GeoInspirations: Pakrad Balabanian - Geospatial Education Champion for the Middle East

August 8, 2018
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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 Pakrad Balabanian, GIS manager working in the field of education.

I met Pakrad while preparing to teach a series of workshops in the United Arab Emirates, and then had the pleasure of teaching with him there for several weeks. Our workshops focused on helping teachers gain skills in using GIS in their middle and high school classrooms. It quickly became apparent that Pakrad is an excellent educator; his manner of working with people was encouraging, calm, and instilled confidence in everyone with whom he had contact. I discovered that Pakrad is an innovative entrepreneur, merging a variety of technologies to help people in many sectors of society make wise decisions. He has worked in a wide variety of settings and cultures and is, in my way of thinking, a true international scholar and geographer. It is my pleasure to introduce Pakrad to Directions Magazine readers.

I asked Pakrad to describe his current position and his background. He said, “Currently I manage the GIS section in the Department of Education and Knowledge in the Abu Dhabi Emirate [in the UAE]. I also have my own startup (KARDES.am) in Armenia specializing in GIS and immersive reality. I have a computer science B.S. from Haigazian University in Lebanon and a master’s degree in GIS from Lund University in Sweden, and for the last 10 years, I have worked on implementing GIS in the field of education.”

What convinced Pakrad to enter these fields? “Mr. Jacques Ekmekji, one of the pioneers of GIS in Lebanon and the Middle East, was the reason I directed my career path towards the geospatial industry. His advice, guidance and initiatives, after my graduation, encouraged me at the time to look into this new technology called GIS. After graduating Haigazian University, I was hired by Esri’s distributor in Lebanon (Khatib & Alami) to work as a programmer, but as soon as I started to work with spatial data and geospatial analysis, I was in love with it,” he said.

“I gradually departed from programming and dived into mapping and spatial analysis. After a few years, I was still feeling as an outsider to GIS, since I didn’t have the academic background; hence, I started my master’s degree in GIS to have a better understanding of important concepts and theories. Having knowledge both in GIS and programming helped me a great deal, where each discipline complemented the other and empowered me with the skills and tools necessary to innovate and create.”

What, or who, most inspired Pakrad during his career?  “I believe we are living in the golden age of GIS and it’s difficult to limit the people or the topics which keep inspiring me every day.  If I look back, I can say Mr. Rolf Becker, my former boss at MAPS Geosystems, was my first mentor and guide who taught me how to pay attention to the details and take the ownership and responsibility of any task entrusted to me. He wanted me to be convinced of my work, before convincing my clients or managers.”

What project or initiative is Pakrad the proudest of being a part? He said, “Student addresses and GIS at schools. Collecting Abu Dhabi students’ addresses and introducing GIS to Abu Dhabi public schools are the two projects I am very proud of; both projects had great impact on critical decisions and on [the] national education system. Four years ago, I initiated a project to collect the addresses of more than 450,000 students. The main challenge was that UAE didn’t have an addressing system; hence, we had to improvise methodologies, policies and processes to collect the information through web maps and other resources. The accuracy of the data keeps enhancing, and today we have an accuracy of 90%.  This address information is being used in many applications such as defining schools catchment and service areas, analyzing students’ movements and defining the master plan of Abu Dhabi schools for the next 10 years. Furthermore, the data is being used in reports generated for investors to locate potential sites of new private schools based on students’ distribution and demographics.”

“The second project was introducing GIS to Abu Dhabi public schools’ curriculum, where I have been privileged to work with Esri’s education team and consultants in addition to curriculum writers from the Department of Education in Abu Dhabi to develop curriculum content and train teachers to use GIS in the classroom. It was a great learning opportunity and experience full of collaboration from different departments and disciplines. The project started as a pilot for 12 schools and ended up with full implementation of 255 public schools in two years. More than 100,000 students used GIS as a learning tool in their mathematics and science classes.”

He went on to say, “When I saw the excitement and happiness of students from rural areas visiting the beach for the first time, kayaking and collecting data about the mangroves on their iPads, I understood the power and importance of ‘edutainment,’ critical thinking and problem-based learning. Connecting students’ curriculum with real life issues (for example, mangrove deforestation), taking them to the field and treating them as scientists attracted their attention and made them want to learn more about the topics they are investigating. Students were not confined to their textbooks or classroom lectures anymore; when the students visited the field, lots of new and interesting topics popped out in addition to the main subject. Here is a story map created by sixth-grade students from Al Sariya School in Sweihan (a rural area in Abu Dhabi Emirate) which they presented in several international conferences. One of the success factors of this project and the reason of its sustainability was the direct link between the GIS exercises and the learning outcomes; in other words, it was not an extracurricular activity, but part of the official curriculum. Encouraged by my experience in Abu Dhabi, currently I’m working with the Education Ministry of the Republic of Armenia to implement Spatial Thinking and GIS in the official curriculum of the country for Grade 6 to Grade 12 students.”

What is the most important thing Pakrad believes we need to work on as the geography/education/ science/geospatial community?  “When we talk about geoliteracy, usually we think about K12 students and their education, but in reality, many GIS professionals lack basic knowledge about their local or global geography. I believe efforts should be made to deliver and spread geoliteracy in the geospatial community through mandatory geography courses for university students, especially for students who are majoring in GIS.”

His advice to a new professional in these fields? “Understanding the theories of the analysis we do, and paying good attention to cartographic rules and standards are essential to be successful in the field. When performing analysis such as regression or correlation analysis, it is very important to understand the parameters and their effect on the result. On the other hand, creating attractive and beautiful maps [is] essential to interest the audience and communicate our results.”

One of Pakrad’s favorite quotes is, “A traveler am I and a navigator, and every day I discover a new region within my soul.”   -- Khalil Gibran

To find out more about Pakrad, see truMaps, an educational kit that he developed to introduce a new kind of map.

This map to visualize and quantify the impact that COAF, a nonprofit educational NGO, will have on the surrounding villages and rural areas, using Esri’s operational dashboard.

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