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I like challenges

Eng. Mohammed Al Zaffin
Director – GIS centre
Dubai Municipality

There were quite a few mathematicians in surveying at that time. I used to go to the field to see their work. It was a hot summer. For the first few months, I tried to just observe and understand the environment. They wanted to see what I was made of – see if I would run away or stay.

I remember I went to one of the surveyors as they picked up an area to be surveyed. But before I went to the field with them, I did my homework. I measured all the dimensions from the map and memorised them. Surveyors used theodolites and total stations at that time and as the surveyor started measuring the field with a tape, I was ready with the accurate measurements. He looked at me in awe and said, “You are right”.

I knew this was an exercise to gauge me. I learnt the game. Back in office, he told everyone that this guy ‘just looks at things and tells the measurement’. Years later, I told him what I had done. It was a nice environment to work in. I learnt a lot from my seniors. During this learning process I realised that all the work was being done manually. They used to go for field survey and use a pencil for making their measurements. I said, “No more pencils. Only ink from now on.” There was little reluctance initially but eventually they agreed.

Let’s go digital
That was the time when the GIS revolution had just started. I got interested in this new technology and in 1991, decided to go for further studies. I met Professor Gottfried Konecny who was a consultant in our survey section. He suggested Newbrunswick in Canada, one of the best schools in this field. He established the department of survey engineering there. I completed my masters from there. I came back and said, “let’s go digital now.” We had three options at that time. To hire professionals in the department and do it on our own, hire a company to work for us and train our people or get the entire project done outside. Knowing the people, knowing the environment, I decided to move forward gradually.

We started with one person for digitisation and hired consultants to do the whole planning. Gradually, we took the cadastral map to build the data. We automated the whole work process. I made people stop recording data on paper and introduced data logger. No one was happy with it. I gave them six months. I said, “Use it or thank you for your services. When we are building digital data, we have to automate all the processes.” Nineteen people left as they didn’t wanted to adapt to new trends. Then, we progressed to automate the output such as site plan, NOC for sewage and drainage gradually. We emphasised a lot on training our employees. Organistions cannot survive without people. You can get the software, you can get the data digitised, but projects cannot run without people. All that training insured that we have a good crew right now in the GIS Department.

We were lucky to have the support of our superiors. Our Director General was the force behind the emergence of e-governance in Dubai municipality. We reported to him many times even before he became the DG. He understands our work and we have his full support. We also have the support of the government as it is not just Dubai municipality which is benefitting from our work, but the entire nation.

Creating the need
I have been in this field for a long time now – almost 20 years. Initially, I had a hard time with companies producing GIS applications.. Representatives of various companies came to us to try and sell their applications. They went on explaining their product without understanding where exactly the department was heading. So, we had to write our RFPs and make them understand our vision. We finally decided to create an in-house research and development team .

Companies should not only sell their applications but build them in the first place according to the user’s requirement. Many GIS projects fail not because of the contractor but because the user does not understand GIS domain and does not know what to expect from it. So, it is important to build a flexible generic system and make it work to your requirement. We cover many departments within the municipality. Even the Dubai World Central airport is running from the main server at GIS Department. We manage the application and data management for them. They only view and use the data. This has helped them to save a lot of money.

In the end, our aim is to create a GIS department for the government. For example, when we initiate a mapping project, we send our requirement to all the departments and we incorporate their requirements within the RFP. This way, instead of five departments doing the same task separately, we ensure that it is done once and the data is given to everybody. One has to be needed or one cannot exist. So, whatever data we have, we disseminate it., and by doing so,, we have created a need for the GIS Department on the data side. We develop applications in-house and provide training, and now we are working on developing mobile applications.

The most important thing before one starts a project is to get the user involved in it and ensure that he gets a feel of it. I remember once when I was pursuing my civil engineering, my concrete design professor said, “If you don’t have a feeling for it you are not going to do it right.” I wondered what feeling I should have for concrete. It is just concrete! After a few months, I really understood what he meant. You ought to have a feeling for the task/work you do. Otherwise, you are not going to perfect it, you are not going to reach where you want. It is also important to share your ideas, let people listen and dream about it.

Another aspect I look into is bringing awareness about geospatial technologies, not just in Dubai Municipality and the government, but also among the people. I try to do this through conferences and newsletters. And the awareness has certainly grown. Earlier, we used to go to the users and ask them to use GIS. Now, they come and ask for various applications. We started with a vision. We wanted spatial data to be made available easily for utilities and we achieved this.

On international ties
The geospatial community in this region is numbered and we know each other well. We have been in the business for 20 years and so people come to us to understand how we developed a particular solution/application. We also learn from them and share our experiences. I believe in sharing knowledge. I once told Prof Konecny, my guru, “The more I learn about these technologies, the more I feel I know nothing.” He looked at me and said, “What I know from the field is just a drop of what is there. Nobody knows everything. Even a newcomer has something for you to learn from. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake and don’t be shy to say, I don’t know. And if you have knowledge, give it away. Let people benefit from it.”

On Family
My brothers and I were educated abroad. All of us are engineers. We have learnt to discuss issues and share knowledge among ourselves. Our father made sure that we are friends with him. Of course, we had respect for him as sons would have for their father. We don’t hide things and this helped us a lot. This is the reason why I believe in transparency. Especially, when you work with people, it is important to understand each of them, it is important to relate to them. I try and create the right environment and make sure to treat everyone equally.

I keep my work separate from home. I have ideas in my mind but I leave work at work and I leave home at home. Our time is short and when it’s gone we cannot bring it back. A day gone cannot be brought back. You have to always think on how you have performed last day, last minute and constantly improve on it.