Category Archives: Visualisation

Matters relating to the visualisation and representation of datasets

Google Earth 3D on the Oculus Rift

There is a lot of interest in the area of virtual reality and visualisation of synthetic environments here at Cranfield University. A few years ago now, Cranfield University was fortunate to receive support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) Big Data Capital Equipment Award (NE/LO12774/1) which provided for a state-of-the-art virtual reality suite comprising of a 3D projection system. This award included a 3D software package called Geovisionary from the company Virtalis.

Geovisionary offers a participatory experience in virtual reality; a back-projection system throws up images on a screen for a group of people to see together using 3D goggles. Geothread has a post about the use of this system and a video of it in use.

However, for a more immediate experience, a virtual reality headset is required. Our facility has now taken delivery of the amazing Oculus Rift environment. With the ‘Rift’, one wears a full headset with high-resolution stereo viewing screens, together with built in headphones. Orientation is achieved through a range of hard controllers, from the basic controller which is rather like a TV remote control, to a gaming Xbox controller, to the new 3D hand controllers which come in pairs and allow really intuitive hand gestures. These gestures can include actions such as picking up items and even throwing items (use of the retaining cord is advised!)

There are a wide range of apps available which use virtual reality, from the obvious games, to personal productivity tools, data visualisation and spatial data interaction.

Perhaps one of the most exhilarating experiences for those with cartographic interests is the port of the Google Earth app to the Oculus Rift. This places you apparently literally within 3D city landscapes, and in natural environments – with the most intuitive ability to zoom and fly around. A special mode enforces ‘human scale’ viewing – meaning you can ‘walk’ along streets, viewing the world around you really as if you were there – completely amazing!

Here are some screenshots of city scapes captured from the system to give an impression of the experience. Views are shown respectively of Milton Keynes, Manchester, Bristol, Peterborough and Birmingham.

This approach was recently used successfully to support the publication of a Smart City frameworks paper:

Sally P. Caird & Stephen H. Hallett (2018) Towards evaluation design for smart city development, Journal of Urban Design, DOI:

Merry Christmas 2015

As another year draws to a close at Cranfield University, sure enough we have another Christmas map for you. As with previous years, we’ve collected a sample of tweets from Twitter that match a number of Christmas related keywords and mapped them using the same process we outlined last year.

The colour range from green to red indicates the density of Christmas related tweets from low to high in that county, relative to the normal density of twitter activity in that area (taken from a random sample of all tweets in the UK).

We’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the map. This time we thought we’d use the opportunity to focus on some of the web mapping technologies we’ve started using this year in other projects and hope to develop our use of heading into 2016. The biggest difference between the map you see above and some of the other maps we’ve published in the past is that this one doesn’t makes use of any GIS server or map hosting platform. Traditionally we’ve used either Geoserver or ArcGIS Server to publish our map tiles and other geospatial data for consumption with JavaScript web mapping APIs. Alternatively, web map hosting services can be used if one doesn’t have access to their own GIS Server, these include ArcGIS Online, Mapbox, CartoDB and others. The example here doesn’t use any of these services, but instead is running from a set of map tiles hosted on this very webserver. Interactivity (roll your mouse over the map to view the county names) is provided via a set of UTF-Grid tiles, also hosted on this webserver.

UTFGrid tiles use a combination of JSON encoding and ASCII grid files that sit alongside the map’s image tiles. For each PNG image tile there is a corresponding ASCII tile with a one pixel to one ASCII character mapping. An accompanying JSON lookup table provides the full set of attributes so that you can go beyond a simple raster map and offer full identify style interactivity.

UTFGrid functionality is available in many of the popular JavaScript web mapping APIs, either out of the box or as easily downloadable plugins. This particular map makes use of the Mapbox JS API, an extension of the Leaflet API.

The tiles used by this map are generated using the TileMill software and stored as a .mbtiles file (which is actually an SQLite database). A small PHP file, acting as a tile server, exposes this SQLite/MBTiles database to web mapping APIs as a large nested folder of image and UTFGrid files in the usual {z}/{x}/{y}.png or {z}/{x}/{y}.json fashion.

We like this approach to web mapping as it is reasonably lightweight and portable. The whole application, including web pages, JavaScript, map tiles and PHP tile server can be picked up and dropped onto any web server that supports PHP and is ready to go. It might not provide some of the advanced features you get with more heavyweight solutions, but a simple interactive map with query-able attributes is often all that’s needed for many web mapping applications. It’s also extremely fast and can be built using entirely open source software and tools.

More information on some of the packages and technologies used can be found here:

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from all at Geothread!

Soilscapes – Mobile soil mapping app

Soilscapes app

The Soilscapes app is currently available for iPhone and iPad

Cranfield University has developed its first app, which is distributed freely to Apple mobile devices through the iTunes store.

The Soilscapes app provides mobile access to the national information on soil from the popular Soilscapes service which currently can be accessed on Cranfield’s LandIS (land information system) website –

LandIS, which holds the English and Welsh national soil maps and property data, is managed by Cranfield with Defra (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). The new app forms part of a wider University drive to extend mapping to mobile apps as well as making the unique national capabilities held at Cranfield more widely available.

The app allows users to inspect the soil properties in their neighbourhood and to understand the extent and diversity of soils in England and Wales, providing for public education and awareness, something key to current thinking and needs at Defra.

The app is built around many of the technical concepts and frameworks highlighted here on GeoThread, including those covered in our guide to building a mobile mapping application. We hope that now much of the groundwork and testing has been done with this application, it will pave the way for further mobile mapping apps in the future.

Whilst the app is currently only available for Apple iOS devices, an Android version is now ready for launch and we hope to make it available through the Google Play store very soon.

Cranfield’s MSc Environmental Informatics renamed to MSc Environmental Data Science

Complex systemsHere at Cranfield University, we run a number of technically-oriented taught Masters courses. This website reflects some of the work of the staff involved in teaching and delivering on these courses.

One of our MSc courses is in ‘Environmental Informatics’.

From the next academic year in October 2015 onwards, we have decided to rename this course. So now the course is known as Cranfield University’s ‘MSc in Environmental Data Science’.

We made this change following careful consideration and advice from our industrial partners and student alumni. It was felt that the new name more closely reflected the ambitions of the course (data, modelling, visualisation and analytical techniques in the environmental sciences), and would stand alumni better in the subsequent jobs market (being a well understood term).

The course is described at and in fact all other aspects of the course remain the same (only the title is changed).

MSc Environmental Data ScienceCranfield University MSc Environmental Data Science

Chris Emberson presentation on the ITU Interactive Transmission Map

Chris EmbersonWe were fortunate to have a guest lecture presented to the students of the Geographic Information Management (GIM) and Environmental Informatics (EI) MSc courses by Chris Emberson, Managing Director of Innovation Mapping ( Chris covered some of his practical experiences in putting web mapping into practice, and particularly touched on the use of open source mapping techniques in doing this.

Chris was able to share work he conducts on behalf of the United Nations, drawing up assessments across Asia and the Pacific of the uptake and distribution of fibre broadband and its rollout. Of particular interest to the students was his description of the design of the technical framework used to meet the project brief. Chris outlined the use of Linux-based computers to host web servers and geo-data servers, and the open source back office geospatial databases developed in PostgreSQL and PostGIS. He described the enormous task of capturing in digital format the locations of the fibre backbone of the Internet across the countries in this study area, and how these data are loaded into the ITU database and backed up. Open source tools were discussed for providing the mapping capabilities the project offers – including OpenLayers, UTF Grid, Mapnik tilesets, KML superoverlay creation, and geoprocessing automation via shell scripting. Also outlined was the validation processes in place to aid the stakeholder data update process. The whole presentation was followed by a live demonstration of the system at

Merry Christmas from all at Geothread

Once again, we’re preparing to wrap up for the year here at Cranfield University. Before we sign off, we’ll leave you with something that’s become a bit of a tradition with the Geothread team over the past couple of years; our Christmas Twitter map. Last year we mapped the spread of festive cheer across the country, according to Twitter users. Once again, we’ve collected a sample of 60,000 georeferenced tweets mentioning the word Christmas, along with a handful of other related keywords. These have been grouped by county and then normalised against a random sample of tweets taken earlier in the year to eliminate the effects of population density.

Comparing against the same map last year, it’s clear that there are several areas that are consistent in their anticipation of the festive season; Central Wales and North Yorkshire in particular. Anglesey and Conwy in North Wales certainly seem to be getting excited about things this year, whilst Cumbria and the Scottish Highlands don’t seem to be feeling the same level of enthusiasm that they did 12 months ago.

Christmas tweets 2014
Apologies to anyone we missed out in Ireland. Unfortunately the random sample of tweets we used for normalisation did not include coverage of all of the British Isles, which is why there are some holes in the final map.

As a bonus this year, we’ve included an interactive map of the raw data collected from twitter, for you to explore below.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from all at Geothread!