SUN Course Participants Use Technology to Map and Share Valuable Environmental Data

Representatives of organizations as diverse as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Asia Foundation, WWF Azerbaijan, and the municipality of St. Petersburg, Russia came together at CEU last week to explore how information and communication technologies can enable them to improve water management and security practices. The CEU Summer University (SUN) course, the first ever event held in CEU’s new smart classroom, was led by Viktor Lagutov, head of the Systems Laboratory (SysLab) at CEU’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy (ENVS), and received support from many organizations including geospatial software company Esri, which generously donated tens of thousands of euros’ worth of ArcGIS software licenses for use in this course and by CEU students and faculty in the future.

“The purpose is not to train decision- and policymakers but to show the opportunities, the potential that technology offers,” Lagutov said about the course, titled "Bridging Information & Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the Environment: Making Information Talk and Technologies Work." “This workshop focuses on water management issues in Europe, and the next one in Jordan will focus on West Asia as we develop and test a toolkit on ICTs application in water management for the ISEPEI Project.”

The course is a part of the ISEPEI Project at CEU and serves as preparation for the Eye on Earth Summit 2015, which is devoted to enabling access to environmental and societal data for global leaders, decision-makers, and all those who need it.

The ISEPEI Project is supported by the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) through the Eye on Environmental Education Special Initiative, one of eight initiatives that were announced at the inaugural Eye on Earth Summit in 2011.

Several initiatives developed under the auspices of the Summit contribute to the course: UNEP's Global Universities Partnership for Environment and Sustainability/GUPES, of which CEU is a member, and case studies from three additional Eye on Earth Special Initiatives: Access for All, Disaster Management, and Water Security.

The main idea of the Project is to establish a university-based platform for bringing together ICT-developers and environmental practitioners in the classroom to facilitate life-long learning and executive education.Various professional bodies both in ICT development and water management have already contributed to the project and have expressed their interest in cooperation, including: Google, Esri, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), among others.

The established partnerships and agreements for continued collaboration will boost CEU’s research and teaching activities. The rapidly growing interest in geospatial technologies within the CEU academic community promoted by the Spatial Mapping and Analysis Research Group/SMARG and SysLab will be met through the continued development of CEU’s technological capacity. Agreements have already been made between SysLab and various specialized organizations to run joint courses for CEU departments. The technologies under consideration can be easily applied to other areas of CEU research and teaching, for example mapping geographic information, online data sharing, and distance learning in the public policy, sociology, history, economics, international relations departments. Researchers and students will benefit greatly from increasing CEU exposure to modern technologies.

Among other sessions, a day-long Google workshop on July 8, given by Google Geospatial Technologist Ed Parsons, showed participants the possibilities enabled by Google Maps Engine.

Google's Ed Parsons demonstrates mapping technology in CEU's new smart classroom. Image credit: CEU

“Google is keen on developing tools to allow people to publish the information they have,” according to Parsons, “By the end of the day, these people will be able to publish mapped data, giving access to 10 million people. The key is that they understand how easy it is to get their data published.”

In one exercise, Parsons and students used a 70-inch interactive whiteboard to trace a lake in Kent, U.K., and calculate its area using Google tools. The whiteboard automatically projects onto a larger screen above it for maximum visibility across the classroom, and can be synchronized with individual devices in use in the room, such as laptops and tablets. There are two other flat screens in the room, which can be synchronized or used separately for group work. As part of its commitment to maximizing the teaching, learning, and remote access benefits of new technologies, CEU plans to complete installation of a new advanced videoconference system in a dedicated classroom during the summer.

In another day-long workshop, Dean Djokic, a water resources Expert at Esri, a leading global geospatial software company based in Redlands, California, used real data collected from participants to illustrate how GIS can be used to model, calculate, and analyze data crucial for water management activities. As a result of Esri’s generous contribution to CEU, current and future students will be able to use Esri’s ArcGIS software products for their own research.

Larissa Owen of AGEDI (Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative) speaks at a CEU Summer University course. Image credit: CEU

Though the latest technological developments have made vast amounts of environmental data available and affordable, utilizing their great potential is hindered by a number of factors. Some of the major obstacles are traditional prejudices and fears of technology among practitioners and researchers. The course aimed to address these and give participants the tools to show their organizations and communities the value of using ICTs and of sharing data.

As a case study, Irina Makarenko of the Black Sea Commission’s Permanent Secretariat outlined multilateral regional initiatives in environmental data gathering and management, plus monitoring and assessment tools. She also outlined challenges such as variations among countries in reporting and data flows, and differences in the sets of indicators used to assess the state of marine environment on national and regional levels.

Annukka Lipponen of the UNECE’s Secretariat of Water Convention spoke about the importance of bilateral and common agreements on targets and use of water indicators.

“Water is a sensitive issue on a transboundary level,” Lipponen said. “We need to illustrate the value of consistent data and up-to-date information for the management of water resources. There is enormous value in this information.”

UNOOSA's Lorant Czaran introduced the capacity building activities of the Office, as well as its mandated Programmes on Space Applications and on Space Technologies for Disaster Management. Examples on how space technologies – and in particular Earth Observation (EO) data – can be used for various environmental monitoring and natural resource management applications, including water management.

Many other presenters spoke during the event including CEU’s Academic Cooperation and Research Support Office Director Zsuzsanna Gabor, who discussed both European and global funding opportunities for ICT-related environmental projects. This lead to agreements among participants to develop joint research proposals.

There are plans to run regular ICT trainings for policymakers and decision-makers at CEU, based on this initial course. Under the auspices of GUPES, a flagship program of UNEP, the ISEPEI project will be showcased at the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, which takes place in Nagoya, Japan in November 2014, to mark the end of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-14, and the launch of a Global Action Plan on Education for Sustainable Development.