2 PhD positions in Question-based Analysis of Geographic Information with Semantic Queries

Job description

In the age of big data, geographic information has become a central means for data scientists of various disciplines to embed their analysis into a spatio-temporal context, from human mobility patterns and social inequality to the investigation of personal health. However, as the variety of data sources and software available on the Web increases, it becomes more and more impossible to comprehend and utilize all tools and data available to answer geo-analytical questions. Hence, whenever a functionality is needed but not available in one tool, analysts are forced to reformulate their questions in terms of technicalities of another tool or other datasets. This procedure does not scale with the increasing variety of geo-analytic sources on the web, preventing analysts from tapping its full potential. Consider, in contrast, how easy it is for a user of a digital smartphone assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa to ask a question like “What is the weather today?” and get back an answer from the Web. It would mean a tremendous breakthrough if analysts could similarly ask questions in order to get the tools and data required to answer them. Unfortunately, geo-analytic technology currently cannot handle questions.

To realize this vision, it is necessary to understand how geo-analytic resources can be captured with the questions they answer. The QuAnGIS project, a 5-year research project at Utrecht University, starting in January 2019 funded by the European Research Commission (ERC), develops a theory about interrogative spatial concepts needed to turn geo-analytical questions into a machine-readable form using Semantic Web and Question-Answering (QA) technology. Concepts include “spatial core concepts” field, object, network, event (Kuhn 2012), as well as analytical concepts such as accessibility, exposure, density, distance and aggregation. In this form, questions can be matched with the capacity of major analytical GIS tools and data sources on the Web.

The 2 PhD positions in this project focus on the semantic concepts required and the information technology needed to enable GIS analysts to formulate questions and to retrieve resources for analysis. This involves the following two questions:

  • PhD 1: How can geo-analytical questions be captured in terms of semantic queries in a machine readable way? This involves an ontological investigation into spatial concepts and geo-analytical questions in project scenarios and literature, into the expressiveness of query languages, as well as into technical interfaces to let users formulate spatial questions for analysis.
  • PhD 2: How can the intention of geo-analytical resources (data and tools) be described in terms of the questions they answer? This involves an investigation into GIS tools and their functionality in terms of spatial concepts, as well as standard web data sources, and how both can be linked using semantic concepts. The purpose is to build an integrated extensible Web repository about analytical tools and data sources.

Important tasks of the PhD candidates are:

  • conducting scientific research in the fields of Geospatial Semantics, Geographic Information Science, Ontology Engineering, and Semantic Web relevant to handling spatial questions and analytic resources;
  • collection and semantic description of geographic information scenarios for developing a gold standard of question-answers as well as analytic (web) resources for geospatial analysis (filling web repository with content);
  • perform user studies for specifying test scenarios and for testing both the question formulation interface as well as the tool/data repository with geospatial analysts;
  • publication of results in scientific journals and presentation in high quality international conferences in these fields;
  • organizing multi-stakeholder meetings and workshops to test and discuss the technology;
  • to develop teaching skills, students are also expected to contribute to the teaching programme of the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning to a limited degree (up to 10%).

Your responsibilities are:

  • start with the project in February or later in 2019;
  • meet the goals/deadlines as set out in the project proposal;
  • complete a PhD thesis within the 4-year contract period.
We seek 2 highly motivated PhD candidates who have a strong interest in thinking about data semantics as well as geographic analytics and appropriate technology.

They should have:

  • a MSc degree in Geographic Information, Computer Science, Data Science or Geography;
  • analytical skills and interest in geographic data analysis;
  • strong scientific writing skills;
  • interest in academic theory development and abstraction as well as theory application;
  • affinity with scientific research in Geospatial Semantics, GIScience or Semantic Web;
  • experience with Semantic Web technology, GIS technology or Data Science technology;
  • experience with Web data sources and corresponding APIs, such as OSM;
  • solid abilities in programming and application development are needed. Experience in Web programming, Semantic Web development or Machine Learning is a bonus;
  • independent, pro-active working style;
  • motivation to work in an international team;
  • excellent communication skills (written and verbally) in English.
You will initially be offered a full-time position for the duration of one year. Upon a good performance the contract will be extended to a total period of four years, with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period.

The gross monthly salary starts at €2,266 in the first year, and ends at €2,897 in the fourth year (scale P Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities). The salary is supplemented with a holiday allowance of 8% per year and an end-of-year bonus of 8.3%. In addition, we offer a pension scheme, collective insurance schemes and flexible employment conditions.

Facilities for sports and child care are available on our main campus (where the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning is situated), which is located only 15 minutes away from the historical city centre of Utrecht.

About the organization
A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major societal themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.​_

The city of Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, with a charming old centre and an internationally oriented culture that is strongly influenced by its century-old university. Utrecht city has been consistently ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the Netherlands.

The Faculty of Geosciences conducts education and research concerning the geosphere, biosphere, atmosphere and anthroposphere. With a complement of 2,600 students (BSc and MSc) and 600 staff, the Faculty is a strong organisation. The Faculty is organised in four Departments: Innovation, Environmental & Energy Sciences, Earth Sciences, Physical Geography, and Human Geography & Spatial Planning.

The Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning has its focus on the enhancement of long-term economic developments of cities, how to cope with social inequalities and how to ensure a healthy urban living. Research on these topics takes place within our research programme “Urban Futures: Transitions Towards Economic and Social Sustainability for Cities”.

Our research programme is the basis for our Research Master Human Geography and Geographical Information Management and Applications (GIMA) and Professional Master in Human Geography, International Development Studies and Spatial Planning. The Department runs also a large and highly appreciated Bachelor Programme and is part of the Netherlands Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research for PhD candidates.

The project team is part of a new Geographic Information Methods (GIM) interest group within the Social Urban Transitions (SUT) research programme in the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University. It is linked to the Healthy Urban Living research group comprising a wide variety of researchers, for instance with backgrounds in transport Geography, Epidemiology, Urban Geography, and Health Sciences. It is also linked to the Vitality Data Centre, a project involving data scientists and researchers interested in methods for assessing physical activity and health.

Additional information
Additional information about the vacancy can be obtained from Dr. Simon Scheider via s.scheider@uu.nl.
To apply, please use the button below and attach a letter of motivation, curriculum vitae (in English) and e-mail address of at least one referee.

In your motivation letter, please indicate your priority with respect to the two PhD topics.

Apply before December 7, 2018. Interviews will be held in January 2018. The candidate is expected to start in February 2018 or later.

The application deadline is