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Empowered by GIS Educational Exchange: What TAITAGIS Students and Staff Experienced in Helsinki

Empowered by GIS Educational Exchange: What TAITAGIS Students and Staff Experienced in Helsinki

by Nashon Adero

Suomi: Surprise after Surprise

Finland is Suomi. Locals always know better. “Finland”, the name you are familiar with, is an exonym – just that! To the team from Taita Taveta University, made up of MSc (Geoinformatics) students and staff, it was like Kenya’s former president, Moi, was so popular here. The surprise? That is just a greeting in Finnish, which sounds like the former president’s name. Another surprise: Finland (Suomi, to be original) – for a country of under 6 million people with 78% forest and 20% of the area classified as peatland, punches way above her weight to score first globally in quality education and IT-driven business skills. Unlike the youth bulge experienced in Kenya, Suomi has only 8% of her population in the 18-24 age bracket (National Statistics Office of Finland, 2019).

Rich Itinerary

Over the period October 01 – 12, 2019, the Finnish-Kenyan TAITAGIS Geoinformatics education project hosted all the pioneering MSc (Geoinformatics) students from Taita Taveta University, who participated in the inaugural “TAITASMARTGIS SEMINAR” at the prestigious University of Helsinki. They presented their research topics and networked with Finnish students and researchers. The theme of the seminar was: Environmental sensing and geoinformatics for climate-smart landscape framework development for food security in East Africa. The research projects presented at the seminar and during subsequent exchange meetings addressed locally relevant environmental and socioeconomic problems. The team visited industry and government departments to witness the application of geospatial technologies.

Visits were made to the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority, National Statistics Finland, Helsinki Rescue Department, SYKE (for biodiversity), Forest Research Station, monitoring stations in the peatland areas, dairy farm, a family-owned mechanised farming project, the Meteorology Department, the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI), the National Land Survey of Finland – Finnish Geospatial Research Institute, and several departments of the University of Helsinki.

Irresistible view of the modern public library in the heart of Helsinki, an icon of a reading culture

Regular guided tours of Helsinki also revealed a dominant reading culture promoted by reader-friendly public spaces, particularly the modern public library in the heart of Helsinki not far from Finland House, the latter built of marble. A boat ride treated the team to important lessons on managing inland waterways to promote transport and tourism.

Rich Lessons

Quality research and technology, integrated into government and business processes, was the overarching experience of the team in Finland. The lessons can be categorised into data governance, environmental sustainability, predictive management, and new research frontiers.

Data governance

Data and human capital were observed to be the most costly components of a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) or any GIS system. A sector-specific bottom-up approach to building a national SDI was recommended as a way forward. This is a good lesson for Kenya’s KNSDI initiative. Interoperability came out as a key systemic issue the data governance structure in Finland has been working towards.

” To overcome the limiting friction barring data-driven digital transformation, data revolution requires an equivalent knowledge revolution in deriving shared meaning from data as a strategic asset,” so went one tweet by @hopadero as a take-away from the data governance lessons.

Environmental sustainability

The Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority presented an inspiring vision: To create the world’s most sustainable region. It involves recycling 60% of municipal waste by 2025 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. The land question was also evident, with land governance at the core of extracting shared visual evidence and actionable intelligence from geoinformation based on spatial criteria and factual attributes.

Predictive risk management

Predictive modelling, rooted in algorithms, was demonstrated as a key area of applied research in Finland. Through this approach, early warning systems can predict disasters to inform early mitigation measures. Helsinki Rescue Department was a case in point, with an average response time of six minutes. A three-tier stack is key to this achievement:

  • the strategic management level for long-term perspectives,
  • the tactical management level with tools for planning; and
  • the operational management level with tools for response.

This is a valuable lesson for early warning systems and modern facility and infrastructure management, with a keen focus on critical infrastructure.

Research frontiers

The knowledge- and technology-led development in Finland exposed the following key teaching and research areas worth giving increasing attention at Taita Taveta University and all universities in Kenya, in order to remain at the leading edge of research and development.

  • Data Science and Software Engineering – deploying artificial intelligence algorithms and automation including immersive technologies.
  • Multicriteria Spatial Decision Support Systems – supporting the development of county and inter-county spatial data infrastructures and spatial decision support systems. Effective early warning systems must rely on accurate spatial data for actionable location-based intelligence.
  • Natural Resource Accounting – applying sustainability science and ecological economics to gauge sustainability, using biocapacities and ecological footprints as key metrics.

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