by Nashon Adero
Happy Ney Year 2020! The dawn of the new decade, known as the decade of delivery, should be intriguing to the Geomatics community. Looking for a fascinating area of study or research to venture into over this period? Geomatics should top your list, and overlooking it can only go against your better judgement. Read on to discover why.
Demystifying space and time
Ever described a dream as distant, a claim as far-fetched, or a judgement as sloping? Life is full of such spatial metaphors. Daily, we perceive and interpret distance and direction in our physical and mental worlds. A 2014 Nobel prize recognised the key finding that the brain has grid cells and place cells, an “inner GPS” which maps out space by encoding coordinates to guide memory and navigation.
The concept of space and time, from which we derive the term “spatial” and “temporal” respectively, together form the fundamental space-time or “spatio-temporal” philosophy for abstracting, organising, perceiving, and interpreting the world. The science of positioning and navigation has inspired key developments in traditional and emerging subjects such as land surveying, space geodesy, hydrographic surveying, geoinformatics, cartography, photogrammetry, geospatial or geographic information science/systems (GIS), cognitive neuroscience, computational neuroscience, among others. Geomatics is the interdisciplinary field whose wide umbrella encompasses these Earth-related and geometrical specialties. It utilises data-driven knowledge and applied research to support development decisions and monitor location-based outcomes. Geomatics experts tackle the capture, processing, analysis, management, modelling, visualisation, and dissemination of spatial data and information for decision support.
Behold the amazing world of applied spatial sciences and data-driven digital revolution. But we have only just begun as the world comes to terms with the novel deployment of spatial technologies to advantage in security and warfare intelligence, smart transportation, smart mining, business intelligence, precision agriculture, among others.
The critical decade and the spatial data challenge
This is the dawn of the Decade of Delivery: 2020 – 2030. It is pregnant with unprecedented expectations and promises for achieving the United Nations 2030 Agenda. For Kenya, this is the prime time for fast-tracking Vision 2030 goals. The African Union must also fast-track key goals for the decade, among them the Africa Mining Vision.
Monitoring progress on the goals requires quality data. About 80% of the data needed for decision making in the public sector is spatial (linked to a definite location in space). Data, however, is just the raw material for decision making. Today’s data-driven revolution involves increasing digitalisation and cloud-based sharing platforms.
There is a growing interest in data-related disciplines such as Geomatics, Data Science, Data Engineering, among others. The emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) summons an equivalent knowledge revolution to reap optimal benefits of the megatrends of the decade: Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), automation and robotics, 5G, blockchain, immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR), among others.
Surveying and mapping history
The evolving application of maps has been key to all civilisations. Notably, the discovery in London of the cause of cholera in 1854 was a triumph of mapping techniques. Surveying traces a charming arc originating from the Egyptian pyramids in 2700 BC, weaving its way through the Roman empire as the first civilisation to employ an official land surveyor, extending to empowering advances in geometry in Greece around 120 BC, gaining popularity on the back of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was very enthusiastic about accurate land surveying and precise maps, and getting transformed by the Industrial Revolution and accompanying demand for accurate setting out of public works. The present climax includes the modern-day sensors and computing technologies, a digital revolution that can handle vast databases of geographically referenced data. Geomatics is the interdisciplinary expertise required to manage and extract optimal value from such resourceful spatial data and information.
Recent advances in terrestrial, marine, airborne and spaceborne technologies for positioning, navigation, and Earth observation have influenced unprecedented growth in spatial data, essentially contributing to the “big data” revolution. Ready examples are found in modern laser scanners, radar, drones, mini satellites, and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) including GPS.
Kenya has recently taken on a worthy challenge – popularising Geomatics through enhanced visibility in educational programmes, applied research, and public-facing projects. Since 2017, the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) has been hosting an annual international conference series focused on Geomatics, in Nairobi. The new Digital Earth Africa programme is also an undertaking in Geomatics with key prospects for Africa.
So, what is Geomatics? Geomatics combines traditional and modern aspects of surveying and mapping including airborne and spaceborne technologies, essentially using location-based data (spatial data) to deliver accurate and precise metrics which are critical to demarcating land and property boundaries for registering ownership rights (cadastral surveys); land administration; land use planning; engineering and construction projects; positioning and navigation on, below or above land and water; and providing actionable location-based intelligence in aid of planning, management and monitoring assignments for business, public and civil society sectors. In an era when decision support increasingly demands big data and reliable real-world information, these application areas are gaining currency and prominence.
Geomatics has evolved over the decades. In 1975, Bernard Dubuisson published the scientific term Geomatique (French), later popularised in Canada over the period 1981-1982 as Geomatics (English translation) by Michel Paradis, a surveyor. Later, Geomatics got adopted as a degree course by engineering faculties in Australia and the United Kingdom and has since evolved to be an attractive interdisciplinary field. It is nowadays common to find Geomatics (Engineering) or its variants in Geospatial Engineering and space technologies among well-established university programmes in Kenya and globally.
Geomatics education for improved local and international outcomes
To extract optimal value from the spatial data revolution for informed decisions, human capital, modern computer-based systems, and good governance are key. Likening data to the blood, then digital technologies would be the nervous system, human capital the brain, and good governance the oxygen. This compelling analogy challenges Kenya to put up robust measures to ensure quality education and training in Geomatics and overhaul systems to reap optimally from the Digital Transformation. The curriculum should nurture competencies in spatial intelligence right from primary school. Proportionate government support for skills development in Geomatics should also recognise that the dominant demographic of young Kenyans should join Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions.
Multilateral training collaborations are becoming common in postgraduate training. Master of Science courses in GIS for Environmental Monitoring or Geomatics for Mineral Resource Management, for example, attract a growing number in graduate studies and applied research. Such degrees are already being offered under partnerships between Taita Taveta University (Kenya) and the University of Helsinki (Finland), and between Freiberg University of Mining and Technology (Germany) and MU Leoben (Austria), IST Lisboa (Portugal), Wroclaw University of Technology (Poland) and Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands).
Why spatial data? Why Geomatics?
Decision support in this era increasingly demands spatial data and reliable real-world information. There are numerous key result areas that require the application of Geomatics.
Interrogating spatial injustice using visual-spatial intelligence
Overlooking debate over which dataset should be public or private good, spatial data should be managed as a strategic asset. Linking data to geography aids in objectively interrogating the equity of development outcomes and justice in structured socioeconomic transitions across regions. Shared visual evidence supports active citizen participation in decision-making processes – both formally and informally.
Precise and actionable location-based intelligence supports fair, transparent, and equitable public policy decisions. Skewed development outcomes remain hidden in summary statistics until they are mapped out to visually show their spatial spread – hence revealing the elusive occurrence of what we refer to here as “spatial injustice”. Imagine reporting that the overall access to quality health services by citizens is 30%. This figure reveals little information on the equity of access until we can visualise the geographical spread of the beneficiaries, who may all just as well be concentrated in one zone only. Geomatics effectively addresses issues of public service delivery and spatial justice through shared visual evidence, referenced to the real world and mapped to scale.
Surveying and mapping to accelerate organised spatial development
Land is at the core of sustainable development, and so is organised land development. Land markets are highly responsive to land management and administration. No development ever takes place without a traceable stamp of “where” and “when” it happens. This fact affirms the supreme importance of accurate spatio-temporal surveying and mapping frameworks. Aha! Kenyans can understand why all counties need a centre for spatial data management, specified as county GIS Labs in the legislation. These basic insights reinforce the position of land reforms as a key foundation for Kenya’s socio-economic transformation.
Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) is needed to facilitate the access, sharing, and dissemination of the spatial data necessary to support complex, evolving, and multistakeholder development decisions across space over time. For accelerated development, Kenya needs actionable location-based intelligence to help optimise urban planning, transport and logistics, business intelligence, and digital sharing platforms as a service to activate vibrancy and efficiencies in the SME value chain. Mapping out and monitoring public service levels is a key responsibility of governments for which spatial data remains a decisive resource.
Strategic natural resource governance
Spatial metrics inform the resource governance imperatives of sustainable development and natural resource management, including strategic mineral wealth. Mining was integrated into Kenya’s Vision 2030 priority economic sectors in 2013, targeting at least 10% contribution to GDP, up from a paltry 1%.
Enhancing mining plans and monitoring social and environmental impact at community-wide scales require Geomatics. An accurate digital mining cadastre is critical to administering mining rights. Mine surveying, satellite-based positioning and image processing technologies, and GIS-based models are central here. Progressive regulations should promote site surveys and compliance monitoring using drones, which are already impactful in the mining sectors of other countries.
The blue economy, an emerging frontier, requires quality marine spatial metrics to thrive, hence Geomatics. The applications extend to precise monitoring of key environmental indicators such as forest cover, the spread of invasive species, and critical land-use changes.
Predictive risk management
Thanks to utilising spatial data, Helsinki City Rescue Department has reported an impressive average response time of six minutes. How is it at home? Disaster risk-mitigation is a data-intensive undertaking, mainly dependent on spatial data for geomonitoring.
Common disasters in Kenya such as floods, landslides, failing structures such as buildings and dams, and various geohazards can be monitored and simulated using a variety of spatial data captured by conventional ground surveys as well as remote sensors aboard satellites, aircraft, drones or similar unmanned aerial vehicles. Computer-based algorithms use such spatial data to model and simulate hazard levels. Geomatics is, therefore, key to moving away from the tradition of reactionary risk management to predictive risk management. Predictive security intelligence is one such interesting application area.