Applying Quantum GIS to social research

By Dr Peter Matanle, Sharleen Estampador Hughson and Joel Littler

At the end of June 2016 the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS) and Sheffield Methods Institute (SMI) collaborated to host a special research training seminar delivered by Dr. Kazuyo Hirose of Japan Space Systems. The five day seminar, attended by researchers from across the university, gave participants the opportunity to learn about how to use Quantum GIS (Geographic Information System) software to map remote sensing satellite imagery, and GPS (Geographical Positioning Systems) for live ground level verification. In this way social science data can be used creatively to visualise and then answer a broad range of research questions (See the table below for examples of the types of research that these methods can enhance).

Our review of the seminar


Photo: Participants learning how to use GPS on a field trip with Dr Hirose in Sheffield

Name Affiliation Research Interests
Peter Matanle SEAS (Organiser) Demographic and Environmental Change in Japan and New Zealand
Sharleen Estampador Hughson SEAS Nostalgia and Environment in Japan
Joel Littler SEAS Disaster Recovery in Japan
Pamela Gonzalez del Pliego Castaneda Animal and Plant Sciences Bio-diversity in the Tropical Andes
Lewis Cameron Geography Energy for Sustainable Development in Remote Areas
Zulhan A Harahap Geography Environment in North Maluku, Indonesia
Ernesto Pasten Zapata Geography River Hydropower and Climate Change
Deepak Arunachalam Sheffield University Management School Data Mining and Artificial Neural Networks
Abbi M Kedir Sheffield University Management School Urbanisation in Africa
Uyi Ezeanah Urban Studies and Planning Housing Quality in Benin City, Nigeria

Box 1: List of Participants, Departmental Affiliations, and Research Interests

1. Dr. Peter Matanle
Senior Lecturer and Director of Research and Innovation, SEAS
I first met Dr. Hirose at the UNFCCC COP21 Meeting in Paris, in December 2015. He was there promoting Japan Space Systems’ work in environmental monitoring and training. I had been invited by the University of Sheffield’s Energy2050 Group to co-convene with Professor Asuka of Tohoku University a panel presentation at the Japanese Pavilion at the COP21 site on ‘Population Decline and Climate Change in the 21st Century’. Japan Space Systems is a semi-governmental organization associated with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Originally a mining geologist, Dr. Hirose travels the world for Japan Space Systems training researchers, educators, governmental officers, and others in the mapping of satellite remote sensing imagery to monitor and express geographical and geomorphological change. This is a particularly valuable contribution to global environmental knowledge for developing countries especially, because the techniques and software used are low-cost and can be independently adapted to a broad range of needs. For example, raw images from NASA, ESA and JAXA satellites can be freely downloaded from the internet and mapped using open access software such as Quantum GIS. By contrast, ground monitoring in inaccessible locations is difficult and expensive, and can be hazardous for conservation officers when confronted by illegal loggers and miners.

A long-standing research interest for me has been on the intersection of long-term demographic transition and anthropogenic environmental pressures. In particular, I want to test empirically a commonly held assumption that reductions in the human population will automatically deliver reductions in natural resource consumption, especially energy. In the Asia-Pacific region Japan is leading the way into a decades long period of population shrinkage that began with rural-urban migration from remote mountainous regions and which, as a result of long-term below replacement fertility, has broadened geographically to encompass nearly all of Japan’s towns and cities. Similar demographic and developmental pathways are being experienced in other East and Southeast Asian countries, most notably China and South Korea (Matanle and Rausch et al, 2011; Matanle, 2017).

Most of the research currently being conducted on depopulation and energy use has been achieved via future scenario modelling methodologies (eg. Bradshaw and Brook, 2014; Kluge et al, 2014; O’Neill et al, 2012) mainly because most countries are still growing and sufficient real world data is difficult to obtain. However, Japan’s rural regions have been depopulating since the 1950s and 60s and, since 1990, more than half of Japan’s 47 prefectures have registered continuous population losses. My aim is to discover whether depopulation has yielded any anticipated environmental gains in Japan’s shrinking regions, and to use this knowledge as a research base to find out if knowledge from Japan can be extrapolated to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are experiencing regional and national scale depopulation. Dr. Hirose’s training will enable me to map different dimensions of population change against resource consumption in Japan using QGIS. The use of satellite imagery will help me to broaden the coverage of my research to include land use and forestation as indicators of bio-diversity impacts. Finally, superimposing ground observations using GPS mapping and photography will enable accurate field triangulation of interpretations of raw satellite images and numerical data.

Learning how to use these technologies and adapting them to develop new methodologies in the social sciences of East Asia has been very challenging for me, and I am only at the beginning of being able to achieve meaningful results. However, I want to do my part in tackling some of the most urgent challenges of our time, and I believe strongly that advanced methodologies and cross-disciplinary approaches are the way forward in being able to achieve this end. Hence, by organizing and participating in this research training seminar I wanted, first, to play a part in leading positive change in my department and, second, develop my own capacity to address a research question that is both of interest to me and, I believe, important for 21st century world development.

2. Sharleen Estampador-Hughson
PhD Candidate, School of East Asian Studies (2012-2016)
I took the QGIS seminar to explore options for research triangulation. My educational background is based in social science and international relations. Thus, I did not have much exposure to this type of software. However, after joining the seminar, I felt inspired to use QGIS as a complementary approach to the collection of qualitative data.

I found GPS mapping to be a flexible and accessible tool that can be easily adapted to other research areas. Thus, It can be further appreciated from a freeware perspective, where the imagery can be downloaded from anywhere with Internet access. If you come from a non-technical background it does take some time to learn the application and functions. However, this by no means lessens the benefits that can be instrumental for social research. In fact, along with taking this course, I found it helpful to refer to the plethora of informal YouTube videos and blogs that clarify the functionality of QGIS.

My current research explores the concept of soft power; how memory and nostalgia can be impactful from a bottom up approach. I investigate participants on a grassroots exchange programme known as the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. This research demonstrates the impact that cultural diplomacy has at the individual level. Through my investigation I have developed an interest in the impact and representation of place. As a result, I hope to consider how nostalgia impacts the representation of environment, particularly in the Japanese inaka or countryside. My ambition is to use QGIS to document the objectivity of place through satellite imagery and to combine it with narratives that intimately describe the connection of individuals to these places.

For aspiring researchers, like myself, it is vital to look at various practices in terms of career buoyancy and to explore pioneering research methods. I find QGIS to be a practical enhancement for qualitative research.

2. Joel Littler
BA in Japanese Studies, SEAS (2012-16)
As a recent undergraduate student at SEAS I have undertaken a range of courses relating to my interest in Japan, and my final year dissertation allowed me to research in depth the plight faced by areas recovering from the 2011 tsunami-earthquake disaster. My particular focus was construction of seawalls, some of which over 15 m in height, along the 1,700 km coastline of Eastern Tōhoku.

I used many maps and figures in my research, and thanks to Dr Matanle and Dr Hirose, the QGIS training has given me an extra layer to apply to my analyses. By the end of the programme I was able to produce an elevation map of my case study, Tarō town in Iwate Prefecture, and apply appropriate labels and overlays to the data, such as the location and heights of seawalls and the different zones the town is divided into. It also became clear when looking at the elevation map, why a particular area was chosen to be the site of the new town. Such insights are lost using Google Maps, for example, but using QGIS we are able to include any kind data with a GPS coordinate!

The advantage of QGIS is as a tool to engage readers, and visually exemplify certain points, something I hope to use to enhance my research, analysis and writing while studying my Master’s degree at the University of Oxford this year. Moreover, I am sure it will aid future research projects and be helpful for my career development.


3D elevation and terrain map of Taro town in Iwate Prefecture made using QGIS, overlaid with satellite data from LANDSAT-8