Presenting Google Earth Engine at the UCL-Wits climate workshop

I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Jen Fitchett to present at the University College London (UCL)- University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) climate workshop during May 2021. I was excited because she had planned for me to demonstrate to a live audience how Google Earth Engine (GEE) can be used to collect climate data remotely.

GEE is a platform that I really enjoy working with and in my opinion, it is the future of remote sensing. During the early stages of my PhD, I had the quite frightening realisation that I had very little data to work with as a result of travel restrictions caused by the global pandemic.  My project revolves around a large peatland deposit in the Angolan Highlands. This would ordinarily have involved going to Angola and collecting samples over several weeks of fieldwork, none of which were possible. I started to investigate whether I could visit my study area virtually, using remote sensing. After watching hours of YouTube tutorials, I finally got a grip of how GEE works. The platform has allowed me to collect large quantities of spatial data about my field site, all from the comfort of my home, pushing my PhD progress forward.

I have repeatedly presented on the extensive datasets that GEE has to offer to both of my supervisors. I often planned a meeting of 20 minutes that would frequently last over an hour, simply because we were all intrigued by the extensive data catalogue. I wanted the UCL-Wits workshop presentation to be no different, and Prof. Fitchett encouraged me to keep the same ‘show and tell’ format when presenting. The GEE platform really sparks discussion and places thinking caps firmly on heads.

If I am totally honest, I was not nervous to present, even with the knowledge of having to present to highly acclaimed researchers at UCL and other international institutions. I think this was because I had the experience of live demonstrations and I knew that what I would share would be new and valuable to almost all the audience. It also made me comfortable knowing that Prof. Fitchett would be there if anything went totally wrong.

I did, however, perform a quick Google search on what makes a good presentation beforehand. One of the most striking points from this search for me personally was that it is the presenter that makes the presentation worth watching. I knew I had to bring the energy and put a big smile on my face, especially at the start to draw attention.  When presenting online, you have no real social cues to go by, no eye contact or body language, so a lot of the suggestions of what makes a good presentation do not apply.  

If I look back at the presentation itself, I encouraged the live audience to interact with me as much as possible, far from a lecture-type presentation, and it was a great success. In hindsight, I probably should have moved through the datasets a bit quicker as I did not get to show nearly as much as I wanted to. The positive side to this was that some members of the audience had the opportunity to see their field site for the first time on GEE. My plan was to showcase the extraordinary capabilities of the platform in the hope that other researchers and students may use GEE in their own projects, especially now when fieldwork is logistically impossible.

After the presentation, I received communication from both Dr. Sarah Roffe and Dr. Adriaan van der Walt, two former PhD students of Prof. Fitchett, both asking me if I would like to do the same presentation at The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) Students and Young Professionals (SnP) group workshop. Hopefully, these workshops could be the start of something that I could take forward in a teaching and learning setting in future. I would love the opportunity to teach GEE post PhD at a university or technical institution.

Three presentation lessons learnt:

  1. What you say is more important than the written text in the presentation.
  2. You need to bring the positive energy, not the audience. If you think your presentation is boring, the audience will think so too, so make it interesting and worthwhile for the them.
  3. When presenting online, technical difficulties are inevitable, just deal with them as best you can and do not let them distract you.

I may be a student, but I love the nostalgia of my childhood.

I often watch a show on the History Channel called American Pickers – two guys that travel around America picking (buying) up old treasures from memorabilia to bicycle parts, old toys, collectables, signs and so on. They often resonate strongly with the items that they remember from their childhood as it gives them a sense of nostalgia. The people who they purchase these items from, often collected these from their childhood years. If a collector did not have money growing up, they would go looking for those items they only dreamt of having as a kid much later in life, when they could finally afford it.

The Nash Statesman Super in front of the Antique Archaeology building in Le Claire, Iowa, home of the American Pickers.

The period in which you grew up is likely to have a deep impact on what you enjoy in life. I grew up in the early 2000s, so have been influenced by TV shows, cartoons, books, and collectables of that time. If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, you may have been influenced by the Space Race. You would have loved rocket ships, space-related comic books and probably wanted to work for NASA and become an astronaut. If I look at my younger cousins growing up today, they are mainly influenced by YouTube, social media, and applications such as TikTok.

One of my favourite memories growing up was my 6th birthday. I was in grade one and my birthday is in June and happened to be on a school day. I remember I woke up early and it was still dark. My parents wished me a happy birthday and my dad walked me to the kitchen for breakfast. As if it were yesterday, on my way back to my room I can still distinctly picture it all, seeing a VHS tape of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on top of my large clothing cupboard in the corner of my room. My parents had placed it there whilst I ate. It was a movie that I had been begging to go and see and I would now finally get my chance. Needless to say, I could not wait to get back home from school to put that tape in the VHS and press play. I absolutely adored the movie and have been a fan of Harry Potter or a Potterhead ever since. If I ever get my Hogwarts letter, I will not hesitate to leave the studying all behind.

Hogwarts, school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Growing up, I somehow managed to borrow the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series from my neighbours. The LOTR trilogy is not exactly scary, but I would watch the monstrous character Gollum, giant trolls, ugly looking orcs and Sauron, the creator of the ring, fly around on a terrifying creature called a Fellbeast that created an awful screeching sound. I was unphased by the frightening characters of the fantasy world and I could not get enough. By contrast, as an adult, I do not enjoy scary films at all.

Gollem, a monstrous fictional character from the Lord of the Rings.

If anyone was in school during the early 2000s in South Africa, they would probably have watched SABC 2 at 4 PM every weekday. The anime series of Pokémon, Beyblade, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh were faithfully followed and supported, click here for a link describing each.  At my afterschool care, we would sit in front of the tiny TV, with the antenna perfectly adjusted and watch in silence. You were forbidden to speak, only until the adverts played. If someone’s parent arrived during the show, they would have to wait until the show was over to leave because we did not have the luxury of recording and downloadable content. These anime series defined South African childhoods, and anyone who grew up during that period would agree that those were some of the best memories.

Goku, the main protagonist of Dragon Ball Z.
Pokémon Indigo League

I was exposed to Star Wars much later, one of my friends knew everything there was to know about the series and encouraged me to watch the older films before going to watch Episode VII – The Force Awakens in theatres (2015). I had missed out on so much, but after a couple of days of binge-watching, I had caught up on the previous six episodes. The Star Wars Universe that started a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away is just incredible to me. I love the adventures, characters, stories, space travel, planets, and The Force. The creativity and imagination of the creator George Lucas are absolutely mind-boggling.

During the beginning of the lockdown, I – like most people – watched a lot of Netflix and movies. I enjoy watching new releases, but almost always watch something I saw during my childhood. I have no problem watching a movie that came out in 2004 such as The Incredibles, where I can be my 9-year-old self again. I like to watch an old movie to remember the way things were and get exposed to the feelings I had when I first watched them, using entertainment as a time machine.

I am currently trying to finish off my unfinished Pokémon collection, buying cards that are 20 years old from a dedicated South African Pokémon Facebook group and putting them into my original Pokémon collector binder. The value of such items has grown exponentially since they were released, and especially now during the lockdown. An original First Edition booster originally priced at $2 per pack, now costs over $2,000 if unopened. People want to feel and see the things of their childhood that were once so dear to them, and relive that somehow, a term called regressive re-consumption. I guess it was easy for us all to revisit happy memories of our past during the lockdown as we really had nothing to look forward to, other than uncertainty. You often hear people say: “Yeah, those were in the good old days”. They are most probably referring to a time in their childhood.

Pokémon card collection.