A conference, but not as I know it ….

AGI Conference, East Midlands Conf Centre, Nottingham University 20-22nd Sept
This was the second time I have attended the AGI conference, having previously presented a paper there in 2009. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the w3g unconference the day beforehand, which sounded really good [see: vicchi’s blog post and GIScussions blog post]. So, an early start for a quick dash up the M1 for the 10-15am start. Just to show that SoC isn’t the only conference to suffer from the keynote blues, AGI actually had 2 out of the 3 initial keynotes pull out and had to do some rapid re-organising. AGI is quite big (440 delegates I believe this year) and has 5 parallel strands, which makes session choices hard. Fortunately, on this occasion the rooms were VERY close (unlike ICA in Santiago!) and the session chairs were briefed to work hard to keep to time and allow very brief changeovers WITHIN sessions, which was a blessing.

The first really good presentation was Bob Barr on the Public Data Corporation – important and good enough to have been a keynote in my view. I then attended 3 papers in the “safeguarding our future” strand – by presenters from British Transport Police, Greenspace Scotland and Snowflake Software. I had some issues with the symbology used by the police and the greenspacers. In the police case it was of their using heatmaps (with traditional circular spread as size increases) for what is basically linear data (following the railway lines). With the greenspace map it was the way they had kept to a limited palette (mainly green for obvious reasons) for their land classification, which looked fine and dandy in the key but which made for difficulties in interpretation on the map itself.

The highlights of day one for me were the two papers I attended in the “open alternative” session. Steven Feldman gave his take on how authoritive the crowd can be, before shamelessly plugging his upcoming project, which he is working on with the Centre for Geospatial Science, University of Nottingham (OSM-GB). Following this was a tour de force by Mark Illiffe, which won the audience vote for best conference presentation. Entitled “When Gov 2.0 Doesn’t Exist: Mapping Services in the Developing World”, it detailed work he had done in slums in Kenya, amongst other places – and was very thought-provoking on both the type of things being done (particularly in enabling data and knowledge gathering WITH the inhabitants) and their effect.

After the formal sessions came the soapbox, and the party, neither of which I’d attended last time as I was just a day visitor. The soapbox is basically a chance for extroverts to rant and swear a lot. It is held in the bar (with some free beers to lubricate the audience) and speakers have a 5 minute slot with slides provide in advance with fixed timings – 15 slides with 20 secs timings I think it was. You obviously have to have your speaking synched to the slides, else it can get very lonely out there. And being funny helps. Overall I was disappointed, I was expecting a funnier and more raucous affair somehow. The party was also an eye-opener, and showed the AGI’s corporate roots. There were more free beers, good hot buffet food and entertainment that I understand is standard at some corp events – a huge Scalextric set to race on, a bucking bronco machine to try out, and free gambling tables. I had an early night.

The first keynote of the second day was also one of my highlights. SoC president Danny Dorling gave a masterfull presentation on what he chose to call “twisted” maps. It was a comprehensive view of why using distorted map views (among them obviously the worldmapper cartograms, but many others I had not seen before) can be useful in analysing data [see: Ben Hennig’s blog for samples]. He was followed on by Vanessa Lawrence (DG and CEO of Ordnance Survey) who is always good value for money. Her enthusiasm and belief in the contribution that geography can make, combined with her pride in the OS were very evident. It was a very wide ranging talk covering developments in mapping through to the way OS is adapting to the era of Open Data.

The next session included what I thought were two of the weaker presentations I had seen. Maybe I was looking for something radically new, or was just conferenced-out. This all changed with the presentation by Warren Vick (Europa Technologies), which was boldly entitled “Improve your cartography – 10 tips for better on-screen maps”. There is not room to list the 10 tips here, but what I particularly liked was his resource links, some of which are were: Kuler – for generating color themes: http://www.adobe.com/products/kuler/; Stripe generator: http://www.stripegenerator.com/; Colorblindness simulator: http://colororacle.cartography.ch/.

The conference concluded with the 6th and 7th keynote speakers, both of whom were very engaging. Firstly, Kimberley Kowal (Lead Digital Curator at the BL) gave a beautifully illustrated talk using some of the fascinating maps from the British Library collection as her signposts. Finally, Gary Gale (Nokia), who presented at SoC Manchester, entertained with an amusing slide deck. His message was about place, context and the next generation of smarter location based applications.

My overall impression was of an interesting conference – both similar and yet very different to SoC. I am sure there is much that SoC members can give to the AGI community (and vice versa) and I encourage you to consider this as a conference to attend in future years. And there is certainly space for more “cartography” presentations to be given there. Hopefully I have highlighted some of the things of interest to forward looking cartographers, but as noted I felt it was missing any earth-shattering presentations with any particular WOW factor.

UPDATE: Steven Feldman’s blog on AGI conf [part 1part 2]. Conf twitter stream. Conf presentations and papers.