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‘Our biggest challenge is to build capacity in the field of GIS’

Ahmed Nasir Bashir, Sharjah Municipality, UAE
Ahmed Nasir Bashir
GIS Engineer, Sharjah Municipality

Despite being one of the oldest municipalities in the UAE, Sharjah Municipality has always been a frontrunner when it comes to the implementation of modern technologies in its functioning. However, lack of adequate capacity is an issue that hinders the further promotion and growth of geospatial technology in the Municipality. Ahmed Nasir Bashir talks about the state of geospatial technology implementation at Sharjah Municipality.

Please tell us in brief about Sharjah Municipality and the GIS division here.

Founded in 1927, Sharjah Municipality is one of the oldest municipalities in the UAE, which is responsible for the overall management of the Sharjah emirate. The Municipality executes many public projects in the emirate of Sharjah every year, and has a prominent role in boosting the economy, society, public health, environment and many other fields in the emirate.

GIS in Sharjah Municipality is a part of the IT department. Although it is not an individual department, but the work that is done here relates to different sections like drainage, agriculture, health/food and environment. While some of these sections are using GIS already, we are planning to incorporate more of this technology in the others. We have a lot of data that is required for all these departments and are working on implementing more of GIS into their functioning.

What are the major application areas of geospatial technology in municipal functions? How does it help to resolve some of the challenges that you face?

Over the past few years, the UAE and the emirate of Sharjah has witnessed a lot of development. The rapid pace of development has resulted in numerous challenges related to municipal functions like efficient land use, public health, city management, environment protection etc. Geospatial technology has the ability to ensure planned development by giving us the ability to look at the bigger picture and enhancing a municipality’s decision making ability.

Each and every department of the municipality can benefit from the use of this technology. Nowadays, we are talking about enterprise level GIS within the municipality, which means that various systems in the municipality would be connected to a GIS. One of the major tasks of the municipality is to carry out inspections, which helps standardisation of various services. For example, we conduct regular inspections related to buildings, food, health, environment, industries etc. The inspectors collect a lot of important data, which can then be used by different departments to plan better and improve their functioning. That is one area where GIS can help us to overcome a lot of our challenges.

Data exchange is an important aspect that helps the municipalities to carry out their work efficiently. Do you have a data exchange policy with other entities in Sharjah? What is the status of SDI in the emirate?

Data exchange is not an issue and different entities within the emirate share their data based on their requirements. Exchange of data is mostly done through the SGC (Sharjah GIS Center), which is the coordinating body responsible for gathering and exchanging geographical information and services between government departments and other establishments in Sharjah. In addition, the Center has also become the GIS data hub for agencies in other emirates and international organisations. Data exchange takes place through the GDIS (GIS Data Interoperability Solution) system framework developed by the SGC, which allows on-demand distribution of spatial data. The main aim of this solution is to facilitate seamless exchange of geospatial data between the member entities.

There are also plans to create an SDI and creating a central portal where all the data would be uploaded, but right now the plan is at the very basic research level where the SGC is talking to various departments and trying to come up with a structure. We, at Sharjah Municipality, have always been concerned about the duplication of data and issues related to data standards. So, hopefully SDI would resolve all these issues.

Tell us about some of your major ongoing and planned projects.

Right now, we are working on a major drainage project where all as-built drawings are going into a GIS format. We also share this data with other people through the GDIS portal. Another area where we would like to replicate the success of our drainage project is agriculture, because agriculture and drainage are similar in pattern because there is a lot of overlap of data in both. So, we have most of the data required for agriculture project already available with us and all we require is more trained manpower to use that data. Similarly, we also have a lot of engineering data related to buildings, starting from the owners’ names to the site plan. We have a lot of image data that we are working to link with maps and thus create a GIS, which would help us in carrying out detailed analytical work related to buildings and land use. At present, we are in the process of upgrading our GIS software as it has to be really fast and efficient in order to meet the users’ demands.

Do you have any GIS based applications for the general public?

As of now we do not have any such applications for the general public. However, we do have an emergency hotline for the public wherein when somebody calls on the number we can trace their location, which helps us to act fact in case of an emergency.

Tell us about some of your major challenges. How do you plan to overcome these challenges?

Our biggest and most daunting challenge is to educate people in GIS and other aspects, who already have some IT (information technology) background. Basically, what we need to do is to bridge the gap between a field engineer and an IT person, because in order to create an overall efficient system it is extremely vital that the IT person should understand the kind of issues and challenges that a field person faces. While the users can see the immense possibilities related to their data, the IT people can explain to them exactly how to make more productive use of their data. However, we do understand that bridging this gap is a continuous process and the best way to tackle this challenge is to have more people who are intermediaries; people who have knowledge of IT and also some knowledge of engineering works, civil works etc. We are also looking at training some people from these fields in GIS so that they know what else can be done with their data and how easy and useful data analysis can become for them.

Please tell us about the future plans of GIS department at Sharjah Municipality?

We have a lot of things planned for the future. To begin with, we are planning to have more investment in GIS hardware and software. Once we have the required infrastructure in place, we would be looking to make GIS a part of the daily functioning of various departments within the Municipality. We want to make GIS a very handy tool for the users. We would surely reach these goals once we solve certain issues related to training etc. While procuring of hardware and software sounds a bigger issue, but the real challenge lies in training the required manpower because if you have untrained people then the software and hardware are of no use.