Home Articles Interview: David Rhind Vice Chancellor, City University, London

Interview: David Rhind Vice Chancellor, City University, London

It has been a fascinating and valuable experience here in Dubai. I go only to a few GIS conferences these days. This was a good chance to catch up with the trends in the geospatial arena.Prof. David Rhind
Prof. David Rhind
Vice Chancellor,
City University, London

Q: How did you find the Map Middle East 2006 conference and exhibition?

A: It has been a fascinating and valuable experience here in Dubai. I go only to a few GIS conferences these days. This was a good chance to catch up with the trends in the geospatial arena. But, more important, was the opportunity to see GIS in a very different cultural context, which has been a wonderful experience. The technology may be almost the same everywhere but the way in which it is used varies somewhat and the context varies immensely. The geography of GIS and GI is almost as varied as any other geography!

Q: What all have you found exciting or interesting?

A: The most striking development in GIS in the last year has to be Google Earth. This is not because of the technology, but because of the philosophy behind it – to bring facilities to the 5.999 billion of the earth’s 6 billion inhabitants who do not use GIS, and that for free. In a visionary speech Michael Jones, the Chief Technical Officer of Google Earth, showed how it was entirely part of Google’s mission to index and make available the world’s information. Most interesting of all was the way in which Google detects errors and shows the need for updates: they assemble and integrate the best data they can license and then further make it generally available and invite comments from the user community. This is like Open Source software but, unlike Linux, everyone can be involved. Through having a clear but ambitious vision and by harnessing the power of their huge user base and their vast resources, Google has transformed the GI scene globally.

But many other papers were also fascinating. The speech by Salem Khamis Al Shair, the leader of Dubai’s e-Government initiative was highly instructive. The team’s approach to detailing existing services, the priorities and ‘easy wins’ amongst them and the integrated approach to over 90% completion was exemplary. Of course it helps that Dubai is a small country and that government has a very powerful influence on what happens but his recognition of the incentives needed to get users to convert to the new facilities showed the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the approach used.

Professor A R Dasgupta from BISAG, India gave a very interesting talk on the increasing embedding of GIS functionality in digital phones – brilliant technology yet invisible to most users – and the move to a service economy in our industry was widely held to be a vision of the future.

But – as Preetha Pulusani from Intergraph said in response to a question on how best to get different organizations to work together – technology is essential but is not sufficient. Internal and external politics have to be handled and human factors issues permeate any successful operation. There were various signs that some participants were well aware of important issues beyond the technology. There were good discussions of Intellectual Property Rights, GIS/GI ethics, government/industry collaboration and competition issues, security issues and the extent to which all GI could and should be made available.

Q: Are you impressed by the technologies showcased at the Map Middle East 2006 exhibition?

A: Of course! The Exhibition Hall was huge and full of equipment, software and service providers from across the globe, as well as the various UAE government departments. Some of the facilities were simply stunning.

Q: How important is government in GIS/GI?

A: It clearly varies greatly. In UAE, governments set and enforce the rules of society and finance and steer much of what happens. In the USA, the picture is almost at the other extreme: the private sector is rampant. Elsewhere – in Britain and the rest of Europe, we have a complicated interaction whereby governments are sometimes important, sometimes think they are important and sometimes stay out of the way except in setting fair trading rules. There is geography of governments in GIS and GI and it changes over time – witness the changes of GI policy in India.

Q: Any final remarks concerning the conference and the venue?

A: The organizers are to be congratulated for the successful meeting. In Dubai the rate of development seems even faster than in Shanghai and dwarfs anything else I have seen anywhere. Again, it is the product of a great vision and seemingly infinite resources.