First Person: A global geospatialist

First Person: A global geospatialist


Prof.-Ing.mult Gottfried Konecny
Institute of Photogrammetry & Geoinformation
University of Hannover

I was born in 1930 in Czechoslovakia, a country that does not exist any more. My parents belong to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Through WWI and WWII, the situations changed rapidly. My father and mother were civil servants in Czechoslovakia. They are of the opinion that we have to learn Czech and so we went to Czech school when I was six. In 1938, the situation changed. Hitler came. There was lot of uncertainty which lasted until 1945 when the Russians came. There was the usual turmoil and according to the agreements of Potsdam, the German population of Czechoslovakia was transported to West Germany. We settled in Bavaria and arranged our things.

Due to the knowledge of Czech language, I was able to work for a surveyor in Czechoslovakia at that time. That was my first experience with maps. I studied again in the destroyed towns of Bavaria to remeasure historic buildings. I was offered a position by the mayor of Neumarkt but my mother said that I should finish schooling. I went for graduation.

It was as though I had been in a classical gymnasium with languages like Latin and Greek but no English. I had to make up in one year what others have done in seven years in English. I had a tutor but nevertheless it was tough. I finished my graduation and the question then was whether to take up the study of architecture or surveying.My former employer advised me to take up surveying as it was in demand. I went to Technical University, Munich. Surveying was ok but I became a computational slave. Geodesy was not for me. Surveying was too bureaucratic. I wanted to do something else. I discovered that photogrammetry was really useful.

After graduation, I applied for Fulbright scholarship and got it. I went to Ohio State University. I was lucky that in the US, I had a group of international professors. My own teacher, Fred Doyle, enthused me into photogrammetry. I was also working with Finnish professors. They established a school as the US was lacking geoinformation for military. It was a fantastic environment to have inputs from a variety of professors. I finished my masters (Ohio State). My visa was one such where I had to get out of US for at least three years after my masters. One of my former professors in Munich invited me as an assistant and I did my PhD in photogrammetry there.

The world was free by then and I decided to go to Canada. I had two offers. One from the National Research Council and the other from the University of New Brunswik. After a month of being in Canada, I attended an international meeting for surveying curriculum. An old survey director, a chairman of civil engineering department and some professors of photogrammetry were on the same train to Ottawa as I was. There was plenty of whisky and the whole night with us. We forgot what we talked in the morning but we knew we are going to do something. They have changed my orientation completely. I designed the first English speaking undergraduate and graduate degree programme in Canada, which we called surveying engineering, now geomatics. The department is running successfully even today. I am happy. I was in Canada for 12 years.

I then went on a sabbatical to Houston, Texas. My old professor, Fred Doyle, who was NASA's advisor, made it possible for me to work on the selection of landing sites on the moon in the Apollo programme. It was really a challenge to write software for this.

After that, I was invited to Hannover for a talk. I went there, gave my talk and then they asked if I would like to join them. I was not sure as I just got Canadian citizenship. I had earlier planned to stay in Canada forever. But my wife said it would be nice to go to Munich. Because it is close home and my parents wanted us. The people who were actually suffering in this process were my children. We shifted back to Germany. With all the experiences and Apollo programme, I said we must concentrate on photogrammetry, but not the old way. We bought the first analytical plotter in Hannover.

ISPRS Connection
Since 1976, I am engaged with ISPRS, earlier called the International Society of Photogrammetry (ISP). I was asked if we would like to have a Congress organised in Germany. This was the Congress of Hamburg in 1980. I served ISPRS in various capacities – Congress director, secretarygeneral, president, vice- president and now, a grand father, I mean an honorary member! I retired officially in 1998. But a lot of things happened in between. I made a proposal to German government for putting a camera into space on the first European space launch. The decision was made in 1975 and it finally flew in 1983. We photographed about 10% of the surface of the earth at 10 m resolution in stereo. The French were interested in this experiment because they planned to launch SPOT in 1986. We worked together. We had a second flight promised by NASA, but then came the Challenger disaster. Our government did not wish a second shuttle flight with analog camera anymore, instead, they sponsored development of a digital scanning stereo sensor, which had all components of a modern high resolution satellite image sensor. We flew MOMS stereo sensor. In preparation to the MOMS, there was a project of DLR which wanted to fly together with ISRO. In that connection we have been to Bangalore and Hyderabad but it never took off. Then came the atomic blast and our government has decided to cease its cooperation with India. This is my space engagement.

Tryst with GIS
I was part of UN cartographic conference delegation of Germany and went to various places. Since 1976, I went on behalf of our government to all UN conferences in Americas, Asia and Africa. I followed the mapping programmes of various countries to know the status. I had an opportunity to get involved in a GIS project for the government of Kuwait in 1980. A GIS project in 1980 was unheard of. They wanted an advice. We studied the problem. We made a report and presented to chief engineer, who liked it. We were asked to prepare a tender and supervise the project. It was difficult because it was a project that is to last for six years. How do we write specifications in a technology that isn't established? Finally the a Japanese company won it. It was called the KUDAMS project. It was designed to be an integrated GIS project. We generated a geodetic new datum for Kuwait using Doppler satellites. We created the basic framework for aerial photogrammetric mapping. We did the mapping for the coordination of all services like electric, telephone and water.

The datum was delivered and the project was completed in July 1990. We were negotiating for a new contract to carry out the updates. The day before Saddam Hussein invaded, I was in Kuwait. The military refused to allow us to fly north of the country. I changed the specifications and took the last flight to Dubai on August 1, 1990, three hours before the invasion. As a result of Gulf War, things were absolutely terrible in Kuwait. We transferred the project data to Japan. But the communication lines were completely disrupted. After the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the government decided to build GIS for each ministry. The idea of integrated GIS was disrupted.

Then came Dubai. I was called up as a consultant through my UN connections by Qasim Sultan, general manager of Dubai Municipality for their planning, surveying and health departments to run efficiently. I started in 1988, I left when UN left in 2001. That was an interesting structure. We could break the hierarchy and get first rate information. Around that time, I met Preetha Pulusani, Jim Medlock and Jack Dangermond.

White Elephant Club
Until you are 30, you work for career development. After that you begin work for gain or you work for travel or honour. When you are 60, you should do something for the society. There are several of us who are over 60.

These were people who have left their mark and are willing to do more. We can write papers about our disciplines that relate to the society. And in that direction, I started writing on population increase, hunger, corruption index etc. During ISPRS Congress in 2004 in Istanbul, I discussed this with Prof Armin Gruen and Prof Shunji Murai. We thought we must create a club. Shunji came up with the idea calling it the White Elephant Club. In China, the white elephant carried the remains of Buddha to Chiang Mai until it collapsed. We have now about 25 members. We are trying to do things that we can at this age.

India Experience
I first came to India in 1964 to Idukki in Kerala. I did a survey using terrestrial photogrammetry. It was a Colombo plan project of the Canadian government. A friend of mine invited me to come to India citing a problem. He asked the Indian government for maps to design a 200m high dam across the Periyar river and got 1:50 K maps which were of no use. The local surveyor couldn’t help as the walls of the dam site were 60 degrees steep. We imported geodimetre and I said in order to have a good job with phototheodolite we need to have access to spatial pathways. So, the blasting was done according to the phototheodolite and in a couple of months, we were ready with 1:100 maps for Idukki dam. I was in Hyderabad in 1973, in Survey of India. I gave lectures in analytical photogrammetry. I was a keen follower of developments in India. It was Prof UR Rao who did the change over. He saw the weakness of secret maps that couldn't get information out. He realised satellite images may not be as secret. He was right in his conviction. Today, every body from local departments could buy space imagery. That really got remote sensing going in India at a time when there was absolutely no access to maps. It was an intelligent way of one ministry against the other.

Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) – The name came from Al Gore. And suddenly every one was doing it. In Europe, Germany in particular, we were absolutely surprised about SDI. Everyone was talking about it in UN meetings. Our people, though they didn't know the name, were always doing SDI. So there wasn't absolutely no need for a special SDI. It is easy to regulate within the country. The problem is between the states. You need SDIs at various levels. And you can only make it with people's cooperation. You can bypass limiting technology like the Department of Space has done in India. For example, Macedonia is doing extremely well in mapping, cadastre etc. They have gotten a project of high end technology done by the Japanese. In the course of the project, Macedonia has learnt and now they are able to utilise that foundation. Europe is also going in the same way. INSPIRE can lay the basic foundation and each country can learn.

On Education
If you are looking for sustainability, education is the key. When you are talking about photogrammetry, we have a proliferation of education in this globalised world. There is not enough emphasis on professional approach. We find this scenario in Europe. The Canadian system brings out professionals. In the US, you could make a bachelor in geography, but you never had a professional orientation. India requires a cross programme in geoinformatics.

Once a year, I go as an external examiner to the University of Nairobi. Jack Dangermond donated ArcGIS to this university. And every bachelor degree student has to submit a thesis. I read them and I get fascinated. Students go out, find data, geo-locate them and then write a thesis about it. One lady investigated the location of all the rapes and their circumstances in Nairobi during a certain period. The police didn't give the data. She went to the hospitals and got the data. A thesis like that is surprising. Another one talked about medical distribution facilities for AIDS victims. This means GIS is such a fascinating subject to do socio-economic and environment analysis. All you need to do is motivate the students. I advise students to get a relevant and catchy subject, make a thesis or report that deal with society applications. Today, we deal with information of the environment, human or natural. Past technologies were not capable of dealing with information. We need a professional approach to deal with technology. To my mind, this is the way. May be I am old fashioned. If you ask me if I would choose the subject again, I would say yes. Many people change their jobs quickly. A professional doesn't.