Postdoc 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.

We are looking for an experienced Researcher in order to cope with the conceptual as well as computational challenges involved and to help guide the project team (2 PhD candidates and a technician) together with the project leader. The Postdoc is responsible for developing technology to match spatial questions in the form of semantic queries with descriptions of geospatial tools and data sources. This is the central computational mechanism of the developed technology stack.

The Postdoc will work on the following topics:
• help develop a gold standard of question-answers in geospatial analysis for evaluation;
• develop tractable query language (SPARQL) subsets for query matching;
• develop matching algorithms and reasoning technology for matching questions and tools;
• evaluate question matching on gold standard;
• help perform user study for evaluating technology stack.

Tasks of the Postdoc consist of (but are not limited to):
• conducting and spurring scientific research in the fields of Geospatial Semantics, Geographic Information Science, Ontology Engineering, or Semantic Web relevant to handling spatial questions and analytic resources;
• collection of data 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 the technology stack, including the matching algorithm, 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, researchers in the project are expected to contribute to the teaching programme of the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning to a limited degree (up to 10%).

We are looking for a candidate with an excellent track record in Information Science or the Semantic Web, with a strong interest in thinking about data semantics as well as geographic analytics and appropriate technology and who thrives when working in interdisciplinary settings.

We encourage you to apply if you:
• have a relevant background in Geographic Information Science, Computer Science, or another field related to question-based computation and data analysis;
• have a strong track record in the Semantic Web, Geospatial Analysis or in Semantics;
• have demonstrated experience in application development for Semantic Web reasoning or in algorithmic data matching and querying;
• have experience in conducting scientific research leading to high-quality publications;
• are willing to explore options for grant writing to acquire additional projects in this area (including personal grants);
• have a good (international) research network;
• are a team player;
• have the willingness to teach for up to 10% of your time;
• are proficient in both written and spoken English.

You are expected to:
• start with the project in February or later in 2019;
• meet the goals and deadlines as set out in the project proposal.

You will initially be offered a temporary position for a period of one year (0.8 FTE). Depending on good performance, the contract may be extended to a total period of four years. The gross salary – depending on previous qualifications and experience – ranges between €3,123 and € 4,274,- gross per month for a full-time employment (scale 10 Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities as of February 2019). Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8 % and a year-end bonus of 8.3 % per year. We offer a pension scheme, (partly paid) parental leave, collective insurance schemes and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model).

Facilities for sports and child care are available on our main campus (where the Department is situated), which is located only 15 minutes away from the historical city center 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
To apply, please use the button below and attach a letter of motivation, curriculum vitae (both English) and e-mail address of at least one referee.

Apply before December 9, 2018. Interviews will be held in January 2018. The candidate is expected to start in February 2018 or later.

The application deadline is