Abu Dhabi’s Education Council Continues to Find New Applications for GIS
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a federation founded in 1971 from seven ancient Arabian Peninsula sheikhdoms. Due to the wealth derived from its extensive hydrocarbon deposits, Abu Dhabi has developed a modern, forward-thinking state that embraces its past while preparing for the future. One of its long-term initiatives is the development of a comprehensive information infrastructure to serve the entire emirate, much as a utility company provides electricity, gas, or water.
The Abu Dhabi Systems & Information Centre (ADSIC) was created in 2005 by Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council. The role of the ADSIC is to develop and support various government initiatives in the establishment of a modern, efficient, citizencentric e-government platform.
Spatial Data Infrastructure Initiative Launched
With the expanding use of geographic information systems (GIS) throughout the country, the ADSIC launched the Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure (AD-SDI) initiative in 2007. Its mission is to facilitate the sharing of geospatial data among government agencies and other stakeholders. The AD-SDI initiative is made up of 56 government and private agencies including virtually every industry and agency in the emirate. All AD-SDI members are mandated to share their spatial data with one another, excluding data related to the security of Abu Dhabi.
One member of the AD-SDI is the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which has used Esri’s ArcGIS software for several years. “We began using ArcGIS in 2009,” says Pakrad Balabanian, GIS team leader at the ADEC. “Our first project was the School Finder. Data for this project was very easy to obtain, since we are part of the AD-SDI program. So we got ready-made basemaps, the road network, census data, and so on. SDI really helps extend the use of GIS in Abu Dhabi.”
ADEC Moves GIS outside the Box
ADEC’s School Finder allows residents to explore schools throughout Abu Dhabi, using various criteria such as location, type, grade level, and gender. It is an important and popular application because there is a regular influx of new families to the emirate that are looking for schools for their children, and this helps them get settled more easily.
Realizing the advantages of geoenabling its entire student database, the ADEC integrated ArcGIS with its enterprise student information system, which contains detailed data about Abu Dhabi’s approximately 350,000 students, 18,000 teachers, and 450 schools. This allows administrators to easily monitor student performance at specific schools, compare general progress among neighboring schools, or track an individual teacher’s qualifications and workload.
In addition, the ADEC’s Facilities and Infrastructure department is using GIS for land and facilities management. “The government had allocatedplots of land to the ADEC for educational purposes, but there was uncertainty about the exact location of the plots and their current use,” said Balabanian. “We created the Land Bank application to manage and analyze these plots. We are also using this application for the 10-year ADEC master plan so that we can determine where we should be building new schools and refurbishing older ones.”
In 2012, Abu Dhabi signed a nationwide memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Esri to further expand the country’s use of GIS. The MOU provides access to all Esri GIS software products to every government agency and school in the emirate.
ArcGIS Online Supports the Goals of the New School Model
“With the implementation of the MOU with Esri, we began to explore other possibilities for GIS at the ADEC,” said Balabanian. “We saw great opportunities to include it in the e-learning modules of our New School Model.”
Recently introduced in Abu Dhabi public schools, the New School Model was developed over a number of years by local educators and consultants. This is a student-centered learning approach in which students are engaged in a technology-rich environment that is responsive to their individual abilities and needs. The goal is to foster students’ critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving capabilities while preparing them with twenty-first-century skills for future education and employment.
Because the New School Model is being gradually phased into the entire school curriculum, it was decided to introduce ArcGIS Online in a pilot project for sixth-grade students. Generally between 11 and 12 years old, they have had some previous experience with digital technology, so it is familiar to them, and applying GIS to classroom assignments can help increase their understanding of other subjects during their secondary school education.
Esri education team members and staff from GISetc, a private GIS educational consultancy, worked with Abu Dhabi educators and ADEC curriculum developers to integrate GIS exercises into the sixth-grade curriculum of the New School Model. Five exercises were developed that included mathematical concepts such as map scale, linear measurements, and perimeter calculation, as well as science and geography lessons.
Collector for ArcGIS a Hit with Students
Of particular interest to the students was collecting data about the local mangrove trees and plotting that data on maps for a science lesson. Mangrove trees live in salt water along the Abu Dhabi coastline, providing important animal habitat and erosion control. To complete this lesson, students paddled kayaks about a mile to Mangrove Island, where they performed various measurements, such as determining the height and number of trees in a specified location as well as collecting information about the land surrounding them. Both boys and girls participated. “We were really happy to receive the encouragement and support from the parents of our students,” said Balabanian. “GIS is a twenty-first-century technology, and all of our students can benefit from learning and applying it.”
Students used Collector for ArcGIS on their smartphones to record their data for later use with ArcGIS Online. Their familiarity with smartphones helped lower barriers to learning this new technology.
After an academic review, the pilot project was deemed a success, and the ADEC plans to implement GIS lessons in all sixth-grade classrooms next year. It is currently developing new exercises for the seventh-grade pilot project and plans to incrementally add GIS-related exercises for all students from the sixth through twelfth grade.
The Future of GIS at the ADEC
“Our goal is to enable students to use GIS like any other digital tool, such as Microsoft Word or an Excel spreadsheet,” says Balabanian. “We don’t see teaching GIS as a separate subject; we want to instill in them the concept of spatial thinking so that using maps is part of the way they naturally work. We want them to critically examine phenomena and help effect change when needed. GIS can help our students become responsible members of the global community.”