On August 22, in the newest building at the oldest university in the western hemisphere, a group of adventurous folk from the Dominican Republic Ministry of the Environment became Map Hackers at the Mapping Medio Ambiente Workshop.
In their work, monitoring pollution sources, preparing environmental impact reports, conservation, they generate large amounts of data, GPS waypoints, imagery .. but generally lack the technical and financial means to organize this information in a traditional GIS. Mostly GPS readings are just noted down in paper notebooks. Clearly more could be done with this data, further internal and external communication and organization with geo-visualiation and -analysis. The idea for the one day workshop was to introduce the web/hacker oriented approaches, to drive use of the great geospatial tools from the bottom up.
We had a large agenda, though the day ended up looking a bit different. Our main activity of the day was production of a geotagged photo map. In three shifts, groups went out with the GPS and digital camera, checked that the clocks were in sync, and took a stroll. Back in the meeting room, I demonstrated how to use GPSBabel to pull out GPX (and KML), and used WWMX LocationStamper to geotag. Then upload to flickr, and display on a little custom mapping flickr hack (using flickr in preperation for their native stuff). We then distributed the GPX track and photos to each person’s computer, and they went through the process of stamping, uploading, and mapping themselves.
From the feedback I got, this simple activity was really inspirational. Within a few hours, they went out and physically collected, transformed, uploaded and visualized data. Making flickr maps itself may be useful in their work, but more widely they now understand that they personally have the ability to work with geospatial data and maps.
At the end of the workshop, we distributed copies of Mapping Hacks, Google Map Hacks and Web Mapping Illustrated to various departments within the ministry and donated a set to the university library. The participants were very happy to receive these, and it should provide a foundation for further explorations. There were one or two folks with a bit more experience with GIS, so Web Mapping Illustrated will be on target for some. The IT staff as well will find all these useful. Big thanks to O’Reilly for the donation.
Naturally, not everything went to plan. Partially this was technical .. I didn’t get a chance to test things out in the meeting room before, so lots of time taken up getting the correct gateway for the wifi, and a fruitless attempt to use FTP, blocked by the university’s firewall. The same “everything will be fine” Dominican attitude which stressed me out in preperations for the workshop, served well during the disruption. The unexpected is expected. People browsed Google Earth without any prompting, and probably could’ve continued all day. The Directors of the Ministry and representatives from the University helpfully gave speeches while we scrambled to get Wifi working .. the speeches were planned anyway, a chance for me to practice my Spanish comprehension.
But also I overestimated what we could accomplish in one day. It was probably good that FTP was blocked, since teaching just this basic concept of moving files from the computer to the server could have taken hours. And in retrospect, my plans relied on building custom hacks rather than primarily on many of the established web services for building maps. I think eventually the Ministry will build capacity to publish KML, GeoRSS, and Google Maps on their website, but in the mean time its enough to be able to useflickr and Wikimapia and Platial.
Wikimapia was really really intuitive for the participants to use; I think more of the social mapping websites, and the web in general, should strive for this simplicity of interface and functionality. Platial, while definitely useful for creating personal maps, felt overburdened with functionality at first impression (I have a bunch of feedback for Platial when I run into them again). Watching a novice user, especially a non-native English speaker, foreign cultured, trying to navigate Web 2.0 apps in really telling. All the things I love about Web 2.0 — the irreverant attitude and language, the ever changing plethora of features, playful design — are major obstacles. Errors are part of the game — in order to use the web, in a way you have to understand how it can break (anyone who promotes Firefox will have to explain that some sites only work in IE, HTML incompatibilities, etc). Imagine if your refrigerator broke down 10% of the time you opened it to get some food? What if flickr had been having a massage during the workshop?
I really had a good time doing this Workshop, and hope it catalyses further mapping work at the Ministry. There’s so much opportunity to adapt the web, hacking, geo- in the Dominican Republic, and throughout the world .. its a shame I’m heading back to the UK now. I was entreated to stay, or come back again, and I hope I get a chance soon.