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.

Boosting connectivity in African universities: a lofty ideal, but doable

Posted from The Conversation Africa

Authored by Prof Willie Chinyamurindi, SAYAS Co-Chair 2021

Connecting African universities to high speed internet can help drive the development of digital skills and capabilities. This would also benefit secondary schools and technical and vocational colleges.

strong argument has been made, that improving connectivity should be viewed as a priority infrastructure investment. 

The World Bank published a report last year pointing out the drawbacks of poor connectivity. It noted that the lack of affordable and high-speed broadband for African universities was the main barrier to the use of technology in education and research. And it prevented African faculty and students from linking to international teaching and research resources.

There are other reasons why African governments should prioritise investment in greater connectivity to high speed internet. These include its spillover benefits for the wider education system. This is particularly true for secondary schools and technical and vocational centres. Both are key for development. It will also have an impact on economic and social growth.

Despite this unified acknowledgement of the importance of connectivity, challenges remain.

On one side is the need to address the growing digital divide. Then there is the issue of high connectivity costs. This results in high mobile data costsStatistics show that the price of data on the continent remains high and out of the reach of ordinary citizens. 

All these issues appear to be barriers on the path towards better connectivity in Africa. Yet there are opportunities.

Opportunities

An increase in tertiary enrolments on the continent is one opportunity. This trend isn’t surprising given the continent’s young population – a demographic hungry to connect with the rest of the world. 

The increase in tertiary education enrolments coupled with the fact that young people are early adopters of technology makes the higher education sector a vital cog in any strategy for increasing internet connectivity.

Higher education is an important step towards digital inclusion. And technology is an important vehicle in enabling it.

So how can connectivity in African universities be enhanced?

The answer revolves around five related pillars.

The pillars

The first revolves around a mindset shift. This entails believing Africa can be pioneering in global innovations. This approach has been well articulated in the writing of author and commentator Victor Kgomoeswana. In particular is accounts of African innovations making it to the global arena. 

There’s a need to set in motion the belief that Africans can be trend-setters rather than mere adopters of technologies. This mindset needs to be inculcated, particularly in Africa’s higher education sector.

A second priority should be improving connectivity in universities and addressing infrastructure challenges. A report by the consultancy firm Deloitte bemoans the challenge of infrastructure as a significant obstacle to Africa achieving full economic growth. Investment priorities should include infrastructure that encourages connectivity in higher education institutions.

Thirdly, collaboration among African universities matters more than ever. If done well it would maximise economies of scale and foster synergies. Building collaborative libraries on the continent is an excellent example. Take the R200-million Phyllis Ntantala Collaborative library in South Africa. This is a collaboration between the University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and the University of South Africa in East London.

A fourth pillar would be universities investing in cyber-infrastructure resources and the provision of high-performance computing capabilities. Connectivity becomes an important priority here. This also has the potential to benefit universities’ research and teaching activities.

A final issue is a focus on addressing regulations. This includes breaking the hold of telecommunication monopolies prevalent in many African states. 

Minding the digital gap and addressing connectivity issues is a lofty ideal. But I believe it’s achievable for African universities.