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Traversing the road less travelled

Prof. Josef Strobl
Prof. Josef Strobl
Chair, Department of Geoinformatics
University of Salzburg, Austria

As a child, I moved around a lot with my family. Losing my parents early in life involuntarily brought me into a leadership position. As a teenager, I took to mountaineering in a big way for a sense of freedom rather than any objective achievement. It was here that I got exposed to the geospatial elements as I acquired map reading and navigation skills.

I was not overly inclined towards academia once I finished high school. With my mountaineering background, I volunteered for the Austrian Army – I was not too interested in the armed forces, but in Austria, military meant mountains and I wanted to make a career out of that. However, after a short while I realised that it was not my calling. I was very happy to go back to academics and attend university. But the question was, what discipline to pursue? My orientation towards mountaineering and navigation led me towards maps and cartography. To study cartography, there were two avenues at that time – going through the Technical university with a surveying and cadastral focus, or as part of geography. In geography, one had to study general geography for two years and then specialise in areas like planning or cartography. I opted for the geography route and I had the privilege of several excellent teachers in geography, motivating me to major in this field.

At that time, there were not many career options after studying geography other than teaching in high schools. But I didn”t plan to be a teacher, because I was driven by an emerging interest in digital technologies in spatial research. Offered a place on the cartography programme, I discovered that a lot of manual drafting and scribing was required. While I agreed that one should learn first learn to apply basic concepts before doing quality digital work, it was clear to me that there was limited future potential in doing maps like they were done at that time. I was trying to make it clear that I considered cartography to be a ”communication science”.

I finished my Masters in Geography analysing statistical relationships between climate factors and agricultural yields which gave me some skills in multivariate statistics. For my PhD, I combined my interest in mountain climbing with the opportunity to assist with determining glacier mass balances. This meant digging into the snow pack, measuring density and water equivalent – a great excuse for spending time in the mountains and even getting (some) pay for it. I did my doctorate on the energy balance part of glacier mass balances.

The Tsunami warning system of IOC

I completed by PhD in 1984 and started looking for an academic position, preferably in a smaller town since I am not a big city person. In 1985, I was hired at the University of Salzburg. The job description was wonderful – taking care of ”everything that has to do with computers in our geography department”.

One very early European installation of ArcGIS was at Berchtesgaden National Park, close to Salzburg. A friend, who worked for the National Park, suggested that I should teach GIS and do research with what was back then called ArcInfo. From the university point of view, it was completely unfeasible to pay for an ArcInfo licence. Then there was an announcement for PC ArcInfo and we ended up with one of the first licences, simply because we could not afford ”the real thing”.

In addition to our residential students, we had several requests for assistance from professionals across the domains of spatial sciences. This demand from professionals ultimately led to the founding of the UNIGIS distance learning programme. A small community of people who happened to work with extremely innovative Canadian software product called SPANS (Spatial ANalysis System) – including Jim Petch, Ian Heywood and Sarah Cornelius in Manchester and Henk Scholten in Amsterdam – shared the insight and motivation to develop a postgraduate certificate and degree programme for in-service professionals, to be delivered by distance learning. We realised that what people on the job actually needed was a combination of GIS knowledge with formal qualifications. There were no such degrees yet. We suggested to our institutions to collaborate and address the industry need for academic qualifications which were not available in standard study programmes.

Distance learning turned out to be an area that has to keep reinventing itself – technology supports novel approaches to online teaching and learning. This year we are celebrating 20 years of UNIGIS programmes, a remarkable achievement in such a dynamic field. A unique characteristic was that UNIGIS was not a spin-off from any project and did not receive any external funding. Luckily, the University of Salzburg back then allowed such an unorthodox programme to launch and then flourish, while many of our peer institutions worldwide were suffocating endeavours to address the different needs of the professional education market with red tape and ”we-have-not-done-this-before” arguments. Twenty years ago, the term ”business model” was not widely used at universities. UNIGIS had to establish its business model, because it was self-funded from fees, covering all development and operational costs.

The Tsunami warning system of IOC

Our 20-plus years of history includes UNIGIS, GIS community building through conferences and a couple of other things. The AGIT and GI_Forum symposia were originally inspired by software users’ conferences. In contrast, we wanted to have an academic conference. In 1989, we held the first ”Applied Geographic Information Technologies” (AGIT) conference. Without this being the original intention, it turned into an annual platform for exchange between academia, public administration and the GIS industry.

With our growing network of partners and contacts, AGIT added an international, English language face under the ”GeoInformatics Forum” – ”GI_Forum” brand. It has now established academic reputation as an interface between science and practice, research and applications.

These initiatives show that a personal history rarely ever is strictly individual. Without a stable and growing team of motivated and challenging co-workers, all of these initiatives could not have been sustained in the long run and successfully institutionalised.

I always have considered myself a teacher first and then an academic researcher. I get personal satisfaction from being a teacher, from working and interacting with students and young researchers. This is what I identify myself with, perhaps more than with the research papers I have published. I might have had a few good ideas, but it is mostly my students and peers who have taken these forward. Being a teacher offers a unique opportunity of being a multiplier. If people do not share what they are learning, one”s own learning will ultimately stop. And being driven by insatiable curiosity is the stimulant in academia.

People should follow their own calling. Some succeed by locking themselves up in a cabinet and win science prizes – of course it is a matter of personality. I am more of a socially communicating person. I am lucky that I had the choice and opportunity to do a little more as a teacher. A few years ago, I was elected as a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. I took it as an honour because people who have their main credentials in education do not frequently get elected there. Interestingly, one negative amidst all this was that I was ”accused” of being too entrepreneurial. While my activities with the Centre for Geoinformatics are entirely as an academic university department, this observation revealed to me that the outside perception was different. In that sense, may be I am very entrepreneurial of making new things happen! This however does not require a commercial entity; it could be done within university structures.

We have always had excellent support from the geospatial industry and I am saying this because the industry by and large recognises the critical significance of education, qualifications and individual competence and capacities. I believe that talking about ”geospatial industry” is a voluntary self-limitation which is not a good idea. I prefer to work across, or without sectoral industry and technology definitions for the simple reason that potentials for leveraging spatial knowledge and competences are reaching across traditional sectors. Mobile data communications, DBMS, visualisation etc. are all critically important for GIS without being considered core actors in a ”geospatial industry”.

The Tsunami warning system of IOC

“Spatial” could be an educational principle, not a discipline. While I strongly feel associated with geography and identify myself as a geographer, what I am arguing for is the strength of the discipline and what we have to offer to the society.

We are now leading a European network called Digital Earth. It is essentially teachers” continuing education across subjects. Academic disciplines should not be organised like boxes. Boxes are limiting, even though they may be helpful in getting started and building a conceptual framework. This is why the most recent evolutionary step of Z_GIS from a ”centre” to a full academic department resulted in the creation of what is called an Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg.

I am known for coming up with new ideas every now and then. While I am happy with the position I am in, I want to continue learning, which essentially means continuing to generate novel concepts and approaches. I hope to proceed in the vocation of teaching because it is the most effective mechanism at our disposal. But the important thing is how we handle it. For example, while mentoringbased teaching is limited by the time available, it is also very valuable. “I increasingly observe geographic information science emancipating itself from geography and that sometimes leads to raised eyebrows within my home discipline.”

I am married and have three children. One of my children is an IT professional while another one is into financial management. My daughter is studying environmental systems science which is geography in disguise – maybe geography like it should be.

I am keen on exploring the potential of new technologies – which are increasingly not dominated by hardware. As an example, let”s just look at positioning and navigation: GNSS has been around for a long time, only now it is moving towards being a ubiquitous technology, supporting citizens” everyday lives. I had the chance to get involved in IT when it was not a part of geography. I just took the advantage of combining IT with ”spatial”.

I still go for hikes sometimes, but they are very short ones!