29 July 2015

Summer reading

Here is your summer reading assignment:

ECOLOGIES OF EMPIRE: On the New Uses of the Honeybee by UC Berkeley's Jake Kosek.
Abstract: This essay examines the rise of the honeybee as a tool and metaphor in the U.S. “war on terror.” At present, the largest source of funding for apiary research comes from the U.S. military as part of efforts to remake entomology in an age of empire. This funding seeks to make new generations of bees sensitive to specific chemical traces—everything from plastic explosives, to the tritium used in nuclear weapons development, to land mines. Moreover, in an explicit attempt to redesign modern battlefield techniques, the Pentagon has returned to the form and metaphor of the “swarm” to combat what it takes to be the unpredictability of the enemy in the war on terror. At the same time, honeybee colonies are collapsing. Rethinking material assemblages of bees and humans in the war on terror, this essay moves beyond the constrained logic and limited politics of many epidemiological investigations of colony collapse. Honeybees are situated within a more expansive understanding of the role of and consequences for the animal in modern empire building.
The map of landmines generated by the flight patterns of trained honeybees is a remarkable twist on GIS on the battlefield.

27 July 2015

CASA Urban Roller Coaster

Some people like to visit cities for summer vacation. others go to theme parks. The 3d geniuses at UCL CASA combined the 2 with their Oculus Rift Urban Roller Coaster ride. Very cool.

In May 2014 Virtual Architectures was invited by CASA to create a virtual reality exhibit for the Walking on Water exhibition that was partnered with Grand Designs Live at London’s ExCeL. The CASA Urban Roller Coaster was created using 3ds MAX, Unity and Oculus Rift.

Southeast Wisconsin Freeway Megaprojects

Politico (not the usual news source for this blog) has a lengthy story on the Southeast Wisconsin Freeway Megaprojects. Wisconsin is spending billions of dollars as part of a concerted effort to improve highways around Milwaukee. News outlets often treat highways as a universal good while planning outlets have a more mixed perspective. Politico has split the difference, which may seem odd to its readers:
“It’s an all-out war on urbanism,” says John Norquist, who spent 16 years fighting freeways as Milwaukee’s mayor and then a decade running the Congress for the New Urbanism. “Cities are seen as obstacles to getting cars and trucks to move faster. Transit is seen as the ultimate expression of Marxism. And you know, road builders give a lot of money to politicians.”

24 July 2015

25 Miles from the Statue of Liberty

Summertime trips in our area often mean crossing the unique Tappan Zee Bridge. A few years back, NPR's Planet Money posted a great story explaining that the bridge is built in a terrible place for building a bridge. Why was it built there? Because it is more than 25 miles away from the Statue of Liberty.

Well, when I heard that Rutgers Press had a new book out by Philip Plotch called "Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject" it spurred me on to check out the 25 mile limit. Well, that pesky 25-mile line sure is in just the wrong spot. Check out the maps below to see for yourselves:

23 July 2015

Dramatically changed landscapes

The Globe and Mail reports on a lake in Canada that is about to "fall off a cliff." We tend to think of landscapes as being fairly stable. But this story has photos of an amazing process that forces us to think about a different scale of change occurring in this remote corner of the Northwest Territories. This hasn't been so widely circulated, but the photos after the collapse most likely will be viral for a few days.

22 July 2015

The need for better geohealth information infrastructure

In the early hours of the morning a North Brunswick warehouse caught fire and burned. The fire was less than three miles from our new GeoHealth Lab at the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, so it caught our attention.
The smoke from the fire could be seen from Manhattan and from space and appeared as a large plume on weather radar with trains and traffic delayed throughout the region. The warehouse stored goods reportedly ranging from plastics to automotive parts to hydrogen cyanide, so this could have been a terrible situation. As of this afternoon, the EPA has declared that there is 'no environmental hazard' from the fire, but I don't know if that means there was not a health hazard. (It isn't clear and nothing in this blog post is meant to suggest either way)

With the situation appearing to be under control, we can now look at this as an opportunity to imagine the next generation of geospatial health information and how it might change our response to a situation like this.

As an experiment, I watched the situation unfold and looked for corresponding spatial information, of which there was little. The morning news did show weather radar showing the plume of smoke, which is a digital map. But that was about all I found.

Imagine going to the NJ Department of Health and getting live data that helps you assess the situation. Maybe they post a map of where the fire is or show you the plume of smoke so that you can avoid exposure. Maybe you can help them by marking your location and whether you are experiencing any breathing problems or smell burning plastic. By the time I write this, the cloud has dissipated and reconstructing the event is suddenly much harder without timely evidence from the field.

To simply make a map of the plume (above), I had to look at NOAA radar and other images on news sites to estimate where it was.  A reliable plume map, made at regular time intervals over the course of the fire would help professionals assessing the health impacts of the fire. (please note that the data shown is for illustration purposes and should not be used for assessments. Much of this plume was fairly high and at other times it stretched out into the Atlantic - so a simple polygon isn't enough)

Imagine a homeowner near the fire. After living close to the warehouse for 30 years, they still don't know how close they are. A simple map like the one above, showing buffers of 300 yards and 500 yards from the building, could change a simple decision about whether to stay or go. I chose the distances fairly arbitrarily, but a health professional could help explain what happens at specific distances and what the level of risk in each area might be.

Mapping the plume would allow a comparison with population centers. For instance, the above map shows population density in the areas around the plume. We can quickly pick out Jamesburg and Englishtown as places to check. Freehold is nearby, as well. 

Counting up the people impacted is tricky. We need to figure out whether we are using the right plume map. And we need to understand what we mean by "impacted" as well as which population dataset we use to estimate that number. But if we settle for a very simple figure, the grey polygon in the map can be estimated to cover an area populated by more than 80,000 residents.

As a public safety issue, we might ask where are there emergency treatment facilities nearby. But as a geohealth issue, this might not be the right question.

Instead, we might make ask about pulmonologists in the area. Digging around on the Internet can get you some information about these doctors. But it would take very good data to figure out whether these doctors have the capacity for a sudden increase in cases from such a crisis.

With a little time we could have done much more.  We could have compared radar images to map different levels of exposure. We could have added land use/land cover to show where forests might counter the health impacts. We might have been able to find other datasets, like building footprints and cadastral details, which could reveal new details. We could have looked at demographic characteristics to ask whether specific groups (elderly, poor, minorities) were impacted more than others. Maybe we could combine census and land use and parcels to model where people work and where they work at home. Maybe we would discover that information about the event needs to be distributed in more than one language (Hungarian? Hindi? Spanish?). We could have certainly added some context to the maps along with scale bars and other mandatory basics.

For GeoHealth, the situation demonstrates how a geospatial information infrastructure could really help with unanticipated events like this. As a new field, we are just beginning to understand what is essential and what is peripheral. And these maps (which were made quickly, without scale bars or good data or a background in pulmonology) are meant to simply point out that we need to think about the health ramifications of an event like this from a spatial perspective. Health is a spatial phenomenon that we can see stretched across our landscapes if we learn how to look for it.

For three decades the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis we have created a wide variety of spatial data and advised agencies on ways to use geospatial data for scientific and professional applications. One of our primary interests at the GeoHealth Lab is to extend that track-record of success to encourage the development of spatial information that will make our communities healthier. 

UPDATE: One of our readers pointed out that adding a map of asthma clusters would help us illustrate the potential impact on at-risk populations. That would be something else that a health/wellness spatial data infrastructure would include. As a proxy, I thought that age might let us isolate either infants and toddlers or elderly. For the purposes of rapid assessment I offer you instead of map of median age by block group which still lets us almost instantly identify one of the largest retirement communities in central New Jersey at Jamesburg. To find it, just look for the dark cluster near the middle of the map.

21 July 2015

Here goes German

It looks like Here is going to be German. That is big news in the geospatial business world. Trust me.

Information age planning

I thought this column in PlaNetizen was a great conversation starter about how planners need to change their thinking about data. Building on a report from the Brookings Institute, the authors build an argument for why "planners must become more sophisticated in solving data-ownership and sharing challenges." Big data are changing the realities of the planning world and we need to think about what that will mean in the future so we can build towards it now.

15 July 2015


Just a note for regular readers. It turns out that UNESCO World Heritage stories are great clickbait. The posting on July 13 got more than double the visits of our other recent posts. Go figure. I will counter it with a detailed post on data handling sometime soon.

Sea Ranch revisited

The NYTimes Magazine has posted a feature looking back at Halprin's ideas behind Sea Ranch and linking that experience with its continued success today. Like almost any historical piece on Sea Ranch, it is worth reading, but I was taking aback by one comment.

The author, Alice Gregory, describes the remarkable blend of architecture and landscape architecture this way, "This is precisely the appeal of Sea Ranch houses, which contrive to give residents the juvenile thrill of being simultaneously inside and outdoors." Reducing the long tradition of exploring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors to a "juvenile thrill" misses the essential nature of what so many designers have explored at that seemingly inescapable boundary.

13 July 2015

The newest UNESCO World Heritage sites

UNESCO has announced its latest class of World Heritage Sites, These are places of significance around the world that are seen as central to our collected heritage on this planet. The original class of 1978 included Yellowstone and Mesa Verde, with the Grand Canyon and Independence Hall getting added later. In Spain, I lost count of how many our class visited, but it included the Historic City of Toledo, the silk trading centers in Valencia, Gaudi's work in Barcelona, the Hospital Santa Pau and Palau de la Música Catalana, the historic center of Cordoba, and the Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín in Granada.

2015 brings a few interesting additions to the list which only has a little over 1,000 entries. In the US, the San Antonio Missions have been added, including the Alamo (I hope they don't post the plaque in the Alamo's basement where no one can see it). Jamaica's Blue and John Crow Mountains were also added this year. Elsewhere, Britain's remarkable Forth Bridge and Turkey's ancient city of Ephesus also made the list.

Check out the list of all 27 newly inscribed sites. Explore the interactive map of all 1031. Do you disagree with any? Are you worried about the sites that have been delisted and what it means for other threatened sites?  Or do you just want to pack your bags and start visiting some?

10 July 2015

Friday Fotos - Gaudi

Today's installment of Friday Fotos is pretty huge. Having just returned from Barcelona, I have hundreds of images of spaces and structures by Antonio Gaudi. But for today I narrowed it down to a few dozen from Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, and Palau Guell. They are below the fold:

06 July 2015

Terrible, terrible news

At a time when there is lots of bad news, this is one of the worst local bad news stories. Ugh.

Hallowed ground for landscape architects

More than 25 years ago I learned about Generalife and the Alhambra in one of my first college classes and I finally got to visit it this summer. While it was well worth the wait, I gather that if I had gone earlier, there would have been fewer rope barriers in spaces like the Court of Lions. But the restoration work would also not yet have improved some sections.

Not only is this a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it is also on the short list of greatest landscapes anywhere.