December 8, 2017

Scott Madry trains people to use technology more often associated with space exploration than earthly problems like natural disasters, climate change and urban planning. But the Executive Director of the Global Space Institute and former NASA researcher explains that satellites and graphical information systems (GIS) are important tools for researchers across many disciplines working on a myriad of issues that affect people across the globe.

He was awarded a Fulbright Specialist grant to South Africa to share his technical expertise and passion for mapping and analysis with graduate students and faculty at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) SpaceLab, which promotes interdisciplinary education and research in space science and technology.

The goal is to help students learn how to use Open Source geospatial tools for high tech applications of mapping, satellite imagery, and global positioning systems for a variety of purposes, including disaster management, Madry’s specialty. His work is key in a region like southern Africa, which lacks infrastructure and access to geospatial tools.

“There is great commercial software, but it’s incredibly expensive,” explains Madry, who is also a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

“A lot of people who could benefit from using these tools don’t because of the cost. There are comparable toolkits in the Open Source community. I’m trying to kickstart their ability to use these tools for a wide variety of uses including public health, agriculture, and disaster management.”

A highly sought-after expert in the field, Madry received the President’s Volunteer Service Award from former President Barack Obama for his work on providing disaster assistance using space technology.

As a Fulbright Specialist in Cape Town this past April, he trained graduate students from five countries: South Africa, Nigeria, Botswana, Spain and the Netherlands. He also collaborated with UCT faculty to create the necessary framework to teach other students how to use the free toolkit.

“I’m setting up the SpaceLab to have its own capability to continue the training. Eventually they’re not going to need me anymore. My being able to come as a Fulbright Specialist is a key component of this,” he says.

His Fulbright Specialist grant benefits a large emerging country like South Africa, facing environmental and economic challenges, by providing training to use free Open Source tools to map fires, floods, and deforestation quickly. The ability to analyze integrated data can help decision-makers understand what’s happening around the country and therefore respond more effectively.

“We can go on the ground with GPS and identify specific locations and put it in GIS to combine different information: satellite images, public health data, and crime locations, and integrate this data to understand relationships in order to more intelligently address complex environmental and social human problems,” says Madry.

Madry credits his academic background in anthropology and archaeology, rather than science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), for his work’s focus on human societies and their relationship to their environments. Following the launch of commercial satellites, he took satellite and electrical engineering courses and adapted this technology for new applications.

“I come at it from a different perspective, and that’s what I try to give my students in my home institution and in South Africa as a Fulbright Specialist. We can’t just look at engineering, data, or computer science. It’s about people and the world we live in,” he adds.

His Fulbright Specialist grant is for a multi-visit project, which fits well with the schedules of Madry and the graduate students, many of whom work concurrently for NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector and are not always in residence. He will return to South Africa in 2018 after students have had an opportunity to practice using the toolkit on their own.

In the meantime, he’s sharing experiences and lessons from Cape Town with his students and colleagues at UNC.

“The work in South Africa is bringing home — quite literally — to my students, colleagues, and projects a sense of connection and immediacy with our local community and local needs,” he pointed out as he headed off for a two-week deployment with the American Red Cross as part of a disaster assistance team responding to Hurricane Irma.

“I have great hope that things can improve because of the kind of work we are doing,” Madry says. “Ultimately, we’re sowing seeds to make a positive impact.”