Software Donation Helps Ethiopia Study Water Resources

A leading geospatial software developer, Exelis Visual Information Solutions (Exelis VIS), is helping Ethiopian universities and researchers train a new generation of water resource professionals.  The company recently renewed user licenses for its scientific programming language, IDL, that were donated in 2011 for students and researchers associated with a USAID-funded program  aimed at helping Ethiopia tackle the daunting task of developing and managing their water resources.

The program is administered by the Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources (EIWR), an organization established to coordinate research, education and outreach activities within Ethiopia, in conjunction with UConn and five Ethiopian universities.   Ethiopia’s first research institute focused on water, EIWR was established to carry out a transnational higher education partnership between the University of Connecticut and Addis Ababa University to build capacity in institutes of higher education in the area of sustainable water resources management. EIWR was formally inaugurated during a ceremony at Addis Ababa University in February 2012.  Read more about the project here.

The seed for an Ethiopian center of excellence in water resources was planted in 2008 by UConn associate professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Mekonnen Gebremichael.   In addition to UConn, the project includes partners from five Ethiopian universities: co-lead Addis Ababa University, Arba Minch University, Bahir Dar University, Hawassa University and Mekelle University.

The EIWR provides an academic home to more than 20 faculty and 100 postgraduate students.  According to Exelis VIS, EIWR teachers and students are using the donated IDL software to teach and learn computer programming; solve assignments using probabilistic methods in hydro sciences and remote sensing applications; read, analyze and map satellite data; and model hydrologic systems.

IDL trainer and expert Dr. David Fanning, of Fanning Software Consulting, Inc., traveled to Ethiopia in 2011 to teach the first class of EIWR students in the use of the software.  In addition to teaching and mentoring the 43 students for a three-week period, he also donated copies of his software companion books, available through his consulting website, Coyote’s Guide to IDL Programming.

Glitches ensued in securing computers and the IDL software, with environmental and power issues, and other challenges, but, he noted, “In the end, the experience was enormously rewarding. The students, in a word, were great: always helpful, always positive, and always clearly trying to learn in a difficult environment. I was most impressed by them.”

One of Dr. Fanning’s apt students, Guta Wakbulcho, an assistant lecturer at Arba Minch University’s Department of Hydraulic and Water Resources Engineering who is pursuing his M.Sc. at EIWR, said the software helps him understand complex water resource data.  “Understanding water resources means tying together three basic things: spatially and temporally distributed data, theory, and the reality on the ground.  Data provide a bridge linking theory and reality, but water resource data is almost always complex to process and interpret.  The IDL software greatly simplifies our handling of the data and enables us to develop meaningful problem solutions.”

Dr. Fanning remarked, “IDL is perfect for exploring and visualizing your data, essentially helping you to ‘see’ your data in a way that allows you to make sense of it, to develop a visual representation of what the data suggest. I like to tell students that IDL allows them to ‘fail faster.’  I mean by this that IDL provides the tools for them to ‘play’ with the data in a way that makes it possible to discard ideas or hypotheses that are incorrect and get to the ideas that make a difference as quickly as possible.  The best students use IDL as an idea generating and evaluating machine that allows them to focus on the meaning of their data very quickly. IDL is better at this than any other software I know.”

Mr. Wakbulcho concurred, explaining that “For one project, I developed my own code that, through a series of steps, allowed me to understand and characterize terrestrial water storage variation in my study region based on Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data.  I also used it to read in the soil moisture data in NetCDF format which is obtained from NASA, Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) and then map it, and plot it to understand what is happening with water storage up to two meters beneath the soil surface in my study region. Combining the EWT data generated from the GRACE and soil moisture data, I was also able to see the ground water anomaly.”

As the USAID program continues to grow in coming years, hundreds of students will be trained in the use of state-of-the-art technologies, such as IDL, to analyze the complex water resources challenges across Ethiopia and to develop solutions to enhance the nation’s economic development.

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