29 Apr

Company Spotlight: Taylor Geospatial Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Thomas Jang

As the executive director of the Taylor Geospatial Institute (TGI), Nadine Alameh has come a long way in forging a formidable presence in the field of mapping and geospatial sciences. Alameh’s introduction to geospatial technology was entirely by luck, she recounts. One of the top four students at her university in Lebanon, she received a scholarship and a life-changing opportunity to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Upon stepping foot at MIT, she dealt with an important culture shock working with urban planners utilizing GIS software, realizing that the geospatial field took an approach centered around urban planning and civil engineering. She was also initially inspired to “build, build, build.” 

Her MIT experience taught her an important lesson that it implored her to answer the question “what if?” She was able to recognize that the collaboration between “tech people and domain people” allowed them to solve diverse problems. Importantly, she saw the importance of technology in geography: it powers and glues everything together and allows people to “actually feel it and interact with it.” With the skills she gained at MIT, Alameh became inspired and “sucked into” the field of geospatial science, continuing to collaborate with urban planners, transportation engineers, and other leaders in computer science and visualization. 

Community

After taking the reins of TGI in 2023, she has been able to effectively transform the young organization by emphasizing ‘community.’ Alameh points to the organization’s interdisciplinary and multicultural space. Prior to working at TGI, Nadine took on the leadership of OGC as its CEO and President. At this global consortium of geospatial government, industry and academic institutions, multiculturalism shone as an organizational strength. She highlights this as a leading value and perspective at TGI. “We do bring the world together, not just because we’re geographers, but because we’re diplomats in a way.” The diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and nationalities allows the TGS to learn about what is being done in other places and how they are doing it. Beyond each individual’s different standards and data formats, they are able to retain a global perspective to solve problems in their local communities while also recognizing what can or cannot be applied in the same way. 

With this new organization, she recognizes the responsibility she was given, as well as several important challenges. Firstly, TGI consists of eight institutions and invites the opportunity to “create a community across these institutions .” A significant component of this challenge in creating a community is applying “the resources, the humans, the people, the scientists, the lab, and the equipment across eight institutions and creating a story,” Alameh emphasizes. This is the starting point. Acknowledging that the institutions are not new and that they are all growing into the emerging field of geospatial, Alameh expresses the importance of investing time to understand the objective of the institute and hone its collective story. 

A second challenge Alameh recognizes is where to begin with having the vast array of consortium resources at TGI, including everything from computing, labs, drones, tornado simulators, robots, virtual reality (VR), and labs built for studying agriculture and vegetation. “You can go in so many directions,” she states excitedly. An amazing opportunity and approach that Alameh points to is the shared human experience of resilience. From food security, water security, and disaster readiness, she sees ‘resilience’ as a good framing to figuring out where we begin and how we can build solutions. 

A third challenge is talent. Geospatial talent is becoming increasingly valuable and revered. In building and growing TGI, Alameh emphasizes the fact that more people are needed and the need to nurture more talent in the geospatial sciences. In reference to a recent publication from the National Academy of Science, the field is experiencing a “geospatial workforce crisis,” influenced by the lack of available talent. 

Technology

Alameh is optimistic about the future of geospatial technology and the amazing speed at which it is developing. One such technological advancement has been virtual reality (VR). She expresses excitement at the rapidly evolving concept of the Metaverse. With this development, she sees the potential that geospatial technology can lend to the world of gaming engines to aid in forecasting weather events and communicating disasters in real-time. 

Another technological development Alameh is hopeful about is the integration of geospatial plug-ins. With a beaming smile, she expresses the use of these plug-ins by Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite. She first noticed them when her son played the Spiderman game on the Playstation, where instead of playing with an imagined recreation of New York City, the plug-in allowed him to experience an accurate recreation of the city to play in. Spectacularly, the data is available for us to create such eye-opening experiences. 

Furthermore, Alameh references work being done in the film industry, where geospatial plug-ins are gradually being integrated into movies, influencing the use of simulators and interactive experiences with more data. Virtual reality is also picking up speed and can help communicate information more effectively. It has the power to communicate ideas more effectively. Virtual reality headsets today would easily communicate climate impacts to those who wear them. It would be extremely effective for a figure such as a governor to see the impacts that would be imposed on their community, through the collapse of a bridge, the destruction of buildings, or other effects. 

Advancements have also been achieved in companies such as Cesium and Nvidia. 3D tiles have been instrumental in providing new ways to collect imagery. Drone flying is becoming widely used, with new UAVs flying  over the ocean to collect imagery, scanning agricultural land to provide soil models, and traversing landscapes to generate hydrological models.

Artificial intelligence also continues to expand its reach, increasingly into the geospatial field. Alameh expresses cautious optimism at this development. Its influence is growing in gaming, digital twins, and videos. Advanced GPUs are having an impact “on what we’re doing in artificial intelligence and processing: to have enough power to run different climate models on various Earths simultaneously so you can see whatever you want to see,” she expresses. Similar to how generative pre-trained transformers (GPTs) are finding a place within academic institutions, Alameh also notices a development within mapping circles. Called Map GPT, Alameh notices “everyone is trying to do that.” She explains that “instead of doing geospatial analysis with a geospatial software, you just ask the system.” With generative artificial intelligence, she points to the fact that for machine learning to function, there is an opportunity for  Map GPT to inform geospatial decision making, and vice versa. 

Most importantly, Alameh also brings her attention to a new shift and concentration in power. In the news, novel sources of power are emerging in Microsoft and IBM. She wonders “how are we going to power the AI of the future that is going to underpin everything that we do?” In fact, the definition of a map is changing dramatically. With new technologies such as Map GPT or even deep fakes of geospatial data, our understanding of what a map is will require input from both geospatial experts and ordinary users about what is and is not ethical. 

The world is now more connected—and accessible—than ever, but the wealth of data is obstructed by being concentrated among a small number of actors who seldom collaborate. She quoted Jack Dangermond, the founder of Esri, when she noted: “The biggest problem of our time is not the lack of data, or lack of technology: it’s the lack of collaboration and lack of understanding.” 

Access to data, and the variety of data, is a human problem, Alameh emphasizes. The rich and developed countries have better and more frequent data supplied by more sensors and satellites. Because other countries are exploited and disadvantaged, they become more disadvantaged and the technological gap becomes ever more wide. “When we talk globally, these problems do not stop at artificial boundaries of states, countries, etc.” In response to this discrepancy in data availability and accessibility, Alameh accounts her experience in the aviation field, where she crossed many airspaces in many jurisdictions. “You need to have trans-boundaries, interoperability—there has to be a link,” she states. 

A Call To Young People & Final Message

In a call-to-action, Nadine Alameh expresses to young people: “Geospatial is in such a place where it is actually very cool, you can go into any domain and have a huge impact. If you’re passionate about climate change or improving humans’ quality of life, geospatial is a great career choice.” 

“Don’t be restricted with what you have—think big,” Alameh says. “We’re looking at young people for leadership, you think very differently—challenge the status quo because that’s what is going to get us to the next level.” 

The geospatial field proves to be in constant growth. Like new technologies being created today, from machine learning to virtual reality headsets, the geospatial field grows with more human experiences and the communities that can be formed from connections between them. With the leadership, wisdom, and experiences of Nadine Alameh, the Taylor Geospatial Institute will progress even faster with young people from  diverse disciplines at its side.