InstantAtlas User Conference 2012

I recently went along to the GeoWise InstantAtlas User Conference at Rochdale Town Hall, in the Grand Hall 1. I thought I’d blog on this with a bit of ‘who said what’ but hopefully add in a little bit more thought about it in the wider context of local information systems(LIS) 2 and research tools. I will of course have to mention InstantAtlas a lot, but a lot of the points being made are transferable I think.

A picture of rochdale town hall, grade 1 listed
Rochdale Town Hall

If you haven’t come across InstantAtlas(IA) before 3 it’s currently one of two things:

  1. If you are like me and you have a very small budget for research software then it’s a desktop GIS tool which creates various interactive atlases (like this one).
  2. If you have a much larger budget, then it leans more toward a data storing, profile generating, atlas creating server software (like this one).

I’ll try to link out to example atlas types as we go.

The order of the day then: get users in a room, show them how great other users think your software is, feed them, show them how great other users think your software is. Add some non-users to generate perspective 4. I exaggerate but it sets the scene…

Tablets, Business Intelligence and Usable Information Systems

First up, Tom Hobson from Locus Insight came to talk generally about the potential for improving on the use and usability of InstantAtlas. Tom started by suggesting the tablet market will become a more important audience, and came armed with some interesting statistics from Gartner:

“33% of Business Intelligence functionality will be consumed by hand held devices by 2013″


“20% of the US own a tablet 9% purchasing them in the Christmas just gone”.

I’ve no doubt there’s some truth to these but I think it’s important to remember that there are a mix of audiences at play here and that “Business Intelligence” is subtly different from “Research” or “Data.” Someone did later ask the question, “Is there any evidence that communities are using hand held devices for this purpose?” Tom admittedly honestly that there wasn’t 5 but that there was evidence it was being used in business.

He went on to demonstrate that while InstantAtlas is commonly used by local authorities and public health organisations for presenting demographic statistics, it can be used to bring business intelligence data to life too. He supplied useful examples of performance data and stock inventory and suggested that the ability for InstantAtlas to display bubble plots and points-on-polygons (example) might be underused. (Though as a minor critique I believe that done badly, points-on-polygons can end up more confusing than helpful).

Content, Usability, Functionality
Content, Usability, Functionality

Tom spent time identifying the usability needs of InstantAtlas deployments. His Venn Diagram highlighted the factors he thought important to a good information system and he suggested that the ‘usability’ is often the neglected element in local information systems.

Tom’s solution was to make sure that typical visual nudges (see Tufte) are used to improve the experience: signposting, metadata, clean design.

I think this Venn works as a basic summary though I do have urges to surround it with words like ‘context’ and ‘purpose’ because a system can do all the above and still fail because it doesn’t have a reason to be there. Reminds me a little of the trifecta checkup proposed by Kaiser Fung for charts too.

Information systems can fulfill business needs too

Steve Halsall from CACI came up next and I was childishly amused that he opened with “CACI has 3 key strengths 6” though his corresponding slide had an image of a circle cut into four pieces 7. So easy to do! He talked generally about the role of Desktop IA and how it fills an internal gap CACI identified between their internal software (insite) and their end user audience.

Steve’s case studies identified how IA can be a helpful tool for business reporting in the private sector particularly if considered a deliverable product – year-end stats to senior managers, a reference tool for targeting advertising, consumer catchment and gravity models – which I think added some credence to the comments made by Tom in the previous presentation. The use of InstantAtlas as a ‘deliverable’ is actually quite interesting and an area I want to explore more. It’s the idea that the customer ‘takes ownership’ of a usable product that I like.

The Value Of LIS and The dangers of overeating at the OCSI all you can eat buffet

Tim Healey from Coventry City Council gave a really enthusiastic discussion about their LIS, Facts about Coventry which is powered by InstantAtlas Server. I liked that he built on the initial ideas presented by Tom Hobson around usability and meant that he was showing in practice some of the clear ideas about metadata and signposting. He demonstrated a great Double Map (example) to show how relating two datasets helped support targeting of GP referral services. Sadly I can’t find a link to it but it shows one of the things that I really like about InstantAtlas – it is not just a presentation tool but it can actually be a really valuable analysis tool too.

One of Tim’s most pertinent points was about overdosing on data – the slow loading of IA when faced with large XML files, but also how it is possible to be overwhelmed by too many indicators. Lovingly referred to as ‘over-eating at the OCSI all you can eat buffet 8‘.

Other Authorities, Similar Challenges, Improved partnerships

Andrew Phoenix (unconfirmed as I was a bit lazy with the scribble and cant read it!) for InfoTrafford came up next and brought in wider discussion of other data approaches happening in the wider Greater Manchester area – namely the DataGM open data work. He touched lightly on future plans to bring in opendata from DataGM into InfoTrafford which seems like it could be an exciting development. It would have been great to hear more on the thoughts for that as my current view is that when connecting data starts to happen easily and effectively opendata will have reached maturity.

There were some relevant points about the partnership effect that the local information system has had in bring partners together on data and intelligence. This was underplayed a little but I do think that it helps establish LIS as a force for improved delivery and communication on services. Also worth noting that Trafford’s Chief Executive has been bought into the idea of an LIS from the start. Unsurprisingly, this increased buy in helped drive the project forward.

A lot of his other points and examples followed previous customer experience so to save space I’ll increase the pace a little, but please don’t take this as playing down the value of  this and the remaining customer presentations 9.

ChiMat made a great point after the presentation about using the profile tools in IA to full extent. I followed up on their links and have to admit that their Service Snapshots really feel nice to read through.

A brief aside while we eat lunch

Rochdale Grand Hall
Rochdale Grand Hall
(colleagues from Nottingham and Tameside I believe)

I’ll be honest here, I’ve never found InstantAtlas servers particularly easy to use. They all do well in functionality and the data retrieval is there, but I often find the websites it’s embedded in difficult to navigate and use. The profile tools are way underused often stagnating into a list of data than an interesting discussion and analysis of it. It is certainly getting better (see ChiMat example above, and Wolverhampton later) but for now I still think that both Facts About Coventry and InfoTrafford demonstrate these elements in certain areas.

Saying that, it still does a better job than many of the other information systems out there…

The highlight of the day – data engagement

Graham Lally (@exmosis part of @OCSI_uk 10) jumped up next to talk about Data Engagement as a developed process rather than a phrase which has so far been quite loosely thrown around. For me it was one of the highlights of the day. He appeared to have spent some time at UKGovCamp pondering this with others and they had identified some principles for quality data engagement. I think the idea seems really positive and as I won’t do it true justice I’ll simply repeat the five principles and then ask you to go-and-read the corresponding OCSI blog post:

A good lead into the issues came from a story about Graham’s Dad being a librarian 11 and the general roles of libraries – i.e. holding content, having multiple uses and users. Then the role of the librarian to guide, find, suggest, support and evaluate. So how can LIS borrow from the analogy of librarian and library in a clear structured way. What role does it play?

So here, in 5 steps is what they propose quality data engagement looks like. A ‘Charter for Data Engagement’ if you will:

  1. Demand driven. (Action: Choose data) – i.e. selecting data that is fulfilling a demand, making sure that the data is actually suitable, ensuring it answers the questions asked.
  2. Metadata and context is included. (Action: Help people understand the data) – i.e explaining sources, providing glossaries, definitions, explanations about why and how.
  3. Support conversation. (Action: Help people to talk about the data) – i.e. talk about the data – go to conversations rather than starting them in a sterile space, make webpages shareable, blog, use e-mail, social media. But also be open to the responses. I think that it is actually currently quite hard for the public to ask basic questions of data when they have them.
  4. Support skills and capacity. (Action: Help people to use the data) – i.e. provide examples, signpost out to best practice, support on technical aspects, encourage use and participation.
  5. Collaborate. (Action: Help improve the data) – i.e. work with people on evaluating the data, identifying whats wrong and making it better, work to improve it.

To me there’s a clear value in running this kind of social, pro-active approach to engaging about data. (I felt ‘data’ could easily be substituted with research or with business intelligence). In the end, no one needs to be alone with the data so get in there and intervene, debate and stimulate the conversation, the use, and the value.

The whole approach shares a lot in common with elements of a good communications plan – a document that scopes out a whole comms campaign from start to finish. Why not do the same with data – a ‘data engagement plan.’ What are we going to collect, how are we going to discuss it, what will we do after? In a way, any good researcher/analyst will do most of this already but often in isolation and the above to me is about adding in a layer of social activity which surrounds the work and fulfills wider needs.

I also think that there is more to ‘collaborate’ than just improving data but it is a developing idea so I’ll let it slide for now. My homework is going to be to write a data engagement plan and see if it has any value 12.

And Back to Customers

Back into some user presentations but given earlier comments I did start to find that I had heard some of it before and couldn’t help but feel that a more interactive session would be useful 13 – a demo of how to use the latest features perhaps, or some group discussions and ideas sharing. I hope Geowise take note of this and perhaps consider it next year.

The Cumbrian perspective

Rebecca Raw from Cumbria County Council jumped up and talked for a while about their use of Desktop IA. I enjoyed that she was using it in a similar fashion to me, in producing very themed atlases (Child Poverty, JSNA) to focus the attention on work underway. She discussed how IA was a little better than the interactive tools they’d previously experimented with. Their approach was starting to strain with maintaining the data and they have begun to use linked Excel books so that they are only updating data in a central sheet. Again Rebecca identified the organisational benefits it was having – policy makers actually referencing atlas data in their discussions.

One more round at the circus

Finishing off the Customer Presentations (*whew*) Debbie Turner – Wolverhampton in Profile – jumped up with another IA story 14. Two things jumped out really clearly – Debbie had done user-testing every step of the way (*applause*). I think this really shows on their implementation of IA server too – probably the most usable IA site I’ve seen. She also had a consistent vision that I think as the presentation went on everyone could relate to and the atmosphere in the room felt as if everyone was relating to her journey to deliver – a vision to tell ‘the Wolverhampton story’ in a consistent and clear way.

So what comes next, Mr Peltenburg?

And then we come to Jon Peltenburg, a super technical and development honcho at InstantAtlas. Jon ran through a 2011 review of IA developments, and their development roadmap for 2012. Of course for the technical and web geeks (like me) the highlight was a demo of their alpha-version HTML 5, tablet focused atlas. I say tablet focused because Jon highlighted it has no right clicks and menu based selections. It looked good – I think they should put this alpha online and get feedback now. Jon was also honest about the atlas’ position and purpose likely being an addition to, rather than replacement of existing functionality and tools. Adobe announcing withdrawal of Flash development on mobile devices was also a clear driver.

Jon talked about the next version of IA – v7.0. Essentially they are adding in a new tool called ‘report builder’ which will be better than ‘profile builder’ – it’s more WYSIWYG and more usable than. I didn’t immediately see the difference to be fair but it’s never been part of the desktop version really. (it will be a feature in the next desktop version too though). If it works it will start to fix my aforementioned issue with stagnant profiles I hope.

It will also include open data support in the form of CKAN API integration 15. I’d actually really likely to see IA go the other way too. It would be nice to see IA server given an API that perhaps allows people to embed just the map or extract just the table (in OpenData format) from an atlas. I often will rejig and export parts of an atlas to create something very simple to embed.

Example of a rejigged atlas
Example of a rejigged atlas

What if i wanted it to embed something similiar but interactive on a webpage?

If OpenData and InstantAtlas are your thing,  then the open data work is in it’s infancy and they are looking for ideas on what might work. (Import data direct via sparql query or json perhaps?)

Another announcement was the release of IA community – a hosted, report building version of IA built around the developing ‘report builder’ module. Jon implied that the audience wasn’t the users in the room, so I wonder – who is it? Who will be making these profiles and how. Honestly, I got the sense of a voluntary org putting one together to support their lobbying work or community organisations identifying local needs. It could be a really great idea. Ala the Tableau Public style 16.

I’ll admit that I actually look forward to these IA feature releases and roadmaps. I have used the software for 2 years and every significant release has offered increased value of some kind, not just fixes. They also always seem to be looking ahead and linking to current trends 17.

Design for the audience not the ringmaster

Finally we had Pierre, with the difficult final slot. He used a few user surveys which had been carried out by IA server users (though the response levels were upsettingly low – 56ish users for one) and based his presentation on a theory around which IA tools fit best with which types of users. I felt I couldn’t buy into it wholeheartedly – my view is that if your audience is toward the non-technical, non-statistical end of the spectrums then actually perhaps other methods are needed. (Back to the Data Engagement Planning Board)

And thats a wrap but lets do an encore for the imaginary fans

A lot of presentations covered, but here are some of my overall thoughts (applicable beyond InstantAtlas):

  1. Don’t just make a data presentation tool. Instead make a usable experience, embed it in a strong context and signpost things to do with it.
  2. Consider how tools can be deliverable or ongoing services in their own right, rather than a means to an end.
  3. Unsurprisingly, buy in at a senior level makes the biggest difference in delivering something like a local information system. I can’t say how often I hear this but it is always true.
  4. Engaging people about data and research can follow some basic principles and the addition of a social layer to the research process can only be a good thing.
  5. Basing LIS and GIS outputs on a vision (like ‘telling the wolverhampton story’) or a theme (like ‘childcare sufficiency’) is a strong magnet for creating synergy with partner organisations and colleagues.
  6. Don’t underestimate the wider organisational and partnership value that an LIS supports. Actually, make this part of the objective for having one.
  7. Not everything is about InstantAtlas either. 😀 It will never be all things to all people. It does have flaws.
  8. People should really use systems more and respond to the user surveys people put together. We need your views folks!

I also really appreciate any company who puts on a free conference to bring users together so I’ll just end by saying thanks to the InstantAtlas team for making the effort (especially David Carey who was very welcoming and helpful).

This is my second ever public blog post. Still learning about length and pace… a bit shorter perhaps next time or part 1/2 style. It’s taken ages to write, edit and format this – to the point I begin to doubt if people will make it to this paragraph – but if you do, thankyou!


  1. One of the more inspiring meeting locations I’ve been too
  2. Software to manage, analyze and disseminate information
  3. An increasingly rare thing now that they are international
  4. ideally ones who are also, secretly, users
  5. To me it’s always a good sign when people are willing to say ‘no’
  6. Fear! Surprise! Ruthlessness!
  7. …and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope!
  8. OCSI produce data packs for InstantAtlas
  9. Every contributor adds value in my book, even if it just is building toward consensus and confirmation
  10. I happened to sit next to them and they were very nice folks
  11. Unresolved question. was he really? I thought he was presenting on behalf of a colleague and began to think he might just have borrowed for effect
  12. And if it doesn’t I’m probably doing it wrong
  13. No, not a roundtable – do they ever even work?
  14. I’m John Patterson and I am an atlas-a-holic
  15. I only vaguely know about this so i’ll refrain on commenting
  16. note to self: must use Tableau for something
  17. Yes, a complement but don’t expect a pile of chufty badges or anything ;p