Thoughts on EGU

At the end of April I had the opportunity to participate in a big international conference in Vienna, which saw over 13,000 scientists participate and contribute to research in the geosciences. As in a previous post, I contributed a poster and PICO presentations, but not I’d like to outline what I enjoyed/didn’t enjoy about my time there.

Day 1. Sunday evening reception

Arriving at the Vienna International Centre, I was somewhat overwhelmed at the scale of the whole event. At reception there was a hive of activity, though registering was a matter of a minute or so due to having registered out details online previous to the event. The evening reception consisted of food and drink, all included in the registration price, which is a surefire way to get things going. I met a few interesting people, but spent the majority of the evening with both my supervisor and some students from Loughborough University. We posted in front of NASA’s ‘hyperwall’, a screen showing visualisations mainly of atmospheric patterns of the Earth. While I do like data visualisation, this seemed a bit out of place to me, like a talking piece on a coffee table, but for geoscience.


Austria center, conference HQ

My first impressions were good, and I was excited to sink my teeth into the week’s activities.

Day 2. Monday 18th April

The day’s schedule didn’t have too much that was appealing, so I used most of the morning for orientation, and a chance to observe a few PICO sessions, in which I had never participated/seen before. These involve presenters giving a ‘two minute madness’; a rapid  overview of their research, and subsequently having people exploring an application prepared by the presenter for the following hour. The first session I attended was on a topic I had no interest in, but the idea seemed to work quite well as a concept. Previously, I had only been to poster sessions for presentation of content, so this was quite refreshing. I explored a few presentations on the touchscreens, which helped prepare for the one I had to deliver, as well as make some small edits to it.

In the afternoon I attended a few talks as part of the ‘Peatlands under pressure‘ session. Having studied carbon cycling/modelling during my masters degree, it was interesting to see practicing carbon scientists outside of the teaching environment. It was also of interest as Ireland has lots of peat bogs! A quick search left unsatisfactory results,  so I checked the CORINE land cover dataset from 2012, which reported that, exluding inland water bodies, Ireland’s land mass was 14.85% peat bog.


Quick map showing Irish Peat bog cover

The participants were largely good,  and I enjoyed the level of detail that went in to a few. After a nice evening meal and a hiccup or two in central Vienna that night, I was prepared for my day of poster presenting on day 2.

 Day 2. Tuesday 19th April

This day had an extremely relevant oral session, and one PICO session I was very excited about. The day started with PICO presentations from the session ‘Frontiers in Geomorphometry and Earth Surface Dynamics: Possibilities, Limitations and Perspectives‘. It included some people whom had previously shared data with me, including Matt Westoby who’s photogrammetric subject features on my website. His talk on ‘direct georeferencing’ was quite interesting, a concept getting a great deal of attention and which is being studied by a friend up in Newcastle. His visualisations were great, but he was so busy talking to people after his presentation that I just decided it’d make more sense to catch up at the poster session that evening.

Another very interesting presentation was that of Andreas Kaiser, who is working towards practical in situ landslide monitoring using multi-camera networks (In this case 3 canon 400D cameras). He was kind enough to send me data he had captured, as he was having trouble getting consistent results from agisoft. I plan to test some newer photogrammetric concepts which are undoubtedly more demanding to see how results compare. A work in progress.

The oral presentations consisted of James Brasington giving a keynote on photogrammetric surveying of a braided river bed in New Zealand. His results were very interesting, with a scale of use of photogrammetry which I hadn’t seen before. His student Joe James, reported they had upwards of 4,000 images of the area. It was an engaging speech, well delivered, and reassuring that I wasn’t veering too far off in my usage of structure-from-motion.

A couple of other noteworthy presentations included Michael Wimmer on two-media photogrammetry, a thing I’ve read about a number of times before, which attempts to correct for water diffraction to model visible topography covered by water. His results left something to be desired, but a challenging and useful topic is always going to be tricky to develop, I was impressed.

The big winner for me, however, was that of Ellen Schwalbe, who had set up a camera array to monitor glaciers long team. This raised similar questions to Andreas’ PICO, as controlling for movements in camera position relative to the rest of the scene is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the time lapse camera network had picked up some really amazing calving events, as well as some good volumetric analysis to boot. I was very impressed by the research design, this was the best talk of the day I think.

That evening was my poster presentation, which was far more casual than I was expecting it to be. Beers were served during the evening, which always helps break the ice, and I had great talks with colleagues from TU Dresden, including Annette Eltner who had been kind enough to share some data with me. Another good chat was had with Karen Anderson who put me in touch with a student of hers with which I have common research interests. In all, a good, full day which left me with reams of ideas to pursue.


The poster I presented.

 Day 3. Wednesday 20th April

A day without a great deal of relevant talks for me, I decided to revisit my roots in the morning and go to a couple of oral talks about fires, a topic which I had studied for my masters’ dissertation. Researchers from Colorado gave a good talk on post-fire recovery on hillslopes for different storm types which I quite enjoyed, but many of the talk weren’t as engaging.

During the day I observed a PICO session with my supervisor in order to get a feel for what I should expect in my own. The session was on nutrient recovery from farmed land, and featured a range of presentations of varying quality, some ranging from single slide short and snappy presentations to people attempting to deliver a full talk at a rate of one slide every 5 seconds. With PICO, brevity is a blessing and waffling is badly punished, an attractive attribute of any format. In short; all killer no filler.

In the afternoon I attended some talks about soil erosion and the formation of channels based on observation both in situ and lab-based, with one particular group (Can’t find the abstract!) performed a very well controlled lab experiment using a rainfall simulator on a flat sand bed to see the changing impacts of rainfall severity on soil patterns. They were well received, and I enjoyed the talk!

The evening poster session was OK, but I was very focussed on delivering a coherent PICO that I didn’t engage as much as I could have.

 Day 4. Thursday 21st April

The session I was participating in, ‘Unmanned Aerial Systems: Platforms, Sensors and Applications in the Geosciences‘, was on first thing in the morning and split into two parts, of which I was in the latter. The first talk of each PICO session consists of a ten minute keynote, this one was a very interesting concept on the measurement of soil-organic carbon using a multispectral UAV. The idea was to allow for precision monitoring of small fluxes in the measure, and could potentially be applied to farmed crops.

After the first session, the PICO hour was very interesting, and I mainly focused on the sructure-from-motion aspects, including the very interesting talk on DEM reproducibility by Niels Anders and co-authors including my supervisor, who presented.

I was second up on the second half of the session, and after a clunky start motor-mouthed my way through the majority of the 2 minutes. I think if I had used the first ten seconds more wisely I would have been OK, but these are the margins PICO demands! Afterwards I had some very stimulating talks with people who were interested, including a geologist from the Cordoba geological survey, an Austrian forester and a French glaciologist all of whom were seeking camera advice. The main point, above all, was shoot in RAW. As Verhoeven puts it in his paper, ‘RAW is the only scientifically justifiable file format’.

My PICO consisted of an interactive stereo matcher which put users in charge of image exposure, and could see both the histrograms and matching accuracies of the image pairs changing as they changed the settings. Unfortunately I think I overblew it a little, and people approaching me weren’t too interested in the graphical interface, but more in talking with me about camera settings. Not too worry though, you, fine reader, can get your own copy from the EGU portal here.


Sample slide from my 2 minute talk

The session put me in high spirits, and really put into context how comforting it is to talk about things you know about with like-minded people. At a conference this big, I found myself without the expertise and vocabulary in many situations to maintain a dialogue, so I tried to simplify (perhaps to a fault) all of which I was talking about.


The only other talk I went to was on building surveying, and the use of novel instruments to measure stress applied, particularly focused on non-destructive methods for historical buildings. Some of the concepts could be applied in conjunction with other research I had seen, and I felt I started to think along the right lines of collaboration more towards the end of the day, which I could have used earlier in the session!

 Day 5. Friday 22nd April

The last day consisted of several sessions on science communication I was interested in. Having spoken with a couple who had set up the very informative and well organised SciCom website here, I decided to go along to the poster presentation to see what else was being discussed. Science communication is so important, and I’ve mentioned a charity I admire who are directly linked with it before. The public understanding section of this session was well put together, and gave me hope that scientists will one day be better communicators as a whole.

The last session I planned to attend was on open source software in geoscience, and, to be honest, I was quite dissapointed. I try my best at every step to not reinvent the wheel, but it seemed like in this session it’s what everyone was doing. I understand competition is important as a concept, but when you’re rewriting well documented and implemented code available through every channel imaginable I just don’t see the benefit versus the amount of time required. It was a PICO session, and most of the apps had examples of maps produced using their software, and all I could think of was how most were already very accessible by different means.


I really enjoyed my time at EGU, and would certainly recommend PhD students to go at least once. I must confess, however, I am excited to go to smaller conferences in the future, as the scale was one thing I never got used to. Even the amount of time to organise a good schedule was intimidating! Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy my account of things, and short of going to the conference itself, you should visit Vienna! It really is a very beautiful city.


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