Conversations with folks from JPL about Curiosity, extra-planetary data, and Geospatial.
I love to cook. My wife says I’m pretty good at it, although that could just be an attempt to not have to cook herself. We don’t have cable so I don’t get to watch many cooking shows. However, occasionally when we travel, I get the Food Network… then I become a couch potato. I’m hooked on watching people compete by preparing different dishes in different ways. I especially love the ‘random box of stuff’ sort of competition where the chef needs to work out something delicious from a collection of ingredients. That’s some real creativity there.
What I don’t love about these shows is the judging part. This collection of experts sits down and looks at their food, smells their food, and tastes their food rendering a ‘this is better than that’ decision. Now I’m no expert (I’m hardly a decent cook, much less a chef or a food expert), but it all seems so arbitrary to me. However, I’ve noticed a bit of linguistic turn coming into the descriptions from the judges. There are what I’d dub ‘axis’ words, such as ‘acidic’, ‘sweet’, ‘sharp’, and ‘bright’. Then there are more descriptive words that seem to modify that a bit, such as ‘tangy’, ‘flavorful’, ‘steep’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’, etc. Finally, there are some comparison words used, most normally ‘balance’ and ‘counter’. So you might hear a description such as, “I like that you balanced the heavy sweetness with a flavorful acidic quality.” To my quantitative ear, it almost sounds like these professional chefs and judges have this sort of equation in their head that moves along the axis of acidic, bright, and sweet. It is as if there is an attempt at an extremely loose quantification of what is basically a qualitative thing. How do you impose a sort of equation on what’s basically opinion? I don’t like raw tomatoes, so anything with raw tomatoes is going to trend ‘negative’ for me personally despite their utility in providing an acidic quality to the food equation. The point being, any one person’s mileage may vary here.
Now let’s jump to geography and GIS. Lately I’ve been straddling the divide between qualitative and quantitative data. We like quantitative data because you can measure it, you can compare it, you can mathematically transform it, if it relates to space you can map it, you can color it…. you can do all sorts of things to it. Not only that, we can represent that in known ways with agreed upon conventions. Things like gradients or relative shape sizes have been reasonably well worked out. We tend to know what to expect, and in fact we recoil when they’re not what we expect. Quantitative data doesn’t present us with much challenges. Qualitative data is a whole ‘nother critter. We don’t always know what to do with qualitative data. We can’t even agree if it has much utility or not (editors note: WHAT? Blasphemy!). We certainly don’t know how to store it in transformable forms, or even how we’d like to transform the information. We don’t know how to compare it, or even if it is comparable. And the issue of representation? That’s so far out there and varied it’s barely on the radar.
You can certainly see why judges seem to be attempting to ‘quantify’ these qualitative measures. With numbers you can work out a ‘winner’ – feelings, emotions, tastes are a LOT harder because of their subjectivity. However, I think we lose so much when attempt to boil down these complex flavors and aromas into a comparable framework. How can we capture that information and still retain the ability to compare, contrast, and represent in agreed upon ways? I’m going to do the thing I hate the most and cop out because I don’t have an answer. To be honest, I don’t think there is ‘an’ answer but a series of answers we have to work out.
It’s been quite a while since my last column in this series, and a lot has happened in the geospatial world and the world of computing in general. I hope to give my thoughts on some of these trends over the next few months as I catch up to the world around me after finally finishing my PhD. One of the trends that I have been following with a lot of interest is definitely the move toward new ways of interacting with our computers.
To kick things off, I wanted to talk a little bit about what’s been going on with the growing presence of touch interfaces. While the keyboard and mouse still reign supreme in desktop computing, the success of the iPad and other tablets, as well as smartphones, has definitely broadened the reach of touch as a user interface. And that is filtering its way back into the desktop computing space, with the rise in popularity of all-in-one computers with touch-enabled monitors. In fact, I am writing this post on one of those new touch all-in-ones, the Lenovo A720.
I am finding my own computing behavior changing as well. For my day-to-day work and web surfing, I rely on my Windows slate tablet (ASUS Eee Slate EP121), which is touch-enabled as well. Most of the devices I interact with on a daily basis are touch interfaces and I’ve become so used to it that I often find myself touching a laptop or desktop monitor now, and wondering why nothing is happening.
So why is touch such a big deal? Because more and more of the devices that we either use now or are going to use in the near future (think smartphones and tablets) rely on a touch interface, and that means that software applications, even expert software like GIS or 3D virtual landscapes, will need to be touch-compatible if they are going to make the transition to new hardware platforms. Even more importantly, software users who haven’t worked with touch are probably going to have to come to grips with this new interface style. Some people take to touch quite quickly and intuitively, while others are going to struggle a bit.
On the developer side, writing applications with touch capabilities presents challenges, such as precision with finger movements and touch pressure and creating meaningful gestures for complex commands. When you’re talking about a complex series of tasks like working with map layers in a GIS, for instance, it can get a bit tricky. Still, we’ve already got the example of ArcGIS for iOS which is available on the small iPhone screen and the larger iPad and works quite well with a number of touch gestures. However, it’s quite a leap from the streamlined lightweight mobile apps to a full-fledged desktop GIS software package, which might require a real rethinking of how users interact with the various modules, viewers and tools to get a satisfying touch interface working.
So, even if you’re not a user of a touch device now, you may find that changing in the near future. Computing platforms and interfaces are changing whether everyone likes it or not and, while I don’t think keyboards and mice are going away anytime soon, in the world of technology they’ve been around for ages and may find themselves going the way of the punch card.