Statement of Purpose

Monday, March 13, 2006

Thirty years ago, E F Schumacher stated that appropriate technology should be affordable, scalable, and its users should be vested in it. (SmallIsBeautiful) He was talking about rural development in poor countries, but the same could be applied to geographic information systems (GIS) and information and communications technologies (ICT) today. Use of GIS/ICT for environmental conservation is well established in the developed world, but implementing them in rural communities in the developing countries merits further study.

Rural communities are usually indigenous to their land, and have complex socio-cultural characteristics that can make use of GIS/ICT tricky. An indigenous community’s knowledge-base has a defined constituency and localized concerns, and deals with issues vital to its physical, cultural, and spiritual well being – it is a product of collaboration, generated and used by the community. It is also fragile, and in many cases, is in the danger of disappearing. Collaborative, community-edited, web-based, mapping can help manage this knowledge-base. But, while such a tool seems to possess the attributes of appropriateness, it is fraught with social, legal, and economic pitfalls. In the following paragraphs I will examine these pitfalls, and explain why the Nelson Institute is the best place for this study.

Indigenous communities exist because of geography or bloodlines while cyber-communities are formed because of a specific interest or ideology. The two must be equated with care. The primary networking mechanism for the former is word-of-mouth, for which, they have to meet and interact. Digital collaboration supplants physical interaction in the latter, leading to its own peculiar sociology. (MichaelCurry: SpatialDataAndTheEndOfDemocracy) Knowledge is made through interaction in a public space, but there is little control in the digital space. Absence of physical presence requires trust. Can the endemism of an indigenous community ensure success of a collaborative knowledge-base? Does a community even have the awareness, interest and motivation to pursue codification of its knowledge? Can a digital tool instill the same kind of trust that a physical community needs to share and conserve its knowledge? Just introducing a new, perhaps even effective technology from one context, into an entirely different context is not enough, as TimOlsen showed. (SituatedStudentLearningAndSpatialInformationalAnalysis) In such cases, you can take the student out of the classroom but you can’t take the classroom out of the student even when using the most effective of GIS/ICT technologies. Sociology of networks is key to research in knowledge as a public good. I want to use trust building and generalized information exchange as the basis for investigating these issues.

The legal issues are particularly thorny. Privacy and accountability are paramount, as indigenous communities can be very sensitive about their land resources. And the notion of property is very contentious. Intellectual property rights provide security to an individual entity, but disadvantage a community because of the differences in how the two perceive knowledge as property. (AnthonySeeger: WhoGotLeftOutOfThePropertyGrabAgain) By equating force of ownership with economic power, international property law renders indigenous peoples incapable of defending their own cultural production. (BoatemaBoateng: SquarePegsInRoundHoles) Freedom and security are contradictory – make it too safe and it may as well be locked up; make it too free and it might get arrogated! One option is preemptive action by putting traditional knowledge into a public domain online database in the hope that it will prevent patenting by corporate interests. (TraditionalKnowledgeDigitalLibrary) Can a community’s fears be allayed by recognizing /sui generis/ rights of its knowledge? Can collaborative mapping successfully bring freedom and security together? PamelaSamuelson asserts that the “information ecology really will be disrupted if intellectual property rights get too strong.” (TowardANewPoliticsOfIntellectualProperty) But any new politics of intellectual property will have to account for a community’s right to its own cultural goods.

And then there is the issue of economics. While inter-generational equity might be reason enough to conserve knowledge, technology implementation is mostly guided by economics. Estimating the economic value of indigenous knowledge will be tricky, perhaps even touchy, but it will be necessary. I used spatial analysis for calculating the opportunity cost of protecting biodiversity in West Kalimantan. (TheEconomicSupplyOfBiodiversityInWestKalimantan) Similar techniques will be needed to answer: Is it worth saving? Is it worth protecting from others?

The spatial nature of indigenous knowledge merits special consideration. Landscape can be sacred to the community as I found when designing a mapping application for the Wisconsin Historical Society. I had to cloak Indian lands from viewers without special permission from the Tribal Office. YiFuTuan’s concept of “sense of place” will be an important measure of an indigenous knowledge system’s success. (TopoPhilia)

As is apparent from the discussion above, truly interesting problems facing the developing world don’t stop at disciplinary boundaries. GIS/ICT implementation is impacted by many disparate forces – sociology, law, economics, and library and information science. Fortunately, I have always been better at the interstices than at pure disciplines. Developing a better handloom in my first job was more than an engineering problem – the fabric produced by the weavers was not just a physical product, but a cultural one, embodying generations of knowledge. Advising governments on GIS/ICT implementation was more than a computer problem – it required understanding the socioeconomic and physical environments of where the system would be implemented. I learned to look at a problem holistically. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is uniquely positioned for this scholarship as it provides the network and the access to the resources, university-wide and beyond, unconstrained by disciplinary limits. In particular, Prof. Stephen Ventura’s long term interests in web-based systems for supporting land management decisions, and protection of indigenous land and resource rights is directly aligned with my Ph.D. interest.

There are two reasons I want a Ph.D. First, this is a subject I simply can’t stand not studying. After 14 years of work where research was important but secondary, I want to focus exclusively on research unfettered by professional imperatives. That kind of intellectual freedom is only possible in academia. In short, this is an itch that can only a Ph.D. can scratch. Second, I want to build a network of colleagues. A lot of research is being done in open source, mapping, indigenous communities, and knowledge building. Bringing these disparate subjects together requires standing on the shoulders of others. I hope to further a unique understanding in this area, built upon the works of my major adviser, my committee members, and my colleagues. While ethnographic scholarship is extensive, studies on collaborative, community-level mapping are relatively sparse. It is encouraging, however, to see an increasing interest in participatory GIS. The hope is best expressed by Ogeli Ole Makui, a Kenyan Masai, that if we “train the communities to own the knowledge, they can regenerate and modify information, and know why some information may be hidden, and in this way they can be empowered.” (MappingForChange) My hope is to promote the adoption of GIS/ICT by indigenous communities much in the same way as it is empowering modern societies.

From engineering to land resources, from rural development to GIS/ICT consulting, from policy planning to computer skills, I have prepared academically, technically, and experientially for my Ph.D. I surveyed the adoption of GIS by local governments, and studied land tenure issues and their impact on land records modernization in India. (GeographicInformationSystemsInDevelopingCountries) I conducted applied research in economic, social, and environmental issues in Indonesia, Central Mexico, and Nepal. In all these cases I learned that while the contexts were different, the impediments were almost always non-technical. My heart lies in rural development where I started 20 years ago, and my mind is excited by the world of collaborative mapping and related computer technologies. By studying the application of the latter to the former, I hope to empower those less fortunate efficiently, effectively, and equitably manage information vital to them.