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‘ITC provides multi-cultural learning experience’

More than 90 percent of our students are from outside Europe, with very minor representation of Dutch students. Our faculty is also from different countries.

Prof. Dr. Ir. A. (Tom) Veldkamp
Prof. Dr. Ir. A. (Tom) Veldkamp
Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC)
University of Twente, The Netherlands

How is education and research at ITC different from other universities in Europe and across the world?
One of the distinguishing factors for ITC is that we orient ourselves to developing countries. More than 90 percent of our students are from outside Europe, with very minor representation of Dutch students. Our faculty is also from different countries. This provides a global and multicultural atmosphere for our students to learn their GIS and remote sensing skills, setting it a little apart from the more traditional Dutch universities. 61 years ago, ITC was funded for development cooperation and was officially not allowed to have Dutch students in its programme because the funds were meant for development cooperation and not for subsidising Dutch students. We still have this requirement but at the same time we are currently facing budget cuts so we are renegotiating this position with the Dutch government.

In addition, because our students are from various countries from across the world, we also undertake a lot of research projects in countries of their origin. We stimulate the students to bring along their own research subjects, and very often, because most of our students are mid-career students, they already have work experience and they have their own data. In the process, we can develop the skills of the teachers and researchers to work on topics from these diverse countries.

Which countries and regions is ITC more active in?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands has shortlisted ten countries as focal to their activities. We have also settled on those ten countries for our investments. These countries are mostly from Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Vietnam and Indonesia are also on the list. We are open for collaboration with other countries and even expand the collaboration but in those cases we don’t invest our money. This approach requires adaptation from our partners because in the past, ITC used to pay for all the expenses. We cannot afford that any more. We are appreciated for our knowledge and that should also be appreciated in terms of bringing equal partnership and equal amount of money on to the table.

Mid-level professionals form a significant segment of your students. What activities does ITC undertake for this category?
Traditionally, we have only had mid-career students. It is now that there is a shift towards younger students. We believe that high quality M.Sc. also needs high quality research. Therefore we stimulate research projects where our own researchers can participate in order to assure high quality research as a kind of boundary condition for good M.Sc. education. That is also essential for PhD. We also encourage our PhD students to not only write a thesis but also publish them in top scientific journals in the field, an increasingly important requirement if one wants to have a scientific career.

Does ITC also handhold universities and institutions in the countries where it is actively involved in?
That depends on the countries. At the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) for example, we have a joint educational programme. It is our M.Sc. programme, conducted jointly with the institute. Students undertake a part of their course in India at IIRS, then come to ITC and complete the remaining part. But ITC manages the quality. In the end, it is a Dutch M.Sc. degree from ITC.

The industry often complains that educational institutes do not produce qualified professionals to suit their needs. How does ITC address this issue?
There is indeed a high demandfrom the private partners for technically skilled people – people who know how to process geoinformation. We have specific courses for that – not only at M.Sc. level but there is also a professional training course of shorter duration.

There is a high demand for these courses. The problem we usually have is that we lose money on them. In India, we are trying to renegotiate the terms of having these courses in the future because if there is a demand from private companies then they should probably be willing to pay more for it.

So, are you also looking at conducting courses in association with industry partners?
Yes, we are looking at that possibility, with our partners like IIRS as a hub. We can also undertake distance education through the Internet if so desired. It is usually spread over a few weeks, with the Dutch trainers coming in and conducting the course with the local trainers. Currently, the students pay for the course but the money does not come to ITC, while we do incur a lot of expenses associated with it. We need to be more economical. If we have an equal partnership, we should atleast break even in terms of cost and income.

For certain countries, or within certain projects, we have trained the trainers. It is difficult for us to have direct contact with stakeholders from the ground – the many local organisations who have the necessary skills but need additional training. They are the ones who can solve the problems on the ground. For us, the distance is too large. So we find that the ‘train the trainers’ approach works very well. And that really is capacity building.

Technology is evolving at a much faster pace than it was before. How is ITC making its courses more relevant and current?
We are doing that by linking it up to the research. Research feeds back into the education. The research has to be cutting edge. Ultimately, courses are linked to cutting edge research and to the demands from the society. So that, when people have specific demands, then one can tailormake or change the courses. We also update the courses regularly. We have completely redesigned even the core module, which is the first part of the M.Sc. We are testing it now at ITC. Next year, we will start implementing it with our joint educational partners. Where our PhD students are concerned, we often directly feed those datasets back as training modules.

This is also to expose students to how imperfect the datasets can be and to confront them with real world and real life problems. We also use the latest software available. We don’t have a policy that restricts us to only one type of software. We have a mixed bag of software, so that students have a flavour of all the different software available.

How does ITC strike a balance between fundamental research and applied research?
That’s always a tricky part. Part of it is because some of our departments are more fundamental oriented while others are more applied oriented. But we have to find a balance. Sometimes, real world questions come up which can only be solved by doing really fundamental research. That is why it is important to have a dynamic interaction between research, education and projects. That is what we offer.

When one considers fundamental research, people often think of fundamental physics or chemistry. But we see fundamental research also in solving data quality issues. So it’s a very practical research. But the questions sometimes are quite fundamental. We are looking at advancing our research in this direction. Ultimately it should lead to higher quality research.

Can you tell us about the consulting services provided by ITC?
We offer two types of consultancy services – one is capacity development oriented and the other one is content oriented – doing research projects. Capacity development involves setting up infrastructures or even setting up a faculty or training institutes. There are funds for this kind of consultancy, including from the Dutch government. The other category demands for specific expertise in projects. We then undertake it as consultants or actually carry out the project. It is based on our scientific reputation. For instance, we now have collaboration in Thailand with Asian Institute of Technology and Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. Thailand has recently witnessed severe floods. In such calamities, we try to be very active – be visible and offer further training. We have been quite involved in China and in Pakistan after the recent earthquakes in these countries. But at the same time, while we do undertake short term consultancies, it is not our main activity. We are not a consultancy firm. We only do it when it has added value for us, be it in terms of getting new networks or new people. Our main activities remain teaching and research; project service is an added value.

How does ITC function as a knowledge partner for professional organisations and international multilateral organisations?
We function by sharing. We are, in principle, paid by public money and thus believe that whatever we do should be made publicly available. We do not mind sharing knowledge or information because we are continually developing it and by the time it is shared, we should have developed new knowledge. It is also a good incentive to keep improving because by opening up the data you also push yourself to develop it further. At present, we have twelve M.Sc. courses in the world, which are basically linked to the ITC. We are trying to establish more contacts and develop it as a network rather than just relationships with ITC. Recently, the Dutch government organised a meeting with alumni of all universities in the Netherlands. One of the major issues raised at that meeting was the need to effectively share geo-information and how countries can help each other. India has an enormous space programme through which many people can benefit. Brazil has a space programme and they are opening up into Africa. We want to take active interest in these developments. We do not want to be the spider in the Web but we want the Web.

It’s two years since ITC is part of University of Twente (UT). How has the association been?
It has not been a very smooth process because it requires getting used to from both the sides. We have to fit in the bureaucratic structure and that requires changes in the support departments. We are in the middle of a formal reorganisation to make sure that we fit in properly within the university structure. The catch phrase of the university is ‘high-tech with a human touch’ and that is how they present themselves. Our high-tech is geo-IT and it is human touch because it is focussed on application. While that is a bit difficult to change, there is also a lot of added value now. For example, we are going to increase collaborations in Indonesia from the UT perspective.

Has the association with UT in any way changed the mission and objectives of ITC?
No. We still have the same mission but we now have to comply with other rules as well. While the mission remains the same, the means to achieve that mission may change. Strategic plan and capacity development set us apart and are still very much part of the mission.

Now that you are a part of a university, is there any plan to have conventional courses as well?
We plan to get Dutch B.Sc. and M.Sc. in the long term, but it might be several years before everything is organised.

In India, not many students opt for geoinformatics. How is the scenario in Europe?
Earth observation or geo-information may not find too many takers as a branch of study, but it is extensively used as an application in numerous fields such as water management, natural resource management etc. In the present scenario, the entire geospatial development is heading for a revolution. There are big changes that most people are not aware of. For example, all the cellphone applications have a geospatial dimension but these are not visible.

How can we make it more appealing for people?
One of the biggest research areas today is crowd sourcing. The cellphone is an even bigger revolution than the internet and getting information through cellphone is one of the prime topics for researchers at the moment. While all this has a geospatial component, the lack of awareness is a cause for concern. For example, at ITC we always have to sell ourselves because people are not aware of what we can actually provide. We are currently negotiating with the Dutch government because they are considering cutting our grants as according to them, we are not contributing to some of their prime areas of concern such as agriculture, good governance, water and health. There is a geospatial component attached to all these areas and that is what they do not realise.

Are there any new activities being planned with IIRS?
We want to discuss the future of our technician courses and perhaps talk about upscaling the collaboration. We hope to involve a bit more of the industry and maybe offer internships to students. Basically, we are looking to open up this collaboration. IIRS is a hub where much more activity can take place. It receives students from other regions besides India so there are big possibilities. Apart from that, we are also keenly looking at the private sector in India. While India is a global player where IT is concerned, it is not the case in the geospatial domain. For example, all the software is still being developed in the US. Given all the expertise in software development, one would expect India to be a leading player. We are interested in developments in the private sector because we are also considering giving our students more insight into the private sector. This is also an issue in Africa where lot of our students have the possibility to start their own company but they lack the knowledge. Besides, there is lack of infrastructure that can stimulate the incubator of companies. Government is producing and buying the data, which makes it almost impossible for small players to enter the market. However, the situation is totally different in the US and Europe where it is mostly the medium companies that provide the services. Another bottleneck is the restriction on satellite imagery, which is again in direct contrast to what happens in US and Europe. If you want people to use good data then you should make it freely available, otherwise they would use whatever they can get their hands on and that might not always be the good data.