Professor Keith Clarke: Building the Foundation for the New Frontier of Mapping

I interviewed Professor Keith Clarke of UCSB and learned about the new frontier of indoor mapping.

Professor Keith Clarke: Building the Foundation for the New Frontier of Mapping


I reconnected with the professor who taught the first Geography class I ever took at university. The course was 'Maps and Mapping' and I remember learning the details of coordinate systems for the first time was a challenge! I spoke with Professor Keith Clarke of U.C. Santa Barbara and asked him some questions about his work there. He's been teaching at UCSB since 1996 and has made significant contributions to the field of Geography.

He's authored three textbooks, along with many book chapters, journal articles, and papers. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, specializing in analytical cartography. Professor Clarke has also contributed to many geographic organizations over his career and recently served on the board of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, Research Data and Information for the National Academies, and on National Geographic Society's Committee on Research and Exploration. For the full bio please visit his faculty page. If you're interested in diving into some research check out Professor Clarke's page on Academia.

Something that stood out during my preparation for our discussion was Professor Clarke's affiliation with The Center for Digital Games Research at U.C. Santa Barbara. This is an interdisciplinary group that brings together leaders from the physical, biological, computer, social, behavioral sciences and arts and humanities. They investigate how people process game experiences and how digital media and games affect us. I started by asking him about his research there, and it started a conversation about his work on indoor mapping.

The new frontier of indoor mapping

To better understand his research on this emerging field, Professor Clarke shared a copy of his recently published article Indoor Cartography. I'll summarize some key points in this section and cite content that I've pulled directly from the paper. Bringing together content from the interview and the paper will give you a sense of how this research will enable us to navigate complex indoor spaces and support a multi-billion-dollar industry.

We've all used and benefited from location-based services made possible by our phones.  They help us get a ride home after a night out, find the best restaurant for lunch nearby, and find routes to take when evacuating from a wildfire. Location-based services have all occurred outdoors, but there's another world that can equally benefit from having these types of services: the great indoors.

Although estimates vary, the EPA has estimated the average American spends ninety-three percent of their time inside, with six percent of that time in a car. That means most of our activity occurs indoors and there exists valuable data points that can be captured and tied to a space and place. This represents considerable potential for new services and applications. The indoor location-based services market is expected to reach nearly $18 billion by 2025 (Chen & Clarke, 2019).

Professor  Clarke worked with Dr. Jorge Chen to investigate how to rectify indoor  and outdoor maps, so they have a seamless transition when moving from  one to the other. "We made the assumption that someone would solve the indoor navigation problem. We're focused  on creating models that are fixed to a coordinate system, that's a real  challenge," he said.  This is a critical area of indoor navigation as  people frequently move from outside to inside spaces and vice versa.

Sails Pavilion, San Diego Convention Center

This transition requires different coordinate reference systems (CRS) to map the location of people and objects accurately. Traditional location technologies like GPS don't work due to signal issues with indoor spaces. New technologies are being tested to locate something by using Wi-Fi signals, Bluetooth beacons, and even RFID tags. These can be expensive though, and usually require a significant investment in extra hardware to adequately support navigation applications. According to the article there still hasn't been a cost-effective and accurate solution developed, but we'll get there eventually.

You  might think we could use the same CRS when going from our car and into a  shopping mall. Why not use the same CRS that Google Maps uses? It's not  feasible due to inherent inaccuracies with the global coordinate  systems that many online mapping applications use. These inaccuracies  may only be a meter but can mean the difference between being inside one  room or another for indoor spaces (Chen & Clarke,  2019). Again, this requires having two different systems of reference:  one to help us get to the right building and another to help us navigate  the interior of that building. A new method needs to be developed to  transition from one to the other.

A more useful approach is to define a datum for each building. This would allow for precise mapping, but the existing number of CRSs would become extremely large and almost impossible to download and process (Chen & Clarke, 2019). I couldn't imagine the time or cost necessary for making this possible with hundreds of millions of buildings in the US alone. In the article, they propose tying a building's CRS to a local  grid system that most developed countries have established. This would enable the  transformation from the building system, to the local system and then to a  global coordinate system that could tie into something like Google  Maps.

Inside or outside?

Let's look at something more fundamental than accurately locating things in a building. When are you considered  indoors and when are you outdoors? This is a critical distinction as it  defines where an outdoor map ends, and an indoor map begins; the basis  for integrating two different coordinate reference systems (Chen  and Clarke, 2019). I thought it was clear cut where one  started, and the other ended. However, there are 'quasi-spaces' that can  have characteristics of both.

Recent efforts, only within the last ten  years, have characterized indoor spaces as being built space, having  regular geometries, not having access to GPS, and multi-layered. While  present in many indoor spaces, these non-essential characteristics may  be missing in other types of indoor environments while present in some  outdoor spaces (Chen and Clarke, 2019). Caves and tunnels might lack  regular geometries, but we wouldn't consider them as being outdoors.  Dense overhead obstructions like trees can obstruct access to GPS  signals, but we wouldn't say we're indoors while hiking through a dense  forest. Research continues to better define this difference, so indoor  mapping can be more effective.

Applications of indoor mapping

"There's a big need for indoor mapping that applies to routine applications like  evacuation planning, robotics for inside navigation, and location  mapping," according to Professor Clarke. Sure, these things are done  now, but they can be done better by using accurate mapping and  positioning. Lives can be saved by enabling a fast escape from a  building fire, a robot should not get  lost in a warehouse, and time can be saved by getting to the right  place the first time.

He mentioned the general statistic that ten  percent of fuel is wasted by people being lost; which means wasted time,  money, and extra CO2 in the environment. But what loss to society is  there when people don't make it to an interview, or miss a sales meeting  at a client office, or go to the wrong room for that important study  session in the library? Although hard to quantify, I would guess there's  a lot of value wasted by people missing all kinds of things.

In the article, they present a few examples, stating that the possibilities are only limited by the imagination and creativity of people. These included a  guided wheelchair that will take you to a room based on a spoken room  number, enabling a firefighter to quickly get to spaces that may have  people in need of rescue and a phone app that helps a nervous college  graduate find the room for their first job interview. The variety of  activities that occur indoors offers an exciting environment to apply  location technology. Professor Clarke and his colleagues are  contributing to the foundation of the indoor mapping industry which will generate new kinds of services and applications that can help make our  lives better.

Importance of supporting research  

Indoor Cartography presented some fascinating problems to think about and potential applications to our everyday world. I usually don't consider the amount of effort and research that sits behind the technology we have grown to rely on. If you think about it, the digital tools we use every day have emerged from their counterparts in the analog world. Those tools and methods can be traced back to the earliest maps as paintings of the stars in caves. Our digital tools are science-based and rely on foundational research like Professor Clarke's to be effective.

There's a lot of work needed to make indoor mapping reality, and the  article poses several interesting questions. How can we make use of the  large amount of indoor data that will be generated? Should a national  system be made to create, manage, and share all that data? What are the  privacy concerns people may have? This is the cutting edge of geographic research, and I'm confident these questions will be answered soon. If  you want to see what's on the horizon of the geospatial industry, go in  search of new research published by professors and grad students from Geography departments around the county.

Billion-dollar industries are being born from the grant-funded research at universities. "Not many are pushing this indoor mapping research in the U.S. It's mainly happening in Europe and Asia."  We must invest in research for emerging industries like indoor mapping.  Not only does it help drive innovation in the private sector, but it  maintains our competitiveness on the global stage. The investment isn't  only limited to location-based fields either.

Remember, The Center for  Digital Games Research brings together multiple disciplines, including Geography, to help create new knowledge and improve our lives.  Advancement in one field means that new knowledge can enrich other interconnected disciplines. Technology is only a means to an end; it  channels the discoveries that are found in the sciences, arts, and  humanities. Geography has taught me that everything is connected, and the connections between the different disciplines can create something more than its individual elements.

Looking to the future

It's  hard to say what will emerge from the exciting new world of the indoors  (never thought I'd say that). If we look at current location-based  services and the value we get from them, I think we can expect a lot of  innovation in the coming years from indoor mapping. This new frontier is  being explored at universities like UCSB and will offer massive benefits to our society.

I asked Professor Clarke something  unexpected he's seen during his tenure. "We can now harvest or tap into  the value of information that was previously wasted. We can get data at a  more individual level rather than a larger scale." It doesn't get more granular than the device in your pocket, and that individual scale will be key in solving the challenges of our time. Is indoor mapping the final frontier of mapping? I think so. We've been working our way from small-scale observations of our world to larger ones over the last several decades. Yes, I've heard, scientists are mapping other planets like Mars, so you could argue new frontiers still exist. But in terms of scale, on this planet, we're reaching a level of insight that will transform our lives.