My Summer with OpenGeo

My spatial story began when I was a senior in college, as I was completing an Electrical Engineering degree. Throughout my academic career math and physics always came easiest to me and I chose my college major accordingly. Despite the ease I felt with engineering, and the solid job prospects it offered, it left me longing to learn more about society, culture and history. The gap between what I excelled at and what interested me was large, and seemingly impossible to close.

To fulfill graduation requirements I enrolled in the course Historical Geography of the Silk Road and much to my surprise it changed my view of the world. With a pile of historical maps my professor walked us through two thousand years of history, recounting the evolution of the Silk Road, the rise and fall of great cities, how the environment facilitated or challenged the route, and conversely how the road shaped the environment itself. After learning how often the route changed and how strong of a role geography played it it’s history, a flip switched for me. I enrolled in additional geography courses, from urban geography and geomorphology, to more technical-oriented spatial analysis and subsequently a whole series of GIS courses. I began to understand the power of space in explaining social phenomena, and the usefulness of spatial data and technology in helping make critical decisions. Ultimately this led to my PhD study where I explored a range of spatial topics, from urban development to cyberspace security and even advanced data visualization techniques.

Routes of the Silk Road by Han (cyan), Tang (yellow), and Song (green) dynasties. Environmental changes caused some routes obsolete and cities deserted, for example, the city of Loulan.

During the course of my PhD study, two significant technology events occurred, both strongly related to GIS:

  • The rise of smart phones, which provide unlimited possibilities to collect spatial data.
  • The emergence and acceptance of cloud computing, which empowered spatial analysis and data sharing to an unprecedented level.

These events prompted me to learn more about the geospatial industry, introducing me to OpenGeo. When Jeff Johnson of OpenGeo offered me an opportunity to work as an intern on their development team I jumped at the opportunity. My strong belief that spatial technology can be used to benefit society meshed well with OpenGeo’s commitment to open source spatial technology and I was very excited to join them for the summer of 2012.

I had the pleasure of working with Jeff out of Carlsbad CA, he was a great mentor and had me hit the ground running, coaching me on how to use Git on my very first day. Soon after I was contributing by writing unit and integration tests for GeoNode, increasing testing coverage over 20%. We followed the testing by working on internationalization (known as i18n to the software development industry). By teasing out all necessary terms in GeoNode that needed translating and setting up a user-friendly interface for crowd sourcing translations we were able to draw contributors from many language backgrounds to help with the translation effort.

Working with Jeff Johnson in his favorite café.

While working with Jeff this summer I found myself wondering what benefits OpenGeo could bring to academia. In the university sitting people seek openness of knowledge and access to information and tools. OpenGeo builds strong open and freely available spatial technologies. To me the connection is self-evident; I believe there are at least three things worth considering.

My academic colleagues have a need to share and showcase their spatial analysis with a larger audience. During my PhD work alone I amassed over 70 years of urban data from San Diego and Tijuana. That data took me six months to collect and if it cannot easily be shared it would take every subsequent researcher a similar amount of time. GeoNode, with its tuned upload/download/metadata functionalities, provides a solution to share this information. Moreover, OpenGeo supports some of the best available web mapping technology where advanced data visualization can be implemented (figure below). Additionally, demands for through the web spatial analysis and processing tools are only growing, and the 3.0 release of OpenGeo suite has added a comprehensive set of tools to address these needs

Soon we may find an online database of the Silk Road, with extensive historical and current geographical data, and even exploratory processing tools which will be available and open to everyone. When students and researchers have access to such tools some may be inspired to set up their own expedition and discover a long forgotten city.

A music genres map based on songs played on Last.fm, an online radio station, and users’ tags. Cartographic language combined with online mapping services could provide a more effective way to explore complex multidimensional dataset. For more information please refer to http://cns.iu.edu/research/10-Last.fm.pdf.

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