Geomatics helps us to understand, model and visualise the world with location-based intelligence
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. These geo-experts execute the accurate and precise surveys and mapping required to provide the metrics essential to demarcating boundaries to administer land and property rights as well as informing the planning, design, construction, management and monitoring of engineering infrastructure and public facilities such as roads, ports, airports, tunnels, buildings, dams, mining environments, irrigation and drainage structures, electricity supply lines, and the like.
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
The dawn of the 2020–2030 “decade of delivery” heralds the prime time to fast-track the SDGs. 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 geographical location). Data, however, is just the raw material for decision making. Today’s data-driven revolution involves increasing digitalisation and cloud-based sharing platforms.
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. For decades, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) has not disappointed in supporting Geomatics education through training and software development, African universities being notable beneficiaries.
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 Africa 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 Africans 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)
Nashon, a geospatial expert, lecturer and trained policy analyst applies dynamic models to complex adaptive systems. He is a youth mentor on career development and the founder of Impact Borderless Digital.