GIS-talk: interview with Oleg Seliverstov

Aspectum Oct 16, 2020
GIS-talk: interview with Oleg Seliverstov
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Oleg Seliverstov is a Head of GIS at Aspectum, technological specialist, geospatial and remote sensing data analyst with more than 15 years of experience in projects related to geography, cartography and forestry.

We have interviewed him, asking about the deforestation tendencies, nature conservation, discussed how spatial technologies can be adopted in forestry and how using GIS and drone mapping help tackle the problems of environmental deterioration.

1. One of the most critical issues facing forests in the world is alarming deforestation. In your view, how can geospatial technology address this issue?

Interestingly enough, in some regions natural tree growth outstrips the deforestation rates. Forest areas are increasing as logging areas, pastures and abandoned arable lands are becoming overgrown. As a result of weather conditions and climate change, forests may be spotted even in the steppe regions. 

Still, the overall statistics show that there’s a sharp decline in forest land areas on the planet. In the last 40 years, the average forest area decreased twofold from 1.2 hectares to 0.6 hectares per person.

There are different reasons behind deforestation tendencies. Obviously, the principal one is felling. We keep destroying forests for raw materials, paper production, fuel, and furniture. Also, wood is cut down to free land for construction or farming. 

Also, the problem is that in many cases tree felling is illegal and therefore uncontrollable. There must almost always be a license for chopping a tree down, and if it is cut without one, it’s a felony. The penalties vary depending on the crime volume and on the country. For example, in the European Union the penalties range from €63.49 per tree to up to 2 years imprisonment. Despite the punishments, illegal logging costs the global market US$10 billion annually. 

But it’s not only about the money. All organisms on the planet Earth are intertwined. By eradicating forests, we destroy the habitats of myriads of animals and plants, reduce biodiversity, disrupt regional water balances, and destabilize ecosystems. The latter, in turn, reduces nature’s ability to cleanse water and air from pollution and leads to an increased risk of diseases spreading. In the end, such basic biogeochemical processes as the circulation of substances and photosynthesis slow down. Another consequence is a decrease of nitrogen-carbon bonding which in combination with other processes accelerates climate change.

It may seem abstract and too scientific, but deforestation is sure to affect our everyday life too. The key consequence in the medium term is the deterioration of the quality of life. We’ll see fewer animals in forests, the air we breathe will become dirtier, and we are destined to have more droughts and floods. Climate change increases the extremity of temperatures and precipitation which is already resulting in droughts and storms. Already, both the number and the intensity of flash floods are increasing while coastal zones of the seas are being submerged.

On the other hand, mankind has got used to benefiting from forests for many years. Largely thanks to the resources of the forest, we have been able to undergo all the previous stages of historical development from hunter-gathering to farming to printing and finally, to the age of Ikea. Naturally, in the 21st century we cannot completely abandon the use of forests and reinvent a new course for humanity. But we can try to reduce the threatening volumes of felling by making forest management conscious, measurable, and predictable.

And since the forest itself and all related processes are widely distributed in terms of space, forest management is impossible without geospatial technology.

2. What do you think the role of GIS in forestry is?

I believe that sustainable forest management is impossible without an in-depth study of the ongoing processes in forest systems. What is also important is putting into practice the accumulated knowledge of precise management. It is crucial to have a clear understanding of what is happening in the forest and where. Where are old-growth forest areas that need to be protected as a source of biological diversity and stability? Which are the areas of forest-land crucial for containing avalanches, landslides and floods? Which areas will suffer the most from climate change? Where are the outbreaks of vegetation diseases? Where do various types of trees grow and how old are they?

Finally, we need to know exactly where and how to carry out planned forestry activities safely without the risk of reducing resilience. GIS data can prompt us where we can plant a young forest, how to take care of it and harvest it decades later.

3. Why is using GIS in forestry important? What industry trends do you foresee?

Every year forest enterprises, just like enterprises in any other industry related to natural resources, are increasingly adopting geospatial technology to improve daily operations. And the rapid progress of technology is changing the GIS used, turning it into a distributed “neural system” that analyzes current situations, predicts options for future states, and recommends optimal solutions.

For instance, stationary sensors allow you to more accurately track the weather, insect pests, warn of fires and other adversities. Mobile sensors of transportation vehicles, employees’ mobile devices, timber batches tags, etc. allow you to control the movement and condition of resources, as well as better coordinate field and office teams, and take prompt corrective actions. For example, such a common thing as a cell phone collects a rich amount of data. It has different types of sensors for detecting motion, environment and position. A cellphone has on average twelve sensors that collect data. Ideally, this data should be used for GIS intelligence and forestry as well. 

Regular surveys from drones, airplanes, and satellites provide farms with data on  equipment conditions, warehouses, roads, and forests with a level of accuracy reaching down to individual trees. In the coming years, we will be able to determine the height, trunk diameter, species and age of each tree. As for groups of trees and small areas of forests, we will be able to determine signs of damage, infection, drying out, and more. 

It’s worth mentioning that drones are gradually taking the stage as the market share of drone services is expanding and is predicted to reach $63.6 billion in five years. 

Remote sensing(RS) is increasingly gaining an important role in forest ecology and management. With its help, we can map forests’ locations and distribution more accurately, look into seasonal plant productivity and take a “3-dimensional” look at it. The key advantage of RS is that it collects information about various objects without having to contact them. 

Geographic information systems perform a predictive function, letting organizations plan economic activities “based on data”. The advancement of machine learning and AI allows us to leverage accumulated historical data to generate value by revealing trends and anomalies. Also, it lets us more precisely predict forest development options and find ways to enhance business operations. In turn, analysis of weather data and data on forest damage helps optimize forest maintenance operations. Resource tracking analysis enhances logistics, as well as the work of field teams. Furthermore, the integration of GIS with internal corporate information systems enables the managing of a company’s assets with respect to spatial features.

Modern geographic information systems display the current state of forests in the format of digital twins. These are daily updated simplified real-world models that are used for situational awareness. They are extremely helpful for making decisions by technicians, engineers, managers, etc. Now specialists have an opportunity to work not only with the usual forest digital maps, but also with three-dimensional models and VR technologies in order to accurately identify and investigate problems. And mobile applications allow teams to access digital twins from the comfort of a tablet or smartphone.

4. One of your points of interest is nature conservation. Can you tell us more about its importance and the input of GIS into it? 

The only possible way for us as a species to advance lies in the rational management of natural resources and balanced coexistence with organisms and ecosystems. We need a stable planet as a platform for expansion.

Again, from an everyday point of view, it’s nice to know that when we go for a walk in the forest, we can freely breathe the rich forest air, take photos of plants, pick a handful of strawberries, watch forest animals and birds. Numerous studies suggest that the contemplation of nature drastically decreases stress and improves mental well-being. But sadly, each year city citizens have fewer and fewer of such opportunities. Now they have to carefully plan such trips in advance, and the destinations become more remorseful with each time. 

The main risks and associated challenges related to nature conservation were announced at a UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. If we cannot reduce excessive, irrational consumption of resources, we will not be able to establish a conscious interaction with nature. As a result, we will have to face a series of crises caused by anthropic biosphere imbalances. And it is hard to predict the extent to which this will affect our civilization, with its lifestyles and standards. Of course, geological and astronomical risk factors are also possible, but we assume that they are less likely, and we cannot manage them yet.

Now the efforts of experts in the field of nature conservation are directed precisely at the studying, monitoring and forecasting of natural processes separately and in conjunction with anthropogenic ones. Certain applied areas of nature conservation include the development of the state and business policies, development of legislation and regulatory requirements, business certification, and business and government control mechanisms. All these initiatives aim at helping to reduce industrial and household emissions, slow down the destruction of species and their habitats, develop environmental education, and introduce best practices for balanced consumption and sustainable development.

And since all these tasks have a spatial component, it is impossible to perform them efficiently without using maps, spatial models, and geographic information systems. At all stages from investigation to study and forecasting, maps are used to examine the development of the current situation by answering three big WH questions: what, when and where the changes are happening?

5. Also, you are involved in UAV (drone) mapping. Can you dwell more on this? 

It is quite a new technology, but it has caught the eye of many GIS specialists including myself. I find it fascinating how UAV mapping affects the way we receive data now. It involves AI, drones, onboard processing under any conditions, even fog. Our mobile sensors and mobile tools gather information not only from the air, but also from land and water. Our new “neural system” allows us to more adequately assess the environment and situations in which we find ourselves. 

My interest in this matter is more professional as drones are already well established in the industry as a part of geoinformatics and are used for tackling a scope of tasks from planning operations (missions) to advanced data analysis.

6. The benefits of UAV capture are higher-quality imaging and temporality. Can you expand on that and the other benefits you see in this technology?

The UAV has its own area of ​​scale and applicability. Usually, UAVs are used when for some reason data from ground sensors, aerial or space surveys is insufficient or when the work of a field specialist is impossible or ineffective.

With the help of UAV, we can quickly examine sites “on-demand” at a smaller cost than from operational satellite imagery. Moreover, we receive information on damage from poor weather, fires, landslides, etc. Thus UAV can be useful for investigating with passive sensors under the cloud cover when satellite imagery is ineffective. In addition, UAV will be useful for regular monitoring of the condition of a limited area, for example, at the level of a forest enterprise or even at the level of individual plantations of a young forest. 

Furthermore, UAV is irreplaceable if we want to obtain the spatial resolution of data at the level of the upper inches of the surface, for example, to monitor the level of water rise, tree growth rate, or to investigate individual parts of the tree crown.

However, the technology has limitations due to its novelty and partly due to its immaturity, both technical and legal. From a technical point of view, the number of accidents or failures that result in injuries and structural damage is still rather high. From a legal point of view, the use of drones in some countries is very limited. This means that countries with less stringent requirements are exposed to greater risks during implementation and testing, but also gain greater benefits.

When we use ground and water drones, we are exposed to significantly fewer risks of accidents. That is why progress in the use of these types of drones should be expected first. For example, there are already pilot projects using wheeled and walking drones in forestry that plant and take care of young trees or even fight fires.

7. How can different industries adopt drone mapping technology?

Drones help make our maps more accurate, both spatially and temporally. Our models have less in common with paper maps and more with digital twins. Think of Aspectum’s drone and stationary sensor systems as part of a distributed sensory system that organizations utilize to track changes with high precision. 

In many cases, drones are already more cost-effective than field teams. And also safer for they can operate in hostile environments reducing the risk of personnel injury. If your business has been previously associated with collecting field data or performing routine mechanical operations, it’s important to closely follow current trends in the industry and cases of successful implementation.

8. What industries are using the technology most today?

Traditionally, these are industries with high investment potential such as healthcare, transportation, oil and gas exploration and real estate. It is also important to acknowledge that many innovative technologies are now in the running-in stages; therefore, they are used more where the risks are minimal and can be justified. But listing all the industries using technology would take quite some time, it’s easier to name the ones that don’t use geospatial solutions.

9. Human activities and global warming are rapidly contributing to environmental deterioration. How can using GIS help tackle this problem?

On the one hand, we use GIS to analyze natural processes and human influence on them, and try to reduce the negative impact. On the other hand, we predict the consequences of climate change on river systems, biota, towns and cities, assess risks, and develop mitigation plans.

A good example is a strategy for adapting to changes at different levels: from the country level to regions and individual settlements. The data and findings gained during such analyzes must be used in government agencies to stay informed of the current situations and upcoming challenges. For instance, agencies will get a better understanding of the increased duration of the summer in the city, the changes in precipitation during winter, and the rise of sea tides. In turn, with this knowledge, we can more effectively anticipate the impact on city life, utilities, energy consumption, crops, business, etc. And this was impossible without the use of GIS.

10. As a geo and mapping specialist, what’s your advice to business owners on GIS use?

Any business is spatial, and space has now become much easier to control. Today, businesses can gain additional value from the accumulated data. For instance, by effectively processing data at hand businesses can find new customers and increase retention of existing ones, improve provided services, efficiently manage marketing activities, predicting sales trends, etc. Moreover, businesses can start collecting spatial data more closely. A company can start with spatial monitoring of business processes, and after it gets the first data, it uses spatial analysis technologies to find underlying patterns and make familiar things more measurable and controllable.

11. How do you see the future of geoscience?

Even today we are overwhelmed by waves of spatial data, such as data on the statistics of application use on smartphones, on purchases in stores, on the location of people and equipment, weather data and data from video cameras, drones and satellites. Geodata helps us navigate terrain, get a taxi, and plan a vacation. 

At the same time, we are still in the early stages of testing the power of this data. Data flows will grow and methods will appear to automatically analyze these huge amounts of data. Eventually, data processing will be transferred to clouds in most cases. As for the tasks of online local analysis and raw data post-processing, calculations in fog computing, including onboard processing, will be used more commonly. Advanced analysis tools are going to become more accessible to non-experts. Instead of cumbersome over-functional classical GIS, we will work with lightweight convenient mobile business-oriented applications with the functionality to solve our daily tasks.

And we will always be aware of what, where, when or should be happening in the near future. This may be unusual at first and will affect our social habits. Also, it will most certainly raise issues of privacy and security even more acutely.

12. What keeps you motivated in the work you do every day?

First, it’s the belief that geography helps change lives for the better by informing specialists and organizations, establishing a balanced relationship with nature, and helping us explore new worlds.

Also, it feels great to take part in co-creating maps on a daily basis. Maps are like the language of geography the real world uses to communicate to their readers. On one side, maps as derived visual images are based on precise data. On the other, they give freedom to choose the optimal lexicon, stylistic variations, and the author’s interpretation.

13. Bringing young people into the GIS sector is an ongoing challenge. What do you think needs to be done to change this?

I recently met a team of professionals that develop school lessons using virtual reality technologies in astronomy, physics, geography and archeology. During these lessons students can view the most realistic models of the real world and see options and simulation results, visually tracing the transition from visual perception to analysis. This is a great opportunity to introduce large-scale spatial phenomena with spatial relationships. Students can play a “what if” game on regional or even planetary scale, identify bifurcation points, explore possible scenarios, and emotionally visualize the results. I think this is impressive. I believe such virtual lessons, together with obligatory fieldwork in geography and ecology lessons, practical experiments in physics and chemistry classrooms, can become the basis for the development of a complex perception of space and how it works.

Our approach to teaching geography will change over time. We have already seen changes in educational programs as a reaction to the practical penetration of geoinformatics into all spheres of life. In many European countries, the basics of geographic information systems are one of the compulsory school subjects, where students learn the fundamentals of working with geodata, digital maps and satellite images.

Since last year, several US universities have launched general courses in the study of geographical information systems for all specialties offering such courses as Cartography/Graphic Representation, Database Management Systems Spatial Statistics, Remote Sensing/Image Processing, etc. Thus, GIS is studied not only by cartographers and geographers but also by economists, urbanists, historians, cultural scientists, linguists, biologists and physicians who learn how to apply geotechnology to solve their tasks.

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