Positioning the Bronx on the Geospatial Map

Bronx Community College Assistant Professor, Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran, (far right) with some of the student researchers in his geospatial technology workshop. From left to right: Leroy Brown, Karolyn Jimenez and Alba Alvira. The students used data collected by sensors mounted on satellites to learn more about the Bronx. This fall, Dr. Bhaskaran will be teaching courses at BCC in geospatial technology and its applications.

August 2, 2012, Bronx, New York–From sun-seared Mercury to the icy outer planets, sensors mounted on satellites are gathering useful data from virtually every corner of our solar system — except perhaps one: the Bronx. “The Bronx area has not produced high quality data,” explains Dr. Sunil Bhaskaran, an Assistant Professor at Bronx Community College (BCC) and an expert in the emerging field of geospatial technology. “There’s always a complaint from the Census Bureau, Department of Defense (DOD), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), about it.”

But a major new exploration of the Bronx is underway. The explorers are multidisciplinary faculty members and students from Bronx Community College. They are led by Dr. Bhaskaran, a member of the faculty of the BCC Department of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, who is focused on this revolutionary new way of comprehending our planet.

Geospatial technology uses the images captured by sensors in orbit above the earth with very down-to-earth information of all sorts — from census records to data from global positioning devices in cars and cell phones to facts collected by researchers in the field. All those pictures and statistics are entered into cutting edge computer software — and out pours maps overflowing with discoveries about the interaction between geography and human activity.

What fields of human endeavor can use such information? Ask Sunil that question and he reels off real life applications of geospatial technology with the enthused rapidity of scientist so in love with his area of expertise, his words barely keep pace with his thoughts. “The sky’s the limit!” he exults — though considering that space-roving satellites are involved, even the sky is no limit for geospatial technology:

  1. The environment. Geospatial technology can map out the most effective locations for energy-producing windmills or solar panels.
  2. Business.  Shopping mall planners can use geospatial technology to determine nearby income levels or where to place a parking lot.
  3. Health. The prevalence of obesity in a community can be displayed on a geospatial map, which can then be used to project health needs and services.
  4. Sociology.Sunil is planning to work with a professor from the Sociology department on using the technology in understanding spatial patterns of foreclosures in Mt Vernon.

Born in India, the 45-year-old Sunil came to The City University of New York from Australia with extensive experience in geospatial technology. Dr. Bhaskaran has a Ph.D. from the School of Geomatic Engineering, University of New South Wales. For 10 years, he taught the subject and conducted cutting-edge research at the School of Geomatic Engineering, University of New South Wales, Faculty of Engineering, University of Southern Queensland, Australia. During that time, he lent his expertise to the Corporate Strategy Division of the New South Wales Fire Brigades, using geospatial technology to identify potential fire and chemical hazards. This information was then instantly available to emergency first responders.

Sunil continued to preach the gospel of geospatial technology when he came to the United States in 2008 — for very non-scientific reasons. “I found my wife here,” he explains simply (presumably NOT with geospatial technology). His classes and lectures at CUNY’s Lehman and York Colleges and BCC, where he demonstrated the remarkable potential of the software, were instantly popular with students, faculty and staff.
In 2010, Sunil set up shop at Bronx Community College. During the past two years, he has led six workshops for students and faculty and mentored some 20-student research projects. “We’ve installed a very specialized state-of-the-art software program here. We have tried to introduce geospatial technology to students in a very balanced way because they already have regular courses and busy schedules.”

The results have been impressive. Leroy Brown, 22, who graduated in June with a liberal arts and psychology double major, is the co-author of a soon-to-be published book on image analysis of satellite data. Brown is currently taking summer courses at BCC and is also processing his application to attend York College. Karolyn Jimenez, liberal arts major who graduated in January, was one of the first BCC students to work with Sunil. She went on to win an $8,000 scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center (NOAA-CREST). NOAA-CREST is administered by the City College of New York where Karolyn is seeking admission. Karolyn is the main author of a major report to NOAA-CREST and a peer-reviewed manuscript that will soon be published.

Three formal courses in geospatial technology and its countless applications will be offered at BCC this fall semester. Sunil expects up to 35 students to sign up for the entire unit.

“When we work with the students, we are also creating a research community,” says Sunil. His ultimate goal: to make Bronx Community College a center of geospatial technology that will attract major government and industry projects of which BCC students and the Bronx can be a part. In a letter of support, the Education Office of the Goddard Space Flight Center at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has already committed to provide such a center with data acquired from their satellites.

Sunil’s future plans include going into local high schools and even middle schools to introduce young minds to geospatial technology — perhaps inspiring them to one day attend BCC. Sunil has noticed that minority students and girls are especially fascinated by the technology, two groups very much underrepresented in the sciences.

As the Bronx contributes its best young minds to a BCC geospatial center, BCC in turn will contribute the results of its research to the Bronx, something the borough is greatly in need of. For the same reason, the city government is also greatly supportive of Sunil’s geospatial dream.

And if all this wasn’t enough to keep Sunil busy, he realized another dream in April when his wife gave birth to their first child – a baby girl they have named Dahlia. “I first heard her voice on the phone — that was the only time when I didn’t think of research.”

About Bronx Community College

Bronx Community College of The City University of New York offers more than 30 academic programs that prepare students for careers and to continue their education at four-year colleges. Located on a 43-acre, treelined campus, BCC is home to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the country’s first hall of fame. The College provides its more than 10,500 students with quality academic programs, outstanding faculty, and flexible class schedules. Students at BCC represent more than 100 countries from around the world. For more information about Bronx Community College, visit www.bcc.cuny.edu.