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“MSD’s initiatives in establishing a NSDI will address all the issues“

Brigadier Khalifa Al Romaithi
Brigadier Khalifa Al Romaithi
Director, Military Survey Department
United Arab Emirates

The Military Survey Department, UAE is the main actor in the field of spatial data on a country wide basis. The Department has realized the potential requirements to implement NSDI. In this exclusive interview, Brigadier Khalifa Al Romaithi, Director, Military Survey Department, UAE, shares his views, present activities and future goals with the readers of [email protected] Middle East

Please introduce your organization and tell us about its role in the United Arab Emirates.

The Military Survey Department (MSD) started in 1974 as a small unit to provide the UAE Armed Forces with maps (paper maps at that time), and then during the early 80’s the government decided to extend this unit to act as a National Mapping Organization mandated to provide the military as well as the civilian sectors with basic topographic maps and plans needed for development.

By the end of 1990, MSD has completed the coverage of the whole country with basic topographic maps at 1/50,000 1/100,000 1/250000and 1/500000. Urban areas and islands were covered by larger scales ranging from 5000 to 20000.

Then MSD enrolled in a program of map revision starting 1992. For this MSD modernized its production units by acquiring up-to-date equipments, hardware and software. It has also initiated an education and training plan to raise the qualification of national staff. In early 1995 and due to the emerging needs for digital spatial data and non standard products, MSD devised new production processes, fully digital, aiming at speeding up the production process as well as delivering new types of customized products. This consisted of converting all MSD’s analogues maps into digital, and acquiring new production system geared towards data centred production flow lines. In 2000 and again with the increasing demand for more structured spatial information and GIS oriented data and in line with policies of data sharing aiming at establishing Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI), MSD decided to build its National Topographic Database complying with international well established standards. This project is due to end in late 2006. Similarly a new Digital Terrain Model for the whole country at a high resolution and accuracy as well as a 0.5 m resolution orthoimagery are being built as part of the project.

How is map data provided for civilian use? Does this data have any restrictions?

In the early 90’s when GIS and GPS revolutionized the security concept of maps, the civilian version was not anymore relevant. MSD started to provide the same military version with more restrictions on its use. In parallel MSD devised new production lines for customized products tailored for specific uses on a case by case basis.

The MSD also provides the civilian community with aerial photography as well as digital elevation data. These are also subject to the same copyrights and use restrictions. The MSD has the merit to provide these data for the entire country while municipalities provide it for their jurisdictions.

In what ways does the MSD collaborate with the academic community?

Of course there is a contribution of the educational community. With close collaboration with the Men’s College at Abu Dhabi, MSD initiated a diploma program in surveying and mapping. It worked for 5 years, and supplied MSD as well as other organizations with qualified surveyors and mappers. The course was suspended last year and a higher level GIS program is soon due to replace it. What is MSD’s approach with respect to public/private partnerships in the geospatial services domain? Our policy here is to work in cooperation with other organizations. So we believe that the partnership succeeds only when both partners benefit. Therefore, ‘Win, Win’ principle is accepted, and accordingly MSD has already partnership in executing spatial data projects. So we have to involve the private sector and our policy is to subdivide the project into entities and we also sub-contract some of the entities.

What are the pivotal initiatives being taken by MSD to establish the NSDI of U.A.E.?

The MSD has taken a number of steps towards helping in the establishment of the NSDI. It has provided the mapping community with a solid spatial reference foundation: the National Geodetic Network, which is very essential to link all the spatial data of the country. This served in unifying the spatial reference of the country.
v The MSD has also established the National Geoid of the UAE (it is established and used by municipalities). The information is accessible to private users as well as researchers.

The establishment of the National Topographic Database (NTDB) was also one of the important steps towards NSDI. Its high resolution (higher than needed by the military), its richness of content and its accuracy are electing it to be a reasonable framework component of the NSDI. By next year this data will be available to other Emirate governments.

The last but not the least initiative was to encourage other organizations to use international standards in their spatial data collection processes. This will significantly help in data sharing and exchange.

How does the MSD balance the need for national development and the need for maintaining security of spatial data?

There is no doubt that security of spatial data from a military perspective has dramatically changed during these last few years. Especially with the advent of high resolution satellite imageries and the significant developments that took place in global positioning technologies. Today, we are more concerned about the issue of copyright and ownership of geospatial data which is more important than security for us. Since most of the data is needed for the development activities, it has to be released. The government releases it, but to protect its ownership and copyright, it applies a number of restrictions for its use. Theses restrictions in most cases are not because of security reasons but due mainly to the lack of a steady copyright law and legal mechanisms for geospataial data protection. “Pirating digital data” is a very common activity nowadays. If a data is released with no restriction, the next day it will be undoubtedly used in a myriad of added values products. Until the law comes up, MSD compromises by releasing the data only by agreement to government or private sector. Data is also released for research purposes with practically no restrictions, but for reselling purposes restrictions are imposed.

This matter would be better solved when a national policy for spatial data comes into force. The government is aware of the importance of such policy and has already initiated the process of framing it.

What is the impact of MSD’s activities on the civilians of United Arab Emirates? The MSD is one of the major geospatial data providers in the UAE. Topographic data has been always used as an important component in most of the civilian projects such as road constructions, utilities, establishments, explorations. Today homogeneous up-to-date and attribute rich geospatial data that covers the whole country in a very optimal resolution is definitely of prime importance for many other applications in the civilian sector. Other emerging applications such as vehicle tracking , emergency responses and many others requires specific spatial data which is not provided by MSD but exists with other government agencies. The civilian sector would benefit tremendously if these data are made available to the public. However this requires institutional, organizational and technical issues for data access and sharing to be sorted out.

The MSD’s initiatives in establishing a NSDI will address all these issues and hopefully allowing the civilians to make use of the spatial data produced by government agencies. In this aspect MSD’s activities will have a positive impact on the civilian community by enabling it to access the wealth of information within the government stores.

What are the future plans of the MSD?

The Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) development is on the highest priority of the government. The MSD is reengineering its business processes, products and services to be in line with this development. One of our short term targets is to complete the NTDB by the end of 2006. We are focusing on serving the NSDI development needs. We want to stimulate, encourage awareness of spatial data integration and use in business process. Incorporating spatial element in e-Government applications are also in our agenda.

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