This man made Salzburg the Mecca of geoinformatics conferences

Anyone involved in geoinformatics will inevitably come across the name Josef Strobl. His love of the mountains once brought this ‘lowland Austrian’ to the University of Salzburg and his early research into digital models of Earth made him world renowned. The international professional elite continues to make its pilgrimage to his annual summer conference.

The topics on which the approximately one hundred employees of Salzburg University’s Institute for Geoinformatics – Z_GIS for short – conduct research range from safe cycling routes in the city to early warning systems to protect against landslides, and the diagnosis of migration flows to African refugee camps. Z_GIS also focuses on the protection of children's villages in crisis regions and the evaluation of shopping centre locations. “Our topics are often very close to politics and business, leading some to believe we are a company,” says Professor Josef Strobl, adding that his view of science is that it should be “as theoretical as necessary and as practical as possible”. Or, in more geographical terms “as down-to-earth and up-to-date as possible”.

A good flair for marketing adds the finishing touch to Strobl's reputation. Contrary to common academic practice, he chooses catchy acronyms for his fields of activity: Z_GIS, agit, iSPACE, or iDEAS:lab. They all work as a brand outside the specific sector. Nobody would even dream of spelling out the full name any more. Z_GIS is the department Strobl founded and developed on the basis of geography at the University of Salzburg and which he still heads 30 years on. The hands-on scientist who is always on the go has long been a driving force behind Salzburg's development from a tourist magnet to an internationally renowned science city.

A summer’s night at the lake

agit, the annual technical summit, is where the work of his institute and geoinformatics as a whole are showcased. In early July, Professor Strobl gathered the international professional elite for a week in Salzburg for the 30th time. A thousand scientists – the majority of whom are regular guests – discussed topics such as geodata as a basis for urban and traffic development and autonomous driving, as well as satellite-based earth observation, and other sensors in an increasingly 'smart' environment. Strobl practically combines theory with a trade fair featuring more than 50 paying exhibitors. Strobl says one of agit’s success factors is that “The University of Salzburg is an excellent conference venue with space for a wide variety of conference formats, all on the green belt near the old town.”  Colleagues from China and the USA all come here for the event, often bringing their families with them and spending a few extra days holidaying. Because of Salzburg's pulling power, it has never occurred to him to turn agit into a travelling circus. Salzburg is and will remain a Mecca for specialists. Strobl, the organiser, is clearly proud: “Salzburg is in demand as a destination. It’s a place many people want to visit at least once in their lifetime. With its image as the city of Mozart and the Sound of Music, it is a place easier to get keynote speakers to than would be the case somewhere else. We are the community hub, no more and no less.”

On the occasion of agit, meetings also frequently take place in other parts of Salzburg, most recently at Leopoldskron Castle. Some guests spent all night at the castle lake, not leaving until dawn. As evidence, the professor shows some pictures of the sunrise taken at the small lake, with Untersberg illuminated by the red glow of the morning sun. “This is a quality that emotionally ties even the soberest scientists to Salzburg,” says Strobl. agit is not his only congress in Salzburg. Time and again, his team have brought conferences here or Z_GIS has participated in them. One such event will be the European Cycling Summit in September 2018, an EU platform for sustainable transport. “There is very little risk involved in organising such events in Salzburg. Complaints about a lack of conference facilities, accommodation, and food are almost unheard of. The standards are very high,” praises Professor Strobl.

The frontrunner in geoinformatics has to be in the know, given that he spends a third of every year at congresses and with project partners around the globe. He mentions the European Earth Observation Programme Copernicus as being an exciting partner, for which Z_GIS and its Copernicus Academy are leaders when it comes to training. Strobl calls it the ‘doughnut effect’, when more distant external relations surpass partnerships in the region. In order to fill the ‘doughnut hole’, he is also trying to employ graduates in the region. Fields of work are urban and regional planning, location analyses for commercial properties, logistics routing, e.g. in forestry, citizen participation, and climate impact research. Some employees have founded start-ups for this purpose, others have hooked up with established companies. Z_GIS’s management team is staffed by long-time employees from within. The team is certainly not provincial but includes people from a dozen different countries such as China, India, Kyrgyzstan, or Colombia. In addition, more than a dozen Z_GIS graduates have qualified for professorships at universities all over the world.

Pioneering spirit

Josef Strobl already aimed high at an early age. Literally. Born in 1958 in Lower Austria, he was already keen on mountain tours at an early age. Starting in his youth, this led him from his lowland home town of Amstetten to the mountainous west of Austria, to Tyrol and Salzburg. Since map reading is part of climbing summits, this led him to study geography in Vienna with a focus on cartography and the tools of the emerging digital age. The summer, however, and many a time in between, were reserved for mountain tours as a youth leader for the Austrian Alpine Association. Measuring and evaluating glaciers on behalf of the Central Institute for Meteorology in Vienna served as a source of income. His doctoral thesis on the radiation balance of glaciers in the early 1980s now forms part of climate change research.

In 1985, however, his employment as an assistant at the Institute for Geography at the University of Salzburg was less due to this expertise than to his competence in working with computers. This made him an IT pioneer at the university. “The industry was still in its infancy in those days and someone was needed who knew their way around at least somewhat and could develop things,” recalls the soon-to-be founder of Z_GIS. The geography spin-off for digital information systems has long enjoyed a special status at the University of Salzburg as one of very few cross-faculty departments. 25 years ago, when others were not even considering them, Strobl started up distance learning courses; in 2019 Z_GIS is set to start the EU-wide International Master’s Programme for Digital Earth. The 2017 Z_GIS Annual Report lists 40 research projects and 80 publications.

The geographic school project iDEAS:Lab as well as iSPACE, a non-university research studio that has repeatedly made headlines with projects such as ‘Urban Green Belts’, are also highly regarded ‘Strobl children’.

Since 2010, Strobl himself has been a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the country’s academic nobility. He has also been invited to join a dozen other honorary bodies, including the UN Panel of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management in New York.

80-hour weeks

Trade unionists certainly have little joy with someone like Josef Strobl. His family is also not particularly impressed with his zeal that sees him living mostly for his work. “I have been able to turn my hobby into my profession and that has given me all the freedom I needed,” says Strobl. For him, 80-hour weeks are certainly not the exception. To balance out, he climbs one of the mountains around the city of Salzburg every now and then. Is Untersberg the best sort of evening stroll? Professor Strobl smiles and gives a shrug, “That doesn’t happen so often these days.” Others ‘climb’ the respectable 1,300 vertical meters up and down easily by cable car.

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