Posted by & filed under IT & the Internet, Mountains & hills, Personal, Science, Software engineering, August 24 2017.

The three-year part-time remote learning UNIGIS UK MSc course I recently finished had two very different components – the first two years consisted of teaching modules of learning materials and assessed assignments (see my earlier blog posting about this here), and the third year involved the planning, development and writing of a dissertation, which is the final ‘research’ stage in getting the MSc degree. A dissertation is different from taught components of a course in that it requires formal academic research undertaken by the student and is a significant piece of original work, based on ideas originating largely from the student, and implemented and developed on the student’s own initiative and using their own skills. It is a real test of whether a student has ‘academic’ skills and is what sets a masters postgraduate degree apart from undergraduate degrees.

I had been thinking about ideas for my dissertation since the start of the course and I knew I wanted to explore the topic of exploring the physical characteristics of landscape in some way using my existing skills and experience as a web developer and software engineer, allied to the types of analysis and methods that are used in the field of Geographic Information Systems or Science (GIS). The primary starting point for an original piece of research is to establish a ‘research question’ that addresses some area in the field that has not been explored before, so my plan for getting ideas for this was to read as many published academic research papers as I could in the field of GIS that covered areas like land use, rural and upland environments and the use of spatial data models such as Digital Elevation Models. What really sparked the idea for what became my dissertation topic was a paper entitled ‘A GIS model for mapping spatial patterns and distribution of wild land in Scotland‘ by Dr Steve Carver(and others) of the Wildland Research Institute at the University of Leeds.

This paper led to a lot of further reading about the use of GIS techniques, spatial concepts and maps to explore the idea of ‘wilderness’ or ‘wild land’ which appealed to my existing interest in mountains, and I decided to concentrate on using the Scottish Highlands as a location for the focus of the research. The idea of ‘wild land’ in Scotland and what this actually means in a practical sense is a topic with some currency and this is seen in contemporary debates and research work concerning parts of Scotland that have been defined as ‘wild areas’ (in this case by Scottish Natural Heritage). The terms ‘wilderness’, ‘wild land’ and ‘wild areas’ have some ambiguity and are reliant on notions heavily affected by human perception, experiences and subjectivity and hence I always put the terms in quotes to denote this lack of precise definition. Much of the GIS research in this area has explored this ambiguity and this would be a central theme of my dissertation.

Papers such as ‘Using distributed map overlay and layer opacity for visual multi-criteria analysis‘ gave me ideas about building a GIS web-based tool which could explore the concept of ‘wild land’ in a way that hadn’t been done before. These ideas developed more formally with the research project proposal document I had created for the Methods in GIS module towards the end of second year of the course, but the ideas themselves constantly evolved all the time, right up until the dissertation itself was completed and submitted.

The first formal step in the creation of the dissertation was to get my ideas accepted as a coherent piece of valid, justified and original research by the UNIGIS UK team and this was done by submitting a formal MSc project proposal form at the start of the third year. This drew heavily on the research project proposal document I created in the second year and its main purpose was to present a research idea and plan with the potential at that early stage to become a dissertation, before work started in earnest. This is a vital step as it is important that a student does not head down a blind alley of unjustifiable research or take on a task that is beyond the scope of a MSc dissertation or not suitably related to the field of GIS. Once this proposal was accepted, an academic supervisor for the dissertation was allocated to me, and groundwork for the dissertation could start which mostly involved reading previous academic research publications and investigation of GIS-related software packages and web applications.

The research for the dissertation was further developed with the Extended Project Outline (EPO), a 2000-word document that benefited from formative feedback from my supervisor so that the ideas in it had been challenged, discussed and developed until they represented a good preliminary ‘grounding’ for the dissertation research to follow. At this stage the aims and objectives of the research were refined in discussions with my supervisor and altered so that they provided a focused target for the direction of the rest of the dissertation work.An important early outcome of these discussions was that I hadn’t initially intended to focus on the public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS) aspect of the web tool, but this change led to the idea of using only ‘open’ data and free and open-source software (FOSS) in the tool and the ‘accessibility’ of the tool becoming a major requirement.

The text of the aim of the research which defines the entire dissertation is:

‘The aim of this dissertation is the development of a publicly-available web-based GIS mapping tool, and the evaluation of the effectiveness of this tool in supporting a PPGIS approach, using the example of exploring the concept of ‘wild land’ in the Scottish Highlands’.

At this stage also the title of the dissertation was finalised to:

‘A web-based GIS tool to allow public exploration of the concept of ‘wild land’ in Scotland’.

The title and aim provide a good summary of the entire dissertation and everything in it can be considered as flowing from this.

The main research methodology underlining the dissertation was also defined at this early stage, and was to be, broadly speaking, a ‘quantitative’ approach in that it would involve the development of a technical software tool and importantly, an evaluation of that tool. This would be a largely desk-based process involving only my own time and efforts and could be described as ‘prestructured research’ in that it wasn’t open-ended and there was intended to be a clear outcome i.e. a measure of how well the web tool met the research objectives in terms of the ‘quality’ of the spatial data used and the usability of the web tool interface. Some dissertations involve ‘qualitative’ methods such as user surveys, interviews and questionnaires, and I decided at an early stage that this would be outside the scope of the dissertation – although these methods could potentially be used in futher research based on the work in the dissertation.

Once the EPO and the dissertation plan was approved (this document actually contributed 10% of the final dissertation mark), then the full work for the dissertation began, and this process took 4 months. Although this was not much longer than is usual for a dissertation in a traditional one-year full-time MSc course, a lot of the groundwork for the dissertation had been done in the preceding 12 months. The dissertation was required by UNIGIS to be no more than 15,000 words and to conform to established academic formats and styling. My supervisor guided me in the process of writing the dissertation with essential feedback on chapters, and contact was maintained throughout this period with Skype audio meetings and emails.

An important thing that I learned in this process is that it is important to create a research plan that is achievable within the resources available to the student (principally time) and appropriate for the level of a MSc dissertation – it can be easy to fall into the trap of taking on something that is more suitable for a full PhD, for instance. An important consideration also is the data that is required for the dissertation and whether it can be obtained and utilised within the timeframes and resources available to the student (e.g. licencing restrictions). The focus of my proposal on ‘open’ data and FOSS meant that this consideration was not a major hurdle, and indeed ‘accessibility’ of data and services was crucial to the theme of the dissertation which focused on PPGIS.

My plan for the dissertation was always that I should create a relatively sophisticated web-based tool as well as writing the dissertation about the tool so that there were essentially two deliverables involved, potentially requiring a lot of work and effort in the form of software design and development as well as research and writing. My strategy throughout however was always to focus on my strengths and what I knew I could do in terms of developing a web tool involving technologies I was familiar with such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and a web-based client-server architecture.

One technical problem I faced at an early stage was where to host the various components of the web tool architecture. The client-side aspect of the tool was relatively straightforward, being web pages composed of browser-based technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which can be hosted on any standard webhosting service (which I already have with the hosting of my personal website at edwardboyle.com). However, the server-side aspect was more challenging and had several technical requirements: command-line superuser remote SSH access to a linux environment with sufficient user privileges and an environment allowing the installation of third-party applications and libraries; sufficient disk space and CPU power; reliability and 24/7 uptime; HTTP access; sufficient timespan of the hosting service to cover the period of development and presentation of the web tool. Crucially, my personal webhosting service does not support the first of these requirements and this sort of service is usually only available with specialist webhosting services for a fee. Unfortunately UNIGIS UK were not able to provide this level of technical support so I was left to my own devices, and for a while this was a problem that may have stopped the entire dissertation. However, as part of my investigation of technical applications, I became aware of the possibility of usingAmazon Web Services (AWS), something I had previously heard of but did not know much about the details and had never used before. The AWS platform provides all of the technical requirements I needed with its EC2 service and amazingly, offers it free for a year’s trial for non-commercial purposes – a perfect solution for a student’s needs. I ended up implementing my entire web tool architecture on AWS.

An important first stage in the dissertation was undertaking of a critical literature review, and this was essentially done as a parallel process with the design and development of the architecture of the web tool. The literature review involved reading a large amount of previous related research and the two areas fed into each other, with the literature defining the methods that others had used in this area and what hadn’t been done before, and the consideration of available technology defining what was possible and which existing applications, software libraries and technology frameworks were appropriate for the task.

The final choice of FOSS GIS technologies for the tool were GeoServer for the server component of the architecture, and the OpenLayers JavaScript API and library for the client component. These technologies fitted all of the requirements well, which were basically to provide a web-based environment which was completely customisable, supported GIS functionality, and were as ‘accessible’ as possible with minimal licencing restrictions so that the main aim of the web tool and hence the research area of the dissertation, to evaluate the potential of PPGIS methods to analyse and explore the concept of ‘wild land’, could be supported. I also decided to geographically restrict the area that was analysed in the web tool, to simplify and reduce the amount of spatial data to be processed and delivered, making it more manageable and usable. I decided to focus on the area of the Cairngorms National Park which has a defined boundary, is one of the largest areas of ‘wild land’ in the UK, and is an area of Scotland I know very well.

An important first step in developing the web tool and deciding what technologies to use was the building of a basic prototype to discover if the ideas were feasible and to provide a platform on which to build further. The prototype was just the first stage in the process of software development which broadly followed the Rapid Application Development methodology, which I have extensive experience of, and which in this case involved several cycles of feedback from my dissertation supervisor (particularly concerning the usability of the interface of the web tool) and associated iterative development of the web tool.

The actual writing of the dissertation and development of the web tool went largely to plan and allowed me to submit the dissertation on time (at just under the 15,000 word limit) in May 2017. I was able to change the working hours of my job to part-time during this period and this helped greatly. Whilst I spent many hours of my spare time in early 2017 on this, and there were many problems to solve and issues to deal with, things fell into place quite neatly and I am proud of the final product which presented some interesting web technologies and GIS concepts in a novel way within an established research framework. Major outcomes and findings of the research were that the FOSS applications, particularly GeoServer and OpenLayers, and the ‘open’ data, particularly the Ordnance Survey OpenData service (which only became available for the first time in 2010), were very well suited to the objectives of the research and allowed a genuinely useful web tool to be built to investigate what the notion of ‘wild land’ means in a thoroughly-grounded academic GIS research context. The final level of success of the completed web tool was not completely apparent to me at the outset of the process of developing ideas for the dissertation, and even during the development of the web tool and the writing of the dissertation. I believe that the general success of the outcomes of the dissertation reflects the current maturity, sophistication and richness of FOSS GIS applications and ‘open’ data and also shows the new opportunities for research that are available, and that this positive outcome would have been unachievable only a few years ago. The ideas and themes behind the research objectives in my dissertation would have made for a much more difficult undertaking if I had been writing the dissertation in say, 2007 instead of 2017.

The dissertation received a very high mark, and combined with the marks I had obtained in the taught component of the course, I was awarded the MSc degree with distinction by the University of Salford in June 2017. This dissertation won an award for best UNIGIS UK dissertation of 2017 andhas also been nominated for an award in the international UNIGIS academic excellence prize competition.

The completed dissertation is available at (PDF format):

http://www.edwardboyle.com/MSc_Dissertation.pdf

The dissertation is also available on the Figshare service at this DOI URL:

https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5354011.v1

The final version of the web tool can be seen at:

http://www.edwardboyle.com/MSc/tool1.html

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