Hear the term – geospatial information technology – and at first blush you’ll think of it as an obscure field. However, if you’ve ever used Bing Maps, Google Earth or any other navigation system before, then you’re more familiar with the concept than you think. These applications are in fact all examples of geospatial data systems upon which many of us are so dependent in our 21st century lives.
The field is a broad one and transcends the standard geospatial information products we all know. Airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology and 3D point cloud systems, for example, are not sought after by your everyday consumer. The former measures the distance to, and between, objects, and the latter maps the contours of surfaces in 3D. And they do so with astounding precision.
What relevance does the most cutting-edge geospatial technology have for Tunisia as it seeks to revitalize industry and infrastructure throughout the country?
At the first ever Geospatial Conference in Tunisia (GCT), held from February 9th to 10th, the consensus was loud and clear: Tunisia must revamp its cartography with the latest geospatial innovations if it wants to develop efficient industries and infrastructure projects across the country.
Let’s say you want to build a factory. Before you settle on a location, you have to ask yourself many questions. How close are existing transportation routes to the site? Where is the nearest city, water supply, electrical grid or raw material deposit? What is the nature of the weather patterns and topography of the site and its environs?
These questions can be accurately answered by the latest geospatial information technologies and “[save] the people of a country millions of hours of searching for locations, lost time and gasoline wasted,” affirmed Stefan Oeldenberger, managing director of 3G, in his welcome address at the conference.
In Tunisia’s case, these pressing questions are pertinent to a promising industry. The country’s budding solar energy industry will likely take root in the remote, Saharan reaches of the country. The deeper in the Sahara that solar plants are built, the greater the radiation that can be captured and then converted into clean electricity. Yet, in order to ensure the operational success of renewable energy plants in these far-off regions, “there must be a compromise between remoteness and resources,” cautioned Oeldenberger in conversation after his address.
The southern interior of Tunisia has historically been marginalized, with roads in poor condition, and no other major means of transport available. While all major Tunisian political parties have made development of the interior a talking point, no development may be possible without reliable geospatial data.
“Cartographic data for the most underdeveloped regions are not updated – almost 70 years old. To develop these regions, we must first update the data,” said Mahdi Chakroun, manager of the Tunisian Association of Expert Surveyors, during a conversation at the conference’s business-to-business (B2B) area.
But before such data can be gathered and the potential benefits reaped, Tunisia must first face a ghost from the country’s repressive past. According to Oeldenberger, “restrictive data handling,” restriction of cartographic information, in Tunisia remains a major challenge to the deployment of geospatial technologies.
It remains legally unclear, for example, whether or not aerial surveying by non-government agencies is permissible in Tunisia, and no clear judicial framework concerning geospatial data acquisition exists. Previously, said Oeldenberger, such data could only be accessed by the military, something which may have put Tunisia twenty or thirty years behind the curve. According to Oeldenberger, US and European information laws could serve as a model if Tunisia wishes to reform.
The Geospatial Conference in Tunisia began yesterday and boasted a full agenda of presentations from leading companies and academics in the industry. It was organized by the German Chamber of Commerce (AHK) and the German GeoConsultants Group (3G) – a consortium of associated companies that provide geospatial consulting and services in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. In conjunction with the GCT’s series of lectures, a B2B area was prepared so that participating companies could exchange information and network with one another.
From a conversation at the B2B area with Björn Rittershausen, managing director of ASTEC – a German-based company that describes itself as a provider of “photogrammetry and LIDAR products,” one could grasp some of the reasons that compel some geospatial companies to visit Tunisia.
“The European market is consolidating at the moment, and prices are under pressure as well. Therefore, aerial photo-surveying companies take the chance seriously to look close to Europe for opportunities in emerging markets,” said Rittershausen.
From the very start of the GCT, its organizers were sure to emphasize the connection between geospatial information technology and economic growth. “Geospatial data is a catalyst and a necessary management tool to design, build and maintain a new infrastructure for the 21st century – with new roads, railroads, harbours, airports and industries that will provide jobs for millions of people in the region,” stated Oeldenberger.