Reducing Vulnerabilities Via a Web Map Server: A Case Study from Southeast Asia

By Franck Martin

SOPAC is implementing a project funded by the European Union called Reducing Vulnerability in Pacific ACP states.The project has three components, aggregates, water and sanitation, and risk management.There will be data collected based on these 3 components and on the needs of the stakeholders of the 8 Pacific ACP (African, Caribbean, Pacific) states.How this data can contribute in reducing vulnerabilities as data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and all of that is not action? The goal of this project seems presumptuous, only there to please donors with catchy sentences instead of work benefiting the community? What are we, world savers? The link is not obvious but it will appear, thanks to Internet technology.

Many reviews are carried out in developing countries that lead to the production of simple recommendations or at best, action reports.Most of the time interested parties do not read these reports and little action is taken because there are, in fact, no incentives to change what is already established.Sustainable development comes from the understanding of our environment and how it interacts with us or rather how we interact with it.Development made sustainable requires long term sacrifices against fast gain.There must be a buy-in from the community for the actions recommended in many projects and this is hard to achieve.Reaching the community is essential and therefore the dissemination of the information is critical, however in many developing country information is still considered as power. The withholding of information, like telecom monopolies, stops the path of progress.The information needs to be distributed freely to the widest audience.

SOPAC Region

Internet is the perfect tool for this task.The information can be both distributed via the official channels as well as to the whole public.There is always a stakeholder in any project that is forgotten, by distributing the information via the Internet; it ensures that all potential stakeholders will access it.Our project is focused on reducing the vulnerability of Pacific ACP states by using a tool to reach its goal of Island System Management. This is another catch term, but it depicts a holistic approach.This holistic approach includes all data that can be collected about an area to facilitate decision making, so that the data can be converted into action.

For this system to be fully efficient, it requires that all decision makers have access to the information in a simple form.As the data that we collect is mainly geographically based, it is obvious to present it inside a Geographic Information System (GIS) or simply spatial system. Unfortunately, most systems require specialised software that requires skilled operators.This is where the counterpart of the Internet philosophy comes in place: Open Source.

Open Source is based on the same principles of the Internet, a widely published standard with no royalties or licensing terms that would stop any group to use the system for reasons of costs or other criteria.By using Open Source software, the project ensures that all stakeholders will have access to the information at the lowest cost.GIS software is very specialised, fulfilling a niche market, therefore with substantial costs. Open Source software follows Open Standards, like the Internet, it gives all access to the data.This is important as in the aid business, the cost of equipment is sometime not fully relevant as a donor is ready to pay for it, but there is the maintenance and the sustainability of the equipment and the project at stake.Implementing organisations and companies often choose to lock in the recipient with black boxes that only skilled technicians from the implementing organisation may modify or maintain.While Open Source may not be familiar in developing countries, anybody can gain capacity to maintain and modify such systems.

As seen the main data for this project is geographically based and must be presented to a wide audience.As seen, the data must be presented as information.The thinking process is to present the information as a dynamic map to allow any possible analysis.The map should be available over the Internet.One software product answers such requirement, the MapServer from the University of Minnesota.This software presents interactive maps based on raw data from various commercial GIS packages.It also follows the OpenGIS standards, which will allow it to interact with other products. The maps are presented as images via a web server.An interface allows the user to query the maps and display the relevant information.While the geographical data can be presented, it does not fully ensure user buy-in. There must be an interface to facilitate the collaboration and interaction of all stakeholders holding information.The MapServer is therefore included inside a web based forum tool: Tiki.This tool offers easy to edit pages as well as file and image galleries in addition to areas for publishing logs and articles using no software but a web browser.

Tiki offers this extra functionality to the map serving process: a dynamic knowledge base.Editing web pages is simple and based on the wiki concept. A little parenthesis here, "wiki" means fast in Hawaiian (a Polynesian language) and tiki means idol in Maori (another Polynesian language).Wiki was developed to create quickly web sites without the user having to learn a specialised software or the principles of good design.The edition of a page is done inside a text box with some very simple tags.Links to other web pages are "auto-magically" created by using CapitalisedWords.The main formatting and organisation of the pages is left to the application.Some web sites have given anyone permission to modify the wiki pages, creating a fully interactive web site where the whole Internet community is a potential writer.Defacement is avoided by using an historic system where page versions are kept allowing to roll back easily...Tiki adds areas for FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), file galleries, image galleries, and forums.Each page can have comments allowing further interaction between the authors and the readers.This facilitate the creation of a knowledge base where each map layer can be described but even more explained by an expert to the masses, pointing to interesting features in the datasets, supplementing it with images, animation, movies, documents.

How this application, a collaborative map server, can provide wisdom and action? One has to go back to the ISM paradigm.

Historically the monitoring and management of social and environmental factors has been conducted at the issue level, leading to at times fragmented and disparate policies and actions.Recent awareness of the need to view systems in an integrated manner, and manage them taking into account the causal chains and inherent linkages across sectors (agriculture, fisheries, urban development and so on) represents a paradigm shift in thinking.At present however, much of this new thinking remains at the conceptual phase. Project intervention at the individual country level is, therefore, a vital next step in implementing these ideas

It is from this background that the concept of ISM has come about, based on the utmost need, especially for small islands, to view all activities and sectors as interconnected, and to tackle issues of development and vulnerability with the same breadth of focus.Such an approach has implications for the way that research is done and the formulation of resultant policies and long-term strategies that seek to ensure economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Due to the nature of the SOPAC EU Project, and its multi-disciplinary approach to reducing vulnerability of small island states, it is SOPAC's intention to develop a practical ISM methodology.This framework is intended to be a systems-oriented integrated management model of resource management for islands.

Resources are unlikely to be found in urban centres, but the policy makers are.Resources are located in rural areas.Similarly the development of an island is global and not limited to special areas, however the communities in these areas are the primary people affected by decisions taken globally and elsewhere.The local and customary wisdom is lost due to a lack of understanding of the local issues.The local community does not perceive the benefit for the country because excluded from the decision thinking process and the work of experts that write reports that will never be distributed to the local community.In short these two disparate communities must enter in relation to facilitate the decision process.What better tool than the Internet? Internet is not everywhere, but the development of Internet kiosks in rural villages such as in the Solomon Islands via the PeopleFirstNetwork has shown that remote communities can access the information where even commercial communication companies do not dare to do business.

On the example of PeopleFirstNetwork, many Pacific Islands nation are considering the idea of using radios to be on the Internet.The beauty of the Internet is that it has been developed when 300 bauds was considered broadband.There are still many applications out there especially on the Unix/Linux platforms that perform efficiently in very poor network conditions. Global access is also now possible via satellite over the Pacific at reasonable costs.Using DVBIP technology and by sharing a satellite channel with other Internet stations, it is possible to get 64kb/s speed both ways for about USD200 a month using a less than a meter dish.The connection is not suitable for running businesses but enough for the use of an Internet Community station.If it was not due to licensing and monopolistic practises these systems would be everywhere in the Pacific.However, it shows that the Internet can reach all communities and any application based on Internet Technology can reach all stakeholders at affordable costs.It makes sense now to develop applications based on Internet Technology.

Now the wisdom of the local community can be shared amongst all, this ensures that development is pursued in accordance with the aspiration of the local people, preservation of the environment, improvement of living conditions, community-sharing principles, respect of traditional values... Using tiki and the Internet they can know about the perception of their environment decision makers have (through geographically analysed data), they can understand the decisions made and more they can query the decisions taken, participating actively in a democratic process.The democratic process is not necessary as even in traditional society with chiefly systems the elders play the role of advisers and participate actively in the decision process.

The action is finally achievable.The action can to the best of the knowledge and wisdom of all stakeholders be performed towards reducing vulnerability.At each level, each individual in its area of influence can see the local but also big picture and make appropriate decisions. Internet offers this power of easily sharing data, information, knowledge, and wisdom amongst a wide variety of the population.

From data to decision, a web based map server using Internet technology and Open Source is facilitating data sharing.There is a free flow of information between all stakeholders that implies that datasets are no longer costly to share, they just need to be published on the Internet.Organisations and businesses benefit as they can work on base data, avoid duplication of resources for re-entering this base data and enhance the base data with more interesting layers.

The project wants to tackle its goal of reducing vulnerability in Pacific ACP states through the implementation of an Island System Management.Internet is an essential pillar of such development bringing a controlled anarchy suitable for the participation of all stakeholders regardless of their gender, skills, or title.


Copyright (c) 2003 Franck Martin
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is available on in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License."

Published Wednesday, December 10th, 2003

Written by Franck Martin

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