The UNESCO-Bilko Project

Project aim     Guiding principles     Management and administration     Financial Support

The UNESCO Bilko Project began in 1987. Since then the project has produced eight modules of computer-based lessons and distributed copies to over 600 marine science laboratories and educational establishments and more than 3000 individual users in nearly 100 countries around the world.

Project aim

The original aim of the project was to facilitate "hands-on" training in coastal and marine remote sensing for those traditionally excluded from such training by the:

  • high cost of commercial image-processing software,
  • need for expensive computer equipment to run that software,
  • difficulty of acquiring remotely sensed images for teaching purposes,
  • long learning-curves required to master complex commercial software, and
  • need to teach large numbers of students at the same time.

Some of these constraints have eased significantly since 1987 but the continued worldwide success of the Bilko project (which surprised its originators) bears witness to the widespread demand for the training in countries both with limited and advanced remote sensing capabilities.

Four guiding principles

The success of the project may perhaps be found in the four primary components of the project, based on ideas that are still valid today.

  1. The Bilko software should be designed to run on low-cost computers rather than specialist equipment. This is still the case. However, the software functionality has undergone dramatic development in recent years, to keep pace with the increasing power of PCs and the rapid growth in remote sensing technology and availability of image data.

  2. The software should be supported by lessons that exemplify its power and teach the fundamentals of image analysis and interpretation through hands on practical exercises exploring different types of image data. This practice continues with new lessons currently under development, which demonstrate how the new, extended software (Bilko v3) may be used to process and interpret data from new generations of satellite sensors.

  3. The software and lessons should be available free of charge, a principle that still remains, although the medium has changed from paper-based workbooks and computer diskettes (floppy disk and later CD-ROM) to a system of free-downloads via the Internet.

  4. Students and teachers should be encouraged to exchange, assess, criticise and enhance Bilko, thus providing feedback for further development of software and lessons. Today, more than ever, the project relies on its network of users and lesson producers to provide feedback on existing material, produce new lessons, and come up with ideas for new developments.

Management and administration

Day to day coordination of the project is carried out by the Bilko Secretariat, which was hosted by ITC in the Netherlands until 2003, when the Bilko Project Office moved to the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. UK. NOC has also taken over responsibility for the Bilko website, which originally was developed and hosted by the University of Newcastle in the UK.

Overall control of project development rests with the International Bilko Executive Steering Team (IBEST), a team of volunteers that have been involved in guiding and developing the project over the years since its inception. Members of the IBEST endeavour to meet at regular intervals (preferably once a year), maintain regular discussions on-line, and are actively involved in the development, upgrade and testing of software and lessons, and in promoting the use of Bilko as a tool for training new generations of scientists in the applications of remote sensing.

At the Pan-African LME/GOOS-Africa Leadership Workshop in Cape Town 6-10 November, 2006 an African subgroup of Bilko (ABEST) was set up to ensure the development and dissemination of Bilko teaching materials of relevance to the GOOS-AFRICA capacity building effort. This group, currently led by marine scientists at the University of Cape Town, is working to develop teaching material for use in courses and workshops, and provide hands-on experience in the processing and analysis of remotely sensed data as part of wider research and management programmes.

Financial Support

UNESCO, through CSI and more recently through IOC, has maintained a basic level of support for the project. This covers travel costs associated with meetings of the IBEST, and contributes towards the cost of publishing and distributing lessons and software. However, most of the work associated with updating the software, developing lessons, maintaining the website and database of registered users, collating user feedback, and providing support for Bilko users is carried out by volunteers around the world, sometimes with financial support from other branches of UNESCO, or from organisations outside the UNESCO umbrella. Such additional support is generally linked to a specific, but fairly major undertaking, for example the organisation of a workshop or short course, a major software upgrade, or the development, review and testing of new thematic lessons. An example of this is the European Space Agency's support for the 2004-5 software upgrades that enabled Bilko to read and process Envisat data, and the development of a series of new lessons found in the module Observing the Ocean from Envisat.

Members of the IBEST also seek to provide continued support for the project by including Bilko in dissemination plans for wider research, teaching and environmental management projects. This has the added advantage of keeping the software and lessons up-to-date with new developments in remote sensing technologies and applications.