Hans van der Kwast to GeoHipster: “A change in education is needed to break this vicious circle”

Hans van der Kwast
Hans van der Kwast

Hans van der Kwast is a physical geographer specialized in GIS and remote sensing. From 2007 to 2012, he worked at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) as a researcher in environmental modelling. In 2009 he defended his PhD at Utrecht University on the integration of remote sensing in soil moisture modeling using the PCRaster Python framework. Since 2012 he works at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. In his teaching and capacity development projects he actively promotes the use of open source software by mid-career professionals from the Global South. He’s a board member of the Dutch QGIS User Group. 

Hans was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Hans, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I work at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. It’s the largest international graduate water education facility in the world and is based in Delft, the Netherlands. Besides education in our MSc programmes we do research and capacity development projects. In my work at IHE I contribute to these by giving GIS, remote sensing, and modelling classes for our MSc students and (tailor-made) trainings for professionals in the water sector. In our capacity development projects I focus on improving data management through spatial data infrastructures (SDI), guidance on data policies, and the development of business models. Advocacy for open data and the use of available open data is also important in my work.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: As a kid I was already interested in computers, programming and desktop publishing, apart from playing adventure games. When I was in primary school I saw my friends running code to play games. Then I bought a book on Basic and learned scripting. I was also interested in the environment and earth surface processes, including fieldwork. Therefore I chose to study physical geography at Utrecht University. In my second year I found out that there was a great combination of all these interests when I was having my first GIS and remote sensing classes in 1998. I had classes from Prof. Peter Burrough who was one of the founding fathers of GIS research and had written the first book ever written on GIS in 1986 (Principles of Geographical Information Systems for Land Resources Assessment). Besides GIS classes with ArcInfo on HP UX Unix terminals, we also used PCRaster, a GIS raster based environmental modelling language, developed by the group of Peter Burrough. Nowadays PCRaster is open source and available as a Python library. Since the start of my PhD in 2003 I’ve been working with Python, PCRaster and GDAL and my interest in open source alternatives for ArcGIS increased.

Q: I know you are a strong advocate of open source software. What is your history with FOSS4G and QGIS specifically?

A: When I started working for the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) in 2007 I was given a lot of freedom to explore open source alternatives for the commercial software. We had a very nice team of young researchers and established a Python user group inside VITO. We shared knowledge, tips and tricks on Python, QGIS, GDAL, PostGIS and PCRaster through a wiki, which I still use. I had some great PhD students on advanced topics related to spatial dynamic modelling in Python. We also started using R for spatial statistics.

In 2012 I started as a lecturer at IHE Delft and was taking over GIS classes from a colleague. At that time they were still using ArcGIS. Given that our MSc participants are mostly from the Global South and often can’t afford expensive licenses, I wanted to change that for my GIS classes. QGIS was the logical alternative, it has all the features my students need for their work in hydrology and water management. In 2013 I started teaching QGIS in most of our MSc programmes and in short courses. In 2015 I had a great opportunity to develop new course materials with Jan Hoogendoorn (Vitens) for several trainings for the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) in Uganda, funded by Vitens Evides International (VEI) and the IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development (DUPC).

At IHE Delft we had also started our OpenCourseWare platform in 2015. After the trainings in Uganda we agreed with the donors and trainers to make the course materials available as OpenCourseWare with a CC BY-NC license. This was an important step enabling many people to learn about QGIS for hydrological applications, even when they were not able to come to IHE Delft for our short courses or MSc modules. The course materials were completed with a YouTube channel with videos of the lectures and exercises. In the years that followed I regularly updated the materials following the QGIS Long Term Release (LTR) versions. Many MSc students at IHE Delft inspired me to improve the course materials and add more instructional videos.

In August 2017 I joined a QGIS user conference and hackfest for the first time. This one was organised by Lene Fischer at Skovskolen Forest and Landscape College of the University of Copenhagen in Nødebo (Denmark). It was very inspiring to meet developers of QGIS and to learn about this open source community. Raymond Nijssen introduced me to different ways to contribute to QGIS. It was also here where I met you for the first time. Together with Tim Sutton we worked on the QGIS certification programme and its platform. Since Nødebo I’m part of this great community and I try to participate in QGIS events and FOSS4G conferences in the Netherlands and abroad.

Q: You’re a QGIS Certified Trainer. How does QGIS Certification work @ IHE Delft?

A: During the short course on QGIS in September 2017, Erik Meerburg (Geo Academie) and I issued the first QGIS certificates. The QGIS certificates are a win-win-win: the participants are happy to receive an official certificate, QGIS receives a €20 donation for each, and IHE Delft is able to contribute to the further development of QGIS. IHE Delft easily accepted the certification for our short courses and tailor-made trainings. However, I had to convince the MSc programme committees to also issue the certificates for our regular students. I succeeded and am happy to work for an organisation that sees the way forward with open source GIS software.

Q: What is the vision for the newly-formed Dutch QGIS user group? 

A: In January 2018 I was happy to host the first Dutch QGIS User Group Meeting at IHE Delft, organised in cooperation with Geo Academie. The tracks in Dutch and English attracted participants from diverse backgrounds. Surprisingly, the Netherlands didn’t have a QGIS User Group. Although we were always under the umbrella of OSGeoNL, we found it important to establish a user group with the aim to bring users together to share knowledge, contribute to the development of QGIS, and stimulate the use of QGIS in the Netherlands. A very practical reason to establish the user group is the organisation of the QGIS Contributors Meeting in March 2020 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. A visible user group with its own administration makes things easier. On November 20 2019 we formally established the Dutch QGIS User Group, with a board consisting of Raymond Nijssen (president), Erik Meerburg (secretary) and myself (treasurer). 

Q: You and I wrote a book together – QGIS For Hydrological Applications – that just came out in September. What do you want people to know about the book? What other teaching tools do you create for people wanting to learn QGIS?

A: Traditionally the water sector uses a lot of commercial software with expensive licenses for hydrological models and spatial analysis. However, the developments in open source software are going so fast that it is currently a good alternative to expensive proprietary software. Yet for many professionals, open source is still unknown territory. There is also very little attention paid to it in education. Most students who have already come into contact with GIS have worked with ArcGIS from Esri. Universities and colleges spend significant amounts on Esri licenses. Students often receive a free campus license for use during their studies. They are thus locked into commercial software at an early stage, while they are hardly introduced to open source alternatives. As a result, the water sector is dominated by Esri software, while the use of open source alternatives for GIS is minimal. A change in education is needed to break this vicious circle. A course book that demonstrates the use of QGIS for hydrological applications didn’t exist and is essential to educate a new generation of students in water management. It was great to join forces with you and Locate Press to create that book. My royalties from the book go to a fund to help IHE Delft students attend QGIS and FOSS4G events. With this I hope to help create a more diverse open source community.

The book is part of the larger OpenCourseWare business model of my GIS educational materials. There are tutorials and links to videos on my YouTube Channel. These materials are open access, but without support or certificate. Then there is an online course that covers the basics only, but with support and the official QGIS certificate. For participants who can afford or have scholarships we organise a yearly short course in Delft, where I was happy to have you as a guest lecturer in the last two years. Finally, we hope that some of these users of our educational products like what we do and want to pursue an MSc at our institute.

Q: What are your interests outside of GIS? Rumor has it you’re a professional vocalist… Tell us about that!

A: In my free time I love to join choirs who are in need of tenors, which are scarce in the Netherlands. I started singing in the Rotterdam Boys Choir when I was 7 years old. We performed in concert halls in the Netherlands and went on tours abroad. During my studies I joined the Orchestra and Choir of Utrecht University (USKO) and had a great time. When I started traveling more for work I couldn’t attend weekly rehearsals anymore and chose to join project choirs. That offers the flexibility, while I could still continue singing. In 2020 I was happy to perform in the choir (Nederlands Concertkoor) for the popular tv show Maestro, a contest among Dutch celebrities that have to conduct classical music. I also participated in Mahler Symphony 2 and Verdi’s Messa di Requiem in the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Händel’s Messiah in De Doelen in Rotterdam. I’m not really a professional, but in the Netherlands good amateurs are appreciated too.

Q: What is the best/ worst part of travelling to teach? How many countries have you taught in? Favorite?

A: With my work for IHE Delft I can be a week per month abroad if I wish. My niche was West and North Africa (the francophone countries) and some countries in East Africa. I love to travel to Morocco. I’ve been visiting there since my PhD. I learned the Moroccan dialect and organise tours for friends.

Although traveling is often a great opportunity to visit interesting places and meet interesting people, since 2019 I’m more conscious about my travel schedule and want to be responsible for the environmental impact and the sustainable use of public funds that are often used for organising trainings abroad. The most important thing for me is to have a positive impact with the courses, whether it’s abroad or in Delft. 

Q: What are your goals and predictions for 2020?

A: Related to the previous answer, I’m currently coordinating eLearning activities with partners of IHE Delft. I think eLearning is a great opportunity to expose more people to knowledge, while keeping the cost low and reduce the amount of travel. In 2020 I would like to launch a complete online course on QGIS for Hydrological Applications. Meanwhile I would like to develop more advanced course materials that are not covered yet, such as the use of mesh data, link with hydrological and hydraulic models, remote sensing, etc. Maybe another book?

During the QGIS contributors meeting in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March hopefully we’ll be able to add the PCRaster map algebra operators to the processing toolbox, which has been my wish for a long time.

Personally I would like to develop my skills in 2020 further in data analysis with Python, including the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not? 

A: That’s a difficult one. Generally, label engines have difficulties placing a label on me. Some of the geohipster attributes of the poll in 2014 apply to me and some more general hipster attributes apply too (I like craft beers and good coffee). However, the last time I had a beard was in 2001, but it wasn’t a success at border controls. Since then I shave well with my hipster double-edge razor. And I don’t need horn rimmed glasses yet.

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