It was a casual corridor conversation, between Wayne Tyson and Kaley Crawford-Flett, that led to the realisation of an opportunity for a superb collaborative connection between their individual research fields.
Wayne Tyson GRI
Wayne is Manager at the University of Canterbury’s (UC) Geospatial Research Institute (GRI) Toi Hangarau - the centre for world class interdisciplinary geospatial research in New Zealand.
An experienced Geotechnical Water Resource Engineer, Kaley is currently a Research Engineer at the Quake Centre, studying the impact of seismic events on earth dam performance in New Zealand.
Wayne and the team at GRI had recently completed an extensive geospatial mapping project, from a registry backlog of data captured throughout Aotearoa, over the last 15-20 years.
“Straightforward stuff,” says Wayne, “but what a difference it makes to lift data originally embedded in a spreadsheet and be able to display it visually on a map. It becomes a much more easily interpretable and immediately workable tool.”
Part of the geospatial data conversion included mapping a range of different earth dams, into a format that could be automatically displayed. Fortuitously, this particular conversion was completed just before the 14 November 2016, Kaikoura earthquake.
The completion of the new GRI maps was fantastic timing (and just the ticket) for Kaley’s research, helping to more easily identify movement of the earth (in relation to faults and roads) as part of her risk assessment of North Canterbury dams, following the 7.8 magnitude tremor. And a fantastic example of the collaborative approach of researchers at the UC and the Quake Centre.
So what exactly is geospatial research?
“The name geospatial research can really trip people up as it sounds very complicated,” says Wayne. “Put simply, every space and place on earth has a geospatial reference point - a longitude and a latitude. We collect, collate and interpret this location-based data.”
“We’re a bit of an odd science really, a little intangible,” explains Wayne. “We’re not easily defined, like rocket science or brain surgery, but we are ubiquitous - found everywhere - and embedded in much of what we all do on a daily basis.”
“A massive amount of today’s communication and business relies on spatial data – think tweets, a Facebook post, uber or pizza delivery – they all hinge on mobile geospatial mapping technology to find a digital route from A to B.”
Geospatial data is readily available and there are countless ways of gathering this information. Land - property, hillsides, streams, rivers and waterways – are surveyed for different reasons, all of the time. A huge quantity of stored spatial information is tied up to each place, each point, on this earth and, over time, as the data builds up, it can be interpreted to reveal some very interesting information.
UC has delivered leading geospatial research for many years. But there’s been a huge revolutionary leap in the technology available in this field in the last five to ten years, with an enormous growth in the amount of geospatial data being captured in recent times.
“The really exciting thing is how the interpretation of geospatial data has become much more visible and sharable. We can convert complex data - once locked up as numbers on a spreadsheet - into a visual map format, making it easier to understand and interpret. This, in turn, helps industries and organisations to make more informed decisions.
Geospatial technology can be applied to all sorts of things.
Wayne describes how during the Christchurch Port Hills fires, “we had a really good team collecting data as the event unfolded. Their analysis has the potential to provide some really useful resources.”
“It also has sporting implications. Take a rugby game for example, geospatial trackers on players can deliver analytics on field positions, running time or measurements (like the force of an impact) that can help manage players’ welfare.”
The spatial and analytical competency of geospatial science and its ability to accurately calculate and interpret data lends itself to being utilised and applied across a whole range of other sciences too, like physics, astronomy, biology or mathematics.
For environmental sciences the technology can help to monitor climate change, predator control, or the movement, distribution and welfare of different species of plants or animals. In social science, geospatial data can help reveal key information in relation to anything from crime distribution to health care accessibility across a population.
Microbiologists can use geospatial technology (measured in micro-metres), to accurately pinpoint the spread of bacteria on a leaf. There are other amazing applications too. Drone technology and satellite imagery provide data that can reveal the quality of crops, the nitrogen or moisture content of soil, or if a forest is in a healthy or distressed state.
“The field of geospatial science is inherently cross-disciplinary,” says Wayne. “Our aim is to get the different departments at UC to engage and talk about how we can work collaboratively and support each other to provide a coordinated response to industry research needs.”
Wayne's colleague, UC Professor Simon Kingham, Director of the Geospatial Research Institute, predicts that in five years the GRI will have established an international presence, “as a key player in co-innovative geospatial research and education that will enable New Zealand to fully realise the benefits of spatial information technology.”
By its very nature, geospatial science feeds into a multitude of projects and industries. Some of the first research to come out of the GRI will focus on one of our nation’s science challenges: building better homes, towns and cities – Ko ngā wā kāinga hei whakamāhorahora.
Part of this will involve GRI researchers, in collaboration with the Quake Centre, and the Christchurch and Wellington city councils, creating geospatial tools, helping industry to build more seismic resilience through more informed urban planning decisions.
Wayne and the team at GRI are passionate about taking geospatial information and using it to improve our communities. “There are so many unique opportunities to apply our research to seismic activity and to the recovery and future resilience of our region following the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes.”