Maps, a window to knowledge

Maps, a window to knowledge

Interrelationship between maps and data

When we talk about the word map, the image of a drawing representing countries and oceans comes to mind. For the most veteran of us, maps can bring back memories of the times when we used to have those folded maps in our cars with the roads of Spain. We can even evoke those old maps, practically works of art, where the names of ports and sea towns were crammed on the coastlines, while in the waters we saw painted mermaids and sea monsters. However, we should aso think of maps as one of the most attractive and useful means of providing any kind of data that has a spatial relationship to each other.

Figure 1: Atlas of Cresques, 1375. Source:

In its simplest and most traditional concept, a map is a graphical representation that shows an measurable entity and object (e.g. road, city or even a continent) at a scale that can be represented on a physical medium (a piece of paper or a computer screen). It´s true that concepts and ideas that go beyond actual physical spaces also fall under this definition, and the distances shown by certain kinds of maps may not be something measurable, but rather that these representations show things like ideas or processes, as in the case of concept maps. However, these other types of maps are further away from the concept addressed in this post, where we will focus on the more classical definition, but without renouncing the advantages provided by modern technology (in this case, the most recent programming languages).

Cartography data map

In cartography, maps are used to represent geographical entities in different locations considering different representation systems. These entities, in addition to their geometry, can include distances, altitudes, and a long list of attributes that help to improve their representation. However, over time, maps have been used to represent characteristics or attributes of the elements, statically or dynamically through their spatial relationship with a geolocated entity. As an example, we could put a map of the people living in a certain region (population density), or of the voters of a political party, or of the per capita income of the cities represented.

The data we refer to are ultimately qualities or values that are relate spatially or not to the elements represented on a map. Therefore, we can speak of data represented on a map, although the reality is that it is the whole that serves the intended purpose: the data have meaning not only in their numerical value, as we have in the case of a simple list of data, but also in their positional value, where the relative position of those data on the map is what gives them sense and meaning, not only to themselves, but to the whole.

Practical use of data in maps

One of the technological fields where it is necessary to work with data and their relationships between them is the programming of software oriented to data visualisation. Without departing from the classic concept of map, it is of great importance to use these tools so that the users of the software (or the people who visit the website) can have the data available, in a clear and accesible way, and above all, so that at a glance they can get an idea of the set of data is being displayed at the moment.

There are a number of design tools for implementing interactive maps in both desktop and web applications. The most popular of these are, on the one hand, interfaces that bridge to existing desktop applications (e.g. applications using ArcGIS modules), and on the other hand, libraries for handling embedded maps in popular programming language applications, such as the Leaflet library.

Figure 2: ArcGIS Interface.

The Leaflet library was launches in 2011 by the Ukrainian Volodymyr Agafonkin. This library is designed to work with JavaScript, and shows its usefulness in web applications for both computers and mobile devices, thanks to its small size (42 KB) and its good implementation, which makes it really easu to use from sides of the application, both by the user who browses the map, and by the programmer who writes the code that allows the map to do what its needed.

In addition to the above and considering the programming of interactive interfaces, it is important to have a library that allows not only to work with Leaflet, but also to use compatible components and help to integrate the whole set in a practical and easy to program application. In this case, the most popular and widely used library is React. And working with React, the best way to use Leaflet is through the integrated react-leaflet library, which will allow us to use each and every one of the features of this library, using the way React itself works.

This way of working with React, to give a brief outline, requires interacting with the objects in the code either through functions or using the concept of classes, understood in a similar way to that used in what is known as object-oriented programming. And this is how Leaflet works, highlighting the use of two concepts called the view and layers:

  • The view is the maps´s own sub-interface, which in turn contains all the uses and functionalities. For example, we could have buttons to show and hide data layers, zoom and search the map, and so on.
  • Layers are objects that contain the link to a specific dataset, as well as functions and properties that belong to the layer.

A view can therefore have several layers, which are the layers that contain all the data shown on the map. The map has one or more data layers, which show the information superimposed on the corresponding base layer.

Map layers
Figure 3: Map layers. Source: Bibhuti Bhusan Mandal. GIS based online tenement registry for Indian mineral resources. Indian Mining and Engineering Journal. 2009. Vol. 45 Nº 9: 29-30.

To understand this concept a littele, a simple image of something that could be equivalent to this idea is the use of “transparencies” ( or “acetates”), which were used in the past to show slides: imagining an opaque sheet where a map is drawn, on it we can superimpose those transparent sheets, where our data is painted, in the form of polygons, marks, icons, arrows,etc. We can even superimpose several of these sheets, and we would see the data on top of each other, but all of them on the lines of the fixed map. The fixed map would be what we called before “base layer”, and the acetates would be acetates mentioned will be the data layers.

Figure 4: transparent sheets of acetate used traditionally for presentations, before the existence of Power Point.

From CARTIF, we work on the implementation of solutions that use these technologies for the visualisation of geolocated data. As an example, we should highlight the ReUseHeat and ePARCERO projects, where two applications have been developed for the management of geolocalised data. In ReUseHeat, the statistical visualiser allows to observe the sources of unused heat in hospitals, waste treatment centres, data centres and underground passenger transport. The base layer of the map belongs to OpenStreetMaps, and the data on potentially usable energy has been obtained from surveys carried out within the project. An interesting detail of the visualiser is to see how visualised objects are grouped into bubbles, which are broken down by zooming in on specific areas, improving the visualisation of the dataset. And all this is achieved through the use of Leaflet.

Figure 5: General view of the statistical visualiser of ReUseHeat

In the case of the ePARCERO project, whose prototype visualisation is still pending publication, the map is only one part of the tool, although it is the most important one. The map, which is coordinated with the data table at the bottom of the screen, as well as with filters on the left, shows the parcels selected as candidates of interest for users looking for parcels with certain characteristics, and which are currently not in use. The map allows to switch between two base layers, one the classic OpenStreetMaps one, and the other with the ortho-photo of the National Geographic Institute. As added details, apart from the pop-ups of the data when you click on one of them, the map auto positions itself when you choose a locality and makes the corresponding auto-zoom.

data map eParcero
Figure 6: Parcels selection tool for the project ePARCERO. The silhouettes of the plots (in blue) positioned on the base orthophoto can be seen.

Present and future of interactive maps

As we have seen in the two previous cases, the usefulness that this type of tool has when displaying information on the screen is appreciable, going beyond the traditional visualisations in which the maps on web pages were only a pre-generated image, or that had to be generated each time data was modfied. Now, maps generated using Leaflet change, adapt, and are a dynamic tool on which to look at various data sets, and always serve the needs of a user who receives visual information that maximises its usefulness in this way. Most importantly, it allows the user to have no knowledge of maps, just a computer mouse and the curiosity to discover the data offered from the interface.

The future prospects for this technology offer new levels of detail in maps and new media to visualise plans and maps in three dimensions, beyond flat screens, allowing direct interactions with the represented element, as can be seen in the gradually more widespread use of virtual reality devices. But for the time being, the visualisation technology used more than meets expectations and proves its usefulness for the general public. From the Energy Division, we hope to make it as easy as possible for users to select and check data in increasingly comfortable and user-friendly interfaces.

Agreements to Susana Martín and Iván Ramos, from the Energy Division, for its comments and technical annotations in the present article.

Management system to save money on the home energy bill

Management system to save money on the home energy bill

Normally the idea that the average citizen has about the savings in the energy bill,  depending on the equipment installed, is centred around the sacrifice of the personal welfare (lowering a bit the temperature at home in winter and rising in summer) or making important expenses (like solar panels) that are redeemed in a distant future and could generate something called, in economy terms, “loss of chance”, that can be translated as the money that could be used for some immediate pleasures.

Until not long ago the ways to effectively save were the same expressed beforehand, and it was clear that it could not do anything about with the exception of certain investments from the governments. However, some new tools have appeared recently that, through the means of technologies affordable and available for everyone, can reach the goal of saving money but without sacrificing comfort or making big expenses.

One of the solutions that is currently being developed is the so-called Building Energy Management Systems (acronym BEMS from now on). The BEMS makes use of software that gathers data from several origins (sensors, data bases, weather stations, timetables, polls and commands from users, etc.) and takes some decisions based on defined algorithms which adjust the behaviour of the equipment installed on the building to minimize the energy consumption but always keeping the marked comfort standards. In other words, the BEMS works like a butler who would be adjusting the home devices in order to create comfort optimizing the energy expenditure.

But what does the average user see about all this? Of course, although a user with large knowledge about building equipment and computing could install a simple BEMS, the truth is that the BEMS requires a large quantity of work:

The current commercial solutions require hiring technicians to set up the devices, and also a preliminary report done by the enterprise offering the product. Without question, in order to adjust the final price and minimize problems, the actual BEMS tend to be “locked products”, with fixed components, proprietary network protocols and layouts owned by the company or the consortium/association, and software solutions copyrighted and not accessible to the user or the maintenance service (save for the case that the service is the one offered by the company, obviously).

Taking into account all the former considerations, it is clear that the BEMS still need some research on open systems, also versatile but efficient, to generate some market competition, enhance the current systems, and open the possibility of using them inside the maximum number of dwellings in Europe, where there is a big concern about these issues as long as the dwelling stock there is old, inefficient in terms of energy usage and with poor levels of comfort (from the numbers of the EU, the 75% of the houses don’t apply energy efficiency measurements).

CARTIF, through the Division of Energy, has and still is working on European projects like E2VENT, 3ENCULT or BRESAER that include one BEMS amongst their fundamental elements of r&d, with demo sites in Spain, France, Germany, Poland and Turkey, and where CARTIF has the main role in the development of these systems.

It can be concluded that the BEMS will be, in a short term, an integral part of the equipment of any modern home, in the same way the air conditioning or the telecommunications did in the past, contributing in the enhancement of the welfare and the energy efficiency.

The talking house

The talking house

The title might suggest a classical scenario inside a horror movie: some people, typically a group of teenagers, enter inside a derelict house that seems to be alive, and is the cause of many troubles that, depending on the script, could end up dooming them all.
In the real world exist those houses that, far from the evil intentions of their homonymous movie ones, communicate with the users, sometimes directly, sometimes in a subtle way, with the dwellers not being conscious of it.

Traditionally, the behaviour of the buildings have been like passive elements, that is, having features completely dependent both on the users’ handling and the equipment integrated on them (heating and air conditioned, electric power, plumbing and water, and recently telecommunications). This way the traditional buildings were conceived and existed with certain predetermined features and goals: people using the building enjoyed (and suffered from) the working status of the facility, and only a few parameters of these buildings could be modified with the direct intervention of the user or the administrator/maintenance crew.

It is not always clear if the progress of the technologies or the ideas to implement them are going ahead or following one to another, but it is true that the enhancements in the characteristics of the equipment installed into the buildings and the reduction of their sale prices to reasonable levels for the average user have taken to achieve, at global level, the change from the traditional passive dwelling to another active. But, what is the concept of active dwelling?

First of all, it is necessary to clarify that there are two general accepted concepts called Active House and Passive House (or PassivHaus in the original German concept), but using the concept at energetic level, that are referred, in the first case, to the traditional home, and in the second case to the house that, without any support from devices that consume energy, is able to keep certain environmental and comfort parameters to satisfy the final user. Here we are redefining the Active House in terms of interactivity at a energetic level with the user, where the dwelling “talks” to the user: it receives the requests and needs from the people using the building, and is able to make an intelligent management of its own resources and mechanisms (heating, lighting, etc.) in order to satisfy those requests and needs, generating an appropriate level of comfort for each case.

Nowadays there are solutions for these Active Houses (although Interactive Houses would fit better) that combine three fundamental elements when running these kind of houses: sensors and interfaces, control networks and equipment. The first ones are the senses of the system, and gather the current data of the environment and the needs of the user.

Next, the networks join together, like the body circulatory system, all the elements from the system, including the communications between them. And finally the equipment, that execute the actions necessary to fulfil the needs.

The sensors have evolved in price and performance to the point of being able to be used in private homes, and their future will see technological enhancements and reduced prices, as well as easiness in installation and maintenance.

About the networks, there are some manufacturers and consortiums with their own designed protocols, and the tendency for these cases is that only a few would survive, then simplifying the process to generate the network, along with the costs and maintenance.

Considering the equipment, this is progressively adapted along with the current needs, offering new possibilities in comfort, and enhancing the building energy efficiency. It can be commented that CARTIF is actually working on a relatively new concept called BEMS (Building Energy Management System) that would comprise the former elements. This is a concept being developed by some R&D centres in order to manage the Active Buildings as a whole, including many concepts like the Internet of the Things, neural networks and fuzzy logic for modelling prediction, decision making and so on. This is a concept that we will develop in future blog entries, due to its special interest in the social and scientific fields.

As a conclusion, it has to be commented that the paradigm of home management has evolved to the point of change it into a living element that interacts with us, and that provide us, in a clever way, all the comfort and energetic management that we need.