Note: IMN@UCBerkeley convened mapping practitioners, indigenous community members, indigenous rights organizations, researchers, and technology professionals to discuss current issues in indigenous mapping. Our meetings were intended to create a platform for supporting indigenous mapping collaborations and linking communities with emerging technologies. We organized a series of invited talks hosted on campus; I wrote articles about these talks which were posted on the IMN website to share with other members of the group who weren’t able to attend. Below I have reproduced the article with permission.
April 2010 Berkeley IMN Chapter Meeting: Patrick Hayes, Principal – Geomemes Research Inc, in Canada. “OpenSource Mapping with First Nations in British Columbia”
Article by Melissa Eitzel
This month’s meeting was quite small, with the term coming to an end and exams beginning. We were lucky to have Patrick Hayes come and present his work using open-source technologies to create mapping systems for First Nations in British Columbia. He was in town for a conference on one of these technologies, a data management system called Drupal. Patrick began by motivating the need for geographic databases for First Nations in BC, then explained what open source means and finished by showing some of the examples of projects he’s been working on.
The situation in BC is a little different than in other places: because it was colonized so late by Europeans, treaties were never signed with many of the First Nations. Because this means they never officially gave up their rights to their lands, in BC any company or government agency wanting to impact the land with any project must send information to the Nations. There is no easy way of channeling that information into a useful format, however, leaving stacks of papers on the desks of the tribal governments. One of the technologies Patrick showed us was a system which allows an agency or company with a potential project to submit information on the project in an online system, with administrative tools on the First Nation’s side to manage these applications, to get more information from applicants, approve projects, and compare the potential locations with their own private map layers showing important cultural locations.
Patrick described the philosophy of open-source tools: that any person should be able to take the product, have access to its source code or inner workings, and then alter it to be more useful for them and their needs. Open-source software isn’t necessarily free in terms of cost; but free in the sense of democracy: the license states that no use of the software can restrict what anyone does with it. In this way, a community of people can develop tools which can be both flexible and robust. One metaphor for this system is a bazaar, which is adaptable, created by many people, and very populist, as compared to a cathedral, which is built by many people following one design and which cannot be altered. There are several open-source parts to the software he works on: operating system (Linux rather than MacOS or Windows); data-management system (Drupal in this case but there is another group working with a different option called Django); software he’s written to connect Drupal to a product called “Openlayers” which helps in making interactive maps; and another piece called PostGIS to store the geographic data in Drupal. Several other tools were mentioned, including Quantum GIS which is an open-source option with much of the functionality of ArcGIS. Patrick said that any of the tools he’s developed that can be suitably abstracted or generalized he will give back to the community to use: another part of the open source philosophy.
One advantage to building software for any client using open-source technology is that if the project is handed to some other set of consultants, the software is still available to be worked with without the need for keeping up expensive licenses with proprietary software companies. Also, the First Nations or other clients don’t get locked in to paying license fees for as long as they want to use the tool. Patrick showed us the project submission system for the Metlakatla First Nation (mentioned above), which should help the community not only to manage the potential impacts on their lands but also to discourage unnecessary projects and paperwork. The system is designed to allow a company or agency to create an account and then create specific projects (Drupal) and draw a shape representing their project on the interactive map (openlayers) which also shows a basemap of some of the community’s information on where sensitive areas are located (PostGIS). An applicant can also upload a shapefile, if they have one. The issue of what information is made available about culturally sensitive areas came up; in this case, the locations which are displayed for potential applicants are buffered (enlarged) and shifted randomly. The First Nation, of course, has access to the complete and accurate information, and decides what should be displayed for applicants. Patrick suggests that a next step for including more information in this database is to link that traditional use layer to the actual interviews which helped to define those sensitive areas, so if some project dispute goes to court, the interview is available as evidence. He also showed us some of the project he’s done with local indigenous languages in BC; the database is displayed differently at different map scales, and they have even included audio files of correct pronunciations of names. These projects are excellent examples of display and manipulation of geographic databases with a variety of different pieces of multimedia information associated with different areas, stored in a database with an easy retrieval system, and all achieved using open source tools.
Though our group was small that day, there was a great deal of excitement about the possibility of this kind of system working for tribes in the US (again, when archaeological sites are discovered, an avalanche of paperwork is sent to tribal offices which may not have the staff to handle such things); and then a discussion of openstreetmaps led us to think about mapping of reservations by tribal members and tech-savvy friends and consultants. Many reservations have not been mapped yet in the open street mapping effort; Rosemarie and other IMN board members are looking into mapping some Navajo lands, which will be particularly important for emergency services. Rosemarie also attended CalGIS, the statewide GIS conference, a few weeks ago and said they had a roundtable on indigenous mapping.
Open source is definitely a great option for organizations with specialized needs and without the large budget required for a lot of available proprietary software; Patrick’s work is exciting and we hope that systems like these can be developed for many First Nations and tribes around the world.