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GIS in the Baltic Region

(Based on materials from:
September 5-8, 1996
Columbia Inn Hotel and Conference Center
Columbia, Maryland, USA)

Karlis Kalviskis
GIS laboratory,
University of Latvia

After publishing this paper on WWW, I have received useful additions from Jüri Roosaare (Institute of Geography, University of Tartu, Estonia). They are added to this text.


GIS in the Baltic began to expand in use only after independence in 1991. Only a few GIS laboratories were established during the Soviet occupation. After 1991, many new university laboratories, as well as some private firms that dealt with GIS topics, were established. Most of them were involved in international projects that covered the Baltic Sea region. The demand for GIS products and specialists in business is growing day by day. There is still much work required for higher educational establishments in GIS in the respective countries.

This paper is mostly focused on GIS development and teaching in Latvia. Some of the most significant international projects that deal with GIS and higher education are covered as well.


I will provide a brief overview of GIS education in universities in the three Baltic countries. All three Baltic countries have a very common history, problems and development. As a representative from Latvia, I will talk more about Latvia rather than Estonia and Lithuania. All three countries regained their independence in 1991, ending the Soviet occupation. Only a few GIS laboratories were established in the Soviet era. In Estonia, there existed rather old GIS traditions in the University of Tartu, which began in 1969 as a course on mathematical methods in geography. In 1983, the University of Tartu held the first workshop in the USSR that was directly focused on GIS [Roosaare J., 1994].

GIS during soviet occupation

At the end of 1970's to the beginning of the 1980's, various ecology and nature protection projects, at a country level, involved complex investigations called «Nature Protection Integrated Schemes». This was a type of GIS without computers. Many members of the university academic staff were involved in these projects. The theses of many students were used as a resource of data. These schemes were hampered by the Soviet Russian Army security restrictions. The paper base-maps for the republics were in a 1:400 000 scale. The actual accuracy of these maps was less than ±2 km. White spots in the data coverages indicated the presence of Russian army bases.

During the Soviet time, it was impossible to work seriously in the GIS field due, to the following:

Lack of maps for civil needs. Any map was an object of security. Only the military had access to maps. Any coordinates were taboo;

Shortage of computers. I suppose the situation of computing technique in universities in the 1980's was similar to the USA, but in 1960's. Even photocopiers were under the control of the KGB;

Data security and distortion. As maps, data was the subject of security as well. One of the theses of the Nazi's – lies have to be so great that everybody accepts them as a true - was carried out in the field in collecting data.

First steps in GIS after the occupation

Let's hope that all this is only history now. The development of GIS in the Baltic countries was closely connected with the development of independence in these counties. At the end of the 1980's the first attempts to change the situation were made. The first work was to establish a coordinate system. In Latvia, the leading role in GIS was by the Department of Geodesy, Riga Technical University and the Laboratory of Astronomy, University of Latvia. At 1990, a substructure under Laboratory of Astronomy was created called the laboratory of Satellite Geodesy and Geo-Information. Besides the work at establishing coordinates, the digitising of maps in a 1:200 000 scale began. Students were involved in this work as well. For manipulation of digital data, original software was created. At present, this has a grown up into useful product for schools and home use.

After 1991, many new university laboratories and some private firms that dealt with GIS topics, were established. Most of them were involved in international projects that covered the Baltic Sea region. Useful courses in the field of GIS were organised by different organisations.

International GIS courses

Already in October, 1990, the United Nations Environmental Programme/Global Resource Information Database (UNEP/GRID) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) organised a seminar devoted to problems of natural resource management and processing of satellite images. The seminar took place in Druskininkai, Lithuania. Later, on August, 1993, similar courses were organised in Arendal, Norway.

In September of 1991, in Slovakia (at that time it was Czechoslovakia) at Vychodna, a summer school on GIS was organised by the University of Salford (Great Britain) and the Czech Institute for Nature Conservation. Members from Eastern-European countries were invited to these one week courses. The basics of GIS and practical experience in work with «IDRISI» and «SPANS», were given. At the end of these courses, participants received as a donation an «IDRISI» licence. This was starting point for GIS in Department of Botany and Ecology, University of Latvia. This department has an old tradition of teaching Biometry.

During the semesters of 1991/1992 and 1992/1993 GIS, served only as an addition to student theses. Several students from the faculties of Biology and Geography, University of Latvia, used «IDRISI» to analyse their data. For example, the examination of the distribution of heavy metals. «IDRISI» is/was heavily used in the Chair of Geoinformatics and Cartography at the Institute of Geography, University of Tartu, Estonia. Interesting work was done in the territorial processing of meteorological data [Jaagus J, 1994]. Already in 1990, a course "Basics of Geoinformatics" was introduced in the University of Tartu [Roosaare J.,1994].

There was also long-running courses like the one year (1992/1993) course in Environmental Management (Leiden, Netherlands), organised by the University of Amsterdam, the Free University of Amsterdam, the State University of Leiden and the Agricultural University of Wageningen. The course ended with an interdisciplinary research project using GIS. The project was mostly for learning and understanding methods, rather than producing a strategy to solve the problem.

One of the contributions in GIS in Higher Education in the Baltic Countries was made by the Baltic University Programme, co-ordinated by the University of Uppsala, Sweden. All it starts with idea to start a project "The Environmental Atlas of the Baltic" at the end of 1992. One of the initiators was Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania. To be honest, such an atlas has not be created up to now. This is not surprising - the by-product was placed as a goal. On the other hand, it was a good starting point for another project - the Baltic University GIS (BUGIS) project. The goals of this project were (as declared by BUGIS co-ordinator Ulf Erlingsson):

  • to construct an environmental (in broad sense) GIS over the Baltic Sea drainage area, to be used in research and education. It is to be constructed largely by students for students, and it is to be available as an open data set for research and GIS education at universities in the area;
  • to develop, at the university-teacher level, a hands on experience of the problems and pitfalls related with creating and using a full-scale GIS. This experience is essential for GIS teacher, and it is to be achieved by working with this international, and interdisciplinary, GIS.

The first practical step was made on May, 1992, when four people (one from Latvia, one from Lithuania, two from Russia) were invited to attend GIS courses in Uppsala. Several courses followed during the next years. The Baltic University was one of the initiators of establishing the GIS laboratory, University of Latvia, in September of 1992. This laboratory is a natural branch of the Department of Botany and Ecology.

One year later, in five universities (Kaunas, Lithuania; Riga, Latvia; St Petersburg, Russia; Tartu, Estonia; Uppsala, Sweden), appropriate hardware was placed (one Macintosh «Centris 650» with digitiser tablet). The hardware included a «MapGrafix» and «Map II» licences. This served as a push for starting GIS related courses in the GIS laboratory, University of Latvia and Department of Environmental Engineering GIS laboratory, Kaunas University of Technology.

The next stage of BUGIS development was the University GIS (UGIS) Network. The UGIS Network has a more general scope than the BUGIS Project. Even more,- BUGIS can be considered as one of the projects carried with the help of the UGIS Network. In 1994, new contacts were established with England, Ireland, Spain, Greece and Egypt. At present, UGIS Network has separated from the Baltic University Programme.

GIS teaching in Estonia

There are several private companies in Estonia now offering trainig in GIS («ArcView», «MapInfo», «Bentley System's» products etc.), as well as elements of GIS are included in couple of classes in Estonian Agricultural Academy and Tallinn Technical University but the only place where higher education in GIS, including postgraduate level, has been given is Institute of Geography, University of Tartu.

GIS teaching in Latvia

Now I wish to return to GIS development in higher education in Latvia. As I have mentioned, the first course related to GIS was given in 1993/1994. This and the next year courses were given to bachelor students from the Faculty of Geography.

Starting from 1994/1995, GIS courses were given in the Department of Geodesy, Riga Technical University. As base software, «Microstation», «Geographer» and «Oracle» are used. The courses are given to Bachelor and Masters students. The main field of interest for the participants of these courses are land cadastral systems. These courses were attended also by students from an other university - The Agricultural University of Latvia. Now, the Department of Geodesy will participate in CORINE activities.

At the end of 1994, the Institute of Geodesy and Geo-Information was established on basis of Laboratory of Satellite Geodesy and Geo-Information. Starting from 1995/1996, this institute offered introductory courses in GIS for students at the Faculty of Geography. They have several PC-s with «ArcView», available to students. They obtain experience with vector data, creating maps and the use of attribute data bases. Already from September 1993, members of the Institute are involved in a country level project - Base map development project for Latvia. This project is run by the State Land Service of Latvia and Swedish Space Cooperation Satellitbild.

Starting from 1995/1996, the GIS laboratory, University of Latvia is used as a base for teaching GIS basics to Masters students from Faculty of Biology. The number of students was limited, due to lack of computers. Only one Macintosh (donation from BUGIS Project) and one Intel compatible DX486 (donation from SOROS Foundation) were used. The practical work was organised as individual work. Such work can be organised using «Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0» as an operating system. The practical work is map-algebra orientated. «IDRISI» is used as software. Students have access to «Microstation», «MGE PC», «ER Mapper», «Map Maker», «TNTlite». Exercises begin with simple arithmetic operations with maps and ends with time series analysis and DTM. For instance, students receive data on elevation, forest cover and location of radars, all in vector format. They have to determine which forests are exposed to the radars. They have to take to account that the radars see only 180° together. As an advance exercises, UNITAR/GRID exercises books are used.

Starting from this year, GIS will be included in the Biometry and Spatial Information for Biologists course. Besides Spreadsheets and Data Base Management systems, students obtain knowledge in programming, statistical analyses and GIS. Thank to the Trans-European Mobility Scheme for University Studies (TEMPUS) project, a computer-class with nine 486 PCs was established. This class can be used also for GIS teaching. The only restriction for the moment is software. One solution is to check for appropriate free-ware. In the autumn semester, «TNTlite™» will be used in the cytology course, to analyse cell spatial structure.

Several scientific projects involving GIS are taking place in the GIS laboratory and Department of Botany and Ecology. One of them is to determine the impact of the Russian Army Radar-Location Systems on organisms in the Skrunda region (Latvia). The object is interesting due its location in a valley, and due to the surprising observed effects. Another object of investigation is Lake Engure, Latvia. The main field of interest here is biodiversity changes. This lake is of great value as a birds nesting and breeding place.

Contribution to GIS teaching

One of the problems in GIS teaching is the lack of appropriate finances. Most of GIS activities are sponsored by different foundations and firms. A great impact to the quality of GIS teaching was made from Bentley, Intergraph and ESRI product resellers in Latvia. In another category of contributors in GIS development, the activities of the Latvian Fund for Nature in the field of nature protection, lead to real experience for students in creating and maintaining Geographical Information Systems.

As part of the financing problems, there is also a lack of literature. Most of the available books, journals and proceedings available in Latvia are in one copy. The situation was a bit improved in 1994, when compendium "Geographic Information Systems: Basics and Environmental Applications" by Linas Kliucininkas (lecturer from Kaunas University of Technology) was published.

Good support for practical GIS courses are data sets available from GRID-Arendal. The satellite imagery is very useful, since such data is missing in the university environment due to their prices.

A very good resource for update information is World Wide Web. The information covered by different web servers is of very wide range, including theoretical concepts, practical explanations, how to work with particular software, latest achievements in hardware and software and digital maps.


  • Jaagus, Jaak, 1994; Territorial Processing of Meteorological Data;/ Proceedings from GIS-Baltic Sea states '93, 29 November - 1 December, Tallinn Estonia/; Tallinn
  • Roosaare, Jüri, 1994; Teaching GIS at the University of Tartu - State-of-the-Art and Future Trends;/ Proceedings from GIS-Baltic Sea states '93, 29 November - 1 December, Tallinn Estonia/; Tallinn

Useful Reference (addition by Jüri Roosaare)

  • Roosaare, J., 1994; Diversity in GIS Education - a Keynote Demand for Universities in Small Countries. - Konecny, M. (Ed.) Europe in Transition: The Context of GIS. Conference Proceedings. - Brno, p. IV.57-IV.66.
  • Roosaare, J. , 1993; Difficulties and perspectives of introducing GIS technology into a post-soviet society: the case of Estonia. Proceedings of the EGIS'93 Fourth European Conference and exhibition on Geographical Information Systems, Genoa - Italy, March 29 April 1 /Eds. J. Harts, H.F.L. Ottens, H.J. Scholten, exec.ed. D.A. Ondaatje. V.2. Utrecht, p. 917- 924.
  • Roosaare, J. 1996. Database management using IDRISI for DOS: some examples. In: E.J. Lorup, J. Strobl (eds.) IDRISI GIS'96 ausgewaehlte Projekte auf CDROM. Saltzburger geographische Materialien, Hft. 25 (ISBN: 3-85283-010-9)
  • Erlingsson, U., Roosaare, J. 1994; University GIS network: an international, interdisciplinary, and cooperative network for GIS education and communication. - In CD: Environment and Quality of Life in Central Europe: Problems of Transition. Conference Proceedings. - Praha: Albertina icome, (ISBN 807184 1536)

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