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“Future of geo-sciences can be seen everywhere in the Kingdom”

Dr Abdullah Mohammed Al-garni
Associate Professor
College of Engineering, Civil Engineering Department, King Saud University,
Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
[email protected]

GIS education has become an important focus area in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1988-89, the full surveying programme at King Saud University was started. Since then, the programme continues to supply the country with qualified engineers. Dr Abdullah Mohammed Al-Garni, Associate Professor, College of Engineering, King Saud University in this interview talks about the curriculum, the facilities being provided to the students studying GIS, and the opportunities for career growth for them

Please highlight some of the recent initiatives towards developing GIS education by your department in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Geographic Information System (GIS) is recognized as an efficient decision support system (knowledge system), which may aid decision makers to take the right actions in the right time. At King Saud University (KSU) we look at GIS as an integrated body, which must undergo hierarchal processes and phases. These ordered phases are starting with raw data, information (processed raw data), and knowledge.

To meet this strategic view of reaching data knowledge systems, we believe (at KSU) that the requirements are more than qualifying GIS operators. Accordingly, the Surveying Programme at KUS is covering the full spectrum of geospatial fields, which is participated by qualifying engineers in GIS and related spatial sciences. Consequently, Surveying Programme at KUS teaches ground survey, geodesy, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Cartography.

In what ways is King Saud University contributing to training in the field of GIS?
An extensive 5-year programme majoring in Surveying and Spatial Information (S.S.I) Sciences and applications is well established at KSU for more than 18 years now. As mentioned before, the general structure of the programme is set up in such a way to cover courses and training in the following majors:

  • Ground Surveying (e.g, topographic, cadastral, and planimetric surveys).
  • Geodesy and GPS (e.g, ground control and network surveys).
  • Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing Surveys (e.g., image interpretation, image processing, image registration, geometric and radiometric corrections, stereopair processing, digital elevations, image mosaicking, Orthorectification, analytical triangulation …etc.).
  • Cartography and GIS (e.g., data registration, topology editing, spatial analysis, raster GIS, Vector GIS, digitization, database design, database management, map presentation and layout, symbolization, customization …etc.).
  • Various Geomatic courses (e.g., statistics, mathematics, least-squares adjustments, observation analysis, and computer sciences).

In the light of the structure shown above in KSU S.S.I programme, the faculty members are structured as:

  • Professors and Teacher Assistants (T.A.) in Ground Surveys
  • Professors and T.A. in Geodesy and GPS
  • Professor and T.A. in photogrammetry
  • Professor and T.A. in R.S
  • Professors and T.A. in GIS, Cartography, and other Geomatics Courses

Furthermore, S.S.I students must spend about three months in a professional spatial information company or in a government department specialized in S.S.I activities. A student must obtain an acceptance from these practitioners and he must get approval from college of engineering to spend three month training at the premises of these specialized companies or departments. Usually companies and specialized departments are requested to give a weekly report about student activities, and forward a confidential evaluation report about student qualification and ability during his training with them.

It should be also mentioned here that a full range of laboratories in Remote Sensing, Photogrammetry, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), Ground Surveys are available at S.S.I programme in KSU. Table 1 is a tentative non-detailed explanation of these laboratories.

“Saudi Arabia is giving attention to Geospatial Information Sciences. The issue has reached the highest authority level in the country. I can see the future of geospatial sciences everywhere in the country. To name a few of well defined places in the Kingdom – The Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, The Military Survey Department”

What are the challenges being faced in promoting GIS education among the students in the country.
As you know, GIS is strongly related to Surveying and other geospatial information fields, in general. GIS is the top of the pyramid of these information sources (ground surveys, photogrammetry, remote sensing, GPS….etc.). The results are knowledge and decision support systems (GIS). Inviting people to specialize in deep geospatial information sciences is associated with bad images about old survey tools. This is true even with well educated, but non-specialized, people. Accordingly, marketing motivating GIS and related geospatial fields faces four major problems in the country:

  • S.S.I is a relatively new major in the country, compared to Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and similar engineering majors. This ends up with some resistance to accept the unknown new field.
  • Ignorance and unclear understanding of what the GIS field is about. This is associated with bad old images about surveying tools and unclear future of graduates.
  • Weak financial support obtained from relevant educational authorities. GIS and related surveying and geospatial information fields require relatively large budgets to start as well as to continue. This requirement is not fully accepted by financial authorities at the beginning.
  • Legislation problems appear at the beginning. Coding geospatial information jobs as recognized employment positions of well defined rank in the government policies was not mature enough. That is, in the employment legislation we had difficulties to reserve positions for graduates similar to those positions given to engineers from other fields such as civil engineering, electrical engineering and so on. This difficulty is not there anymore.

All these factors and many others were big challenges that we faced while promoting GIS and related fields to students throughout the country.

What is your opinion about industry-institution-government interface in terms of careers of GIS experts created through education?
In old times (not more than 10 years) less attention to GIS experts and positions was the trend. During the last decade, however, the big change and advancement in the geospatial information fields and technologies, as well as, the clear impact of spatial information on human activities and decisions, affect the old negative images and trends. I think these days the situation is very promising for people specialized in GIS. Today people in government realize that GIS is a real-decision making tool that can make big difference in budgets, efforts, and quality of their giant projects. Demand on GIS experts who are well educated is increasing and recognized by industry, institutions, and government authorities. This major (the GIS) is started to be recognized world wide as a valuable field that must participate in the world development. Accordingly, many positions have been opened to accommodate GIS experts. In the mean time well-established and recognized institutes are spreading out worldwide.

Saudi Arabia is now coming up in the field of GIS implementation. Where do you think lies the future of geospatial sciences in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
In fact, Saudi Arabia is giving very big attention to Geospatial Information Sciences. The issue has reached the highest authority level in the country. I can see the future of geospatial sciences everywhere in the country. To name a few of well defined places in the Kingdom – The Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, The Military Survey Department (MSD), Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs (MOMRA), Geological Survey Organization (GSO), King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Ministry of Interior, Saudi Aramco Company and Saudi Telecommunication Company (STC). All of these are, in fact, recognized as well-established and world-renowned S.S.I bodies in the Kingdom.
Table 1: Few aspects of Geospatial laboratories at KSU, College of engineering.

Type of Field Equipments or Programmes Available
Ground Survey 7 total stations – various capabilities
3 Advanced GPS
1 Digital Level
4 electronic theodolites
20 optical levels
20 optical theodolites
1 Wild T4 – Astronomic Theodolite
Numerous small instruments
Photogrammetry 1 photogrammetric workstation
1 analytical plotter – AC1 (upgraded to semi-automatic digital plotter)
2 analogue mechanical stereo plotters (for demo and teaching purposes)
2 analogue optical stereo plotters (for demo and teaching purposes)
In house designed programs
Range of photogrammetric Programs (DMS, PCI, ERDAS,..)
Summagraph plotter GTCO plotter
8 workstations
Many ESRI packages and products (Arcinfo, ArcView, ArcGIS, all extensions) with many Licenses – latest versions
Many CAD packages and products (Microstation, AutoCad)
Many Image Processing packages and products (ERDAS, ER-Mapper, PCI)
Scanners and plotters

It is important to state that KACST is one of the largest and oldest organizations in the Middle East that have advanced receiving stations for most of the well known remote sensing satellites in the world including SPOT, TM, IRS, IKONOS and many others. KACST has made and launched few small Saudi Satellites.

As stated before, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a large area country. The area is about 2 million square kilometres. During the last 50 years, very large-scale infrastructure projects have been implemented. These projects include huge road networks, airports, airbases, railways, structural urban plans, oil and mineral explorations, water and sewage networks, electricity and telephone networks, agriculture and irrigation projects, and many others.

All these projects were based on extensive ground, aerial and space surveying projects at various scales. In fact most of the infrastructure projects were/are/and will require professional and well-established organizations in geospatial information fields. Consequently, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia established specialized government sectors/organizations to deal with this matter.

Due to the fact that Kingdom of Saudi Arabia built and is running a large and valuable amount of spatial data in many places, a royal order (decree) has been issued in 2002 to establish a National Committee to supervise and build Unified National Standards and Network for a National Saudi GIS. The members of the committee are selected from all government and large-private sectors active in geomatics and related to the issue from the viewpoint of financing, legislation and technology. Five major sub-committees have been established. These committees are:

  • Information Committee
  • Standard and Specification Committee
  • Network Committee
  • Legislation Committee
  • Financial Committee

Each committee is assigned different work groups (WGs) containing qualified experts in their relevant fields.

This national committee is chaired by the Military Surveying Department (MSD) and hosted by KACST. Since 2002, the committee is working hard to establish good foundation and infrastructure for spatial information activities and systems in the country. High quality data, unified standards, non-duplicated effort or budget are major factors the committee is endeavoring to achieve.