Plotting a Better Future

Indonesia, December 9, 2005

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    A member of the Mercy Corps Aceh team shows the maps she uses for program planning. Photo: Mercy Corps Indonesia Photo:

As she surveys the red dots, blue lines and multicolored polygons projected on a screen, Daphne Karypis sees much more than a map of Indonesia’s Aceh Province. She sees the future of humanitarian work.

Karypis, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist for Mercy Corps’ tsunami recovery programs in Aceh, pointed out some features and accomplishments of the organization’s innovative GIS program during a recent presentation in Portland. Mercy Corps is successfully using GIS to analyze, inform and plan its programs throughout tsunami-shattered Aceh Province.

GIS is a relatively new technology – it’s only been used for a little over 15 years. During that time it’s been proven as a valuable tool to collect and interpret geographic, demographic and other kinds of information for a variety of uses. Mercy Corps is employing GIS specialists like Karypis to record, analyze and systemize diverse data including satellite imagery, topography base maps, spatial data and photographs. The overall goal of the initiative is to provide maps and detailed data analysis to support a wide range of Mercy Corps programming in the area.

However, when Karypis arrived in Aceh Province back in April, she found that there was a long way to go before any real work could begin.

“When I arrived to begin the GIS initiative, there were definite challenges,” she said. “The village locations and boundaries that had been provided to us by other organizations were very unreliable. As a result, we had to do our own baseline spatial data work to ensure correct datasets.”

Karypis was about to discover the challenge of a lifetime: dozens of isolated villages, scattered throughout a tsunami-battered region with impassable or non-existent roads, needed to be surveyed before the program could start. This work was much more than the team of two GIS specialists could handle.

The Mercy Corps team in Aceh soon found a solution that would assist them in this major task and also bring tsunami survivors into the project - Mercy Corps partnered with the GIS and Remote Sensing Laboratory at Aceh's Syiah Kuala University. The university loaned ten local graduate students to the Mercy Corps GIS initiative.

For the next several weeks, these students crisscrossed Aceh’s maze of villages and waterways. They carried handheld global positioning system (GPS) units and traced village boundaries on foot and by moped. They talked to village leaders and local government officials to work out the details.

In a relatively short time, these students had mapped 66 villages in Aceh. Karypis and her team had the data they needed to begin the GIS initiative in earnest.

Putting It All Together

The next step in the process was for Karypis and her team to take the data that the students had collected and combine it with the maps, satellite imagery, population figures and other data they’d received from a variety of organizations and government agencies. This process would give the Mercy Corps team in Aceh a complete picture of the province’s villages, infrastructure and agricultural systems both before and after the tsunami.

It would give Mercy Corps a roadmap for its humanitarian work in the area.

“GIS is a great tool for planning,” Karypis said. “Staff can use the maps we create – which are plotted with the location of things like wells and schools – as a means to spark conversation with villagers and to help in the planning of village projects.”

These GIS products have also proven critical in training staff in Aceh. Each new arrival is given an overview of the technology and taught how to utilize and integrate GIS concepts into their work.

“It helps shorten the learning curve for new team members,” said Dylan Myers, GIS Analyst and Team Lead. “The GIS maps bring them quickly up to speed on how to find things.”

Mercy Corps staff in Aceh are finding new ways to utilize the maps and data every day.

“This is great because I can take it to the villages and show people where the banks are,” said Sasha Muench, Mercy Corps’ Micro-Credit Finance Officer.

High-Tech Fishing

One of the first applications of GIS technology in Aceh involved the rebuilding of fisheries in the decimated village of Tibang. The tsunami destroyed all of the area’s fishponds, a critical source of income for local families.

“Mercy Corps wanted to figure out the cost to reconstruct the ponds and infrastructure in Tibang,” Karypis said. “We measured the length of embankments, the area of fishponds and the length of canals. It was very detailed.”

The GIS assessment concluded that there were more than 140 hectares of fishponds in Tibang before the tsunami. Additional data reported that, after the tsunami, Tibang still had 281 households and 825 citizens, 100 of which are farmers. Mercy Corps staff used this information in discussions with the people of Tibang on how to rehabilitate the local fishing industry.

Working together, Mercy Corps and the people of Tibang settled on a course of action to restore the village’s economy. First, they would rehabilitate the local canal, fishponds and mangrove swamps using a cash-for-work program. Next, farmers that had been involved in the fishing industry before the tsunami would receive training and cash grants to restart their work. Mercy Corps staff would supervise and monitor the project as it progressed.

Less than six months after the project started, the people of Tibang are well on their way to recovering their livelihoods.

Today, Mercy Corps staff in Aceh continues to explore new uses for GIS technology, including monitoring and evaluation, livelihoods, social revitalization and community development programs. Karypis is confident that the GIS initiative is changing the face of humanitarian work in this part of the world.

“Mercy Corps has the most advanced GIS usage in the region,” Karypis said. “This technology is made for planning. It’s helpful to shaping future programs.

“We’re definitely easing processes in all kinds of ways. We’re a forerunner.”