By Harsha Udayakantha Peiris
The one-day workshop on ‘Developments in GIS – Technology and Applications and Esri User Meeting for Sri Lanka’ organised by Multidisciplinary Board of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Sri Jayawardenepura and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) USA, was held on 21 September 2011 at the Central Bank’s Centre for Banking Studies at Rajagiriya.
The key objective of the workshop was to update the Geographic Information System (GIS) user community of Sri Lanka on technology trends and innovations as well as innovative applications and uses of the technology.
The event was a first of its kind in Sri Lanka, where a national university joined hands with the world’s number one GIS technology development and service company to update the GIS user community of Sri Lanka.
The University of Sri Jayawardenepura together with its global technical partner, ESRI, Redlands, California in the USA, conducted this workshop as a partial fulfilment of the Sri Lankan Government’s vision to promote our national universities into higher positions in the world rankings.
Expressing views in the introductory address at the inauguration of the event, Dr. Krishan Deheragoda, Professor of Geography at the Department of Geography and the current Chairman of the Multidisciplinary Board of Study, Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Sri Jayawardenepura, stated that it was encouraging to note that some Government sector agencies use GIS technology to establish and regulate policy and to strengthen the welfare of the citizens.
“However there’s much more to be done, as there also exist shortcomings that may have been felt by all of us during the tsunami disaster in December 2004 and the critical period of the conflict that ended in May 2009,” he said.
When the tsunami was ravaged the coastal areas of Sri Lanka in 2004, killing almost 40,000 people, the authorities were unaware of how many people were affected for a couple of days due to the lack of geographically referenced data with the relevant agencies.
“If the GIS-based information infrastructure was in place, not only would many lives have been saved, but the post-tsunami recovery process would also have been much easier, faster and cost effective,” he added.
Dr. Deheragoda also said that geographic analysis was critical in military operations, tactical or logistical planning and infrastructure management. Nearly 300,000 civilians who were held as a human shield by the LTTE during the last phase of the conflict were liberated by the Sri Lankan military forces from the clutches of terrorism. It was a difficult period for all the agencies to provide them with basic needs at the first instance and later to resettle them in their places of origin.
Demining of the conflict-affected areas, identification or finding of the other displaced members of the liberated families and screening the hardcore terrorists was also a huge challenge, immediately after the conflict. “Having equal access to GIS technology can make all these tasks very effective and transparent,” he said.
“The biggest challenge we are facing today is the implementation of ‘Triple R’ approach – that is Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reintegration – of the war-torn structures of our country, particularly in the north and east, with a focus on nation building. Many agencies that are engaged in implementation of ‘Triple R’ do not have the necessary geographical reference data for planning and implementation, to date.
Dr. Deheragoda asserted that it was high time for Sri Lanka to equip itself with appropriate technologies such as GIS, if we are serious about achieving regional hub status in knowledge, IT, energy, ports and aviation as well as commercial sectors.
Citing an example, he said Sri Lankan Police analysts can use GIS as an effective crime fighting tool, particularly for planning and event modelling, tactical and strategic planning and incident mapping such as mob attacks on public institutions and even incidences such as ‘grease yaka’ appearances which took place in recent weeks.
He noted that all our Police stations could maintain comprehensive GIS data bases on all persons and locations that are important for them to maintain law and order. Our health care services management too can be more effective, rational and cost effective if GIS is used not only to identify what resources and needs exist, but also where to find them, he pointed out. Furthermore, the health experts could use GIS more commonly to work in epidemiological and public health monitoring, including planning and implementation of malaria and dengue combating campaigns, he added.
Analysis of the recent post graduate research work reveals that an increasing number of Sri Lankan graduate students have also used GIS to widen their understanding of natural systems and human society from anthropology to zoology; to address poverty, regional and urban development, disaster management, conflict resolution, wildlife conservation, inventorying vegetation and land use changes, etc.
Currently all the key national universities in the country are engaged in both teaching GIS and applying it for research. Apart from the universities, a number of Government agencies including the Urban Development Authority, Sri Lanka Ports Authority and SLSEA are widely using this technology in their day-to-day decision making processes.
Meanwhile, the Department of Census and Statistics will deploy GIS for the first time in history to cover the 2012 National Census on population and housing.
The effort will successfully fill the digital gap in many areas of Sri Lanka.
Expressing views at the event, Minister of Higher Education S.B. Disanayake stated that the Government was very keen on upgrading the international standard of Sri Lankan universities.
“We have selected six national universities, including the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, for this task. Events of this nature are in the right direction, to strengthen our universities. We are in the process of expanding the academic and research capacities of our universities and encourage linkages with the industry and international institutions like ESRI,” the Minister said.
The Minister revealed that the Chairman of the University Grants Commission had stated that the application made by the Department of Geography – University of Sri Jayawardenepura to introduce a new M.Sc. Degree Programme in GIS and Remote Sensing has also been approved.
“With this new M.Sc. programme in GIS, I am sure that ESRI will continue to have a better and stronger partnership in expanding the use of this latest GIS technology in Sri Lanka, through the University of Sri Jayawardenepura and other relevant institutions,” he added.
Versatile approach needed
Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura Dr. N.L.A. Karunaratne speaking at the occasion said that at a time when knowledge and knowledge systems are rapidly changing in the global arena, the new system of GIS was a fast mechanism to acquire the rapidly-changing disciplines of numerous spheres.
“We must be very versatile to use the GIS technology effectively and the young generation should be more encouraged to use it,” he said, urging developers to assist the development of the system effectively in Sri Lanka.
ESRI USA International Manager – Asia & Pacific Region Dave Byer and ESRI USA Chief Workshop Resource Person – Strategic Business Development Bill Shepherd also made presentations on the functioning and useful implementation of GIS worldwide.
Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawarathna, University of Sri Jayawardenepura Faculty of Graduate Studies Dean Prof. Swarna Piyasiri, University of Peradeniya Post Graduate Institute of Science M.Sc.Programme in GIS and Remote Sensing Coordinator Dr. Jagath Gunathilake, Sri Lanka Ports Authority Deputy Chief Manager (GIS/Premises) Prabath Malavige,
University of Sri Jayawardenepura Head of Department of Geography U.H.N. Wiswakula, Urban Development Authority GIS Unit former Head L.H. Chandrasiri and Centre for Banking Studies Director Udeni Alawatthege were also present at the occasion.
The workshop was attended by over 300 participants representing the GIS user community of Sri Lanka, including representatives of the university academia and researchers, surveyors, valuers, engineers, medical doctors and researchers, town planners, architects, members of the armed forces and Police, administrators and also GIS specialists of various ministries, organisations and agencies representing the education, medical, health, agriculture, engineering, public utilities and infrastructure development sectors.
The workshop was conducted fully geared to enhance the capacities and horizons in application of GIS in the participants’ efforts to make Sri Lanka the ‘Miracle of Asia’.
Pix by Aloka I. De Silva