Prof Adriaan van Niekerk, Director of the Centre for Geographical Analysis and a professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at Stellenbosch University, recently delivered his inaugural lecture, titled 'Data Science: Opportunity or threat?' He spoke to the Division of Corporate Communication and Marketing about how the information he extracts from remotely sensed imagery (i.e. Earth observation) helps the agricultural and forestry industries to improve crop yields and sustainably manage our limited land and water resources respectively.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.
My interest in computers started at a young age. I consequently enrolled for a BSc with computer science as my first major. At the time, the options for a second major were limited. If I remember correctly, it was either mathematics, physics or geography. Given that I enjoyed geography in high school, I chose it as my second major. During my third year, one of my geography professors showed us a satellite image and I was totally blown away by its beauty. I knew then that satellite remote sensing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The use of computer science to extract useful information from remotely sensed imagery (i.e., Earth observation) was a natural fit.
How would you describe the relevance of your work?
Earth observation is used in many ways to support decisions concerned with land use, bio-geographical, environmental, agricultural, water and socio-economic problems. I mostly focus on its use in agriculture and forestry. Earth observation is ideal for monitoring crops and forests because these land uses span very large areas. I work closely with the agricultural and forestry industries to come up with solutions to improve crop yields and to sustainably manage our limited land and water resources.
Which aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy problem solving the most. It is wonderful to see an idea develop into an operational system that solves problems.
The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What has kept you motivated during these times?
The pandemic was challenging from a teaching point of view because Earth observation training often requires one-to-one engagement. My research was not much affected by the pandemic. Family and music kept me motivated.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.
After completing high school, I decided to become an artist and studied graphic design for a while. But I dropped out due to personal circumstances and decided to first complete my defence force conscription duties. I worked as a graphic designer in the army but did not much like the job! That was when I decided to rather follow a career in computer science.
How do you spend your free time away from lectures and research?
I enjoy playing computer games, listening to music and playing the bass guitar.