ARCHIVE. Dr. Somaya Al-Ma’adeed received her BSc in computer science from Qatar University in 1994. She received her MSc in mathematics and computer science from Alexandria University, Egypt, in 1999 and went on to get her PhD in computer science from Nottingham University in 2004. Since 1994, she has worked on research based at Qatar University, specializing in character recognition, writer identification, speech recognition, tendering systems and document management. Dr. Al-Ma’adeed has published around 20 papers in these areas and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Qatar University.
Q: Your research has been drawing attention—can you explain what you are doing?
A: My work is about writer identification. Just as you can know people from their fingerprints, irises or faces, you can know people from their handwriting. Through research and experiment, we found that people can be distinguished only by their handwriting. In fact, the recognition rate is more than 90 percent, and this is useful.
So, for example, there was a criminal in the United States who kidnapped a child and killed him. They found him from his handwriting.
Q: What kinds of techniques are used to distinguish one type of handwriting from another?
A: Mostly we rely on features. For instance, we can tell a lot from the angles of handwriting. We measure angles within a pixel of space using computer software. We can perform different exercises like finding the sum all of the angles.
Angle is just one type of feature we analyze; there are more than 90 features to distinguish the handwriting. There is writer identification involving the signature, or identification involving regular writing. We look at both the small-scale and large-scale features. We discovered that some features are more distinguishable than other features, such as the degree of the angles. These are more consistent within the way a person writes, and with software, we can recognize the pattern of writing by the features.
Q: What made you interested in this?
A: I was interested in character recognition, how to know what people write in Arabic. If someone writes something in Arabic, how do we translate it into something that the computer recognizes? When I realized that this field was [saturated], I wanted to do something new.
I started this work on handwriting recognition by running a student senior project supported by an internal university grant, and I expanded it when I saw that it was working.
I’m the first person to conduct this specific kind of research in Arabic. I’ve been working in this field of pattern and character recognition, and I’m the lead principal investigator, collaborating with Ahmed Bouridane at Northumbria University in the UK.
Q: Any milestones you’d like to share?
A: In 2011, there were two competitions, one for writer identification and one for signature identification. These involved Arabic, English (Latin-based script) and Chinese. We organized the Arabic one, so we couldn’t participate, but we won the Latin-based writer identification, for offline.
Q: What is offline?
A: The difference between offline and online is that for online subjects write in a test bed that’s connected to the computer, and the computer senses the pressure and direction of the writing. This is easier than offline because there are more features to analyze and compare. For offline recognition, it’s more difficult, and we won that for the Latin language.
Another competition involved signature identification, and, again, we won the Latin-based module. We are a team of one postdoc, one research assistant and two co-PIs, yet we are a strong collaboration, because each of us has different tasks, different specialties.
In this competition, we scored 100 percent on an English document and 90 percent on a Greek document. We submitted two features for each.
Q: How did you decide on two features?
A: Dr. Bouridane’s features [of specialization] and mine combine in different ways. Features, like the direction of letters and the angle of lines, mix with other features. We can’t know which feature is better. The choice also depends on the information in the database; in these competitions, they don’t give you the whole dataset. We don’t know which part we will analyze in advance; we work with what is provided. The features are embedded in mathematical formulas, and we have a program that combines features to find which work together better than others.
Q: Is it true that you are looking into patents around this work?
A: We are looking into patents, one covering signature identification, and one on writer identification. We haven’t published a lot because it is difficult to get a patent if your methods are widely published.
To avoid publishing our work and results, we have published how we did in competitions. This allowed us to have a chance at the patent.
Q: What do you hope your research does for society?
A: I hope that it will be useful in forensic applications and in the courts to verify signatures on important documents. I’m sure it can be used in forensics.
I’m also working with the Minister of Interior now here in Qatar. We had a workshop where we invited him and asked him to show us what he does, and he showed us how they identify writers manually and we showed him how we can do that by computer.
In Qatar it’s not legal or widely acceptable to collect online signatures; they must be in hardcopy. But in Europe, it’s becoming more widespread so we hope that a new system will be accepted in here.
In the meantime, my students are working and learning from this. It is a senior project for them, to work with the software and analyze the features.
Q: Can you say a little about the support you have received from QNRF?
A: I am thankful to QNRF. They respond so well to our requests to adjust things when we needed to. They are very responsible. I thank Sheikha Mozah for establishing the NPRP fund, because five years ago Qatar University didn’t have this kind of research activity. We were only teaching. We didn’t have the resources to do research, so I feel lucky now.
Dr. Al-Ma'adeed, we thank you very much for this interview and wish you the best of luck with your future research.
ARCHIVE. Qatar is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the heart of the vision for the country's development is a decreased dependence on natural resources and an increased reliance on a knowledge economy. This vision demands much in terms of aligning infrastructure to support education and research. But more than that, it demands the right people to bring, create and transfer knowledge. Attracting them is one thing, retaining them is another. For the first time, a researcher in Qatar is putting Doha under the microscope to make suggestions about its development.
“What do we mean by knowledge economy?” asked Professor Ashraf Salama, Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University. “That’s an important question. If you have international universities, international businesses or what is called APS, advanced producer services, international high tech and IT, then you have a knowledge economy. But the urban environment should be able to accommodate these practices. Does it? That’s what we are studying in Doha, its potential to support the knowledge economy.”
Dr. Salama described three key angles to studying the development of urban spaces—conceived, perceived and lived. He explained that conceived space is based on decisions by the public sector. Perceived space is explored through the interactions between people and companies, and the networks that develop. Lived space is the way people actually live and interact with their environment. His approach is largely based on work by Henri Lefebvre, a French sociologist.
“I’m an architect but to really know about architecture and the context within which it is developed, one needs to study sociology, anthropology, human behavior, cultural attributes, socio-economic concerns, and all related concepts,” Dr. Salama said. “Architecture is not about the pretty rendering you see in the office, it’s beyond that. It is interdisciplinary in nature, and is created in a field of tension between reason, emotion, and intuition.”
To gain a sense of the conceived environment, Dr. Salama and his colleague Dr. Alain Thierstein, an Urban Economist and Planning Professor at the Munich University of Technology, interviewed planners and conducted an analysis of city evolution based on maps, governance models and the way that urban regulations influence the development of urban structure. The team’s conceived environment work was also supported by Qatar University-based postdoctoral researcher Florian Wiedmann.
“To understand the perceived environment,” Dr. Salama said. “We’re looking at the number of flights coming to and from Doha. How companies make decisions about coming here, instead of Dubai or Abu Dhabi for example. We’re conducting interviews with companies and we’re looking now at company databases to get a sense of locations, the branches and the intra-networking of these companies.
“We’re looking also at investment patterns,” he continued. “Say a series of companies decide to come to Doha. Where in Doha? Al Sadd, West Bay, or where, and why? How do these areas support a knowledge-based economy?”
Dr. Salama said that the third component, lived, is his favorite, involving observation studies, behavioral mapping and surveying the different interpretations of Doha.
“Findings I’ve presented on this recently received considerable attention,” he said. “I was trying to investigate how people understand the idea of a city center and periphery. We found that Europeans and Americans tend to perceive waterfront areas as the center of a city, despite their geographical location. Arabs and Asians tend to see more dense urban places as city centers, such as Doha’s Ramada junction or Al Sadd area. Qataris tend to see Souq Waqif as the center of the city, because it has cultural significance and it retains memories for Qataris.
“This tells us about the spatial experience of inhabitants based on their cultural backgrounds, and it elucidates the need to consider the development of spaces with the perception and understanding of different groups in mind so that successful, inclusive urban spaces can be created," Dr. Salama said.
The three approaches function as parts of a cycle, Dr. Salama explained. The results of study into the lived (individual experiences of environment) and perceived (business networks) should feed back into the conceived (policy) again. He said that what he observed in Doha is that the lived and the perceived are an outcome of a non-responsive conceived, and the cycle will do well with some work so that a sustainable knowledge economy can take root.
“To understand a hybrid condition, you need hybrid modes of thinking, hybrid methodologies,” Dr. Salama said. “You need multiple methodologies to understand what’s going on in Doha. This is why we started processing it in these three ways.”
Due to its geo-strategic position in the world, Doha is what Dr. Salama calls “an emerging global city.” He said Doha could increasingly be seen as a hub of connection for the economies of Western Europe and the rising economies of Asia as it becomes more connected and attractive.
“With the three approaches I believe that our research results are amenable to establishing links between the knowledge economy and the qualities of the urban environment as a foundation for the future prosperity of the country," he said. "In terms of contributing to the international community, I would say our research speaks to very recent phenomena and ideas,” Dr. Salama said. “We’re trying to help people see globalization in positive terms. Everybody is trying to analyze and criticize globalization, but we’re already living in a global condition and it’s better if we learn to live with it, and capitalize on its perceived merits.”
Dr. Salama said QNRF is a very important mechanism for several reasons. “In terms of generating knowledge for different fields, particularly young fields within Qatar, QNRF is an essential support mechanism. In my field, there is not much written about Qatar, so this is an excellent opportunity to try to position the city where you work and where you live to the international academic community.
“In terms of the funding itself, I’ve worked in five countries—Saudi Arabia, America, UK, Egypt, and now in Qatar. I’ve never seen such a great interest and support in research in the fields of architecture and urbanism.”
Investigating the Qualities of the Urban Environment in Emerging Regional Metropolis: The Case of Doha, Qatar
LPI Name: Prof. Ashraf Salama, Qatar University
ARCHIVE. In the 1920s, two German scientists—Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch—developed revolutionary chemical reactions that could transform gas into liquid. These reactions proved particularly valuable to natural gas-based fuel processing. Since the Fischer-Tropsch days, engineers around the world have been working on ways to tweak these gas-to-liquid (GTL) reactions to produce more products, more efficiently and with less environmental impact. An international research team headquartered at Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) is making remarkable progress along these lines.
“Qatar is the most attractive place to a scientist wanting to make a difference,” said Dr. Nimir Elbashir, assistant professor at TAMUQ and a researcher with more than 15 years of experience at the leading edge of R&D related to fuel processing and petrochemicals. “For researchers in this field, QNRF has opened the door to build international network collaborations and at the same time has provided facilities to make a difference with industrial collaborators.”
Dr. Elbashir’s team—involving researchers from Qatar University, Texas A&M University, College Station, University of Cambridge (CU) and Auburn University—has targeted three key GTL research areas. The first involves a tight focus on the exact molecular actions at play during Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis (FTS) reactions and how different environmental factors impact the process. This information is then applied to the second area of research, test model systems, wherein models are built and tested for their ability to produce different liquid products under different conditions.
The third focus emphasizes fuel products and formulating them to be as effective as traditional crude oil relatives with a reduced environmental impact. Funded by Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), it entails a unique collaboration between academia—TAMUQ, University of Sheffield, UK, and DLR, a German Aerospace Institute—and industry leaders Shell and Rolls Royce.
Referring to the US$950 million Sasol-Qatar Petroleum GTL plant in Qatar and Shell’s largest GTL plant in the world—known as The Pearl GTL in Qatar—Dr. Elbashir said that Qatar was an obvious choice for his research base.
Dr. Elbashir’s team is working to isolate and combine the strongest aspects of the technologies used at Sasol and Shell into one technology. To be sure his team is on the right track, he assembled an advisory board on both technologies, with members from Shell, Sasol, Exxon Mobil and Qatar Gas.
“This project involves a unique network and is not just about me,” Dr. Elbashir said. “I can design a reactor but someone else has to optimize this design, and someone else has to develop a control setup for this design while another person has to understand how such thermodynamic behavior has to happen. So you can see, it requires experts in different areas and these people are at the top of their field.
“At the same time, to make the research applied, we rely on the industry experts to tell us whether we are going in the right direction and if what we’re doing is relevant to the design of future technology.”
Shell Pearl GTL Plant in Qatar
Shell's "The Pearl" GTL Plant, based in Qatar, is the largest such facility in the world.
One important potential result of this research is the impact it will make on smaller fuel companies and the market at large.
“Right now, only the major corporations around the world can invest in the gas to liquid technologies because it’s quite expensive,” he said. “Companies like Shell are the only ones who can afford to invest US$20 billion in this technology. This greatly limits the participation of the small to middle sized companies. Our objective is to advance the technology and provide a unit that can be manipulated to produce specific products and that is useful for mid-sized companies.”
On this project alone, Dr. Elbashir’s team has published eight peer-reviewed articles and eight conference papers. They’ve also presented research findings at over two dozen international engineering conferences.
But the best is yet to come, he said. Through a recent NPRP award—running through 2014—Dr. Elbashir, in partnership with CU, will be conducting studies to visualize the molecular processes of GTL using MRI and NMR technologies.
“We’ll be moving one step ahead of any research ever done in this field,” Dr. Elbashir said. “We’re planning to investigate the in situ behavior of the reaction in a way that nobody has ever done before. We’ve been making a lot of assumptions about the fundamentals of GTL, but still we have not visualized any of it. This is all happening at a micro-scale and it’s happening very fast.
“I’m confident in the team we have built and if we are successful, we may answer questions that span beyond emissions, and we may help refine the assumptions made in hundreds of papers written in the past—nobody has ever really seen the GTL process at the molecular level, and we may soon see exactly how it happens!”
Innovative projects like these would be difficult, if not impossible, to move forward without QNRF, Dr. Elbashir said. “For someone like me, in applied research, this is an amazing opportunity.”
Development of Novel Gas-to-Liquid Technology in Near-Critical and Supercritical Phase Media
LPI Name: Dr. Nimir Elbashir, Texas A&M University - Qatar
ARCHIVE. Genetic research has evolved from mapping the entire human genome to deciphering areas along it that relate to a specific disease. The next phase involves research localized to specific parts of the world in order to discover patterns in heritage and genetic susceptibilities to disease. A group of such projects based on the local Qatari population has so far yielded results that shine light on the specific ancestral background of the local population and also points to areas of the Qatari genome that could potentially allow prediction and intervention. These projects are led by Dr. Ronald Crystal, Chairman of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
“The basic goal involves trying to understand the structure of the genome of the Qataris and put that in context with the environment to see how we can use that information to help the population in terms of general health, understanding disease, developing appropriate therapies and so on,” he said.
Some of the first results Dr. Crystal’s team published resolved the broad genomic makeup of the Qatari population, which, as published, can be generally separated into three categories—referred to as Q1, Q2 and Q3. Q1 are largely Bedouins, Q2 are a Persian or South Asian mixture and Q3 are the African-derived Qataris. While these groups are not perfectly “pure” per se, they are distinct enough to categorize.
“This is very, very important,” Dr. Crystal said, “because from everything we are learning in genetics, the responses to the environment are different depending on your genetic makeup. The fact that we can break the Qatari population into three is a very important because we can now study the responses of the different genetic populations to the same environmental stress. It may be that the Q1, Q2, Q3 populations respond differently to that same stress.”
Stress can be anything from smoking shisha to living a sedentary lifestyle to eating an imbalanced diet. Another environmental factor that is often separated into a category of its own, however, is drug metabolism—the way the body responds to certain drugs. And this, Dr. Crystal explained, is often predicted by genetics.
“I’m allergic to sulfur drugs,” Dr. Crystal said. “So if I take a drug that has a sulfur compound in it, I’ll develop a rash. You take the same drug and you probably won’t. This is on a genetic basis. We don’t know all the genes that control that but undoubtedly it’s on a genetic basis. So we have the whole population exposed to them but only some people will have adverse reactions to certain drugs.”
As more studies into the local population take shape, researchers will also be able to isolate more monogenetic - single gene-caused - diseases. A well-known example in the Qatari population is thalassemia, a blood thinning disorder.
The researchers, based in Qatar and New York, have published preliminary work related to a detailed/complete investigation of seven Qatari genomes. What has been published so far took into account thousands of positions along the genome - known as exome regions - that relate directly to human health and reveal many clues about the variability of genetics across populations.
A larger study, expanding on the publication, is well underway and involves the exome analysis, also known as “sequencing,” of 1,000 Qataris. The team has completed 600 of the samples, and Dr. Crystal said the remainder will be complete within the coming year.
Color coded areas note where areas of sampled Qatari genomes most closely match regions of the world in terms of ancestry. (plot from: Exome Sequencing of Only Seven Qataris Identifies Potentially Deleterious Variants in the Qatari Population. PLoS One. 7:11; 2012)
“One thousand people is 0.3 percent of the whole Qatari population,” he said, emphasizing this as a healthy start to discovering strong relationships between genetic markers and disease. “Our goal over the long run is to help develop a chip that can be used by the lab to screen married couples and also newborns, so that’s a real example of how genetics can be useful for a population … how understanding and having a strategy around genetic variability can be a real positive outcome for public health.
“As you know, the Qataris, like some other populations in the Middle East, have increased susceptibility to some diseases: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, some neurological disorders, and so on. And so if we can understand the differences between the Qatari populations and other world populations, we can begin to understand and contribute to understanding why the Qataris are more susceptible to certain disorders.”
In terms of privacy and social implications, Dr. Crystal explained that every detail has been considered. The samples were taken with permission and measures were taken to code samples with numbers to ensure results could not be traced to individuals. The complications arise, however, when people must decide if they want to know the results.
“There’s also another important issue called genomic anxiety, he said. “In other words, if I told you that you have a risk for diabetes or cardiovascular disease, you can say that’s something you might want to know because you could monitor your blood sugars and exercise and watch your diet and so on. But what if I told you that you have a high risk for early onset Alzheimer’s disease?”
Therapy currently does not exist around Alzheimer’s, but researchers can pinpoint a 20-fold increase in risk around the disease based on genetic analysis, Dr. Crystal said. In fact it caused him to pause for thought about getting his own genome sequenced. Yet the potential benefits of knowing the altered points in a genome speak for themselves.
“There’s a good example in some blood thinning drugs,” he said, “where there are clearly genetic factors that control their metabolism and whether a patient will have susceptibility to bleeding, and it can be life threatening, and we are very cognizant of that and we are dealing with that in the US, and there’s a lot of discussion around this and I think the same will be true in Qatar.”
Dr. Crystal’s team is extremely grateful for support from QNRF, which is allowing them to participate in the leading edge of genetics research.
“We have a grant to study the structure of the genome; we have a grant to study complications like retinopathy and diabetes; we have a grant together with the lab people at Hamad Medical Corporation to study the genetic variants associated with genetic disorders … so we have several grants being supported. I mean we couldn’t do this without the support of the Qatar Foundation and QNRF.
“I think that Qataris are very smart in that they're investing significantly not only in education but also in biomedical research that will directly help the population, and I hope this is a good example of that,” he continued. “Our goal is to try to develop genetic information that will be directly helpful in terms of medical care.”
Whole genome sequencing of the Qatari population