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August 11th, 2008
30 Minutes with Josef Strobl

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thumb_josef_strobl Josef Strobl has been directly involved  in the Applied Geographic Information Technology (AGIT) symposium and the UNIGIS International program at the Zentrum for Geoinformatik at Salzburg University, Austria for many years. He is also an active researcher and teaches GIS, spatial analysis, remote sensing, modelling and applied simulation. V1 Magazine editor Jeff Thurston recently had the opportunity to interview him on the topics of AGIT, UNIGIS, Energy / GIS and the new Digital Cities initiative emerging from the Salzburg University program.

V1 Magazine: AGIT Symposium celebrated its 20th Anniversary recently. Can you tell us a bit about how AGIT started and how it has progressed over time?

Strobl: In the mid-1980’s we attended a few conferences and thought we could do better. We were a group of individuals one way or another associated with Salzburg University and had began using what was then just being termed GIS. AGIT stood for Applied Geographic Information Technology and came about through our desire to focus on applied aspects as compared to the technology alone. Initially 150 people turned out for the first AGIT Symposium, whereas today we now have about 1200 people attending. We have expanded to include of different special interest groups over time and have grown from 5 exhibits to over 60 exhibits.

V1 Magazine: There is a preponderance of central and southeast European small to medium sized businesses in attendance. It almost seems that a conscious effort is to support these SME’s.

Strobl: There may be a number of factors for that. We try to address the recent alumni, many of whom go on to start their own businesses or begin working for smaller companies in the early stages of their careers. We also try to work within the space that we have at the University so that we can maximize the number of companies who wish to attend as compared to a dominance by a few major players from the industry only. This also provides an easy way for smaller companies to begin but it also keeps a regional focus, which is more or less encompassing a large part of the audience we serve.

V1 Magazine: How did the GeoInformation Forum come about and how does it link into the Symposia?

Strobl: Many of the projects in the Zentrum for Geoinformatics are related to initiatives that originate through the European Union as funded projects and research. A significant number of these are education related. As a result, the GI Forum can be seen as a means to extend the knowledge and work from those projects to the public while also providing an opportunity for the students and participants to experience an audience and presentations. Summer schools linked to GI_Forum also support Continuing Education Credits (CEC) for many of the alumni and other professionals at the same time. Overall it provides a good 2-way communication opportunity.

V1 Magazine:
Does the UNIGIS program also connect to the AGIT conference?

Strobl: The UNIGIS program at Salzburg University operates separately and reports directly to the Rector of the University. Although it is within the University of Salzburg, UNIGIS is responsible for its own budgets apart from the faculty. We have a second location nearer to the center of the city which consists of about 350 square meters of space and employs 35 people. UNIGIS supports 15 of these people and research supports the remainder. The UNIGIS International program is headquartered in Holland. My role is the Director of the Centre for GeoInformatics together with Hank Scholten. Adrijana Car is responsible for the international aspects of the UNIGIS program.

{sidebar id=197 align=right} V1 Magazine: What are the challenges for the Zentrum for Geoinformatik at Salzburg University and for the Symposia going forward?

Strobl: We try not to look too far ahead because the situation changes rapidly for many reasons including budgets, initiatives, research directions and so on. We are a young team and there is a strong sense of entrepreneurial spirit. We have many internal discussions about our programs and raise new topics, making changes as needed and trying new directions from time to time.

In the short term, I expect to see more involvement from industry. Autodesk, Microsoft and other larger companies are beginning to express more interest in the Symposium and programs. Our goal would be to retain the specific type of audience that we have. The UNIGIS alumni numbers are growing and many of those people are now in key positions within industry regionally and internationally. We can point to the AGIT conference as a primary reason why UNIGIS got off the ground. Thus the industry-education relationship is positive and has built a strong foundation here.

V1 Magazine: How do go about working with industry and what are some of the initiatives ongoing?

Strobl: We try to work closely with industry. This enables us to secure research projects and funding while at the same time gaining wider support for our programs and the necessary resources to keep going. Currently we have initiatives with Autodesk who are supporting graduate students, and as you know, announced the Digital City initiative recently with the City of Salzburg and the Zentrum. Since we cover a wide range of geospatial topics, we have the ability to bridge topics and offer expertise both between verticals and within them. A large amount of our work is also oriented to the international marketplace, including developing countries.

V1 Magazine: How has GIS changed over time in your view?

Strobl: Often we find that we go to meetings and conferences and that we are talking to those who are already converted. There is a need to speak with people who may be less knowledgeable about GIS and geospatial topics. This is in part due to the growing acceptance and use of programs like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth.

V1 Magazine: Where does this years theme of sustainability originate?

Strobl: A few years ago we began to think about energy sustainability in terms of fossil fuels and renewables. As we move toward renewables then the concept of spatial information and processes begins to take on new meaning. Our thought was to integrate sustainability thinking into the spatial planning process and we started to use the term ‘Virtual Power Plants’ for a flexible and adaptive mix of renewables.

This evolved further to the concept of studying sustainability at a regional level from local levels. We wanted to promote the management of energy as a regional resource. In fact, the recent decoupling / unbundling of energy companies in Europe has promoted this concept because we can now begin to operate at regional levels. The ultimate idea is to consider potentials of renewables over a region that require spatial management. We have presented these ideas in China and at the previous ISDE Summit on Sustainability.

V1 Magazine: So what are are sticking points when it comes to energy that will need to be addressed in your view?

Strobl: Most people involved in the energy industry are not spatially aware. That is, they do not think in a spatial context per se. Thus bringing the tools of GIS and other technologies can sometimes be daunting for them to get their heads around – it is a mindset. Many utility related systems are traditionally based on CAD software as well. But the idea is to move geography from being a constant to a variable. Again, this is changing slowly as we now see some of our graduates within the utility sector.

V1 Magazine: Do you offer the opportunity for UNIGIS people to meet as alumni?

Strobl: We began using the ‘UNIGIS Update’ conference format as a means to enable alumni to meet from time to time. It allows them the opportunity to network together and keep abreast of what each other is up to. UNIGIS-Days like e.g. in Switzerland address local communities. It is difficult to bring large numbers people together face-to-face because of different priorities and now because travel costs are so high. Next year at Map World Forum we will have a UNIGIS alumni group.

{sidebar id=198 align=left} V1 Magazine: How do you see technology has impacted the UNIGIS program, both in terms of teaching as well as student projects and research.

Strobl: Over the more than 15 years of UNIGIS’ existence as an innovative distance learning program, technology changes of course had a huge influence not only (i) through the evolution of GIS software, but (ii) maybe even more so due to the development of the internet as the means of delivering course content and as the predominant means of communication.

Learning today has evolved along the lines of more interactive, ‘constructivist’ and socially oriented pedagogical paradigms. Web 2.0 technologies where students take a very active role in building their own and their peers’ knowledge are increasingly important in distance learning. As for GIS technologies, the traditional desktop paradigm currently is giving way to a more distributed set of functionalities. We expect that future students will make use of GIS functions as online services, alleviating the requirements for locally installed software. This transition again will lower one of the hurdles to distance and blended modes of learning.

V1 Magazine: How does UNIGIS and the Center contribute to developing countries and what are the challenges?

Strobl: The Salzburg Center for Geoinformatics has a long tradition of cooperating with partners on virtually all continents, with a current emphasis on Central and Southern Asia, Southern Africa and the Andean region. With the support of international organisations and primarily based on European Commission programs we attempt to build Geoinformatics capacities in transitional economies through a network of worldwide partner institutions. Many of these partners, like most recently the Austria-Central Asia Center for GIScience in Bishkek (Kyrgyz Republic) are offering UNIGIS programs in their respective regions. In addition to organising short-term trainings and workshops UNIGIS study programs are aiming at longer term and thus more sustained buildup of Geoinformatics qualifications in the institutions critical for a region’s development, and of course to individuals’ professional prospects.

V1 Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about Digital City Salzburg?

Strobl: This is a joint project between Autodesk, University of Salzburg and the City of Salzburg. Jim Farley, Geoff Zeiss and Doug Eberhard are the main drivers from Autodesk and I am responsible for the University of Salzburg portions. The mayor and staff of the City of Salzburg are involved as core actors and end users.

The project centers around building a convergent CAD/GIS geospatial city model for the City of Salzburg. Since many research questions also need addressing for this to proceed, Autodesk is supporting 2 graduate students at the Center. The idea is include the planning, managing, architectural processes together and to do away with separate stages in workflows as one complete model comes together which integrates all resources.

V1 Magazine:
How do you see INSPIRE proceeding and how is that impacting the UNIGIS program and students?

Strobl: INSPIRE has both positives and negatives. But I think over time we will see more people grow to understand the possibilities as the implementation rules are worked on and debated. It will take a long time for the Directive to truly become operational, but I don’t think anyone expects for it to happen over night. Again, many of the research projects within the GI Forum are based upon EU initiatives. It would be good to see more industry involved in the process.


Josef Strobl studied Geography, Meteorology and Geology with an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Vienna, Austria. From 1985 at Salzburg University, teaching and doing research in computer assisted cartography, remote sensing, statistical methods and geographical information systems. More Information .

* Chair Curriculum Commission Geography, University of Salzburg
* Director Z_GIS , University of Salzburg
* Director UNIGIS, Co-Chair UNIGIS International
* Visiting Professor, MSGIS, University of Redlands
* Corresponding Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
* Director GIScience , Research Unit of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

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