Free Open-Source Geospatial and Natural Resource Management in Eastern Indonesia

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Free Open-Source Geospatial and Natural Resource Management in Eastern Indonesia

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Indonesia-based RIEL PhD student Sarah Hobgen has been quite the jetsetter lately. From Sumba to Darwin and, later this month, Paris, she has been busy presenting preliminary findings into her research on erosion and sediment in the Kambaniru River, Sumba, and the limited effectiveness of current efforts to manage this catchment. Somehow amidst the recent flurry of seminars, workshops and conferences she’s also found time to begin work on a paper.

Free open source mapping software and satellite imagery is a cornerstone of Sarah’s PhD research, reflecting a belief in capacity-building as a necessary element of any discussion around natural resource management in the region. It’s a belief shared by Sarah’s supervisor and fellow RIEL researcher Rohan Fisher, also working in Eastern Indonesia. Together they will co-author a paper on the opportunities for using free geospatial data and software to improve evidence-based natural resource management in the developing world, with examples from Eastern Indonesia. Although still a work in process, Sarah discussed some of the ideas behind it during her recent visit to Darwin.

“In theory, decentralisation in Indonesia means that responsibility for land, forest and water management has been handed to the local governments,” Sarah explains. “In reality there is still a mix of national and local management – particularly when it comes to research and technical information – partly because local government staff just don’t have the technical capacity.”

Sumba, along with the other islands in the East Nusa Tenggara (ENT) province, is not resource-rich. The province is one of the driest in Indonesia, a fact that has hindered development and exacerbated the consequences of unsustainable resource management, helping to posit food security as an increasingly critical challenge for the region – especially if unfavourable climate change scenarios are thrown into the mix.

Consultants from richer Indonesian provinces are imported in to work out ways to better manage natural resources in ENT. Sarah recounts a first-hand encounter with one of these consultant teams:

“Recently while I was in Sumba, a consultant came from Jakarta to do a ‘flash’ base data collection on the Kambaniru Catchment for a model he was creating of the area,” she says. “The problem was he didn’t know anything about the place, the landscape or the people. The maps he and his groups produced were used in a workshop on catchment management and caused uproar because they simply weren’t accurate. Towns weren’t in the right places – one was even in the sea! The fact these consultants could make such obvious mistakes and not notice really diminishes confidence in the data they propose to use to inform management decisions.”

“This is a great example why local people need to be able to analyse their own data and create their own maps,” Sarah continues. “While the information produced may not be as accurate as the expensive, more sophisticated models, local people creating and analysing data already understand the landscape and the social, political and cultural context. They can make maps for purposes that are relevant to them, and they can interpret results in a way that is relevant to them – which ties directly to effective management of catchments that sustain their communities.”

As for whether using free open source software has a detrimental impact on the quality of her own PhD research, Sarah has this to say:

“Free open source software for mapping is just as good for most applications as the expensive licensed software. We can download free satellite data from USGS like Landsat, analyse it in programs like SAGA GIS and make pretty maps in programs like QGIS. The free satellite imagery is not as detailed as the commercial imagery, but has a great archive of over 30 years, so we can see changes over time, and local people can relate it to their understanding of what has happened socially, economically and politically during that time. Google Earth has also changed the game, lots of great new images are available to view, it’s just like having a stack of aerial photographs with some of the preparation work done for you!

“Aerial photographs have been – and still are – used for a wide range of research in geography and other fields, mostly by digitisation which means you manually analyse the images with your own eyes, and mark, trace over and measure specific features like landslide scars or gullies.

“While digitisation can be time-consuming it also gives you a great perspective on the area you are working on. So, in my opinion, the combination of free satellite imagery, Google Earth and data analysed by someone who knows the landscape can actually be much more useful than sophisticated models and high resolution data prepared by an expert who doesn’t know the landscape.”

Sarah has been putting her free open source geospatial skills to use outside the immediate parameters of her PhD. She participated in a recent Crawford Fund workshop led by RIEL's Dr Bronwyn Myers called Towards wise and effective catchment management in Nusa Tenggara Timur Province’ which brought together participants from all over the East Nusa Tenggara province. Next year Sarah intends to volunteer as a GIS trainer with the East Sumba District government, to share her skills with other people.

Sarah and Rohan’s paper will be completed in the coming months – keep an eye out!

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