SEASC 2019: Building a regional community

By on 28 August, 2019

SSSI’s Peter Olah and Zaffar Mohamed-Ghouse with PGSC’s Meizyanne Hicks and the Pacific Islands team at SEASC 2019.

The 15th South East Asia Survey Congress laid the foundation for a new mode of engagement with our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific.

Darwin in August is a nirvana of the tropics.

Peak dry season sees temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s, the Darwin Festival in full swing brings shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream downtown, colourful programming drawing a relaxed crowd of revellers, locals and visitors alike to the festival park for a bite and a tipple in the warm evening air.

This was the setting for the 15th South East Asia Survey Congress, a solid and sumptuous event that drew a dedicated crowd of over 450 delegates to the Top End city for a week of workshops, local tours, rousing keynotes and a few historic announcements along the way.

Around half of these were international delegates, a sparkling result for the organisers and an endorsement of the congress’ foci.

The big picture

Built around a theme of ‘Communication, collaboration and capacity-building’, the event’s programming was meticulously curated to contextualise spatial practice in the context of a rapidly changing, non-Eurocentric world — with particular attention on developments in the Asia-Pacific.

My own schedule meant that I could only attend for Friday August 16 and Saturday August 17, but what a packed couple of days they were.

Friday morning opened with an historic signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the SSSI and ASEAN FLAG (Association of Southeast Asian Nations Federation of Land Surveying and Geomatics).

SSSI President Zaffar welcomed all parties with a warm address, and new SSSI honourary fellows Dr. Andrew Barnicoat from Geoscience Australia and Northern Territory Surveyor General Rob Sarib were named and awarded.

Dorine Burmanje, co-chair of the UN GGIM, during her opening keynote at SEASC 2019.

A keynote presentation from UN-GGIM co-chair Dorine Burmanje set the tone for a series of inspiring presentations that sought to highlight global geodetic and spatial initiatives with the potential to transform lives and supercharge international development – underpinned by the data from the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report that show a much faster, deeper and more ambitious response is needed if the agenda is to be met.

Also chair of the Executive Board of the Netherlands’ Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency, Ms. Buranje’s keynote was driven by a sense of urgency and grave import in recognition of, and adaptation to a rapidly changing environment and social order – a theme echoed by opening remarks from Hon Eva Lawler MLA, the NT minister for infrastructure, and for climate change and environmental resources.

Ms. Burmanje’ walked through the criticality of the SDGs and the importance of place, the interconnectedness of global challenges highlighted by the UN’s first-of-its-kind biodiversity report, and the crucial nature of land registration systems in establishing civil society, highlighting an inspiring ‘fit for purpose’ registration model being trialled in Colombia.

Run by the Netherlands, the ‘fit-for-purpose’ land registration project aims to establish order in post-conflict zones with promising results, which Ms Burmanje said reflected the UN-GGIM’s recognition that the existing methodologies for land registration cannot keep pace with need – a ‘fit for purpose’ model must be adopted to keep pace.

This stream of global updates in the geospatial space from the UN-GGIM continued, with freshly minted SSSI honorary fellow Dr, Andrew Barnicoat providing updates from the Asia-Pacific perspective on the development of international frameworks to facilitate international development – the Sendai disaster framework, Global Geodetic Reference Frame and the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework.

Closer to home

Engaging more deeply with our neighbouring regional nations as a community of surveyors and spatial professionals was perhaps the leitmotif of the 2019 congress.

The most pivotal events of the congress turned around this concept, and the most engaging stream of the event for me was found in the illumination of exemplar projects and initiatives in our industry being carried out in South East Asia, and some key developments with major import for the future of Australian geospatial practice.

An address by ASEAN Deputy Secretary-General, His Excellency Dr. Aladdin D. Rillo, concisely highlighted the scale of opportunities in the region, neatly cataloguing a phalanx of recent efforts to free up trade, exchange of services and mobility of services within the economic bloc.

A brief tour through the monstrous program of planned infrastructure efforts in the region to promote connectivity left no doubt as to the scale of the need for high quality geospatial, design and survey services represented here.

Digging further into these liberalisation efforts with respect to surveying and spatial disciplines, a detailed set of presentations outlined the undertaking of the ASEAN mutual recognition agreement (MRA) for the industry, a colossal initiative aiming to standardise education, certification and accreditation requirements across nations in the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), to facilitate the flow of professionals across borders.

With the ultimate aim of a unified labour market for ASEAN member states, a series of talks outlined lessons learnt and the scale of effort required to recognise and standardise surveying educational institutions and courses, in light of vast differences in units offered and institutional standards, and the spectrum of development for registration and accreditation systems across states.

The MoU with ASEAN FLAG was followed by the signing with the Pacific Geospatial and Surveying Council (PGSC), and following the week prior’s agreement with the Open Geospatial Consortium, represent a strong focus on standards and certification that situates SSSI members in a regional and global context, with project plans for the first year attached to each of these agreements, in addition to high-level commitments.

A heavyweight set of presentations made up the capacity building stream, with updates on the development of the Global Geospatial Reference Frame (GGRF), and a set of insightful and strategic reflections from SEASC convenor Rob Sarib, covering systemic and practical considerations to push forward with a meaningful program of activities for building regional capacity in survey- and geomatics-focused skillsets.

The congress’ program was also liberally seasoned with sessions outlining pioneering geospatial, cadastral and digital engineering initiatives from states in the ASEAN bloc. I don’t think I was the only attendee wowed by the level of sophistication of Singapore’s advancement in its mandate for digital cadastral and BIM processes – forward-looking policies and legislation for that consider processes such as scanning, digital processing of plans and models, UAVs in civilian airspace to be business-as-usual.

Nor was I the only one staggered at the scale of Indonesia’s geographical challenges as a largely maritime continent of huge topographical diversity, and the strength of its government’s One Map policy, which declares that all government programs must be respect a geospatial component, and be justified against their ever-evolving, unified map and database portal that comprises 85 formerly separate thematic maps.

Future focus

Setting out marks for a strong future was the key motivation underlining the programming at SEASC 2019. This comprised looking well beyond Australia’s borders, securing key partnerships internationally and highlighting business opportunities, but critically – an unflinching examination of into the critical systemic reforms that are needed, and the change management processes that need to execute immediately to keep the profession vital and relevant in the near term.

Building upon a trend of dialogue around diversity and its role in determining the industry’s future was a strong program of panels and talks, and an unprecedented full day of Young Professionals activities, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, but had a record attendance from a range of backgrounds and demographics.

NSW Surveyor-General Narelle Underwood challenged and captivated the room in her riveting keynote, leaving no attendee with any doubt as to what they can begin doing today to prepare the ground for the next generation of the workforce and embrace of technologies and processes – or any allusions as to the urgency of this action and consequences for failing to adapt.

“’Can you just wait five years?’ I’m often asked,” she told the assembled crowd.

“No I can’t, because we may not have a profession that’s relevant in five years if I don’t.”

These messages were reinforced in the diversity panel of Australian Surveyors-General, with a robust healthy discussion of how people may champion success stories, challenge the status quo within organisations that may be bureaucratic, and avoid tokenism in representation.

Voices of female industry leaders were front-and-centre more frequently at SEASC 2019 than any other conference I’ve attended. Dr. Karen Joyce of James Cook University was a standout with her passionate and pithy talk on the issues with a STEM push that excludes geography, the pervasive science stereotypes that can repel young minds, and UAVs as a key tool to capture students’ imaginations, ably demonstrated with the burgeoning success of her ‘She Maps’ initiative in Queensland.

A celebration of the survey

Beyond these key tracks, the almost overwhelming amount and quality of content being presented, and the excitement of the regional opportunity and perspectives on offer, there was a powerful and unifying sense of community among the die-hards assembled in Darwin.

The final aspect of the program content for delegates that dovetailed and helped to build on this feeling was a true celebration of surveying that was reflected throughout.

Surveyors in attendance received a validation of their significance and purpose in a rapidly-changing world, a kinship through exposure to international practitioners and projects — even the tough discussions on the reality of change needed were borne out of love of the craft.

I couldn’t possibly attend all of the highly technical, operationally-focused sessions and project demonstrations, but the ones I did left strong impressions. An extremely detailed session on fine-grained flood modelling in Taiwan; automating the analysis of historical bushfire severity assessment in NSW, a nuts-and-bolts practical session on multi-GNSS for surveyors by Dr. Craig Roberts; a mind-melting demonstration of an AI tool to detect rare disease characteristics from LiDAR face scans by Dr. Petra Hemholz; a challenging, concise and comprehensive on the precedents and relevance of copyright for surveyor’s intellectual property deliverables, and the implications of new technology for these issues, such as smart contracts and blockchain.

Balancing the many forward-looking sessions on the profession’s future was a constellation of talks recognising land surveying’s history in Australia and its pioneers, and the countless ways that the practice of setting and maintaining boundaries interacts with all the spheres of civil society.

In Victorian Surveyor-General Craig Sandy’s fascinating history of Australian state borders, he noted that the borders of the First Nations were based on monuments like any other society’s, noting James Cook’s false declaration that ‘New Holland’ was uninhabited, and that although traditional owners’ borders were not recognised until 1992’s Mabo decision – these borders are very real.

In one of the final sessions of the congress, Trevor Menzies, manager of the MSIA Heritage Program and leader of the congress’ history tour, gave a deeply-researched account of the numerous attempts at the formidable challenge of Darwin’s original survey, including the successful Goyder expedition, and the names of the party that still adorn the city’s street signs – along with many of the original parcels intact as marked, subdivisions notwithstanding.

Capping off a stimulating few days was a stunning gala dinner under the warm Darwin evening sky. What more could one ask for?

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