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Collaboration is Key: How the Academy and Industry Are Tackling “Wicked Problems”

“No one’s as smart as everyone.”

COL [R] Steven D. Fleming knows firsthand how teamwork and collaboration can lead to better decisions and better results. The University of Southern California professor spent 30 years in the U.S. military, where he served in both combat and humanitarian-assistance missions. In his line of work, teamwork doesn’t just improve processes — it saves lives.

When Fleming sat down with HxGN Radio to talk about Hexagon technology in academia and research, it was no surprise that collaboration was at the forefront of his comments.

“Good teams communicate well, cooperate well and care about each other,” Fleming says in the interview. “Ensuring that we have good communication amongst academic institutions is a big part of the solution set moving forward.”


In conversation with the world’s “chaos managers”

Fleming appeared with fellow guests Chris Hanni, a former U.S. Army geospatial analyst and student at the University of South Florida, and Joyce Maphanyane, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Botswana. They discussed the future of geographical information systems (GIS) in academia and research, and how software companies like Hexagon can better work with academic communities such as the USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute to solve global issues.

“I think we’re going to see geospatial sciences have better reach across academic institutions moving forward,” Fleming says. He states that companies like Hexagon will need to figure out how to provide multidisciplinary approaches to the world’s “wicked problems,” both natural and man-made. “Attacking a problem from multiple angles is going to be huge as we move forward.”

Fleming, Hanni and Maphanyane all talked about how GIS tools are allowing them to better detect, monitor and solve problems.

Hanni built a spatial algorithm using Hexagon’s Spatial Modeler and Google’s TensorFlow machine-learning platform that classifies and tracks palm trees in Florida. The Sabal Palm, the state tree of Florida, is being wiped out in record numbers by a deadly bacteria.

“If there’s a mitigation strategy, if there is going to be a cure that’s going to be implemented, we have to find out where the sick palm trees are at,” says Hanni. “My maps provide that information.”

In Botswana, Maphanyane’s students use ERDAS IMAGINE and satellite imaging to track land cover changes. Land cover is a meter for natural resources that provides insight into how cities are growing and the effect that growth has on other villages, wildlife and water access.

“You can actually go there specifically and say this is this type of land cover, and then link it to the real world and see how much cities are growing and how much people’s fields are being taken by the cities and the villages, which means reduction of food security,” says Maphanyane.

Fleming explains that being able to manage and analyze data quickly can make the difference during rapidly evolving situations. “It’s important to be able to take that imagery, make a good assessment and then provide a good recommendation to a decision maker within, say, six hours.”

The better you can support the world’s “chaos managers,” the better chance these organizations have to save lives.

“Whether we’re talking satellite collects or airborne collects or even terrestrial collects, the requirement today to be able to manage the different forms of data is changing rapidly, and we have to make sure we understand the software applications that best do it,” Fleming says.

Bridging the gap between academia and industry

The GIS field is in a period of more: there are more data points, more collection methods and more powerful tools than ever before. However, this widening array also means that practitioners need more than training — they need an education.

As Fleming explains, collecting data tells you the “where” and “when,” and training on an application tells you the “how.” But it’s education that answers the “why, the what and the who.”

“The better we are at it, the better we’re going to be able to solve the problems of the world,” says Fleming.

That’s where collaboration comes in. Fleming and Maphanyane both believe that education on these technologies needs to start in schools, and that developers of these state-of-the-art programs must be more proactive in working with universities and other academic institutions.

“There are many organizations that have recognized the value in working with students when they’re working on developing themselves as purposeful professionals,” Fleming says.

“Geospatial science is big, and you need to answer many questions. That’s why in academia, there’s a lot of work,” says Maphanyane. “We have to do the groundwork so that we can teach people how to source the data, how to use it, how to analyze it and read it.”

At the same time, academic institutions can initiate relationships with the industry side and look for partnership opportunities that open up access to their students.

“[At USC,] we’re moving in the direction of creating more opportunities for students to use these different forms of software — whether we’re talking the Hexagon suite or other suites that are available, including open source software — in order to be able to solve some of these very challenging problems,” says Fleming.

Academia also needs to pursue internal collaborations as well, and look for ways to bring together the expertise and strengths of diverse departments. This avoids the development of “silos of experience.”

“There’s a whole bunch of academic disciplines right now that are very interested in the geospatial world. Collaboration with them and figuring out how to work and interface with these organizations around campuses is going to be a huge step in the right direction,” Fleming says.

After all, while these different departments and institutions may vary in their approaches, they share one important goal: “At the end of the day, when you listen to people talk about why we do these things and the purpose of using these types of technologies… [it’s] to leave the world a better place than you found it.”

To listen to the full interview or read a transcript of the discussion, visit HxGNSpotlight.


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