Category Archives: training

Online teaching: More reflections

This blog post is the next in the series on running training sessions during the pandemic. As a recent Rasters Revealed conference there was a great session on running training courses during the pandemic and I thought I would share my experiences. This builds on my previous posts about teaching online and CPD.

Since March I have run 10 different training courses, a mixture of 3 or 4 half day sessions. There is always potential to improve more, but I think overall my structure works reasonably well. I have certainly received great feedback from my course participants.

“I loved the interactive bits, the worksheets and the breakout rooms. They” were really hands on and felt like a normal course, even though the course took place online.”

Astrid Pape, PhD Candidate, Freie Universität Berlin
Introduction to GIS, Geospatial Data & Spatial Statistics course, November 2020

Screenshot of my teaching session in Jan 2021

I run the courses on Zoom, and limit the sessions to 3-4 hours maximum during a day – otherwise it ends up being a lot of intense screen time, which doesn’t help the learner, or me! Each session has a mixture of presentations (20-40 min) and then practical sessions. For the practical sessions, I split the main group up into small groups of 4-5 people using the breakout rooms feature. The practical sessions last for up to an hour, and I ‘walk around’ the groups by visiting each breakout room in turn and see how people are getting on. If they have questions, they can share their screens, and most of the time they group members talk to each other and share their questions within the group. They also have the option of pressing the ‘Ask for Help’ button which sends me a message, saying so-and-so has a question in room 2, and I can go to the room and see what their question is.

Over the whole period of the course (1-2 weeks) I run a Slack channel for that particular group. This allows me to share links to materials, slides, Zoom, videos, etc. as well as giving the students the option to ask questions to the group, or just to me (via the DM feature). During the actual sessions I also have 10 min at the end where I ask everyone to post a question in the Slack discussion about the material we have just covered. This is a great way of getting questions out of people and I then talk through the answers, adding in links later on if I don’t have them to hand there and then. All the sessions are also recorded and available to the participants (only) for 3 months.

Questions in Slack from a training session

I hope this is useful – if you have any experiences you’d like to share, please do in the comments below!

If you are interested in GIS training, then I have some courses coming up in Feb and April, and I am always happy to talk about running a course for your research group or organisation – just get in touch.

Cross-posted from

PDR and the Pandemic

Our Professional Development Record (PDR) hours—CPD in the UK—are a key part of the surveying and geospatial professions. Previously PDR would have involved a mixture of in-person training, in-person conferences and self-study training materials. With the Covid-19 restrictions on meeting other people face-to-face, meetings are no longer possible, at least in the short term. Online video conferencing can substitute for some in-person events, and many PDR requirements are being relaxed to allow completely online PDR hours. So far, video conferencing has worked very well for training sessions and conferences, but I don’t think it will completely replace face-to-face meetings for a long time yet.

PDR requirements vary between industry and country, but all have some required training element, which would often be completed by attending in-person courses. This now all needs to be done online, at least in the short- to medium-term, and some accreditation providers have had to update their policies to allow this to be completed only online.

Providing one-to-one support during a training session. Video (left) and student sharing their screen (right)

In the UK, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) have one of the more formalized and strict PDR requirements. Both groups have moved all of their PDR courses online.

In the U.S., the GIS Certification Institute is completing its Technical Knowledge Exam online, and URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, one of the leading GIS professional bodies) has moved one of its in-person leadership academies online. In general, these events

have gone very well, but the online medium poses unique challenges of encouraging social interaction in an online space.

Certification for your PDR is also a tricky element depending on what area you are working in. Some of the certification elements can easily be completed online, using multiple choice answers or written responses to questions. Some of the more practical elements, like showing that you know how to service an RTK GPS unit, are tricky to examine online. I see a future where some of this might be done over live video calls, allowing the person being evaluated to demonstrate their skills to an assessor.

I run a number of small (10 to 20 attendees) in-person training courses in GIS and spatial analysis. All of these have had to move online, posing a range of different challenges. We all have access to video conference tools, and I think it is reasonable to say that some are better than others.

For most of my training courses I have used Zoom, which has worked very well with groups of up to 20 or so. My courses are a mixture of presentations (to the whole group) and then self-led practical workbooks, with the students receiving one-on-one support from me and a teaching assistant. I used the ‘Breakout Rooms’ facility within Zoom to allocate every student to their own room, and I could visit them and see how they were getting on, and they could share their screen if they were having any problems with their work.

Running a training course on Zoom.

This worked well, but we did miss out on the social aspect of the session – discussions over lunch, and students helping each other during the course. This is something that concerns many trainers and attendees alike, and I hope to see better solutions come along over the next few months.

I made use of the various security features in Zoom (particularly the Waiting Room) so we had no issues of Zoom bombing, where unauthorized viewers gate-crash the meeting and disrupt events. Moving courses online has allowed many more people to take part, particularly those who would otherwise be unable to travel for whatever reason. I have run several courses where participants have said it is great that the course is online, as otherwise they would be unable to take part, due to childcare requirements.

This increase in numbers has also been seen in bigger conferences and MOOCs, with a big uptick in numbers. For example, the very popular ESRI

Cartography MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) reached more people than last year (35,772 participants in the latest offering) and has also had a 31 percent higher completion rate. Some smaller GIS conferences that would usually run in person have also received an up tick in numbers from moving online, including FOSS4G UK 2020, which went from typically 100 attendees to 400, GISRUK 2020, which went from typically 150 to 300 and QGIS North America 2020, which went from typically 50 or so to 200.

Nearly all of these conferences are also now available as recorded videos online, providing a great resource for future learning. It is great to see these increases in numbers with more people learning what GIS can do and being able to apply it in their own areas of work.

While the move to online has many advantages, I don’t believe it will entirely replace in-person training and conferences. The social interaction element of online conferences has so far seemed the hardest to replicate online.

There are some very interesting platforms to encourage networking, but I’ve not yet seen any that work really well. I can see everything staying online until the end of 2020, but beyond that I see a hybrid model going forward, where there will be substantially more online events than before, but there will still be some in-person events.

Whether we can manage to run great hybrid events with links between the group physically in the room and the group online remains to be seen.

PDR Requirements in the U.S.

Licensure for land surveying varies from state to state, but there are more similarities than differences. Typically, licensing is handled by a state board of professional licensure, often the same board that oversees engineering licenses.

The requirements for licensure by state are similarly defined in the laws, codes, and statues for each. The requirements are typically a combination of experience, education, and examinations. Most require passing one or more standardized set of tests from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), a non-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing professional licensure for engineers and surveyors.

Most states have adopted continuing education requirements and often the reporting of one’s hours is up to the licensee but is subject to an audit. Sometimes the requirements are stated as “units” and other times as hours, and the annual requirements are typically about 15 hours per year.

The resources for education credits or hours are typically met from educational institutions, surveying association/society conferences and seminars, and commercial education credit firms. There are a number of nationwide firms offering these, like PDH Academy and GeoLearn, some presented locally and others online.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in surveyors tapping online resources, and in turn, there has been a rise in online resources. Some states surveying associations, like West Virginia, have rapidly increased online course offerings.

For GIS professionals, the GISP certification, via the GIS Certification Institute (, is broadly viewed as the standard. While it is not a license, like those required by states for surveying and engineering, the GISP can be a job application or contract requirement like other professional certifications. This is similar to the Certified Survey Technician, hydrography surveyor, and floodplain surveyor programs of the National Society of Professional Surveyors.

The GISP recertification requirements are a points system, based on a combination on education, contributions to the profession, and work experience. GIS is, by nature, very digital, and so is GIS education. Many resources for online education and collaboration were well established even before the pandemic began.

Originally written for xyHt and posted at

Using QGIS on AWS WorkSpaces

Klarna signs deal with AWS | FinTech Alliance

Amazon WorkSpaces are essentially a managed virtual machine (they use the term Desktop-as-a-Service). You can choose Windows or Linux, and they appear to be doing a free offer at the moment.

AWS (Amazon Web Services) are a great tool, and very powerful and flexible, but sometimes a bit intimidating. Their help is very good, and they offer tutorials and step-by-step guides which are really useful.

I used WorkSpaces as a option for people to use QGIS on a course, but who couldn’t install QGIS on their own machine. I’ve had this issues a couple of times, sometimes because they don’t have admin rights, sometimes because the computer just doesn’t like it.

They have an ‘easy-setup’ available in some regions, and I used Europe (Ireland). Europe (London) doesn’t have this option, unfortunately. I started with a ‘Standard with Windows 10’ which has 2 vCPU, 4 GiB RAM, 80GB Root volume and 50 GB User volume (disk space). I logged into this, and installed QGIS (v 3.12). You can then create an ‘Image’ of this, which AWS then wants you to put into a bundle. The key bit is then you can launch this Bundle as many times as you want – whether it is for one user or 20 users!

After a bit of experimenting with the Standard image (2 vCPU, 4 GiB RAM) it didn’t really have enough welly for QGIS, so I upgraded it to ‘Performance’ which has 2 vCPU and 7.5 GiB RAM, which worked much more effectivley.

The user can download an app (Windows / OSX / Linux) to run their WorkSpace, or run it through the browser, which is what my participant did. It worked well, although juggling the Zoom window and the browser window took a bit of practice I think.

Cost wise, the Performance option is costed by AWS at $8/month + $0.53/hour. I’ve always found with AWS I’m not 100% sure exactly what they will charge until I get the bill at the end of the month (as this is all + VAT as well). For 1 participant using the WorkSpace for a one day course cost be about $20 (£16).

Any comments or questions are welcome. Good luck and let me know how you get on using AWS WorkSpaces!

Cross-posted from .

Spatial R – Moving from SP to SF

I recently ran my ‘Introduction to Spatial Data & Using R as a GIS’ course for the NCRM at the University of Southampton. This was the first time after I had updated the material from using the SP library to using the new SF library. The SF (or Simple Features) library is a big change in how R handles spatial data.

Working with RStudio at University of Southampton

Back in the ‘old days’, we used a package called SP to manage spatial data in R. It was initially developed in 2005, and was a very well-developed package that supported practically all GIS analysis. If you have worked with spatial data in R and used the syntax variable@data to refer to the attribute table of the spatial data, then you have used the SP package. The SP package worked well, but wasn’t 100% compatible with the R data frame, so when joining data (using merge() or match()) you had to be quite careful, and we usually joined the table of data to the variable@data element. For those in the know, it used S4 data types (something I discovered when I generated lots of error messages whilst trying to do some analysis!)

The SF library is relatively new (released Oct 2016) and uses the OGC (Open Geospatial Consortium) defined standard of Simple Features (which is also an ISO standard). This is a standardised way of recording and structuring spatial data, used by nearly every piece of software that handles spatial data. Using SF also allows us to work with the tidyverse series of packages which have become very popular, driven by growth in data science. Previously, tidyverse expected spatial data to be a data frame, which the SP data formats were not, and often created some interesting error messages!

The Geospatial Training Solutions ‘Introduction to R’ course is very well established, and I have delivered it 14 times to 219 students! However, it was due for a bit of a re-write, so I took the opportunity of moving from SP to SF to do restructure some of the material. I also changed from using the base R plot commands to using the tmap library. As a result, it is now much easier to get a map from R. In fact, one of the participants from my recent NCRM course in Southampton said:

“It was so quick to create a map in R, I thought it would be harder.”

Participant on Introduction to Spatial Data & Using R as a GIS, 27th March 2019, University of Southampton

They were blown away by how easy it was to create a map in R. With SF and tmap, you can get a map out in 2 lines (anything staring with # is a comment):

LSOA <- st_read("england_lsoa_2011.shp")  #read the shapefile 
qtm(LSOA) #plot the map

You can also get a nice looking finished map with customised colours and classification very easily:

tm_shape(LSOA) +
tm_polygons("Age00to04", title = "Aged 0 to 4", palette = "Greens", style = "jenks")
+ tm_layout(legend.title.size = 0.8)
Count of people aged 0 to 4 in Liverpool, 2011 Census Data.

However, unfortunately not all spatial analysis is yet supported in SF. This will come with time, as the functions develop and more features are added. In the practical I get the participants to do some Point in Polygon analysis, where they overlay some crime points (from with some LSOA boundaries. I couldn’t find out how to do a working point in polygon analysis* using this data and the SF library, so I kept my existing SP code to do this. This was also a useful pedagogical (teaching) opportunity to explain about SF and SP, as students are likely to come across both types of code!

*I know theoretically it should be possible to do a point-in-polygon with SF (there are many posts) but I failed to get my data to work with this. I need to have more of an experiment to see if I can get it working – if you would like to have a try with my data, please do!

The next course I am running is in Glasgow on 12th – 14th June where we will cover Introduction to Spatial Data & Using R as a GIS, alongside a range of other material over 3 days. Find out more info or sign up.

The material from this workshop is available under Creative Commons, and if you would like to come on a course, please sign up to the Geospatial Training Solutions mailing list.

Cross-posted from

The Northwest Digital Research Methods Festival: Researching the Digital/Researching Digitally

Liverpool Cathedral

I spent a great couple of days up in Liverpool, attending the North West Digital Research Methods Festival at the University of Liverpool. It was great to be back in Liverpool and catch-up with colleagues and friends from my post-doc days there in 2013-16. The city has changed quite a bit, and my old office now overlooks a major building site instead of a green park!

The conference looked at Digital Methods from a broad social science point of view. It was great to spend some time thinking about digital methods from a different perspective. Key to all digital methods are longevity and there were lots of discussions about how data resources are made available to scholars in the long term; including decisions made to simplify a website interface to ensure it will remain working for longer with limited support.

Warren PearceIt also made me think about how we process data. Warren Pearce presented on social media data and was critiquing the fact that we often focus on the text content of messages, and ignore the visual elements. This is missing out on a key element of the conversation (think of any social media content you have recently looked at) and the visual elements should be included in the analysis. My initial thought was that this was a technological hangover, with text being much easier to process than visual. However, I learnt that there is also a cultural element with text based information being seen as much more valuable than pictorial information. Warren also highlighted a fascinating visualization of the front pages of the New York Times, highlighting how it had changed from just text to a mixture of text and black & white images, then to text & colour images. Warren’s recent paper on the topic is at

There were a whole range of presentations looking the digital research and digital data, from a wide range of different perspectives. These included using physical objects to encourage interaction and engagement in a museum environment, to considering the best ways of increasing accessibility of digital archives such as photo libraries of African Rock Art or historical criminal life courses. Have a look at for Tweets from the conference.

The second day consisted of a series of practical workshops, which included one run by me on GIS. I was pitching GIS as a great digital method and I think I may have converted some people!

I had a 30 minute slot and managed to cover a very brief introduction to GIS, and did a practical using Google Fusion Tables. The materials are available here ( and please do drop me a line at if you are interested in learning more about GIS.

I would really recommend that everyone considers attending conferences outside of your usual ‘academic sphere’ – you never know what you are going to see, what ideas might be sparked off, or what future contacts & employers you could be meeting!

Cross-posted from

Sunny London: Linked Data & ESRI

Earlier this week I have a very nice couple of sunny days in London attending a training course and a conference. It’s a nice change to attend a course (rather than delivering one!) and is also a great opportunity to add to my CPD log (particularly important for my Chartered Geographer status with RGS-IBG).

Some of my transport around London!

On the Monday I attended a half-day workshop on Linked Data, organised by Dr Claire Ellul at UCL and run by Bart De Lathouwer from the Open Geospatial Consortium. I’d come across the term linked data in various different situations, but hadn’t really done much with it, and this was a great opportunity to learn about it. The key bit about linked data is that it is solely formed from triples, sets of three, in the form “subject, predicate, object” such as “The pool – is – blue” or “student – name – value”. It also is a fundamentally different way of structuring data from a “traditional” relational database and so avoids many of the limitations, but also requires a completely different way of thinking about the data. This is quite a jump from what we are used to, and I think it will take a little while for linked data to properly take off. This is a good resource ( for some information on how OGC are working with Linked Data.

Queen Elizabeth II Centre, home for ESRI Annual Conference

On Tuesday it was ESRI UK’s Annual Conference, based at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre near Parliament. It was a great conference, with a massive range of examples of how ESRI’s various different products could be used. There were some great examples of using Strava data to help Jersey understand cycle route usage across the island; using this data to identify and remove bottlenecks in their infrastructure. We also had a presentation on how City Engine was used by Disney to help them develop the city behind the film Zootropolis (2016), allowing them flexibility to create and tweak a whole city design with limited time and resources.

A good turn out for the conference!

Unsurprisingly a significant chunk of content was on conversion from ArcMap to ArcGIS Pro, their new flagship product. There is a big focus around users having an identity and using this to both access local and remote resources for ArcGIS Pro (including, no doubt, an element of licensing). There was also a reasonably strong theme about pushing out GIS to non-GIS users, and making it easy to use for new-comers, particularly with the development of ArcGIS Pro which, for example, automatically includes a base map when you start a new project. Possibly not ground-breaking for regular users of GIS, but a big help to someone coming to GIS cold – now they have a map they can add their data to, rather than just a big blank space (when you start ArcMap).

If you would like a chat about getting more from your GIS (ESRI or other packages!), or GIS Training for small groups, please do email or give me a call on 01209 808910.

Cross-posted from

Spatial Data and Spatial Analysis Training in Southampton

Over three days in January, Nick ran a series of one day GIS training sessions for the ADRC-E at the University of Southampton. The courses covered a whole range of GIS skills including understanding spatial data, finding GIS data, working with QGIS & R, and spatial analysis in GeoDa & R. The course participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds including PhD students; academics; health; economics; business intelligence and national statistics.

As well as plotting data on a map, the courses also covered more advanced spatial analysis, looking at buffers, spatial overlays, spatial decision making and spatial statistics. This allowed participants to get the most from their spatial data and use it in their future work.

GIS is a fantastic tool and something that can be applied in many different settings. Nick’s up-to-date knowledge and experience provides course attendees with the know-how needed to evaluate their own data, to create maps and perform the analysis within their workplace.

Photo credit: ADRC-E

“I enjoyed the focus on practical exercises – very useful! Excellent content for intro course.” course attendee, Introduction to QGIS: Understanding and Presenting Spatial Data, 15th January 2018.

We run courses across the UK, our training page provides details of our upcoming courses. If one-to-one GIS training would be useful for you or members of staff in your organisation, please have a look at our brochure or get in touch to find out more about our tailored courses for all skill levels.

Introduction to GIS and Confident Spatial Analysis, UCL, London

During a warm week in July, I spent three days at UCL in London running GIS courses in conjunction with Clear Mapping Co, the ADRC-E (Administrative Data Research Centre for England) and the CDRC (Consumer Data Research Centre). We ran three one day courses, developing the courses we had run at UCL in February. It was great to come back and increase the number of people who could benefit from using GIS and spatial data in their work.

We had a wide range of participants, from PhD students and researchers, to those working in Government, charities and a wide variety of other applications. We even had someone who was making the leap from working for a large commercial company to going freelance at the end of July – good luck!

Our colouring in exercise was a great success and really got the students thinking about how we choose the colours we use on a choropleth map, as well as how we select the classification boundaries for the data. We gave the students one data set, and the 20 students created 20 different maps. The lesson was to make sure you think about which colours and classifications you choose – don’t just stick with the defaults your GIS program gives you. They are always not the best!

During these and other courses, we found a few people who had experimented with the ggmap/ggplot2 libaries for making maps in R, in addition to the base R plot commands (which I tend to teach). I know there is quite a division between ggplot users and base plot users (see here for a good comparison) and while there are many pros and cons to each system, and some very good examples out there ( I’ve not yet come across a pros and cons article for spatial data. Does anyone know of one?

It’s always great teaching GIS to people who haven’t used it before. There is so much potential with spatial data; for more information about the GIS courses we can offer and how GIS could be useful for you, take a look at our ISSUU or get in contact with Nick who will be able to develop a bespoke course suited to your requirements. Email Nick at, or call 01326 337072.

Cross-posted at

HERG Writing Retreat at Dartington Hall

Over a fresh, sunny three days in early January, I joined 17 academic writers at Dartington Hall, Totnes for a writing retreat. What is a writing retreat, I hear you ask? Well, for academics working at a university, one of the key ways of conveying findings from their research is by writing papers that are published in academic journals. Writing these papers (often 5000 – 8000 words long) is a very time intensive task and also often key to promotion up through the university structure.


Writing a paper can be a lonely task and is often something that gets pushed down people’s to do lists, because usually there are no specific deadlines, other than the ones you invent yourself (which are easily changed!). At the session we had participants with a range of experience, from PhD students writing their first or second paper, to experienced academics writing their thirtieth paper!

We used the opportunity to support each other by sharing ideas about writing processes, where to start and how to make the best use of the time available. We also had dedicated writing sessions (either 60 or 90 minutes) where we worked in the same room on our individual papers. This was a very new experience for me, and the “peer” pressure of everyone else writing (and not checking emails, Facebook etc.) for a specific period worked very well.


I was writing up an article on how we can ensure research is reproducible, using our recent PopChange project as an example. I hope to be presenting the research at the GISRUK conference in Manchester in March and will be submitting the paper for publication soon after!

My thanks go to Sarah Dyer and Dave Simm of the Higher Education Research Group for the Royal Geographical Society who organised the writing retreat and made sure everything ran to plan.

Cross-posted from

Creating choropleth maps in R with the darkest colour at the top

I’ve just been through the process of contributing to the source code of a package in R (in a very small way) so here’s a short piece on how easy it was, and why anyone can do it! I originally wrote this post in August last year, but waited to post it until the new version of maptools was released. I missed this (we are now at 0.8-39!) and have only just rediscovered this post. It’s all still relevant though!

I have been using the Maptools library extensively in my use of R as a GIS, as well as in my teaching material (hosted at The default plot order in the legend is to have the darkest colour at the bottom of the legend, and the lightest colour at the top. This was just something I accepted, and to be honest, never really thought about before.

I recently delivered a training course on R to some staff at the ONS (Office for National Statistics, England & Wales) and they said that their best practice guidelines are to have the darkest colour at the top of the legend. They asked me how to do this, which I didn’t know!

After some fiddling about with an R script, I created a version which worked for them. I then thought it might be useful to integrate this into the Maptools library, and emailed the package author, Roger Bivand. He was very helpful, and I added the additional code to the sourcefiles for Maptools. These are now avaliable in version 0.8-37 (or later), which has recently be released. Running update.packages(“maptools”) should get you the new version.

To reverse the colours is a simple matter of changing the legend code in two places. Using the example from the helpfile, the original line:

legend(x=c(5.8, 7.1), y=c(13, 14.5), legend=leglabs(brks), fill=colours, bty="n")

The revised line:

legend(x=c(5.8, 7.1), y=c(13, 14.5), legend=leglabs(brks, reverse = TRUE), fill=rev(colours), bty="n")

To give you some nice visual examples:

Rplot Rplot_reverse

Or for those of you who have attended my R course:

normal-order reverse-order

The file I updated is at (this link shows the changes), and I also updated the helpfile. If you’ve done some R scripting, then it is not too difficult to do. Any questions, please post them here. Good luck!