Insights from NZ EUC & FOSS4G SotM Oceania 2023

Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to attend two of the largest annual GIS conferences in New Zealand. First up was the NZ EUC held at the Cordis Hotel in September. Two weeks later, I attended FOSS4G SotM Oceania at AUT. In this blog, I’ll highlight the key themes and discussions I found insightful from my two weeks of learning, networking and of course, eating lots of delicious conference food.

The Abley team at the NZ EUC 2023

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were a key focus of the plenary talks at the NZ EUC and highlighted the role GIS & geospatial technologies have in making progress towards the 2050 targets. “Everything happens somewhere”. Being able to map the changes will help us better understand and plan for the future.  

In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) used various GIS tools and datasets to build a Common Operating Picture (COP) which helped stakeholders understand the different aspects of the response as well as provide a source of information for analysis. The challenge we face as we prepare for more severe storm events, is how we can share data, to create and maintain a common operating picture and help drive proactive and innovative responses to climate change (SDG #9) instead of the traditional reactive approach (responding after an event has taken place). 

How do we start to make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals from a GIS perspective? It all starts with the data, specifically open data. At the FOSS4G conference, Jeremy Palmer from LINZ talked about how open source and open data are key for innovation and for the creation of sustainable cities and communities (SDG #11) that progress climate action (SDG #13). The most talked about example of open data is OpenStreetMap (OSM). Used for GIS analysis by companies such as Amazon and Facebook, OSM could be considered the premier example of open data. It enables projects such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team that support community development by providing map data to drive disaster and climate resilience and reduce inequalities (SDG #10). 

All this open data and GIS analysis won’t mean much if we can’t communicate it in a simple way. A talk at FOSS4G by Pete King highlighted the concept of “cognitive load” relating to the mental effort required to learn new information. We have a finite bucket for information that the working memory can hold at any one time and once exhausted, it becomes very hard to take any more in without displacing something else. Simply put, the more complex your map or web application, the harder it will be for the average person understand it.  

FOSS4G 2023
FOSS4G SotM Oceania 2023 group photo

The type of applications and maps that we design need to be simple enough to not overload the cognitive load of our users but should also be designed well enough to be useful. GIS as a largely visual medium has a role to play in this form of communication. An example is the Auckland Council Flood Viewer application. There are no complex popups with hundreds of fields, the legend is simple yet effective and the different levels of detail are shown at different zoom levels. It also understands its audience and works well on smartphones.  

At the end of the day, we as GIS professionals are all using tools to build a safer and more sustainable world. It is worth keeping in mind the datasets and techniques we use that can help achieve that. Oh, and who could forget ArcGIS Online will soon have a recycle bin?