‘Users, industry and academia must come together for geospatial capacity building’

‘Users, industry and academia must come together for geospatial capacity building’

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Oualid Ben Ali, University of Sharjah, UAE
Oualid Ben Ali
Founder and Director of GIS Center, University of Sharjah

Lack of capacity has always been a major challenge that has hindered the application and growth of geospatial technology and that is where the academia can play an important part. Dr. Oualid Ali talks about the role of GIS Center in this direction, some of the ongoing projects at the Center and lots more…

Tell us about the GIS Center at University of Sharjah and its activities. What are your particular areas of interest and research?

Geospatial technology and applications are an extremely important component for the smooth functioning of various organisations. However, the successful application of these technologies requires trained human resources. We, at the University of Sharjah, realised this fact and wanted to ensure the adequate availability of training and research facilities in the field of geospatial technology by creating the GIS Center. Started in 2011, it is the only centre of its kind in the Northern Emirates, which is tasked with teaching students about geospatial technology, holding training sessions, providing consultancy and research work etc. Since GIS is a multi-disciplinary field, the Center benefits all the colleges in the University as well as the outside community.

Although we do not have a specialised program in GIS yet, but we are working on developing a Masters program and a specialised diploma, which would be implemented soon. At present, we offer a few introductory courses and training programs to the students to give them a brief idea about GIS and geospatial technology, its benefits; and the various fields that the technology can be used in. Apart from the Center’s internal activities, we also undertake research projects for stakeholders outside the University such as Municipalities, Police Departments, etc.

As the founder and director of the GIS centre as the University of Sharjah, my research focuses on all aspects of GIS and geospatial technology including its application in various fields. I am also focusing on how to use GIS on the cloud, mobile GIS and how to develop applications. Prior to this, I was focussing on the application of geospatial technology in particular areas like transportation, health and security etc. These days, I am also doing extensive research on Geospatial Simulation and trying to understand how artificial intelligence and GIS can be combined in order to develop geospatial applications. Nowadays, I am also involved in some research focusing on Big Data in Geospatial.

Are there any major projects in progress right now that you would like to tell us about?

There are a number of projects currently underway in our research centre. However, we have two big sponsored projects from Abu Dhabi Police department that are particularly significant. One of these projects is about police patrol car allocation and the other is about fog warning system.

The Real Time Patrol Car Allocation System project will help the Abu Dhabi Police department to locate and allocate their patrol cars in a better and more organised way. If an incident takes place at a particular location, then the system algorithm will calculate the nearest patrol car that can reach the incident spot in the shortest possible time while taking into account different factors like the route, traffic condition etc. Subsequently, the information will be sent to the patrol car operator, who would dispatch the patrol car in order to manage the incident. The project will cut down human involvement in the dispatching system by nearly eighty percent and thus increase the speed and accuracy significantly.

Fog Warning System is a mobile application, which the drivers can download in their mobile device. Once the driver enters a fog zone, the systems will automatically send a warning message and also suggest an alternate route to help the drivers avoid traffic and reach their destinations in less time. As a part of this system, a number of fog warning devices will be installed on the streets of Abu Dhabi, which will update the system with the location of fog.

Lack of capacity is one of the biggest challenges facing geospatial user organisations in the Middle East. What is being done to ensure capacity building in the UAE and what is the role of the GIS Center in the same?

Generally in the Middle East, organisations which require geospatial professionals have to source them from outside, which is also known as outsourcing. Another solution is to bring people with IT background and train them in GIS and geospatial technology. However, the best solution to tackle this issue is to start training and learning at the high school and university levels in order to build capacity from the very beginning. Once we start teaching GIS and geospatial technology at the school and college level, we will make sure that once the students complete their bachelors or masters degree, they have all the required skills about geospatial technology and are ready to work in the market. Since GIS sometimes contains very sensitive data, it is not a very good idea to outsource these jobs. Training people with IT background is a good idea, but it would not be as good as teaching from the beginning.

Although there are some programs being offered in the UAE, but we still need a lot more awareness about GIS. So, the first step is to make people aware about this technology and its benefits, and then to convince the decision makers in the universities and schools. We, at the University of Sharjah, have started this initiative to make people aware about this technology and the next move is to develop a Masters programme in GIS, which would ensure the creation of capacity in this field.

What are the kind of research facilities available in the field of GIS in UAE and Middle East? Is there enough awareness and interest in the students related to this technology?

Very few universities in the Middle East offer education and research facilities in the field of geospatial technology. In the UAE, only UAE University and Sharjah University are offering such facilities, which is not enough to build adequate capacity in the field. A major reason for the same is the lack of awareness. While some organisations have the manpower, but it is mainly because of hiring skilled people from abroad. What we should aim at is to train local people in order to build a generation of professionals for the future. At present, the awareness in students is lacking a bit but we are trying to educate them through our various initiatives. Most of the students are users; they have maps in their mobile phones but they do not know that they can use this technology to produce great software.

What are the initiatives from the government organisations and industry in the area of capacity building?

Several government organisations in the UAE, such as the municipalities and the police departments, are supporting universities and research centres, because they are prolific users of geospatial technology. However, there aren’t too many private organisations coming forward to help in this direction. The role of the industry is very important to build geospatial capacity. While the university will prepare students for the industry, the industry needs to support the university and provide the students with practical training and knowledge. The university also requires direction from the community in order to understand their requirements and prepare the students accordingly. Apart from that, financial support is also required to prepare good quality students who will be ready to work in the industry.

What are your views on the maturity level of geospatial technology in the region? What is the way forward?

Nowadays, numerous organisations in the region are benefiting from the application of geospatial technology. In UAE, Abu Dhabi is a bit ahead as compared to other emirates, but others are following close behind. However, if we compare this to international standards, we still have a long way to go in order to realise the true potential of this technology. In UAE, the technology is being used only in few areas like security and transportation, whereas it can also be used in numerous other fields.

We have to promote the benefits of this technology through seminars and conferences and also take these programs to schools and universities, so that the decision makers realise its true importance. And then when people see the opportunity, they will adopt it and invest in it. Geospatial technology is certainly the present and the future.