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Spring 2009

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Henning Sten Hansen—Denmark's First Professor in Geoinformatics

GIS PioneerThis article is part of a new series recognizing individuals or organizations that were among the early users of GIS—truly pioneers in an unexplored field. These people or organizations understood the advantages of this emerging technology that came to be called geographic information systems and recognized Esri as a viable partner to help them solve their geospatial challenges. Together, these pioneers, partnering with Esri, helped GIS mature into the important multifaceted analysis tool that it is today. Esri recognizes Henning Sten Hansen as a GIS pioneer.

Henning Sten Hansen was appointed to Aalborg University in August 2008 following a career in the world of GIS, which started more than 30 years ago and has spanned across both the public and private sectors.

photo of Henning Sten HansenHansen started out studying geography in the 1970s. Since he was primarily interested in climate and climate change, he ended up as a climatologist, however.

"Back then, nobody talked about GIS in Denmark," Hansen says, "or about the climate and climate changes as we do today." An academic career in the field of climatology didn't seem possible in those days, when unemployment rates were also very high, so Hansen began his career in the consultancy business, where he started working with hydrology—and this was the first time he formally heard about GIS.

"Does it say ARC on the screen?"

"During my studies, I was very interested in GIS—even though I didn't know what it was and it actually didn't officially exist in Denmark," says Hansen. "I made my own GIS designed for mapping polygons, and it actually resembled what I saw later in ARC/INFO," While studying, Hansen took a class in programming, and he has used these skills ever since. "Both in my work as a consultant and now as a professor, I use my programming skills almost daily."

Using these skills, he was actually able to make the first graphic user interface to ARC/INFO—even before Esri had made one. "I have always used Esri's GIS—maybe because I am a geographer and could see even back then that it had a more holistic approach and really strong capabilities for analysis—but it was not especially user-friendly. When I first got it installed, I actually called the consultant from Informi GIS [A/S], Esri's Danish distributor, and said, 'This doesn't work.' The consultant replied, 'Does it say ARC on the screen?' 'Yes,' I replied—looking at an otherwise black screen. 'Well, then it works!'

"To do anything, you had to write the command," Hansen tells. "'Draw line' to draw a line and, for instance, 'draw line5' to get it in a specific color. There were no buttons or nice images. But when I had made the interface, not only could I use it for more detailed analysis, the company I worked for could also start reselling it to some of the Danish municipalities, and with this tool they could do some really interesting analysis that none of the other GIS systems could do at that time."

Using ARC/INFO, Hansen was the first in Denmark to connect the BBR record (the national Danish record for buildings and housing) to digital maps. All of a sudden, the municipalities were able to make detailed maps showing various building characteristics regarding, for example, age of construction, usage, and heating platform.

The Return to Science

Since returning to the scientific world in 1995, Hansen has played a role in most Danish GIS activities. He was part of the foundation work with digital maps and better rules of standardization and also cofounded two GIS education paths. "This has, of course, given me a great deal of influence on the direction I thought GIS should take in Denmark," says Hansen. And since 2000, a lot of this inspiration for the Danish GIS world has come from the many international projects he has also been part of.

  click to enlarge
GIS is outstanding for visualizing the earth's surface. Users can click on different scenarios or can fly around and see the whole picture from different angles. Instead of just writing in a report what is good or bad, citizens can check out the consequences via GIS and on the Web.

"I think working more internationally has opened my eyes to the importance of interoperability and transnational standards," explains Hansen. "It is so important that data can be used across boundaries and products. Esri has done a lot in this respect and has followed not only the American standards but also the European ones."

Internationally, Hansen has recently been part of the official Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE) Expert Group, where he, along with other GIS experts, developed the INSPIRE directive. This directive ensures that the European Union builds an infrastructure for geodata so that all member states can use data seamlessly across national boundaries.

Currently, the INSPIRE directive is under legal implementation by a new law on a National Danish Spatial Data Infrastructure. The new law will probably be approved by the Danish Parliament in March 2009.

"When I look at the Danish GIS world, I feel very optimistic," says Hansen. "With the new law about geodata, government bodies and schools will get free access to data, and that means that it can be used far more—benefiting thousands of schoolchildren and citizens. If we look at the principles for INSPIRE, we have also already started fulfilling many of them. State and local governments in Denmark and the other Nordic countries are already advanced when it comes to using geographic information and maintaining and following data standards. When geodata and GIS began to spread in the public sector, the municipalities, for instance, had already used IT for many years, so using the new information technology seemed logical to most."

Involving the Public Through GIS

"One of the areas where we as a society can really benefit from GIS is when it comes to involving the public in the democratic decision processes," says Hansen. "The former countries were really well advanced when it came to using GIS in public participation."

One project was in Northern Jutland, where citizens could see how the landscape would be affected with new wind turbines in different sizes and located in different places. The project used a flight simulator so that people could actually "fly" over the landscape and see how it looked in 3D. Citizens could then comment on their preferred placement of wind turbines, and their comments were included in the final report, which was given to the politicians and was then used for the final decision.

"GIS is outstanding for visualizing the earth's surface," Hansen says. "Instead of just writing in a report what is good or bad, citizens themselves can check out the consequences via GIS and on the Web. When you click on different scenarios or can fly around and see the whole picture from different angles, you actually don't get much closer [than that] to the citizens making a qualified decision on what kind of development we as a society want."

GIS and Climate Change Are Connected

The ability to model and present different scenarios and futures is something society needs more of, especially in the future, Hansen predicts. "With climate changes, we are facing some tough decisions, and I can't see how we could make them without GIS. We now have a financial crisis, but that will pass—they always do. The problem is that climate changes can't disappear from one day to another—we need to make some long-term decisions. Even if we stopped the emission of all greenhouse gases today, the heating will continue for many years to come. Here GIS tools and analysis will be used. We can use the technology to predict where we are going and advise politicians on which way we should be going. Should we just take the train on first class all the way and not give our grandchildren equally good opportunities, well, then that'll be the public's choice. But it needs to be an informed choice, and here we can use GIS. I think if something good is to come out of this financial crisis, it might be to stop and think about the way we live and consume. Life might still be good without changing your entire kitchen and car from one day to the other. It might make us slow down a bit and think about what we want out of life and what living conditions we are giving future generations."

GIS in a Network Society

Exactly what climate changes will be and involving the public in the decision processes are some of the elements Hansen will be concentrating on in the future. At Aalborg University, one of the projects is a large 3D model of Aalborg that can also be used in decision-making processes.

"I have always seen GIS as a system for decision support, and the general theme in my work has been spatial models and political systems for better decision making. Today, the idea of GIS might change a bit following the network society we currently live in. Data and software can be exchanged all over the world. You can push a button in Copenhagen while your data is in Australia, the computer is in London, and the presentation is shown on a big screen in Chicago," finishes Hansen, and though he can look back on a long career, he is only just beginning.

More Information

For more information, contact Henning Sten Hansen, professor, Aalborg University (e-mail:, tel.: 994-024-06).

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