PD-10 - Natural Language Processing in GIScience Applications

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Natural Language Processing (NLP) has experienced explosive growth in recent years. While the field has been around for decades, recent advances in NLP techniques as well as advanced computational resources have re-engaged academics, industry, and the general public. The field of Geographic Information Science has played a small but important role in the growth of this domain. Combining NLP techniques with existing geographic methodologies and knowledge has contributed substantially to many geospatial applications currently in use today. In this entry, we provide an overview of current application areas for natural language processing in GIScience. We provide some examples and discuss some of the challenges in this area.

Author and Citation Info: 

McKenzie, G. and Adams, B. (2021). Natural Language Processing in GIScience Applications. The Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (4th Quarter 2021 Edition), John P. Wilson (Ed.). DOI: 10.22224/gistbok/2021.4.5.

This entry was first published on November 18, 2021. No earlier editions exist.

Topic Description: 
  1. Definitions
  2. Natural Language Processing and GIScience
  3. Applications of Natural Language Processing in GIscience
  4. Challenges


1. Definitions

Gazetteer: A dictionary or index of geographical names.

n-gram: A sequence of n tokens, where n is a number. N-grams typically range between 1 (uni-gram) and three (tri-gram).

Token: The building blocks of natural language. Small units of text that (e.g., characters, words, combinations of words) that have been split from a larger document or corpus.

Toponym: A place name. Often derived from a topographic feature.


2. Natural Language Processing and GIScience

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is as an interdisciplinary research area that draws from the fields of linguistics, computational sciences, and many other related disciplines including geography and geographic information science (GI-Science) that develop methods to analyze human language data. While the field includes a wide variety of topics it is primarily concerned with applying computational techniques to analyze human language in a variety of forms. In recent years, the field has focused on the extraction of patterns and meaning from large volumes of natural language data such as text and speech audio. Today, the field is moving towards “understanding” concepts and themes presented in natural language with the goal of answering questions and informing decision making.

Historically, the domain of natural language processing has focused on the extraction of structured content from unstructured text. Early Symbolic NLP approaches involved interpreting text and speech through a series of user-defined rules. In the 1980s and 1990s various statistical inference techniques were devised for identifying and applying these rules to natural language. More recently, the domain has seen a shift towards the use of machine learning, including deep learning, Neural methods. These recent approaches do not take a rule-based approach but rather aim to understand natural language through statistical methods which can identify linguistic properties of words, sentences, or documents. Though NLP does not fall solely within the discipline of Geography, a lot of human language is situated in geographic space and time and might make reference to inherently geospatial themes such as culture. Natural language varies by region meaning that GIScientists are well situated to process, identify, and contextualize patterns in language. Within the field of GIScience, NLP has been used to better understand a wide variety of geographic phenomena through identification of places, events, and activities as well as the extraction of linguistic patterns related to these entities. NLP techniques offer insight into geographic phenomenon that may not be accessible through traditional spatial and temporal analysis.

GIScientists are also able to leverage much of their existing expertise when processing natural language. Knowledge of spatial relationships, regional hierarchies and geographic laws & theories when combined with many leading NLP approaches result in cutting edge applications, many of which are actively used today. In the section to follow, a number of different NLP techniques are discussed with a specific focus on applications within the field of GIScience. The intent is to demonstrate how natural language processing is being used within GIScience applications today and discuss some of the challenges moving forward.


3. Applications of Natural Language Processing in GIScience

A number of natural language processing applications exist within GIScience.This section summarizes a small but key set of application areas that have emerged in recent years.

3.1 Toponym Disambiguation

Important locations on the Earth are usually given labels or toponyms to allow them to serve in a common reference system. When someone makes a reference to Montréal, Canada, for example, there is shared understanding of where this place is located on the Earth as well as what type of place it is, namely a city. Toponym disambiguation is the process of (a) identifying Montreal as a location, and (b) differentiating it from any other location labeled as Montréal.

To discuss toponym disambiguation in more detail, we must first take a large step back and discuss some of the building blocks necessary for many natural language processing tasks. The first step involves deconstructing natural language to a format that enables computational analysis, through a method known as tokenziation. Tokenization is the process of breaking down natural language into smaller lexical units which are referred to as tokens. Depending on the task, these units range from individual characters, to words (or sequences of words known as n-grams), sentences, paragraphs, or documents. The process of tokenization is easier for some languages than others. For instance, romance languages often delimit words with spaces whereas some Asian languages, such as Chinese, do not mark word boundaries with space delimiters making the process more complex (Webster and Kit 1992).

In many languages, people use different inflection forms of words. For instance, democratic, democracy, democracies, and democratization all reference similar concepts, but for grammatical reasons the different words exist. For many applications these different concept references can be considered the same, thus it is advantageous to reduce them to a single token. Stemming is a simple solution to this problem that typically involves dropping the end of words such as derivational affixes, to reduce them to only those characters that the words have in common. For instance, a stemming approach to the above terms might be Democra. Lemmatization is a more complex approach that aims to identify the root term of the series of similar words. Often this root word is a term that represents a base concept rather than a sequence of common characters. For instance, a lemmatization of the example above might be Democracy. Lemmatization and stemming are often done as a first, data cleaning step along with tokenization.

Given these tokens, we come back to our objective of identifying and labeling these tokens. To achieve this, we use a technique known as Named Entity Recognition (NER). NER is the process of labeling and categorizing lexical units extracted from unstructured natural language. This is typically an automated process of comparing tokenized entities found in unstructured text to an existing structured dictionary or determining the category of an entity based on the context in which the token exists. Pre-defined categories are often entities such as people, places, organizations, currencies, etc. This is not a trivial process as natural language can be quite complex and there is often a large amount of ambiguity in the meaning of words. Consider, for example, the sentence below.

I watched the Chicago Bulls game last night.

In this example, the term Bulls is ambiguous on its own as it is most often used to reference male cattle. It is only through analysis of contextual information that one is able to determine that Bulls in this instance refers to the Chicago-based professional basketball team. A state-of-the art NER application, such as Apache OpenNLP, would annotate each of the n-gram tokens in the example text with Chicago being labeled as a city in the United States, and the Chicago Bulls being labeled as a professional sports team. Today, many leading NER systems provide close to human-level performance in annotating unstructured text.

Even in the simple example above, the importance of geography is apparent. The region in which cattle are found, the city of Chicago, and dominance of basketball in discourse all relate to geography, and geographic knowledge can be leveraged in processing and labeling this information. NER is an important methodology to GIScientists as it is used in the first task of toponym disambiguation, which is that task of identifying and labeling a token as a geographic entity. Toponym disambiguation is typically accomplished through a look-up/matching process involving a geographic dictionary or what is often referred to as a digital gazetteer (Hill 2000). For lesser known or local toponyms, identification based on geographic context may be used. For instance, Hu et al. (2019) use a geospatial clustering approach and contextual information from surrounding words to learn and train a machine learning model to identify toponyms based on unique spatial and linguistic patterns.

Once a token is identified as a toponym, the next challenge is differentiating it from other toponyms. The nature of human language and culture is that locations are often assigned the same label. For instance, there are at least 88 different locations in the United States with the name Washington, including cities, monuments, and a federal district. Identifying which Washington is the second task in toponym disambiguation. This is often a challenging task and involves examination of the contextual information and descriptive terms through which the toponym is referenced. In the Chicago Bulls example above, we can probabilistically identify Chicago as a large city in north-eastern Illinois, USA in a number of ways. First, Chicago, Illinois has the largest population of any known Chicago, and is therefore more likely to be mentioned in text. Second, an NER would likely identify the Bulls basketball team as an entity with a home town that also linked to the Chicago in Illinois. Leading research in this area has used a range of approaches that rely on existing geographic methods and spatial knowledge including graph-based approaches to linking toponyms (Chen et al. 2018), topic modeling for disambiguation (Hu et al. 2019), and co-occurrence models (Overell and Ruger 2008). NER in general, and toponym disambiguation, more specifically, are central to foundational aspects of GIScience such as geocoding (Goldberg et al. 2007) and geographic information retrieval (Jones and Purves 2008).


3.2 Spatial Relationships in Text

Aside from extracting geographic entities from natural language, researchers and industry professsionals are also very interested in understanding the relationships between geographic (and non-geographic) entities. Natural language data provides a rich source of relationship information as contributors of text often describe these relationships with rich detail. For instance if a body of text discusses the migratory patterns of people between two cities, this information could be extracted and represented as a geospatial flow between two network nodes in a GIS application. NLP extraction methods could also be used to identify mode of travel and quantify number of migrants.

As with toponym disambiguation, identifying and extracting relationships within unstructured natural language can be difficult. It requires us to determine which descriptors are applied to which words and which actions involve which actors. In the field of NLP, this process is called coreference resolution. Coreference resolution is the process of identifying which sub-components of a sentence or document, refer to which other sub-components, or tokens. In natural language, we often refer to specific entities or concepts through a variety of different terms and determine which entity is associated with which idea can be difficult for humans, let alone computational models. Take the following example.

Seattle gets more days of rain than New York City, but it receives less total rainfall per year.

In this case, we have two proper noun city names, Seattle and New York City, as well as some facts about these cities. A coreference resolution task arises in the use of the pronoun "it."  Within the context of this statement, it either refers to Seattle or New York City, and determining the correct referent is important when assigning information to a location. This may be a trivial task for a human to resolve, but the ambiguity of human language can often be difficult to represent computationally.

There are many ways to resolve ambiguity of coreferences within natural language and from a geospatial approach, we can leverage existing geographic knowledge. Early work in this discipline involved developing methods that applied a set of grammatical rules to natural language. This often meant the development of parse trees which aimed to represent dependency between tokens. Over the past couple of decades, techniques have been developed that take a probabilistic approach to identifying relationships through the construction of constituency parsing trees. While not all relationships are spatial, identifying relationships between entities can sometimes involve a spatial component, be it explicitly spatial (e.g., The museum in Montréal), or through regional or cultural context (e.g., The woman used the Algonquian word for fish). For example, Vasardani et al. (2013) extracted mental representations of urban environments for use in emergency situations from verbal descriptions of places. Spatial hierarchies have also been extracted from user-generated text for use in qualitative spatial reasoning applications (Wu et al. 2019). These, and many other processes demonstrate that spatial relationships can be identified and extracted from unstructured linguistic content. Having a background in GIScience also means that we are not solely reliant on the information extracted from natural language. We can use NLP techniques in conjunction with our existing geospatial expertise (McKenzie and Adams 2017). For example, Tobler's First Law of Geography can be applied in many cases to leverage the similarity of features in close proximity. Geographical theories such as Central Place Theory can be used to explain the relationships between nearby settlements, and gravity models can be employed to identify transfer and flow of entities described in text.


3.3 Discovering Thematic Patterns

Another approach to natural language processing is less concerned with labeling tokens and identifying individual toponyms in text and more interested in the broader themes or topics represented in natural language. The idea in this thematic approach to language is to extract groupings of terms that represent a set of topics on which a document can be characterized. This is important for representing ideas in documents as a whole as well as comparing themes across lexical units. The GIScience community has leveraged this approach to identify thematic patterns within geographic space and observe changes in patterns over time. One approach to this problem which has seen extensive use in the field of GIScience aims to extract themes or topics from corpora through an unsupervised probabilistic approach, called Topic Modeling, that identifies the co-occurrence of tokens within documents. For example, applications of this technique have been used in clustering social media posts (Hong and Davison 2010), location recommendation services (Hu and Ester 2013), and ad hoc thematic search engines (Adams et al. 2015). For instance, the Pteraform interactive search platform (Adams 2020) shown in Figure 1 is built on top of geographically tagged Wikipedia data, and demonstrates how a topic modeling approach can be used to geographically depict themes over space and time. Notably, these approaches tend to ignore the sequence of tokens in a document or corpora and instead take what is commonly referred to as a bag-of-words approach.

Characterizing natural language text by themes is a form of classification, and there are also other ways we can classify a text. Sentiment analysis is the process of identifying and examining affective states within text and usually includes characterizing the emotions and attitudes towards a theme or topic. Techniques for identifying and extracting sentiment range from examining the polarity of individual tokens, to the emotional state of a document or grouping of tokens. Sentiment analysis is a notoriously challenging field of study as it involves analysis of subjective information and inference of intention by the language contributor. Applications of sentiment analysis in GIScience have included classification of parks through visitor contributions (Kovacs-Gyori et al. 2018), understanding disaster response (Alfarrarjeh et al. 2017), and a plethora of research on attitudes towards travel destinations and places of interest (Cataldi et al. 2013; Kang et al. 2012; Ballatore and Adams 2015).


Figure 1. The Pteraform application showing spatial and temporal thematic (keyword: battle) trends over time. Source: authors.


3.4 Question Answering and Natural Language Generation

While humans can understand a sentence and the relationship between words through reading textual content or verbal communication, computers work in the realm of numerical values. Recent advances in NLP have moved towards not only representing words as numbers, but also the relationships between words. This allows analysts to perform mathematical and logical operations to compare terms, extract complex concepts, and better understand the ideas presented in natural language. This most often involves assigning a real-value representation to a sequence of terms and representing each unit as a numerical vector. Neural network-based methods such as word2vec or doc2vec are typically used to convert natural language to a series of numerical word vectors or matrices. The goal of this approach is to develop word embeddings. These encode the meaning of words, sentences, and concepts such that words that are closer in meaning are also closer in real-value vector space. Essentially, this involves embedding a multi-dimensional concept into a continuous lower-dimensional vector space. These word embeddings serve as the base unit on which many modern classification and predictive NLP tasks, including those in the geospatial field, are performed and often is a key pre-processing step for these other tasks. Other techniques such as recurrent and convolutional neural networks have been applied to NER tasks with the goal of identifying geographic locations and places. Adams and McKenzie (2018) used a character-level convolutional neural network to georeference noisy textual content and Cardoso et al. (2019) used a variation on recurrent neural network for toponym resolution in text. Rather than applying rule-based approaches to identifying the features, deep learning methods use a representative classification approach to identifying latent features in natural language. These models thrive on large training datasets and the availability of rich and robust training data on which a model can be trained is critical. Transformer models such as Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) published by Google, have recently emerged. In this case, a learning model is pre-trained on an exceptionally large, generic dataset and then fine tuned for a specific task or application area. These attention mechanized transformer models (Vaswani et al. 2013) have been shown to improve the accuracy and relevancy of many NLP-based applications, such as language translation and document search. These types of models are also being used for geospatial applications such as address validation (Xu et al. 2020), and identifying the locations of criminal organizations (Osorio and Beltran 2020).

Question answering is a subfield within natural language processing, information retrieval, and artificial intelligence, in which natural language questions, typically posed by a human, are interpreted by a machine and appropriate responses are generated. In essence, this is a fundamental test for many natural language processing techniques in that responding to a question requires comprehension of the concepts presented in the question itself. This approach involves a high level of automated reasoning. The field of geographic question answering has recently emerged with the goal of identifying and understanding the relationship between geographic features, places, and people through the use of many deep learning approaches. The nuances of geospatial concepts in natural language is unique and designing a system that can interpret and understand these concepts and relationships can be challenging. Take for example the question below.

How many people live in the capital of the third largest country on earth?

Not only does the question above require entities to be extracted and labeled through an NER task or thematically encoded through a neural network, but it also requires leveraging existing geospatial knowledge such as administrative boundary hierarchies. For instance a capital is a city, a city exists within state, and a state with country. The term largest is ambigous here as well as it is unclear if this is in reference to population volume or physical area. Finally, third, it requires a system to know the populations or areas of all countries, rank them, and extract the third largest. While natural language processing techniques are increasingly able to learn many of these concepts, understanding the relationships and answering the question also involves accessing knowledge graphs, geographic databases, and range of other technologies. This area is proving to be a burgeoning subfield of GIScience. Scheider et al. (2021) discuss the challenges associated with building a question-based geographic information system and how existing spatial techniques and technologies can be used within such a service. Mai et al. (2020) demonstrate possibilities and limitations of geographic question answering through the use of geospatially enabled knowledge graph embeddings.

The complement to question answering is natural language generation (NLG). This approach aims to generate natural language text or speech based on semantically encoded concepts. In many ways, the second part of question answering demands generating natural language based on the interpreted understanding of the original question. Applied work in this field has predominantly focused on automating reports and responses to questions. Within the geographical sciences we see NLG techniques being applied to generating weather reports (Goldberg et al. 1994), descriptions of places and remotely sensed imagery (Gatt and Krahmer 2018), and the broader focus on chatbots and automated assistants capable of responding to basic questions.


4. Challenges

A number of challenges exist within the domain of natural language processing and many of them are uniquely spatial. Many of these were mentioned in the previous sections, but here the challenges are outlined in further detail. Using NLP to interpret fine-grained spatial relationships in text is an active area of research. While many current NLP approaches are able to identify concepts, ideas, and relationships within natural language, surprisingly few of them explicitly model spatial relationships. Concepts such as spatial autocorrelation are fundamental to GIScience, yet very few approaches incorporate this idea in the process of understanding natural language. Spatial cognition is a branch of cognitive psychology that studies the ways in which people use spatial information to gain knowledge, self locate, and wayfind. This field is closely linked with natural language processing in that understanding human-contributed natural language necessitates an understanding of how humans conceptualize space and communicate those concepts in language (Gao et al. 2017). This presents a unique challenge, as how humans conceptualize and communicate spatial concepts is not fully understood, therefore making it difficult to train a computational model to represent spatial information in a similar way. While substantial advances have been made in toponym disambiguation and co-reference resolution within NLP research, it still remains a challenge. Given that places are labeled by humans, they tend to change over time, or have multiple, often localized, names. Humans reference places in different ways and the ability to identify a single place based on various colloquial references to the location remains a challenge.

Lastly, the automated generation of spatially-aware narratives is a challenge area that will likely see advances in the coming years. This will involve the integration of NLP more substantially in location-based systems such as tourism applications and will leverages geographic knowledge graphs and existing gazetteers


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Learning Objectives: 
  • Explain how natural language processing is being used in geographic in formation science applications.
  • Differentiate between some of the key uses of natural language processing in geography and GIScience. 
  • Identify how spatial is special in the context of natural language processing.
  • Identify challenges and future directions for applications of NLP in GIScience.


Instructional Assessment Questions: 
  1. What does the field of geography bring to the discussion of natural language processing?
  2. What are the two components necessary for toponym disambiguation?
  3. How is geographic question answering different than traditional question answering?
  4. What is the difference between stemming and lemmatization?
Additional Resources: