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New higher education staff member brings geomatics engineering insights

Engineers (stereotypically) like to fix things. Geomatics engineers, like Shahram Sattar, the newest member of the higher education team, like to use geospatial data to help fix the world.

My first teaching assistant position was for a first-year engineering communications course. It was a common course for all engineering students at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and faculty members from each of the departments had the opportunity to talk about their discipline. Most students were familiar with chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering, but geodesy and geomatics engineering was something unfamiliar. It is more varied than traditional engineering disciplines, encompassing aspects of surveying and remote sensing, computer and data science, cartography, geography, and many other fields.

Although there are a number of geomatics and GIS programs in Canada, there are only a few universities offering geomatics engineering: UNB, University of Calgary and Université Laval. I was therefore pleased when it turned out that the newest member of the Education & Research team, Shahram Sattar, was a fellow geomatics engineer. But with a twist: Shahram’s graduate degrees are in the geomatics engineering “field of study”  under civil engineering at Toronto Metropolitan University. I thought that might put him in a good position to explain what geomatics engineering is and what role GIS can have in engineering.

How would you define geomatics engineering, and how does GIS fit in?

Geomatics engineering is a discipline in which technology reveals the complexities of the Earth's landscape. This profession is concerned with measuring, evaluating, and depicting the physical features and urban areas of our planet. At its core is a method for measuring and comprehending spatial data, which is then transformed into actionable insights using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a vital tool in the geomatics engineer's arsenal. GIS bridges the gap between virtual and real-world data, revealing hidden patterns, correlations, and trends that drive decisions in a variety of disciplines. Consider using GIS to improve city layouts for efficiency and sustainability, following natural landscape changes via satellite imaging for conservation, and incorporating it into navigation systems.

Geomatics engineers have a profound impact that transcends technology, directly shaping urban dynamics and community evolution. Envision GIS orchestrating the seamless management of real-time urban data – encompassing traffic, electricity, waste – thereby elevating city life in a sustainable, efficient manner. These experts take on the pressing housing crisis by incorporating land surveying expertise, identifying potential sites for future developments that serve as the foundation for vibrant communities. Their influence extends further, encompassing drone applications that gather crucial aerial data to serve diverse objectives and autonomous vehicles, where their precision in providing accurate spatial data ensures secure navigation. This multidimensional role underscores the pivotal position of geomatics engineering in shaping effective, smart urban development and management and offering transformative solutions for a smarter and more sustainable future.

What role does GIS have in civil engineering?

From my viewpoint, I see an opportunity for civil engineering to benefit immensely from GIS applications. Civil engineers are tasked with designing and constructing a sustainable environment for human habitation and development. GIS, with its spatial analysis capabilities, can provide invaluable support in this endeavor. For example, using GIS technology, civil engineers can optimize the layout of roads, bridges, and utility networks, taking into account factors such as traffic flow, environmental impact, and accessibility. GIS can also play a vital role in floodplain mapping and risk assessment. By incorporating GIS data on topography, land cover, and historical flood records, civil engineers can plan for and mitigate the impact of potential flooding events to protect communities and infrastructure from the impacts of floods.

The scene on the left shows an underground utility network from below. The ground surface is semi-transparent, allowing the network to be seen in relation to above ground features such as buildings. The scene on the right shows a detailed 3D representation of buildings from above.

GIS can be used to visualize underground utility networks (left) as well as model buildings in 3D (right). Screenshots captured from TMU smart campus project website.

Incorporating GIS into civil engineering projects also enables better collaboration and data sharing among different stakeholders. By centralizing geospatial data in a GIS database, various teams involved in a project can access and analyze the same information, leading to improved communication and streamlined decision-making processes. Ultimately, GIS empowers civil engineers to create a world where sustainable development and human well-being are at the forefront. As a geomatics engineering professional, I am enthusiastic about the potential of GIS to contribute significantly to civil engineering and various other fields, fostering innovation and sustainable development for the betterment of society.

What aspects of your past research or work experience do you think will be of greatest benefit in your role as a higher education developer?

My knowledge of GIS and geomatics engineering has honed my skills in spatial data analysis, geospatial technology, and cartography. This expertise proves invaluable in higher education, as GIS is widely used in fields such as environmental studies, urban planning, and transportation planning. By incorporating geospatial concepts into various courses, I can enhance students' understanding of real-world applications and encourage them to think spatially. This approach fosters spatial literacy, a vital skill in today's data-driven world.

In addition, my expertise in geospatial analysis, modeling, and visualization can significantly contribute to engineering research projects. By applying geomatics engineering principles, we can uncover new insights and support impactful research within the institution.

You’ve taught at George Brown College and Toronto Metropolitan University. Based on your experience, what would you say are the differences between how GIS is taught in college and in university?

In college settings, GIS courses are often more focused on practical applications and hands-on learning. These courses aim to equip students with foundational GIS skills and basic knowledge of geospatial concepts. The emphasis is on building proficiency in GIS software tools and techniques, such as data collection, manipulation, and basic spatial analysis. Additionally, college GIS programs may tailor their content to specific industries or career paths, such as civil engineering, urban planning, environmental studies, or geomatics engineering. As a result, the focus may be on applications of GIS in these specific domains.

GIS courses in university settings tend to be more comprehensive and theoretically grounded, with the emphasis shifting towards research and critical thinking. These courses dive deeper into geospatial theory, data modeling, spatial statistics, and advanced analytical techniques. Students are exposed to a broader range of GIS applications across various disciplines, including many engineering disciplines, geography, geology, ecology, sociology, and more. Conversely, university GIS programs often offer specialized tracks or concentrations within the broader GIS curriculum. Students may have the opportunity to focus on areas such as GIS programming, remote sensing, spatial data science, or GIS for environmental modeling. They are encouraged to conduct independent research using GIS as a tool to address complex spatial problems and explore innovative solutions and may have opportunities to work with faculty on cutting-edge research.

What are you most looking forward to working on (or with, in the case of software)?

I am thrilled about the prospect of working on ArcGIS Enterprise software, which is becoming an increasingly popular choice for research projects and academic initiatives. ArcGIS Enterprise enables academic institutions to generate, manage, analyze, and disseminate geospatial data and insights in a controlled and secure setting. It is a powerful asset for instructors, researchers, and students alike in higher education. It excels at promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, reinforcing research projects that necessitate rigorous geospatial data analysis, and elevating learning experiences through hands-on involvement with real-world geospatial scenarios.

The attractiveness of ArcGIS Enterprise resides not only in its scalability and versatility, but also in its strict privacy and data sovereignty policies. For university researchers, protecting sensitive data and adhering to privacy requirements are top priorities. Institutions can have control over their geographic data using ArcGIS Enterprise, whether on-premises or in the cloud, allowing them to maintain data sovereignty while complying to stringent security regulations. This degree of certainty resonates strongly with the university research community, providing a solid platform for large-scale creative projects and activities.

Your first day with Esri Canada coincided with the GIS in Education and Research Conference. You didn’t have any responsibilities as a staff member but did present a paper. What are your thoughts on the conference, from a participant’s perspective? Is there anything that you’d like to be involved in, from a staff perspective, at the next conference?

From a participant's perspective, the conference was a highly engaging and valuable event. The conference offers an excellent opportunity to connect with experts, researchers, and professionals in the field of geomatics engineering, GIS development, and higher education and to learn about the latest advancements in GIS and engineering applications. The diverse range of sessions, workshops, and presentations covered a wide array of topics, catering to various interests and expertise levels and offering in-depth insights into diverse topics, such as environmental studies, urban planning, transportation, and more. By attending these sessions, researchers gain practical knowledge and skills that they can directly apply to their research projects, making their work more efficient and impactful.

User interface for the Smart Campus Integrated Platform (TMU Campus) app. A 3D model of the area around TMU campus is displayed on the right with tools to select the weather and lighting conditions for the scene and turn ground transparency on or off.

Shahram’s presentation at the conference focused on the development of an app as part of the smart campus project at Toronto Metropolitan University.

I'm eager to contribute as a workshop facilitator at future conferences, with a focus on utilizing ArcGIS Enterprise for education and research and exploring the crossroads of GIS within Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC).

Stay tuned for my upcoming blog post, where I'll dive into the transformative potential of utilizing ArcGIS Enterprise in education and research. It's an opportunity you won't want to miss!

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins