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PIONEER: ‘Use of GIS is pervasive in Middle East’

Zul Jiwani
Zul Jiwani
GIS Consultant

What inspired you to take up GIS as a profession?
I stumbled into GIS as a profession in late 1970s when I was appointed by the government of Province of Ontario, Canada, to a team that would advice the government on global status of GIS and on strategies that would transform Ontario’s mapping industry from analogue to digital and GIS. My education in surveying and photogrammetry complemented with computer science was an advantage. My fellow team members (that included Jack Dangermond, Dr James Linders, John Kerr and others) inspired me to take up GIS as a profession.

By 1988, I was Director of GIS at the Federal Government in Ottawa, Canada when Qatar formally requested Canada for assistance in GIS. I was asked to travel to Qatar where I met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Thani who exhibited tremendous enthusiasm for GIS and convinced me to join him in implementing a National GIS infrastructure. We started Qatar’s GIS implementation from the ground in October 1989. Qatar had all the right ingredients for building a successful national GIS infrastructure: (a) it had a “champion” in Sheikh Ahmed Al-Thani; (b) there was no existing GIS infrastructure so no issues of legacy; (c) government was willing to invest time and resources in developing policies, standards, procedures and guidelines before technology was purchased; and (d) budgets were allocated for high-quality base data collection. In 1992, Qatar became the first country outside the developed world to win the URISA Award for Exemplary Systems in Government.

Difficulties faced in making decision makers understand the importance and advantages of using GIS? How different is the situation now?
When I started GIS in Qatar in 1989, I was asked a funny question: “is GIS IBM compatible?” Many people thought GIS was a pre-built computer box that made maps. At that time, GIS was viewed as the domain of the technically sophisticated computer professionals. Organisations failed to realise that GIS implementation would introduce fundamental changes to the way they conducted business. We were aware that such significant impacts in Qatar’s ministries needed to be understood and supported at political as well as highest executive levels. With Sheikh Ahmed’s ability to access highest levels of government, we were able to convince cabinet ministers, as well as senior executives in each ministry that GIS was an evolving process of technological innovation and required continued political and executive attention. We hand-picked senior individuals from sixteen government organisations to form a steering committee that oversaw Qatar’s National GIS implementation. The committee provided a platform to spread GIS awareness throughout the country.

What is your assessment of the present use of geospatial technologies in Middle East in general and Qatar in particular?
Use of GIS in the Middle East is pervasive now. Many government as well as private organisations have implemented GIS on a project basis or at departmental or enterprise level. GIS is being used to provide end-user services as well as for decision support. However, coordinated national level implementation is not readily found. Qatar became a unique case study because, in Qatar, every data item is collected and maintained only by the mandated organisation. This was possible because standards and procedures were developed and approved prior to data collection and the steering committee ensured that standards were enforced.

From serving in the government sector to leading the industry, how has been the transition?
Transition from government sector to establishing a private sector company was not easy for me. First it required a change of mindset. Having worked for various government organisations, I was aware of the multitude of spatial databases that were being built and how they were accessed. After leaving the government, I went back to college for one year to study internet technologies. This enabled me to start a Web-GIS company that focussed on providing easy access to spatial databases using a Web browser. Having a thorough understanding of how government operates, we were able to build tools that enabled government departments to use Web-GIS in decision making process.

What do you foresee for the growth of geospatial technologies in the Middle East region?
I am optimistic about the growth of geospatial technologies in the Middle East. The region now has a significant number of trained professionals and colleges and universities providing GIS education and training. Secondly, GIS awareness is increasing as the highest levels of leadership are becoming aware of the benefits of GIS and thirdly we will soon see successful implementations of SDIs.