A VerySpatial Podcast
Shownotes – Episode 400
March 17, 2013
Main Topic: Losing the G and disconnecting the IS
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Python Scripting for ArcGIS is a new text from Esri Press by Paul A. Zandbergen (2013). It isn’t the first Python book for the geospatial community or even focused on ArcGIS, but it is the first that has the Esri logo on it. Much like other recent books on Geo/Python we have seen, it focuses on integrating an introduction to Python with the industry specific materials. As Frank mentioned when he highlighted the book in a previous podcast, this allows users to gain exposure to Python, but it doesn’t fall back on the (in my opinion) bad habit of most programming texts of spending half of the book on the language and concepts before even getting to the application in the specific area. There is a time and place for that approach in Python specific books. When you add another software library to a book, then use it from the get go.
The text is broken into four parts including 1) learning fundamentals, 2) writing scripts, 3) carrying out specialized tasks, and 4) creating and using scripting tools. As you can imagine each of these parts builds on the previous through the book fourteen chapters. Early chapters take advantage of Model Builder to help the reader get into Python through geoprocessing tools, but by Chapter 4 the focus is on building and running code. The book comes with a DVD which includes data and code samples so that you can use the same data and code that the authors are running.
If you are looking to learn Python for use with your ArcGIS workflow, or a reference on the topic, this book is a good option for a growing bookshelf on the topic. The fact that you are using both Python and ArcGIS all the way through the book gets our support. With an MSRP of $79.95 and a current Amazon price of $48.45 the cost puts it in the range of similar books.
For the last few years, I’ve been doing all my interactive mapping development using ESRI’s Flex API. If you know me really well, you’d realize that’s a pretty big deal. No, wait, that’s the mother of all big deals. Now I should give a little background – no less than five years ago, I once declared that anyone who develops in Flash should be punched in the head, kicked down a hill, and be required to write Assembly for the rest of their professional lives using nothing more than an ZX81 Sinclair Computer. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Flash hater than me. Yet a couple of years ago, I found myself turning to the thing I hated most to get my day to day job done. The transition wasn’t easy. I sneered and drug my heals the whole time I was learning it. I said all sorts of bad things about Adobe, about Adobe’s developers, about ESRI’s choices in business partners, even about myself. I took long showers in the morning to attempt to keep the ‘Flash stink’ off of me. I even started avoiding Jesse in the halls because he would just sigh sadly and shake his head (Sue was ok to talk to because she was doing C#, so she knew all about programming in languages nobody likes or uses :). Honestly, it was a mess.
Here’s the thing that really took me by surprise – I found out I kinda like Flex. Strike that – I actually really like Flex. Once I got used to its particularities, the code was actually fairly elegant and simple. Skinning is really cool. I love the theoretical ability to separate form from function. I say ‘theoretical’ because in practice I’ve noticed people tend to just bundle the two together. I like the mix of XML based approaches and actual scripting. The modularization is rather nice. The ability to ‘draw’ my components on the screen is unlike anything I’ve ever used before in web development. I really like the fact there are multiple ways to do things. If I can’t get the skinning to work, I can turn to CSS to get the job done. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a bunch that annoys me about Flex. For instance, datagrids just suck. They’re ugly and annoying and I hate them. And who’s bright idea was it make it impossible to access a pure database via Flex directly? I gotta drop to another language to pull it off? Annoying. But that’s not really the point of this piece. The point is that I found out Flex was actually really powerful and allowed me to quickly create Rich Internet Applications with little to no cross browser testing.
Allow me to digress for a minute and underscore that last point – little to no cross browser testing. Anyone who has developed for the web will tell you the biggest pain in the rear is getting it to work the same way on different browsers. For whatever reasons, the browser people can’t come together and agree on one rendering engine. Really, that’s all we ask as developers – make the thing work the same in all browsers. Is that too much to ask? Every minute of time I spend trying to get things to work the same in four different browsers makes me want to send a bill for my time to Microsoft, Google, Mozilla Foundation, and Apple. I’m doing their work and I’m not happy about it. But as I said, I digress.
Where am I going with all of this? The point I’m trying to make is that we developers have to remain flexible in our approaches. Right now, the whole area of Rich Internet Applications is in turmoil. Silverlight looks abandoned, Flex has been pretty much tossed aside by its creator, Adobe, and HTML 5 isn’t even technically approved as a standard until 2014. We are kind of caught jumping from one cliff to the other. A whole lot of people are talking about HTML 5 as the future, but we aren’t there right now. As of this writing, I have three browsers on my computer. When I do an HTML 5 test (http://html5test.com/), Chrome version 21 gets 437 points out of 500 for HTML 5 compatability. Firefox 15.0 gets 346 points. Internet Explorer 9 gets a depressing 138 points. You can easily see how developers are going to have to fall back into cross browser testing hell fairly quickly. That saps development time and resources that are in scarce supply. My ultimate point is that HTML 5 still isn’t prime time.
Muddying the waters even further is the whole issue of mobile. I’m not sure I’ve been in a development meeting anytime in the last year and mobile wasn’t brought up at least once. It’s out there and it’s something with which we have to contend, like it or not. Do you go HTML 5 on a mobile browser so it works everywhere (in theory)? Do you go native? Do you sink the resources to do Android AND iOS, never mind leaving people like Sue running Windows Phone out in the dark?
What they do is underscore the importance of responsiveness in current and future Internet Mapping projects, and by ‘responsive’, I’m referring to developers and developing environments. We have to remain ever responsive because the world in which we work is ever changing, perhaps more so than ever before. The skills we learn today may serve us little beyond the abstract tomorrow. And that’s pretty darn scary. But it’s also pretty exciting. It’s a lot of work keeping up, remaining flexible, and responding to changes. It’s also kinda rewarding.
In the first half of my column a while back on the changing ways in which we interact with our computers, I focused on touch and its increasing adoption as an interface of choice, driven by the rapidly growing use of smartphones and other mobile devices. But as computers and digital information weave themselves deeper into the fabric of our daily lives, there is growing interest in new ways to interact with them, and an equally growing number of research projects, prototypes and even consumer products that are focused on making these interfaces a reality.
Microsoft’s Kinect is a great example of a new user interface device that is picking up traction, first in the gaming console space, but increasingly getting attention in the broader computing world. The Kinect interface is based on tracking the user’s body and movements, which Microsoft refers to as a Natural User Interface (NUI) or Human Interface. So far, there have been a number of commercial and indie video games that have utilized the Kinect, with varying degrees of success, but the real excitement, I think, with the Kinect is that Microsoft is not only allowing, but encouraging, the community of users and developers to come up with new ways of using the Kinect to interact with the computer by offering an API to allow anyone to develop an application that uses the Kinect sensor. I’ve begun working with the Kinect API myself, and can already envision lots of ways that the interface could be used for virtual world navigation and interaction.
At this year’s recent E3 Conference, Microsoft gave more detail on their vision for how our human-computer interaction mechanisms will evolve with their presentation on Project SmartGlass, which includes Kinect navigation for Xbox Live entertainment in addition to the use of the Kinect as a game controller. Now, you don’t need to hold an interface device, like a controller or mouse, in your hand, and your body itself becomes the mechanism for you to interact with your computer. Now you can use hand motions, head movements, and yes, even a lean to the right or left, to execute commands on your computer.
In addition, some might not know that the Kinect offers audio input capabilities as well, meaning that you can create a custom voice commands for interacting with your computer, your game console, or really any other computing device. This can be a powerful interface combo, as you can use voice commands to navigate menus, for example, and combine that with gestures or tracking hand movements to create a complex navigation scheme for a wide range of software applications.
There are limitations, of course, including the sensitivity of interface devices like the Kinect. How does it know whether I want to lean forward to move my avatar or whether I just sneezed and fell forward? There is still a lot of work to be done in the areas of ergonomics, gesture libraries, and other technical issues that can negatively affect a user’s experience with natural interfaces and lead to their rejection as a preferred alternative to the comforting familiarity of the keyboard and mouse. And audio input can suffer from similar issues of precision, as a multitude of users have experienced with that iPhone-encased voice vixen Siri.
And then there’s the issue of how to change people’s perceptions and habits, especially in the working world. Kinect for Windows, a Kinect device which is calibrated to allow the NUI to work for desktop computing applications, is designed to encourage developers and users to think about incorporating gesture-based interfaces and audio into everyday software applications, including productivity software like word processing programs and data and spreadsheet tools. But the complex software interfaces full of menus, buttons, and text will be a tough nut to crack for broad adoption. But, think of all of the advantages if it can. With all of those studies that suggest spending our days sitting down in front of a computer is shortening our lifespans, think about how a natural user interface could get us up on our feet and make collaborating around a computer or working together with our mobile devices projecting on to all kinds of surfaces. Minority Report, Total Recall, you name it, we’re seeing the tech in prototypes from projects all over the world.
Why should we in the geography and geospatial community be interested in what’s going on with these new technologies in human-computer interaction? On a general level, there is an inexorable movement toward the demise of the mouse and keyboard as the monopolistic gateways to our relationship with our computer. As a familiar analogue to the typewriter, the keyboard has served us well as we have grown up and into our professional lives in front of a computer. But its analog physicality is now limiting in a world where there’s a race to build and distribute faster, lighter, thinner, smaller, more powerful computing devices that can travel with us anywhere. It’s also limiting when new interfaces like an NUI mean that we could gather around our monitor or projection screen with our GIS open and have discussions, with multiple users moving the map view around, adding and removing layers, performing analyses, etc., all while comfortably interacting and not tied to a physical input device. With that visual of the geospatial collaboration lab I now want to build for my teaching and research, I’ll sign off for now and wander off into the virtual fog until next time.