Professor Brings Geospatial Science Training to the Bronx

September 20, 2023

Sunil Bhaskaran directs CUNY’s source for geospatial tech education in the Bronx.

Student is looking at her laptop screen
A student at the Geospatial Center of the CUNY Crest Institute at Bronx Community College. (Photo courtesy of Sunil Bhaskaran)

At a geospatial computing lab in the west Bronx, a group of undergraduate students analyze maps of cities thousands of miles away in India, Australia, and South Africa. They compare them to maps of cities in New Jersey and Louisiana. These places have one thing in common: They’re prone to severe flooding due to climate change.

The research is carried out at the Geospatial Center of the CUNY Crest Institute at Bronx Community College, which develops community vulnerability indexes using satellite images to map urban centers at risk for flash flooding. The work is designed to help cities become more resilient to floods and other climate change-related events, while training a new generation of skilled geospatial technicians.

The project is the brainchild of the center’s founding director, Professor Sunil Bhaskaran, (GC/Bronx Community College, Earth and Environmental Sciences).

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“Ninety-five percent of human activity has a spatial component ,” said Bhaskaran. “Whether you’re an urban planner, a civil engineer, a historian, a climate scientist, a flood engineer, or a farmer, all of these activities require spatial data analyses and modeling to make informed decisions.”

For two decades, Bhaskaran has collaborated with industry partners and used geospatial analytics to tackle some of the most pressing environmental issues on the planet. From geospatial data analyses and modeling to help manage urban disasters, such as fires and extreme heat, in Australia to mapping solutions with city planners to address urban heat islands in New York City, his work has a distinctly global focus.

One of the most fundamental questions that geospatial scientists can help answer is how to best use the space that remains on Earth, said Bhaskaran. “We are 8.5 billion people living on less than 30% of the habitable land on Earth, and that's a lot of pressure on the land,” he said. “So, we must decide which land is most useful for which activity. If we don't do that right, we're not managing the Earth's limited resources properly. That's one of the biggest applications for geospatial technology.”

Since 2010, Bhaskaran has spearheaded the development of geospatial technology at Bronx Community College, and, in 2014, he founded the CUNY Crest Institute with a mission to foster future geospatial scientists through training, research, and industry experience. To date, the center has trained over 400 participants and created career paths. “The center’s geospatial computing lab provides a unique space for everyone to investigate scientific issues,” Bhaskaran said.

Sunil Bhaskaran
Sunil Bhaskaran (Photo courtesy of Bhaskaran)

Among other classes, the lab offers courses in geographic information systems, or GIS. “What we do in geographic information systems is to collect all the data — location of rivers, demographic information, number of buildings or residential areas flash floods, etc.,” said Bhaskaran.

“Then we do analysis and forecasting, we do modeling. We ask, ‘What happens if there is more rain, if there is more flooding? How many houses will be inundated? How many people would be impacted?’ This is the space of geographic information systems.”

Geospatial technology also includes remote sensing, he said. “In remote sensing, we use optical satellites, and we monitor the Earth from space,” the professor explained. “That's why it's called remote sensing — a non-destructive way to study the Earth from space. I'm able to look at the Earth without touching it.”

Another tool that falls under the umbrella of geospatial technology is global positioning systems. “When you use a GPS in your car, it’s using a constellation of satellites in space,” Bhaskaran said. “And that's how the GPS gives you the location and tells you exactly where you are and where you want to go.”

The concept of geospatial technology is still evolving in some countries, he said, including Australia, which counts surveying under the heading of geospatial technology. “But, by and large, the spatial fraternity acknowledges that geospatial consists of GIS, remote sensing, and GPS, or global positioning systems,” Bhaskaran said.

The three disciplines are all taught at the Geospatial Center, arming students with geospatial technology skills for careers in government, engineering, telecommunications, environmental science, transportation, agriculture, and other fields. These classes — called Pathways courses — are open to students from all CUNY schools, including the Graduate Center.

Funded by agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and an industry consortium, the center trains students in developing algorithms to extract information about the Earth by using satellite data and open-source web mapping, among other cutting-edge tools. The center also offers research internships and hosts geospatial workshops for high school and middle school students, teachers, and university professors.

“A lot of research papers have been published to address climate change events, but people are dying by the day,” Bhaskaran said. “So, the research is not really delivering solutions nor saving lives. And one of the main reasons is because we don't work with the people who are impacted. But if we work with the people who are impacted, even a small solution can help save lives.”

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