Matt Duckham, Professor of Geospatial Sciences in RMIT’s School of Science, shines a light on the discipline of geodata.
What is geodata and why is it important?
Geodata is simply data about where things are. That includes data about the built and natural environment and across all geographic scales, from indoor mapping right through to global climate data.
It can include other aspects of location, such as the connectivity of a transportation network or information about where a person has checked in on social media.
What is your current research focus?
It’s the emergency applications of geodata, in particular in connection with the RISER project (resilient information systems for emergency response), which I lead with a colleague at the University of Melbourne, Allison Kealy.
The project is investigating how geodata can support emergency decision-making, both for professionals and the public.
We’ve captured geodata about grassland curing using a drone; used crowd-sourced emergency incident geodata for tracking active bushfires; and deployed a wireless network of almost 100 ground-based sensors (called “RISERnet”) to monitor bushfire hazard.
What drew you this to the specific field?
I’d already worked with geosensor networks – wireless networks of miniaturised sensor-enabled computers that can capture detailed information about what changes are happening and where.
My work back then was more theoretical, but Allison convinced me we were ready to use the technology in more realistic applications.
The RISER project saw us work with Emergency Management Victoria and IBM Research Australia, collaborating on see how geosensor networks might be useful for emergency decision-making.
As the project has continued we’ve worked on a wider range of geospatial technologies and with organisations like the CFA and CSIRO.
A recent highlight was when, with the help of Anglesea CFA and Lisa Gibbs from the University of Melbourne, the RISER team gave Year 5 Anglesea Primary School students nodes from our “RISERnet” wireless geosensor network.
The students deployed the network and maintained it for several weeks, using real-time environmental geodata about bushfire hazard back in the classroom.
Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your research? How did this come about?
I have enjoyed a great collaboration with Susanne Bleisch, an expert in visualisation of geodata and now a professor at Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz in Switzerland.
We were looking at ways to use graphics to help biologists to make sense of geodata about fish movements. This led to a collaboration involving heath policy advisors, who wanted to make sense of data about the likely outcomes of an epidemic outbreak.
In turn, this led us to study how different arrangements of dots can be used to communicate uncertainty about numerical data to any decision-makers.
The resulting paper, now published in PlosONE, hasn’t much to do with geodata. But the work it presents was unexpected and a rewarding outcome of what started with fish movements in the Murray River.
What has been the most significant moment in your career so far?
?In 2010 I was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship, which allowed me to focus almost exclusively on my research for four years. I had the chance to develop my work in new area, called decentralised spatial computing.
Collaborating with leading academics and labs around the world, I published a lot of new ideas and managed to write a book on the topic.
While the focus of the fellowship was on research, I found the break also reinvigorated my teaching.
For example, today I rely much more on the “flipped classroom” model, where students watch prepared video lectures at a time that suits them and I use my lecture time for more interactive tutorial-style learning.
You started at RMIT last year – what drew you here?
In a word, people! In the Geospatial Science discipline at RMIT we have an amazing and diverse group of academics. We have experts in every area of geospatial sciences: positioning, surveying, measurement science, photogrammetry, remote sensing, GIS, cartography and visualisation.
There is simply no comparable group in Australia, and very few groups today in the world that can claim such a breadth and depth of geospatial expertise.
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know
During my undergraduate in Edinburgh in Scotland, I spent my evenings working in a pizza shop called Perfect Pizza, making pizzas and delivering them on a moped. I really enjoyed that job.
In my moments of self-doubt, which I think everyone has from time to time, I’ve often drawn comfort from the thought that if I ever end up failing dismally as an academic, I could hopefully still get a job I’d enjoy using my experience in making and delivering pizzas.
Story: David Glanz