GeoInspirations: Dr. Josef Strobl – Moving the Frontiers of GIScience Forward

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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Dr. Josef Strobl from the University of Salzburg.

I met Dr. Josef Strobl through our mutual work promoting GIS in research and instruction about 15 years ago. I attended his GI_Forum event at the University of Salzburg in Austria, one of the most beautiful campuses on which I have ever taught. While there, I was amazed to realize how many projects in which he is involved, and how each of them seems to be done with the highest quality and attention to detail. Even though Dr. Strobl is probably one of the most well-known people in the field of Geoinformatics/GIS, it is my pleasure to introduce him to those Directions Magazine readers who may not yet know him.

I asked Dr. Strobl to tell us about his current position and the pathway that brought him there. He replied that he is “currently serving as head, Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg. Having obtained degrees in geography from Vienna University, I joined the Salzburg geography department in 1985 with the mission to 'do all that computing stuff.' Well, over time I could fulfill this task less and less.“

“Our Department of Geoinformatics (in short, Z_GIS) is offering graduate programs in Geoinformatics and GIScience, residentially as well as via distance learning within the worldwide UNIGIS network. Organizing the annual AGIT and GI_Forum conferences connects Z_GIS with international cooperation partners; jointly with them we work to bring a spatial perspective to a broad range of disciplines."

“Enjoying the opportunity to work with students worldwide is a great reward, and an important academic reality check. Joint MSc graduates with Nanjing Normal University, keen students from emerging countries in Central Asia, alumni in South Asia, doctoral candidates from Africa, and ambitious distance learners across Latin America – they all contribute in many ways to the continuous evolution of geospatial curricula and learning materials. Capacity building in classrooms, through research, and by non-traditional learning environments not only is highly motivating and a truly fun activity, but also advances the practice in geospatial professionals. Most things I have learned, I have learned from current and former students!“

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(Image: Techno-Z/K.Fersterer)

I asked Dr. Strobl to share what convinced him to enter the fields that he has pursued. He said, “Early in my academic life I had the privilege of having the freedom and support to pursue my own interests. My decision for geography emerged from an interest in mountains and maps, in that order. Computing classes were opening new doors, and got more productive when coding switched from punch cards to screens. My level of excitement peaked when taking the first CalComp plotter in town for a spin mapping glaciers for my thesis. Things got really interesting when I could switch from coding each and every map detail to using 'packages' like the Edinburgh GIMMS software – thanks to Tom Waugh, and the experience of my very first user conference! Duane Marble’s 'Computer software for spatial data handling' catalog published by the USGS in 1980 served as my guiding light in exploring the emerging domain of GIS.“

“In these early years, Jerry Dobson’s columns in the GIS World magazine were a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Published in the same magazine, Joseph Berry’s 'Beyond Mapping' series supported my interest in spatial analysis and modeling. Creating decision-support grade information from spatial data continues as an ambition I try to instill in students.“

I asked Dr. Strobl to name a person, class, or topic that most inspired him during his career.  “As an undergraduate, on Friday afternoons, I attended this aerial image interpretation class led by Lothar Beckel, an author of numerous imagery books. Even though the class frequently was cancelled on short notice, the compelling and unfamiliar perspectives on geographic phenomena instilled an interest in remote sensing and image analysis. Then, I wanted to apply my newly acquired computing skills in my chosen field, cartography. Being told I first had to properly master manual techniques like scribing before being allowed to attempt digitally reproducing these results didn’t really appeal to me. Invited to join a glaciology research group, I was happy to freelance, turning out semi-decent map plots.“

“Throughout my academic path, I had the opportunity to explore and to set my own goals. Adopting innovation early has the advantage of little established practice, and allows breaking new ground. This still is my main motivation, and I am grateful to all having allowed me the liberty to learn from experimentation.“

Given the many projects in which Dr. Strobl has been involved, I wondered of what project he is most proud. He commented that it was “establishing the UNIGIS distance learning network jointly with UK and Dutch colleagues. In the early 1990s, GIS applications were growing exponentially, but very few education options were available. Distance learning for in-service professionals therefore rapidly caught on. Today, students can choose from a variety of academic programs, but UNIGIS‘ online in-service education is even more in demand; people working across a range of disciplines discover the need to think and operate spatially, and life-long learning is turning into a reality. Like other success stories in life, UNIGIS has to continuously reinvent itself. Today, with the only constant being change, it is a fun challenge to think ahead, anticipate the needs and qualification requirements of the next generation of geospatial experts, and to keep developing the 'brainware' for the ongoing geospatial revolution.“

I asked Dr. Strobl what he feels is the most important thing we need to work on as the geography, education, science, and geospatial community. “While our society is going digital in most aspects of our daily routines, too few youth are keen to develop the skills needed on the supply side of an information society,“ he replied. "Motivating future students to develop geospatial careers, either from a geography/spatial sciences angle or with stronger computational skills, certainly is of key importance for our discipline. We recently established the Salzburg iDEAS:lab as a window to Geoinformatics for the wider public, specifically addressing pupils and schools with hands-on geospatial science experiences. Thinking about this as a kind of permanent GIS Day, we expect increased awareness (better: awhereness) and career choices towards geospatial professions.“

Dr. Strobl’s advice to a new professional in these fields is, “First, do what you really love doing, as you will be really good at it! Beyond that, the metaphor of a sensor web as the digital skin of our planet rapidly turns into reality. The Internet of Things – check out 'Geo-IoT' – generates some of the data feeding into Big Earth Data analytics, already established as a hot topic.“

“This is only one example of rapidly evolving technology innovation. A deep understanding of a spatial perspective transcends tech cycles, though. Developing spatial thinking, recognizing how location and place join information assets – these are the truly valuable outcomes from a geographic education. Lifelong learning is not about technology training, but about learning to 'connect by location.' "

“Need motivation for lifelong learning? Just follow Henry Ford: 'Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.'"

Find out more about Dr. Strobl and his projects and programs, and follow him on Twitter.

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