Geospatial technologies

Geospatial Technologies: One-On-One with Stephen Mwai

“Life in GIS” is a Kenyan-inspired site that seeks to provide a platform for increasing awareness about geospatial technologies in the country and region. For more details, check out the About section

Introduction

Stephen is a Geospatial Engineer and GIS Expert with a rich broad experience in various disciplines of the Geospatial Engineering industry, including cadastral survey, engineering survey, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geospatial Engineering from The Technical University of Kenya, and currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems & Remote Sensing at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology.

He currently works with Synergetic Energy Partners Co. Ltd, a leading Engineering Procurement & Construction firm in Africa. When he is not collecting data and implementing designs or on the computer processing the data and developing spatial designs, you will find him doing what he loves – GIS programming! Thank you very much for agreeing to take this interview and for responding to our questions.

Tools within the Geospatial Sector
An RTK at Work
  1. Tell us a little bit about your journey in Geospatial Engineering and GIS Development.

For starters, I never wanted to be a geospatial engineer. In fact, I was admitted into Mechanical Engineering at the university and only transferred to Geospatial Engineering later. Growing up, I just wanted to be an engineer, but I hadn’t narrowed it down to a discipline. During the course transfer, I sought the advice of a final-year Electrical Engineering student and friend from home, and he led me to Geospatial Engineering ruling out Electrical, Civil, and Aeronautical options, all of which I was qualified for. To quote him, “Do you love money? Then take Geospatial”.

At the time I didn’t even know what Geospatial was – I Googled! So, I started my Geospatial Engineering course and pictured becoming a land surveyor. In my 5th year when doing my project, I selected a study that required me to develop a mobile app. Till then, I’d never been interested in programming. I had to learn some Java/Android in a very short time to create the mobile app, and that is how my interest in coding began. And so, my love for programming began!

2. So at Synergetic Energy Partners Co. Limited, an Engineering, Procurement & Construction Management firm, what does your job encompass?

At SEPCOL, being an EPCM, there is a lot of engineering design and construction. So, as a Geospatial Engineer, my work encompasses providing the design engineers with the necessary spatial data they need to do their design and taking the necessary spatial measurements on-site for the construction engineers to execute the designs (geospatial technologies). Sometimes it gets very interesting, on a couple of occasions I have had to do flight path obstacle limitation surface models.

As a GIS Developer, I use my programming skills to create data collection, management, analysis, and visualization solutions for both the engineering aspect and the business aspects of the organization. I also help with the customization and management of corporate software solutions like inventory and ERP systems.

3. What software do you use to achieve your tasks on a daily basis? How often do you use each? What specific modules of the software?

On-site I mostly use Surpad & FieldGenius software for data collection using GNSS receivers. In the office, I use the ArcGIS suite of applications, QGIS, AutoCAD Civil3D, and other custom applications. And of course, you will also find me often on IDEs and cPanels working on code!

4. Have you been involved in any GIS Hackathons? How do you feel these coding events will transform the GIS industry in terms of innovation?

No, I have not participated in a GIS hackathon for reasons I don’t want to mention here. Nevertheless, hackathons are a good platform for exposure, exchange of ideas, networking and mentorship. They are also a platform to gauge one’s skills and to identify demand and gaps in the industry. I guess the first time I will take part in a GIS hackathon, I will be hosting one.

5. You’ve had quite an elaborate experience in and outside Geospatial technologies. I’m sure you’ve also had time to digest a myriad of cross-cutting issues in society. What do you think, mapping could be the missing link to solving societal problems, especially those dealing with environments like sanitation, waste management, poor population distribution, and the like.

We say everything happens at a location. And that makes GIS and map-based solutions one of the best approaches to social, economic, environmental, political, and all other aspects. When we tie events, data and information to a location or a space, we make more meaning out of it, and hence we are able to make much better decisions. When we omit location and space from the equation, that is why we find ourselves with confused towns and cities, a lack of proper zones, and insufficient and dysfunctional sewerage and sanitation systems. For instance, in the case of the Nairobi metropolitan, I believe the government should not be allowing the cool rich coffee zones of Kiambu to continue being overhauled into residential areas. We should be settling in the less productive areas of Kajiado and Machakos.

6. It is to my knowledge that you worked on the IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan. What is the role of a GIS expert in such a project?

It may sound like an exaggeration when I say that the GIS expert is the convergence of all other disciplines involved in developing an international or regional master plan. But that is the case. And this was evident in the IGAD regional master plan where the final report featured in excess of 70 maps. And there were many other maps, tables, charts, and statistical outputs done using GIS techniques during the development of the master plan. At stakeholder meetings, most people wanted to examine the projects from the maps and GIS dashboards, and not from the rather monotonous textual or tabular formats. The GIS expert analyses demographics, transport networks, trade flows, economic trends, infrastructural needs, human resources, environmental resources, water resources, energy resources, social and political patterns, and many other factors to develop a decision model for short-term, medium-term, and long-term infrastructure development plans.

The data, maps, and other outputs acquired in the process are then shared with various stakeholders through GIS databases and platforms. In this case, there was the IGAD Geonode and the PIDA Projects Dashboard.

7. Let’s talk about County Spatial Plans. You worked on Kirinyaga CSP. Just to resolve the confusion from the things we’ve seen delivered around the counties as County Spatial Plans. In your own sense, what is entailed in developing a County Spatial Plan?

The County Spatial Plan is a ten-year GIS-based depiction of a county’s socio-economic development vision and program, including the distribution of people and activities, within the context of efficient, productive and sustainable use of land and other county spaces. The spatial plan has several layers: Cadastral Layer, Land Use Patterns, Topography, Forestry and Marine, Population and Demographics, Agriculture, Water, Soil, Forestry, Human settlement, etc. In collaboration with experts from the relevant sectors, data is collected and then stored in a geodatabase for later use, retrieval, management, analysis and visualization. Ideally, the CSP should form the backbone of all county planning and management. The data needs to be in a way that it can be accessed and utilized by different stakeholders within and outside the county administration, with different levels of privileges and authorization. The spatial plan should be dynamic, alive, and growing!

8. Talk to County leadership about County Spatial Plan. Specify what they need to prioritize if they want to have a remarkable CSP.

The CSP is not just a one-time project to be shelved after the presentation. As I said, the CSP should form the backbone of all county planning and management. It is a portal for examining and managing the county and its resources. Therefore, counties need to prioritize the best computer-based infrastructure on which the spatial database will run, as well as onboarding skilled and visionary GIS personnel to design and develop the geospatial technologies for the CSP. An incisive, exhaustive, and comprehensive data collection process should follow. The other thing is to ensure collaboration among the various stakeholders so that they own and understand the magnitude and significance of the CSP.

9. What are some of the gaps we are having in our geospatial industry that limit our capacity to deliver remarkably of projects like CSPs, SDIs or even simple spatial-related projects like Lands systems in your experience?

First, let me point out a gap outside the geospatial technologies industry – there needs to be deliberate education and sensitization within the academic, socio-economic, and political spaces about the fundamental role of geospatial engineering. There may be capacity within the industry, but the external stakeholders do not create the enabling environment for the geospatial to deliver CSPs, LMSs, etc. Within the geospatial industry, the glaring gap is in the lack of enough programming training for professionals, especially when it comes to GIS, GeoICT, and such courses. I would encourage institutions and curriculum developers to incorporate more programming courses within their programs (Programs utilizing geospatial technologies).

10. As a millennial GISer and Geek, do you feel disenfranchised by the lack of a GIS Community or body that can foster professional growth in your career? Something similar to what we see in other hemispheres where we have OSGeo Foundation, QGIS User Groups, #gistribe, and a lot of dev Meetups. How would you like our community to move going forward to ensure a more valuable engagement in the future?

Oh! I am a millennial? Millennial always sounds like a term for very young people, unlike me. Concerning GIS bodies and authorities, I tend to think that the lack of proper ones is attributed to the young age of modern geospatial technologies, and engineering discipline, particularly in the context of Kenya and other developing nations. I believe, with time, the bodies and authorities will become better structured and significant, just as is the case in the developed world. We will be able to break away from the traditional Survey discipline and forge our own paths. And the time is now, so it is upon us, geospatial enthusiasts, to start making strides towards the kind of professional environment we wish for ourselves and for future generations.


Thank you very much once more for responding to our questions. It’s been such an informative and in-depth conversation. To reach Stephen, you can contact him on:

Email: stephenmwai[at]engineer.com
Phone: [+254] 723 529202

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Risper Mutinda

Hello. I am Risper Mutinda. I am a passionate Web and GIS Developer but more importantly, I am passionate about Technology.

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