Geospatial technology has been one of the major factors behind UAE”s growth in the last few years but the awareness level is still not enough to take it to the next level
Sensing the opportunity that geospatial technology presents towards national building, empowering industries and realising development goals, UAE has been at the forefront of its adoption and implementation. From construction and infrastructure to utilities, cadastre and land registry to local government, defence to oil and gas, the seven-emirate federation has its users spanning across verticals, making it one of the pioneers in use of geospatial technology in the region.
However, promoters and propagators of the technology in UAE are often faced with the same kind of challenges as their counterparts in other parts of the globe. Apart from the common constraints, the most challenging aspect perhaps is demonstrating the enormous value of this technology to the decision makers. While geospatial technology has been one of the major factors behind UAE”s growth for several years, experts believe that the level of awareness is still not up to a point that can take this growth on to the next level. Thus, it becomes vital that the monetary and non-monetary benefits of geospatial technology be highlighted, so as to provide a catalyst that can accelerate the overall growth and development of this technology.
Most government organisations in the UAE have implemented geospatial technology widely in their functioning and have made huge investments in acquiring the necessary hardware, software, human resources and other required infrastructure. Besides, UAE”s Vision 2021 and vision plans of various emirates in the country mandate implementation of the latest technologies for developmental activities. Huge funds have also been earmarked for towards this, thus giving geospatial industry in UAE a platform to further mature and realise its true potential during the next few years.
G-tech driving UAE economy
Geospatial technology plays a crucial role in the overall functioning of most organisations in UAE and offers various advantages such as reduction in project costs, time saving, increased accuracy and efficiency, improved customer service and safety, and a better quality of life for the citizens. These advantages make it a major force that improves a country”s economy.
“Geospatial technology promotes the economy in a number of ways,” says Neil Gyte, Enterprise Geo Lead – Emerging Markets at Google. “Infrastructure development, planning and sustainability require huge amounts of geospatial inputs. Besides, there is a lot of commerce and trade that passes through UAE, and geospatial technology is used for facilitating movement of goods. It also helps people to research online before they make a decision, such as finding the shortest route between point A and point B. All these things have a substantial impact on the economy.”
Dr Oualid (Walid) Ben Ali, Assistant Professor, Head of MIS Department, relates economic development to the quality of life. “Geospatial technology helps us to save money, save time and save lives. For example, the Abu Dhabi police have extensively implemented GIS in their functioning. In emergency situations, their patrol cars can reach an incident spot in the shortest time, which means saving time and lives. A good economy is where we add quality to the lives of the people and that is exactly what the technology helps us to do,” says Dr Ali, who is also the founder and director of the GIS centre at the University of Sharjah.
Important geo-enabled projects taken up by departments
G-tech in user organisations
According to the book Fundamentals of Spatial Information Systems, “about 80 per cent of all urban decisions made by state and local governments involve a spatial component either directly or implicitly, demanding a process based on geographical data.” This only highlights the importance of geospatial technology and reiterates its role as a major driver for user organisations.
Describing how geospatial technology plays a crucial role in dealing with environmental issues, Anil Kumar, Director, Environment Information Management, Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi, says, “This technology has enabled us to achieve cost efficiency in much of its activities. It has been quite pervasive and allows us to make better decisions.” He points out that his organisation looks at the value of this technology from an overall perspective of providing a clean and safe environment to Abu Dhabi”s current and future generations. “Any damage caused to the environment could have huge cost implications and GIS helps us to take adequate measures to mitigate or minimise the harmful impact on the environment.”
Nader Assad Bin Taher, Asset Performance Department Manager, Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company (ADSSC), is also upbeat about the role of geospatial technology in the overall functioning of his organisation. “This technology is a major driver as it is sustaining the very existence of ADSSC and improving our business reputation immensely. There are several factors such as automation of processes, paperless data storage, improvement in productivity and efficiency that work in this direction.” Admitting that it can sometimes get a bit challenging to implement, Bin Taher says geospatial technology is the future.
Ibrahim Seif, Senior Software Specialist at Etisalat explains how one of the largest telecom companies in the region is using this technology to improve its functioning: “Our applications are helping Etisalat in automating the business process, speeding the planning process and providing critical information for the decision makers to help them in taking wise and effective decisions for network development based on customer information.”
Town planning and municipal authorities are using this technology to the fullest. “Planning department plans various facilities based on demographic information, for example, building mosques in areas with the highest density of Muslim population,” says Adib Al Madani, Head of GIS Data Section at Dubai Municipality. The building department relies on soil information for different types of building permits such as villas, towers or high-rise buildings. Drainage, sewerage and irrigation departments have their complete networks standardised by the GIS department which will help them maintain their pipes and avoid any crisis, he points out.
Hurdles on the road
There are several challenges that hamper the growth of geospatial technology in the country.
Lack of awareness: While UAE has no scarcity of resources, lack of awareness among the users and policy makers often proves to be a big hindrance in getting the right resources at the right time and right place. It is this major issue which gives rise to associated challenges such as lack of trained staff, budget constraints, lack of cooperation and software/hardware issues.
Dr Ali accepts that lack of awareness is the biggest challenge. While geospatial technology has been implemented in various departments across UAE, not everyone is aware of its benefits. “There is no dearth of facilities in the UAE, so awareness is by far the biggest challenge. For geospatial technology to realise its full potential, the need is to create more awareness amongst users, developers and policy makers,” he says.
Lack of trained staff: It is a problem plaguing most user organisations in the UAE. More specialised courses in the field could improve the situation at the grassroots level. “We have a lot of universities in UAE but only a handful have started courses to educate the students about this technology. This has to change. In Canada, US and the European countries, GIS is a part of the curriculum,” says Dr Ali. Nader Bin Taher of the ADSSC feels one of the most important challenges facing his organisation is the internal capacity of the GIS team. “A lot of our staff is coming from non-GIS background, which presents us with the challenge of taking them from a nascent stage to a professional level.”
Agrees Abdulhakim Abdulkarim Malik, Director of the GIS section at Dubai Municipality. “Lack of quality employees is a major challenge. You can find plenty of people who are IT experts but it is extremely difficult to find people who are well versed in GIS.”
Another issue is a majority of GIS people belong to the expatriate community. When these people leave at the end of a project, it creates a void that is sometimes extremely hard to fill. Besides, there is also a problem of migration of trained staff to the private sector for better pay packages.
Data: Data is the fundamental requisite for all kinds of geospatial activity and is another area that concerns the champions of the technology in UAE. While the data available may sometimes be outdated or incomplete, data sharing mechanisms also need to be strengthened a great deal. Besides, the openness of data is another aspect that needs immediate attention.
Google”s Gyte says there is still not enough data that is open and available to the public. Although progress has been made in the last 2-3 years on this front, a lot of it is still kept by the government and it often takes weeks or even months for users to get their hands on data “If you make data available to the people easily, it enables more innovation and openness,” he says.
Budget constraints: Lack of funding has resulted in delays or cancellation of a number of geospatial projects in the recent past. While funds have been hard to come by in some cases owing to the economic downturn, lack of awareness has been the actual reason on most occasions as funds were diverted to other less-important areas. Lack of budget is especially a problem for some of the smaller emirates, and the provision of low-cost data and other resources will help a great deal in consolidating their GIS infrastructure. An important aspect behind arranging the budget required for a GIS project is the support of the decision makers. Therefore, it becomes vital that the top management be educated about the benefits of geospatial technology in numerous areas of economic development, planning, infrastructure, city management etc.
Software: Different departments in the UAE use different kinds of GIS software. This gives rise to the issue of compatibility between various software and the resulting wastage of time, efforts and money. Incompatibility issue also gives rise to the problem of data exchange between various organisations. A third aspect of the challenge is the low level of software penetration at the university level where students can get a hands-on experience even before landing up a job. In a lot of developed countries, geospatial software is provided to educational institutes at low prices but that is missing in UAE.
Lack of cooperation: Noncooperation issue may arise between two organisations or amongst various departments in an organisation and leads to the problem of sharing of data and information. All this results in wastage of time and delays a project.
A study conducted by a private firm a couple of years ago concluded that there is an acute shortage of geospatial professionals in UAE and the government/private sector in the country requires around 800-1,000 GIS experts to bridge this divide. While there is a need to strengthen the skills of existing staff, new geospatial professionals should also be groomed by empowering the education system. Besides, positive government policies in this direction can also help to fill the void.
“There are some good university programmes already in the UAE. The need is to provide education and awareness to the business leaders around the benefits of geospatial technology,” explains Gyte. Capacity building has to be at two levels: at the grassroots level in terms of education in schools and universities; and in terms of making businesses and decision makers aware of the benefits of geospatial data and technology so that there could be more investment in people, skills etc. Besides, the industry should also partner with universities to promote the technology at the basic level. “Companies around the world have internships. It helps students bridge the gap between academic GIS and business GIS and turns them into real professionals,” adds Gyte.
Most educational institutes do not have the necessary funding to acquire the infrastructure required for imparting quality GIS education and help the students in the form of scholarships. Funding from private companies in the form of free software and on-the-job training opportunities for students can help tackle this challenge and thus create real geospatial professionals.
“We need the geospatial community to collaborate with the universities,” says Dr Ali. “This way, while we prepare future geospatial professionals, the industry can support us in the form of hardware, software, data and organising events and seminars related to geospatial technology.” Having free software licences for the universities will not only be good marketing for the companies but will also help the students in familiarising themselves with the latest technology. “While the government is supporting us by providing the required data, it is impossible to teach GIS without software and hardware,” adds Dr Ali.
While there is little support in terms of capacity building from the private sector, the government is doing its bit in the form of creating favourable policies and organising training sessions. The UAE government”s Emiratisation Scheme encourages local people to take up key positions and also rewards departments with the highest number of Emiratis. For example, 99 per cent of employees in the GIS department at ADSSC are UAE nationals.
Highlighting the government”s favourable policies for the promotion of geospatial technology, Dr Ali says, “Last year, the Abu Dhabi government asked a private company to organise a free training seminar for the locals. Another initiative is to send the locals abroad for GIS training. The government spends a lot of money for training people.” However, a policy to push software providers to provide free software licences to universities and schools would do a world of good for the overall growth and development of the technology in the region.
The way forward
While there are a lot of problems facing the growth of geospatial technology in UAE, most of those challenges can be met by implementing simple strategies. Commercial geospatial companies can contribute to the promotion of the technology by conducting joint research projects with schools, higher education institutes and government departments.
Gyte lists access to data, lack of awareness at the executive level and Internet connectivity in terms of data speeds as some of the major obstacles facing the growth of geospatial technology in UAE. “A major step forward towards overcoming these challenges would be to allow more commercial data providers to cooperate in the region. Most of the western countries have commercial data providers and products can be built on top of that data collection. This is still limited in this part of the world,” he says.
Nader Bin Taher explains how ADSSC countered the challenge of shortage of trained personnel. “We started an internal education system and also organised special training sessions with official training providers. We also send our employees to exhibitions and conferences where they can learn about the latest technology. However, the best approach is to put them through actual projects.”
Abdulhakim Abdukarim Malik shares his experience on how Dubai Municipality tackled the issue of budget constraints and non-cooperation. “We divided a particular project in many phases instead of doing it at one go. We have also decided to cancel or put on hold projects that were not critical. On non-cooperation issues, we approached higher authorities.”
Anil Kumar of Abu Dhabi Environment Agency is of the opinion that the technology has to be simplified in order to ensure its penetration to the basic level. “GIS is a technology for the specialists as you need to have a certain level of expertise to be able to operate GIS applications. It needs to be simplified like what Google Maps has done by bringing GIS to the layman.” He says the lack of advanced data visualisation capability also needs to be looked into. Another major drawback is the ability to handle real-time data — most of the GIS software currently available is unable to manage data from real-time monitoring networks.
Although spatial technology in UAE is at a fairly advanced stage, it is still a fair way short of realising its true potential. Lack of awareness is a key challenge and even government organisations that have implemented the technology in every part of functioning are not using it in the most optimal way with the latest technologies and standards. Another aspect that needs attention is the spread of the technology, which is uneven across the country. While Dubai and Abu Dhabi are operating at an advanced stage, some of the other emirates are lagging behind and need to act fast to catch up. However, the challenges facing the growth of geospatial technology in UAE are in no way impenetrable and can be overcome by private sector cooperation and implementation of favourable policies by the government. Strong cooperation and coordination is required between government organisations because everyone has different types of data, which should be exchanged between all the departments.
“Awareness is critical for both users and policy makers, and we are still way behind in comparison to cities like Singapore and Taiwan and need a lot of hard work to reach there,” signs off Abdulhakim Abdukarim Malik.