Mapping Peace Corps, Community Mapping and GIS

I well remember the “community map” exercises during Peace Corps “Pre- Service Training” (PST). This involved drawing a map of the community noting various important roads and landmarks. At the time, my host family and some of the neighbors identified a place where a volleyball court could go in the village. However, a flash landslide occurred so they opted to utilize their financial resources on street drainage…this was my introduction to micro infrastructure development.

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It would be reasonable to expect that this type of issue would be well understood issue in Peace Corps (PC) however; it does not appear to be. Rather, my search revealed the absence of any systematic “institutional memory.” I found virtually nothing organized on micro infrastructure or planning during my subsequent internet searches and inquiries into the history of PC operations in Armenia. No one seemed to know what the volunteers before them had done, especially if the earlier volunteers and those associated with past PC projects were no longer in country or around. I didn’t have contacts for previous volunteers who lived at my site just several months previous. For several months, I attempted to reconstruct the chronology of past work done not just by Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) but by the various aid and development groups active in the area.

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For example, the Olympic-size swimming pool in the middle town was never filled with water. This project apparently was supported by NGO and USAID only a few years before. It sat as a glaring reminder of misallocated money, the lack of a plan for maintenance, and an unrealistic assessment of the community’s desire for such a facility.

I don’t believe, the issue of institution memory is exclusive to PC in Armenia. Rather it is symptomatic of a larger planning issue within the PC as a whole. The lack of innovation to address the growing need to give communities the opportunity to know their own history as well as Peace Corps of in their community is a recurrent problem. I was embarrassed when members of the community asked me why Peace Corps continued to send volunteers to the site totally unprepared and unaware of the development occurring in the community.

The initial impetus to start the website mappc.org and investigate PC mapping occurred in August 2006. I asked a question during a discussion with Google Earth, ESRI, and Microsoft at the Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth in Berkeley, CA ( http://www.isde5.org/ ) about the seeming absence of community mapping, micro watershed mapping, and higher resolution DEMs based on my Peace Corps experience. My comments caused a bit of confusion as I apparently was the only attendee speaking from a community-level international development planning perspective. Immediately, I was asked to clarify the “information” I required. I indicated that higher resolution terrain models (DEMs). My question was meant more to begin a discussion rather than to argue the merits of information diffusion on a micro scale.

Today, everyone coming out of college seems to have a Face book or MySpace profile, and at least one Gmail account. if they wish to plan a trip to the neighborhood IKEA, for example, most enter the address into internet map search on their laptops or smart phones that’s if you don’t have a Global Positioning System (GPS) in your car. Why then, in this present environment where Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is part of our daily routine, is it not more a part of the Peace Corps experience?

Take for example the lonely gumshoe Peace Corps volunteer located in an isolated mountain community someplace in the developing world. The only communication he/she has is through spotty satellite internet or an expensive cell phone network although the volunteer probably has brought with them the latest laptop and a cell phone. These are readily available tools by which the volunteer could undertake a systematic analysis of basic information about the infrastructure of the community and surrounding environment. This could give the community the tools to better assess their own situation, especially in analysis of micro watersheds.

I was just such a volunteer in late summer 2004. After arriving at my site, I learned there had been about seven volunteers before me, so having a PCV in town was nothing new. The more engaged members of the community were corresponding regularly with various programs and international groups for community assistance and had little need for PC help in making such connections.

My community had been chosen as a pilot project by the Urban Institute for a development project that included developing GIS maps and assessing environmental conditions and to identify potential recreational opportunities. I embraced this project because it seemed to have potential for future professional application. However, no one could tell me what Peace Corps’ position was on the utilization and application of GIS.

In fall 2004, The Garmin Etrek Legend was the affordable GPS device I had access to; I had used it hiking and knew it to be a reliable ruggedly designed device for rugged conditions. This was confirmed when one of the devices briefly disappeared and I later found out it was used to check positions of Armenian artillery on the armed American Azeri border. Using this tool, I drew a basic outline of the city using several sets of Soviet data, including one from a UC Berkeley website, and another from “insider circles” of the capital city of Yerevan. As I created these maps, I realized that the primary issue facing the community was land use. It was apparent that the privatization of land in post Soviet-Armenia was a complex affair that Peace Corps volunteers should avoid.

In 2005, I moved to a different part of Armenia to assist an aid development specialist on several small micro infrastructure projects that involved a GIS component. Another reality of using GIS for planning surfaced when I coordinated my first training on community planning. Presentations addressed the standard abilities of the software and tools mainly of GIS technology using ERSI’s “ArcView” program. I was most interested in the reactions from the participants; some participants were frustrated and argued that, “this was only a tool for rich countries.” Nevertheless, our Armenian experts and presenters assured them that with training, GIS could be a valuable tool in agricultural, environmental, and infrastructure planning and that it is as easy to use as a word processor. “This (software) is hard to understand unless you are an expert….because this is so new and we come from the tradition of Soviet central planning, it is difficult to make this leap, but my kids would love this…” remarked one of the participants. At the end of the day some of the fancy tools such as 3D projections were shown, for some participants, however it was too much. Several remarked, “…that’s spy stuff.” “Why is that spy stuff?” I asked. I usually encountered a wrist flick or an eye roll….but sometimes people would express their frustration. One man remarked, “If we map things, everyone would know where things were. This is our community if you live here, you will figure out where things are. What’s the point in drawing it, after all, the government still has very good maps of the region if someone wants to do some something here. It’s up to them to get the maps. Why are you trying to do something that has been done…all the people that are following your curriculum are placating you in order to monitor you, update their technology, and feed their families. A project with community created maps has no future here.” Community participation in planning activities is a foreign concept in Armenia. Indoctrination during the Soviet era emphasized the need to leave certain activities to the government or you would be in trouble. Trouble involved threats that would remove privileges from your lifestyle. I remember asking my older local grocer for directions through a rather complicated apartment complex. When I pulled out a piece of paper and started to draw a map of the complex, he slapped his hand on the paper and said. “Can’t you understand my directions, you shouldn’t need a map, and we don’t draw maps.”

Furthermore, during the Soviet period, it was seen as unpatriotic to interfere with the grand plans of the Soviet state in favor of preserving the community. This is evident where medieval towns were bulldozed to create monstrous apartment blocks and factories that existed only to serve the larger economic mechanics of the former Soviet Union. Widespread use of GIS technology is less than a decade old, but it has revolutionized the planning capacity around the world, especially in marginalized regions. Spatial presentations of data offer can show more quickly and concisely the situation in a given geographic area. Young people in Armenia with internet access have embraced programs like Google Earth using it much as they would a computer game. As more relevant information is entered about their community, Google Earth can increasingly become an effective tool for community action. The multi-dimensional layered images often simulate community members to see their position in the community from a dynamically different perceptive. The process of creating a presentational image was often more insightful than the final product. Therefore, I think some new tools, programs, and trainings need to be designed.

Despite the development of highly detailed community maps, hand-drawn maps will continue to be relevant. Hand-drawn maps lose accuracy when stretched and skewed to fit atop accurate geographic projections. Most shine when standing alone and are able to convey their “Gestalt,” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology ) much like a piece of art. This is because only the necessary graphic elements are present, representing particular information or emotions. In contrast, digital satellite images and vector maps, when taken to a micro level, appear cluttered and blurry often causing confusion and a lack of understanding.

When in the Peace Corps, I was told repeatedly by locals that I was MOST useful because I knew AutoCAD and GIS. This encouraged me to research more, and I ended up depending on a compact GIS program, Global Mapper. It had a multitude of useful tools and was much easier to teach than an old version of Arc View or a new version of AutoCAD. I rectified many images and maps using the program and even did some digitization. The renderings and simulations were fun to use. I wrote my own training guide with feedback from trainees.

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Current GIS technology can be adapted to suit the needs of developing communities around the world. This enables access to virtual information and data to enrich their lives. Equipped with appropriate training , Peace Corps volunteers could, in turn, train others in their assigned communities in the practical application of these technologies. This can be demonstrated by the experiences and ground level observations by Peace Corps volunteers, located in very different parts of the world, who have recently returned from Peace Corps service.

I was a United States Peace Corp Volunteer in Armenia from 2004  to 2006. In an effort to address institution memory issues I co-founded the nonprofit www.developmentary.org which manages www.peacecorpsjournals.com, www.peacecorpswiki, www.mappc.org.

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