Information and communications technology (ICT) is a powerful tool in many domains, particularly in Earth observation (EO), the science of observing our planet from space and deriving value from such observations. Dr Anwar Vahed heads the CSIR’s ICT for Earth observation (ICT4EO), a research group within the CSIR Meraka Institute, whose focus is applying ICT to extract useful information and derive benefits from EO data.
Vahed is a computer scientist by training, with qualifications from both South African and overseas universities. He outlines the focus of the group he leads, “The objective of the ICT4EO group is to build world-class capacity in the research and development of ICT for EO. We focus on meaningful integration of EO sensory data (satellite imagery, remote and in situ sensors, and archives) for societal benefit and in support of the national strategy for science and technology.”
A common vision for ICT4EO
The ICT4EO group has sharpened its research effort as part of Vahed’s “focused conception of where we should be devoting our time”. He identifies the following as its main activities: sensor web enablement, geoprocessing tools and data analysis and experimentation.
“We work on ICTs that realise the vision of the sensor web and its accessibility,” explains Vahed. The concept of the ‘sensor web’ is a type of sensor network or infrastructure that is especially well suited for environmental monitoring.
Provisioning of data is done via sensor web enablement – through service interfaces for interoperable usage of sensor resources, which enable discovery, access, tasking, eventing and alerting. “The value of sensor web enablement lies in the fact that sensor data are abstracted from sensor details and their usage in applications is therefore easier,” Vahed confirms.
Vahed’s group researches geoprocessing tools that derive information from the data provided by sensors. “This is a value chain that starts with data and ends with dissemination of information. We focus on the provisioning of EO data and derived products by means of open and interoperable services and interfaces, and on knowledge engineering processes that derive information and generate knowledge that useful in addressing national priorities such as health and the sustainable management of natural resources.
The third focus of his group is data analysis and experimentation tools. To this end, researchers have worked on scientific workflow systems. A workflow is a specialised sequence of tasks designed specifically to compose and execute a series of computational or data manipulation steps in a scientific application. What makes scientific workflows so valuable is the fact that processes followed during scientific work can be reused and repeated, and has provenance.
The group has developed one package, EO4VisTrails, in VisTrails, a scientific workflow management system from the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah in the United States. VisTrails provides support for data exploration and visualisation. EO4VisTrails is a pilot for research in preparation for making it operational and the group aims to have a spatial analytical demonstrator up and running soon.
Adding value to national priorities
As passionate as Vahed and his researchers are about their science, they are strongly aware that this must find expression in their achievements in terms of quality of life for South Africans, and in societal, scientific and industrial benefits.
“Our national priorities in EO and space must address the global grand challenges of climate change, agriculture and health, as a few areas of application,” he stresses. “We are also keenly aware of the need to support the societal benefit areas identified by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) , which illustrate how the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) serves the needs of the international community.”
Vahed is adamant that his group cannot hope to find all the solutions to problems; instead, he espouses interdisciplinary factors that offer a way forward. “We link up with domain specialists from all over the CSIR and our international partner institutions, and contribute our expertise to current research to the CSIR work relating to acid mine drainage, the Safe Water Earth Observation Systems (SWEOS) project, and the Framework Programme 7 (FP7) CLUVA project (Climate change and Urban Vulnerability in Africa),” he says.
“Our research efforts also aim to influence policy and governance,” he remarks. The CSIR is involved with other partners in the FP7 EO2HEAVEN (Earth Observation and Environmental Modelling for the Mitigation of Health Risks) project. EO2Heaven contributes to a better understanding of the complex relationships between environmental changes and their impact on human health. The CSIR’s research focuses on cholera and how environmental changes affect the spread of this disease as well as achieving interoperability between datasets.
Read more in the CSIR’s publication, ScienceScope: ICT for Society
Climate change: What’s the deal?
Vahed warns that climate change has a major fundamental change on the way in which we live. Temperature increases of approximately four degrees for the African continent are predicted within 50 to 60 years from now.
“It is anticipated that this change will affect agriculture, health and shifts in globalisation. Meteorological or weather changes will see more extreme events occurring. We need to change the way we go about our daily lives,” he emphasises. “Carelessness is a contributing factor to climate change.”
Strengthening local capacity
The ICT4EO team comprises experienced scientists and students; Vahed has earned accolades from his team for the manner in which he supports the younger members of his team to gain expertise and experience.
Vahed is enthusiastic about supporting human capital development in the EO and space domain. South Africa’s burgeoning space industry has gained prominence since the establishment of the South African National Space Agency. “We are hopeful that our expert role in provisioning data and making it possible to combine EO data with other data will see improved returns on investment.”
In his spare time, Vahed is an Android software enthusiast who likes to ‘tinker’. He says, “Cycling occasionally is more a 'survival response' than a hobby.”
News contributed by Biffy Van Rooyen, CSIR Strategic Communication and Stakeholder Relations