial Socio-Cultural Knowledge Workshop held in the Defence Capability Centre (DCC) Conference Hall at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham. This was my second visit to this conference, having previously attended the 2nd workshop in 2009. Over the years a number of threads have emerged involving data requirements, understanding of operational needs, exploitation of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) for socio-cultural analysis and tool support. This year’s meeting encompassed a variety of work and ideas. I was introduced to terms such as decision-making calculus, context modelling and activity-based intelligence (ABI). Brian Hagan (NGA) made the point about the importance of ensuring that data is discoverable – a problem that Envitia’s ‘Discovery’ product is designed to address. There was discussion concerning the suitability of datasets to support socio-cultural analysis. Other data challenges include: how to handle unstructured data? What to do with questionable sources? How to harvest, validate & conflate data? How to capture and understand the accuracy of information? In terms of data, studies suggest that by the end of the decade, 75% of the world’s population is expected to live within 100km of a coast – therefore the littoral zone will become very important and understanding the social dimension in relation to this will be important. In terms of analysis, is it possible to know where the next event will happen before it does so? Although exact prediction is not possible, and some argue that it is therefore not worth trying, can techniques be developed that provide reliable indicators of such occurrence? There was a view that not only was a multi-disciplinary approach to analysis required but that there may be merit in fusing socio-cultural analysis techniques together with other methodologies in order to provide richer capabilities.
From an information management perspective, it strikes me that techniques that are well established in the geospatial community for managing data and information and its portrayal and dissemination (for example, cataloguing solutions; geo-registries; geo services like WMS, WCS, CSW; GeoPackage, etc.) can be usefully applied to socio-cultural datasets. An important element of this is the ability to discover this information and ascertain its provenance and usability – this is where metadata is so important and in particular having formal models providing consistent semantics allowing consistent capture and coherent descriptions. A trivial example would be where different datasets had been geo-referenced and the need to understand what reference system was used for the coordinate data. At the other end is the ability to inform not only users but software services of the provenance of a dataset and its applicability for use in e.g. analysis or other processing.
Nicholas Crane (presenter of “Great British Journeys” and “Coast” amongst others) was the guest speaker and he gave a fascinating talk entitled “Into the Void: Travelling off the Map”. In it he discussed the notion of cognitive mapping – effectively carrying a contextual map inside our heads and using it to orientate ourselves in our environment. It is a technique which Neolithic man must have used as he colonised Britain. This rich map base includes 3D information, smells, sounds and it is all carried in our heads! – but modern man may have to retrain himself to use it effectively again. A point he also made was that often unmapped locations are really what is most often of importance (for example, caves where one may shelter at night) and whilst conventional maps provide a strategic view they are not always good for geospatial capabilities. This led me to think about maps in our brave new digital world. Often it appears to be the case that we try to simply reproduce physical maps by using digital means. But the digital environment has the capability to be able to provide a much richer provision of information that traditional maps cannot support (for example, dynamic information portrayal, sonic mapping, intelligent querying, etc.). However, whilst technologies such as WMS are an important element in a digital infrastructure, there will remain a need for both physical maps and other electronic formats (for example, GeoPDF) and better exploitation of the latter might provide useful operational benefits.
All in all, a very enjoyable workshop. The dinner at STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, was really excellent as were the train exhibits themselves! – I would thoroughly recommend a visit there if you are ever near Swindon.
Dr Ed Figura, Senior GeoINT Consultant