We utilize geoinformation and location-based data in many areas of our lives, whether public transportation, sustainability, or environmental protection. It would be a challenge to find an area or domain where GIS can't be applied.
Building a Geospatial Legacy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology—located in Zurich and better known by the Swiss name ETH Zürich (ETHZ)—is a public research university founded by the Swiss federal government in 1854 with a steadfast mission to educate engineers and scientists. The school focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. ETHZ is home to 22,000 students and 540 professors from over 120 countries and consistently ranks as a top world university (listed 13th in 2020).
ETHZ has famous ties to 21 Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli. The university was also home to the renowned cartographer Eduard Imhof, who is considered one of the founders of modern academic cartography. Imhof was appointed the first Swiss professor of cartography and founded the Cartographic Institute in Zurich, now the world's oldest cartography institute. Renamed in 2011, the Institute of Cartography and Geoinformation focuses on cutting-edge research related to mapping, geographic information system (GIS) technology, spatial analytics, and more.
Between the institute and the core geoinformation-related course offerings, ETHZ has been a user of Esri products for over 20 years and produced several award-winning graduates. ETHZ's combination of GIS technology, advanced coursework, and geospatial research continues to support the university's ongoing mission and scientific legacy.
A Legacy of Geospatial Technology Success in the Classroom
GIS software has been vital for students studying in any of the university's geoinformation-related programs including geomatic engineering and planning, geospatial engineering, geomatics, and earth or environmental sciences.
Monika Niederhuber, a technical assistant and lecturer for the ETHZ environmental systems science department, structures her courses to foster a deep understanding of GIS technology and its applications. Students in these introductory-level courses learn the theoretical basics and fundamental concepts of GIS and then practice them on small but practical projects. For example, Niederhuber's course includes a GIS-based case study project that is within the context of environmental problem-solving and in collaboration with an outside organization. The outside organization proposes the case study topic, and with instructor guidance, the students are responsible for carrying out the project. The students plan the schedule, define the criteria for analysis, select relevant GIS data, create conceptual models and workflows, transform the models with ArcGIS, and present their results to the course plenum and the external partner. In the past, students have worked with various partners, such as Swiss Regional Parks, and have completed topics such as modeling potential weasel or hazel grouse habitats.
Undergraduate students also participate in various biodiversity and integrated excursions. The excursions utilize a practical approach to encourage students to explore aspects of data literacy through real-world experiments. With ArcGIS Collector, students map together large datasets on spatially relevant issues. The excursions serve to familiarize students with GIS, create interactive lessons, and encourage students to consider spatial information in a discussible environment. Students have used the excursions to capture data on topics ranging from mapping trees, flowers, fungi, butterflies, tiger mosquito breeding spots, and birds to collecting wind speed and direction and tracking soil depth.
Faculty and students at the German-speaking Swiss Federal Institute of Technology—better known as ETH Zürich and a longtime leader in geotechnology education and research—have used Esri technology for more than 20 years.
In its work to lead the future of geospatial research, the Institute of Cartography and Geoinformation applies Esri technology for various research projects. Topics include cognitive engineering, mobile GIS, renewable energy, and mobility and sustainability.
Among students from ETHZ are notable winners of Esri's EDC Best Student of the Year prizes; some have gone on to pursue their passion and continue their research as Esri employees.
In addition to the undergraduate course instruction, Niederhuber teaches a graduate-level GIS course focused on spatial data analysis, modeling, and optimization. In this course, students leverage ArcGIS Online, along with the more powerful ArcGIS Pro, for 3D modeling and data analysis.
Niederhuber's GIS expertise goes beyond the classroom. For the last three years she has led an established GIS user group for researchers. The group was founded 15 years ago and meets yearly to let members exchange ideas, present research, and help each other solve problems. "The goal was to bring together scientific assistants, PhD, and postdoctoral students working with ArcGIS to network, collaborate, and learn from one another," says Niederhuber.
Geospatial Research's Impact on the Future
In the early days of the Institute of Cartography, primary research focused on topographical cartography (mapping of terrain), thematic cartography, and atlas cartography (school atlases, national atlases). In 2011, Martin Raubal joined ETHZ as a professor of geoinformation engineering; the institute's name was changed to the Institute of Cartography and Geoinformation; and a new era of education and research was ushered in.
"We utilize geoinformation and location-based data in many areas of our lives, whether public transportation, sustainability, or environmental protection. It would be a challenge to find an area or domain where GIS can't be applied" says Raubal.
As such, Raubal encourages his students to consistently consider where to apply geoinformation and location data. This has led Raubal’s geoinformation engineering research group to offer courses including elements of spatiotemporal machine learning and data science—students not only learn about GIS-specific methods and applications of data science in neighboring fields but also apply them in their research projects.
Students study a wide range of topics such as analysis, simulation, and prediction of human mobility; user profiling; mobile GIS and location-based services; cognitive engineering for geospatial services; mobile eye-tracking to evaluate individual mobile decision-making; GIS for renewable energy analysis and prospecting; spatial cognition and wayfinding; time geography; and personalization. Many of these studies utilized Esri technologies in the process.
"For me, I think that GIS is broad, where no matter how we use it. ... It can be applied to many different real-world problems," continues Raubal. "But I think that GIS can be much broader, and I strongly believe the future is spatial data science, because spatial components are already so integral to everything we do."
Students have applied this mind-set while conducting their research at the institute's two core labs—the Mobility Information Engineering Lab and GeoGAZElab. For example, students leading the research on GIS for renewable energy have developed a GIS-based algorithm for the fields of biomass, solar, and wind energy to identify technical and economical exploitable potential for power generation. The students' research also considers the regulatory and economic frameworks for Switzerland to plan for transmission lines and determine locations for biomass power plants.
A Thriving GIS Partnership
Over the years, ETHZ has also maintained a strong partnership with Esri, with the Institute for Cartography and Geoinformation earning designation as an Esri Development Center (EDC). The distinction places the institute into an elite group of global ArcGIS users in education whose work goes beyond typical classroom use. Several students from the programs have been named EDC Student of the Year, an award given by Esri founder and president Jack Dangermond. Winners receive cash prizes, an Esri Press book, and a certificate and are invited to participate in the Esri User Conference in San Diego.
In 2017, Lisa Stähli won the Student of the Year award for her project, Pedestrian Navigation in a Virtual Urban Environment: Evaluation of wayfinding directions indicated on public displays. The master's-degree project investigated pedestrian navigation aids and aimed to find alternatives to the widely used map-based navigation systems. Utilizing Esri's ArcGIS CityEngine technology, Stähli created a virtual 3D urban model that was imported into Unity 3D, a game engine with added animations and interaction with the navigation systems. Using the created model, Stähli tested four navigation techniques with a group of 45 individuals, producing a valuable dataset and statistically proving that augmented reality was the best wayfinding tool.
A pair of students, Hasret Gümgümcü and Daniel Laumer, shared the Best Student prize in 2019 for the UrbanX project, a mixed-reality scenario app combining HoloLens and gesture technology with city planning apps. The UrbanX app provides four main functionalities to assist urban planning initiatives.
Also, in 2020, Samuel Küng from the Environmental Systems Science Department won the Esri Young Scholar Award with his master's thesis, "Deriving forest mask according to the forest definition of the Swiss National Forest Inventory based on 3D remote sensing data."
Students from ETHZ have also gone on to find successful careers in GIS and with Esri. For example, Stähli now works for the ArcGIS Urban team at Esri R&D Center, Zurich AG. Also, Christian Sailer, business development manager for education at Esri Schweiz AG, completed his PhD in Raubal's geoinformation engineering group with a thesis focused on a mobile learning project, entitled "OMLETH." The thesis focused on the development of a map-based learning platform for educational institutions, featuring multimedia field trips to create an authentic, location-based mobile learning experience. The OMLETH app serves to bridge the gaps between GIS technologies and lesson management by assigning content lessons to spatial locations. This software is being used for augmented exercises for work in the field and is still in use at several secondary schools. OMLETH's clients are hosted on ETHZ's ArcGIS Online account due to the powerful cloud capabilities and the ready-to-use user management.
"With ArcGIS Online, ETHZ has a tool that anyone can use quickly, doesn't require expertise, and displays data easily," says Sailer. "Thanks to this technology, students, researchers, and faculty can approach spatial challenges as efficiently as writing a report or calculating small statistics using MS [Microsoft] Word or MS Excel."
For now, ETHZ's robust education and research programs will continue to provide students learning opportunities that contribute to the future of geoinformation and location-based sciences.