Abu Dhabi's Education Council Finds New Applications for GIS

In this exercise, sixth-grade students learned how to use GPS.
In this exercise, sixth-grade students learned how to use GPS.

An agreement between Abu Dhabi and Esri has enabled the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to expand its use of GIS from managing infrastructure to supporting e-learning modules in the curriculum.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a federation founded in 1971 from seven ancient Arabian Peninsula sheikhdoms. Using 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, citizen-centric e-government platform.

Spatial Data Infrastructure Initiative Launched

With the expanding use of GIS throughout the country, ADSIC launched the Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure (AD-SDI) initiative in 2007 with a mission 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 nearly all industries and agencies in the emirate. AD-SDI mandates that all members share their spatial data with each other, excluding data related to Abu Dhabi’s security.

ADEC, a member of AD-SDI, has used Esri’s ArcGIS software for several years. “We began using ArcGIS in 2009,” said 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.”

Using a measuring wheel, students measured the perimeter of the school as part of another GIS-based project.
Using a measuring wheel, students measured the perimeter of the school as part of another GIS-based project.

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. The regular influx of new families to the emirate who are looking for schools for their children makes this an important and popular application that helps them get settled more easily.

Realizing the advantages of geoenabling its entire student database, ADEC integrated ArcGIS with its enterprise student information system. This system contains detailed data about Abu Dhabi’s approximately 350,000 students, 18,000 teachers, and 450 schools. Administrators now can easily monitor student performance at specific schools, compare general progress among neighboring schools, or track the qualifications and workload of an individual teacher.

In addition, ADEC’s Facilities and Infrastructure department is using GIS for land and facilities management. “The government had allocated plots 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.”

Supporting New School Model Goals

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.

Students collected data about the mangrove trees and the land surrounding them.
Students collected data about the mangrove trees and the land surrounding them.

“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 by local educators and consultants over several years. This student-centered learning approach engages students using a technology-rich environment that is responsive to the abilities and needs of individual students. The goal is to foster students’ critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving capabilities while preparing them with skills for future education and employment.

Because the New School Model is being gradually phased into the entire school curriculum, ArcGIS Online was introduced in a pilot project for sixth-grade students. These students, usually between 11 and 12 years old, have some experience with digital technology, so applying GIS in 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.

As part of a science lesson, students kayaked to Mangrove Island to collect data about the trees.
As part of a science lesson, students kayaked to Mangrove Island to collect data about the trees.

Collector for ArcGIS a Hit with Students

Students were very interested in collecting data about local mangrove trees and plotting that data on maps for a science lesson. Mangrove trees live in salt water along the Abu Dhabi coastline. They provide important animal habitat and erosion control.

To complete this lesson, students paddled kayaks about a mile to Mangrove Island, where they made various measurements such as determining the height and number of trees in a specified location, as well as collecting information about the land surrounding the trees. 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 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,” said 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.”

About the author

Jim Baumann

Jim Baumann is a longtime employee at Esri. He has written articles on GIS technology and the computer graphics industry for more than 30 years.