System developer in Question-based Analysis of Geographic Information with Semantic Queries (1.0 FTE)

Hours per week: 
36 to 40
Faculty of Geosciences
Application deadline: 

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 geographic information system (GIS) tools and geodata 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. It would mean a tremendous breakthrough if analysts could ask questions in order to get the tools and data required to answer them. Unfortunately, GIS technology currently cannot handle these questions. 

In order to realize this vision, it is necessary to understand how geo-analytic resources on the web can be captured with the questions they answer. The QuAnGIS project is a 5-year research project which started in January 2019 and is funded by the European Research Commission (ERC). In the project, we are developing a novel approach to turn geo-analytical questions into machine-readable workflows using Semantic Web (RDF, OWL, SPARQL), Workflow synthesis (Semantic Linear-Time Logic), Natural Language Processing (syntactic parsing, parser generators), Question-Answering (QA), and other technologies. QuAnGIS is highly interdisciplinary at the intersection of Human Geography, GIScience, GIS, Information Science, Semantic Web, Computational Linguistics and Ontologies. It involves both empirical and computational studies as well as formal/ontological design studies.

In the project, we are developing both back-end and front-end technology. On the back-end, we are using a scalable document database (Mark Logic) that supports linked data and semantic queries. The database is used to store the semantic descriptions of geodata and GIS tool that can be queried by both front-end and back-end processes. Given a query from the front-end, the back-end processes are responsible for composing an answer workflow from the resources in the database. At the front-end, users can generate semantic queries with an AI-assisted web interface. The interface is based on a grammar to be developed in the project, and which also makes use of keywords for geodata search terms. 

The candidate will assist the project team in overall design, development, testing, deployment, documentation, and maintenance of the front and back-ends of the QA system for the duration of the employment. In the near future, the candidate will focus on design and development of the back-end of the project, which is about workflow and geodata retrieval. The QA system should have a modular architecture consisting of largely self-contained software components. It should be possible to maintain and update each component independently of other components. Efficiency of the system is a major concern especially at the system’s back-end. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the individual software components and the system as a whole are usable performance-wise. We prefer to use an incremental and iterative development process with frequent prototypes and proof-of-concepts that can be expanded into a complete component over time and/or used in scientific studies as necessary. 

The system developer's activities involve (but are not limited to):

  • the setup of ETL procedures to load geodata and GIS tool descriptions (meta-data resources) as linked data into the system;
  • implement search indices and keyword search for linked data based meta-data resources;
  • implement a QuAnGIS workflow composition engine, based on existing workflow synthesis software developed at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences, parallel to the project, making use of meta-data resources and ontologies;
  • develop a corresponding workflow query engine which is used to fire workflow queries obtained from the front-end over possible workflows and data sources. Workflows are searched by semantic concepts, while data sources are searched in addition by keywords;
  • help set up a system to perform user studies for testing the tool/data repository with geo-spatial analysts;
  • support publication of results in scientific journals and in high-quality international conferences in these fields;
  • collaboration with outside investigators in joint studies.

Your responsibilities:

  • start with the project preferably in the second half of 2020 upon negotiations;
  • meet the goals/deadlines as set out in the project proposal;
  • thoroughly document software and hardware developments and monitor technical infrastructure;
  • participate in the research group’s scientific activities.

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 at the Faculty of Geosciences of Utrecht University. Currently, the core research team consists of the principal investigator (supervisor), a Postdoc, and two PhD students. The team works closely together with other Researchers, including those at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences at Utrecht University, as well as international partners like the University of Melbourne, UC Santa Barbara etc.


We seek a highly motivated full-stack software developer who has a strong interest in designing data semantic systems in geographic analysis as well as GIS technology, with:

  • a MSc degree in Geographic Information Science, Computer Science, or Data Science;
  • affinity with scientific research especially in Geospatial Semantics, GIScience or Semantic Web/Ontology engineering and an interdisciplinary setting;
  • ability to quickly catch up with new concepts and ideas;
  • experience with setting up, using, and maintaining document retrieval databases and corresponding Semantic Web technology (NoSQL, SPARQL, document-based databases);
  • experience with web (geo-spatial) data sources and corresponding APIs, such as PDOK;
  • solid abilities in programming, application development and software engineering;
  • ability to write clean, well-documented, and reliable code (preferably in Python); 
  • experience in web programming, web services, web APIs,  or workflow synthesis algorithms is a bonus;
  • independent, pro-active working style;
  • motivation to work in an international team and with outside collaborators;
  • excellent scientific communication skills (written and verbally) in English.


We offer a temporary position (1.0 FTE) for a period of two years. The gross salary - depending on previous qualifications and experience  - ranges between €2,790 and €3,217 (scale 10 according to the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities) per month for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year. In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). More information about working at Utrecht University can be found here.

About the organisation

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.

Utrecht University's Faculty of Geosciences studies the Earth: from the Earth's core to its surface, including man's spatial and material utilisation of the Earth - always with a focus on sustainability and innovation. With 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty of Geosciences is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Human Geography & Spatial Planning, Physical Geography, and Sustainable Development.

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 accelerate sustainability transitions of cities and infrastructures. 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's Human Geography and Geographical Information Management and Applications and Professional Master's in Spatial Planning, Human Geography and International Development Studies. The Department also runs a large and highly appreciated Bachelor's programme and is part of the Netherlands Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research for PhD candidates. Unique characteristics of the Department are a special team focusing on innovations within teaching methods, its strong involvement in the transdisciplinary sustainability research theme and professional consultancy for public partners. 

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact:
Dr Simon Scheider (Assistant Professor), via


Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. To apply, please use the button below and attach a letter of motivation, curriculum vitae (both English) and the email address of at least one referee.  

Interviews will be held in September 2020. The candidate is expected to start in November 2020 or later upon negotiations.

The application deadline is 1 September 2020.