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Bhuwneshwar Sah

Despite a limited three-year secondment, this geographic information systems specialist has made a lasting mark in ADB with SPADE, the Spatial Data Analysis Explorer, which is expected to radically enhance not only urban projects but also other areas of ADB operations.

In the conflux of space and time

July 2018

Despite a limited three-year secondment, this geographic information systems specialist has made a lasting mark in ADB with SPADE, the Spatial Data Analysis Explorer, which is expected to radically enhance not only urban projects but also other areas of ADB operations.

It all started with a river in Nepal.


Bhuwneshwar Sah, an infrastructure specialist on geographic information systems (GIS), ended his secondment from the University of Tokyo and left ADB on 15 June—just two days short to the day he first arrived in ADB in 2015. In this nearly three years with the Bank, he has become quite synonymous to GIS and remote sensing technology, assisting in ways to mainstream the use of these advancements through knowledge sharing, capacity building, and – top of his list of accomplishments – developing SPADE, the Spatial Data Analysis Explorer, an online platform with a powerful interface for assessing, comparing, and analyzing spatial data and climate change scenarios.  


However, his expertise was not something he planned or eyed at the onset. The secondee, known to many as Sah, became exposed to the world of remote sensing in 1995, an era before cloud computing and when computer operating systems were either DOS or UNIX. Sah was looking for a better means of data collection and analysis for his master’s degree thesis on integrated basin management of the Triyuga River Basin. He not only found an efficient and quicker way to study the river, but he discovered how invaluable the technology is in terms of natural resources management (his graduate course at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok), as well as in civil engineering (his doctorate degree at University of Tokyo) and land use planning.


Now back in Japan with his family, Sah rejoins the university as an associate professor. “I look forward to sharing my knowledge with the young chaps,” he said. Still, the doors are not closed with ADB. There has been a memorandum of intent (MOI) with the university since 2011 and a four-year knowledge partnership with its Center for Spatial Information Science, which he spearheaded and was signed in 2017. This knowledge partnership focuses on SPADE, and there are big plans in the works, he proudly explained.


During his farewell gathering, Sah fondly recalled his ADB experience, particularly his time with colleagues and local stakeholders, his contributions, and lessons learned. He exuded satisfaction and that pure, unguarded glee much like a kid who sees electricity work for the first time (when he was a teen and moved to Kathmandu) or someone who gets excited with new technologies (when he learned about remote sensing and currently, with future of artificial intelligence for his field). Read the following interview for more of Sah’s story:


When did you join ADB? How did you get your secondment to ADB?


Sah: My first day in ADB was on 17 June 2015. ADB has an MOI with University of Tokyo since 2011, and there is a provision of secondment under that. I’m the second person to have that assignment. When the university announced the secondment opportunity, I was a little bit reluctant to apply because I was considering my family – my wife and two daughters who were both studying in university. I was an associate professor there, so I told my professor to please put me in last priority. But, they requested me.


What did you gain from this experience? What would you consider as your accomplishments?  


Sah: Aside from the MOI, there is now a knowledge partnership signed last year with the university’s Center for Spatial Information Science. This agreement is for the technical assistance supporting UCCRTF [the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund], which finances SPADE. I think this is one of my success stories in ADB since I helped arranged this, and it includes access and support from the supercomputer DIAS [Data Integration and Analysis System] for climate change modeling. 


Also, in 2015, after a couple of months since I joined ADB, a request came in from [the Knowledge Sharing and Services Center] and Energy [Sector Group]. They were planning to build the capacity of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Indonesia. I became very interested to apply my know-how.  In my previous job, I had used GIS in Cambodia for hydropower potential mapping, solar, and other similar applications, so I was quite confident that I could contribute. I was heavily engaged for about three months in Indonesia. I presented in a workshop to initiate the capacity building, and we planned to install a center of excellence, and we were able to produce a journal paper, working paper, and conference paper. I got really energetic working with people who do high-quality research, and in return that experience rewarded me a lot.


After that, there came a lot of other requests from the regional departments. Vijay, [the former Urban Sector Group chief and now Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division director], then said I had to cool down and contribute to [the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department] as well. He asked me to conceptualize some use of GIS and remote sensing for ADB and develop a working paper on how to institutionalize these technologies in ADB, so that SDCC can support operations on a systemic not adhoc basis. The first version I provided was on September 2015 and the sixth version came out September 2016. There were many developments since then, like working with colleagues Arghya Singha Roy and Sasank Vemuri during the early stages and getting European Space Agency or ESA on board, as well as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Royal HaskoningDHV. Now, there is a three-year work plan: the first year is for operation and maintenance and the next two years will be to plan the evolution of SPADE.

The name itself is also an evolution. When I first proposed, it was called the Spatial Data Information Platform, and then it became the Spatial Application Facility, until finally it was the Spatial Data Analysis Explorer.       

Do you think using SPADE will become common practice in ADB and developing member countries? 

Sah: There have been a lot of developments after we did the soft launch of SPADE. [The Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department] is a heavy user of GIS for their socioeconomic research so they want to keep this GIS data. When they learned about SPADE, they said it was the GIS data repository they needed and suggested that it could be further enhance for bank-wide escalation. There is also this Digital Steering Committee under Ayumi Konishi, special senior advisor to the President, and they are reviewing ADB’s data policy and what kind of technologies could be used. There is also talk on combining SPADE with the cartographic map clearance, so it’s getting traction. Things are moving very positively and I feel very happy.

As for client countries, SPADE was piloted in 5 cities. Moving forward, the plan is to roll it out across the rest of the 25 cities under UCCRTF as a sort of minimum target. This would include cities in Pakistan, Philippines, and Myanmar.

What led you to specialize on remote sensing and GIS?


Sah: I’m civil engineer by profession but I acquired two specialties, remote sensing spatial technology and GIS in engineering solution, during my master’s degree. My thesis adviser asked me to do integrated basin management, so I was looking for solutions. Remote sensing was still new at that time in 1995 but you could use it to study terrain models and how water flows, and even identify the silt load in the river. That was my start in remote sensing and GIS using DOS and UNIX! I was a good programmer at that time—now no more.


What made you like these technologies that you built a career out of it?


Sah: The basin I was studying for my thesis, the Triyuga River Basin, passes through my village. I purposely chose it because my village gets water from there. I knew the issues. As a child, I used to go with my father, who was one of the volunteers who cleaned and maintained it. I wanted to analyze the impact of basin land use change on the river flow and those things, as well as the siltation and maintenance.


I figured out during my thesis that in engineering you need facts and figures to give or reach a conclusion. In natural resources management, that is not easy, especially in rural areas. You either collect data through survey, which is very expensive and time-consuming, or remote sensing, which at that time was not so widely used. Landsat data is free now but back then we had to pay. I only had six months for my thesis so without those technologies it would have been nearly impossible to gather all the data required. During the six months, I was able to complete and publish a journal paper and win a $300 prize. What amazed me with this GIS on UNIX, I had digital data, digital terrain model, and I was able to generate river flows.     

What new technologies excite you or has your interest?


Sah: What I like recently is artificial intelligence. Our lab at the university is also doing something with this, yet still related to spatial application. They’re trying to train the software so it can automatically extract features. At the moment we have an algorithm that classifies but we have to assess the accuracy. With machine learning, we can escape several steps. It automates the process, such that by doing it again and again it learns gradually what we extracted. Many people are using this technology now. The difficulty with me is I’m not young anymore but there are a lot of young chaps who could do it!

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