Geospatial Adventures on the Edge of the World: Iraq

As educators specializing in geospatial technologies, we are usually the biggest geo-champions on the block and the first persons to stand up and shout, "Geospatial technologies can be applied anywhere for any kind of activity imaginable!" So when a Middle-Eastern business gentleman from Dubai (UAE) got hold of us in autumn 2003 and inquired if we would be willing to tackle a GIS project for the Ministry of Tourism of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, we were suddenly faced with having to live up to our boasting.

After a number of false starts and unsuccessful trips, our consortium partners and we finally obtained a written contract to begin a Tourism Master Plan project in July 2005. As anyone who has ever undertaken overseas contract work for a developing country will undoubtedly tell you, international work can have its challenges. The traditional tenets of success for business in a Western world context—completing work on budget, on time, within resources—is quite simply irrelevant when it comes to dealings with an emerging nation from within the world's most ancient civilizations. What was originally intended to be a three-month contract was repeatedly extended. Final substantive completion was just approved this past January 2008.

What Was That Again?

You might ask how exactly geo-technologies fit in with a tourism master plan, and who in their right mind cares about tourism in a war zone? Glad you asked… GIS, one of the geotechnologies we use, is quite simply a spatial analysis tool, and in fact readily put to work by planners in a multitude of disciplines, not least of which can be tourism. From an abstract perspective, tourism planning revolves around identifying activities in physical (geographic) space that are anticipated to draw or attract participants from varying levels of demographic, socio-ethnic, and socio-economic markets; in many ways, this is classic geo-oriented thinking.

With respect to tourism in a war zone, you have to consider it from our client's perspective, Mr Talabani, a former Kurdish political leader who has risen through the ranks to become his Excellency, the President of Iraq. As the President's office was quick to explain, tourism represents a significant economic generator for the region, assuming that it will one day stabilize from its current tragic state of perpetual violence. More importantly, tourism is perceived as a significant vehicle to heighten awareness within the international business community.

The Iraqi Kurds, a significant national entity within greater Iraq, represent almost 20 percent of the overall population and landmass. Kurds are very conscious of historical developments that have taken place over the past several centuries. To the Kurds, if the international community is aware of their plight, the UN or any other supra-national humanitarian agency would be more likely to step forward should their emerging nation be threatened with extinction, holocaust, or any other form of threat.

The Project

Deliverables for the KRG's Tourism Master Plan contract consisted primarily of a narrative report proposing specific tourism-related landuse activities for a horseshoe-shaped swath of terrain of approximately 40 square kilometers in area, along with supporting documentation and findings. The geospatial element of the project consisted of significant efforts to map and inventory the proposed area's existing land-use activities, presumably with a mind to developing a "future tourism activities" land-use proposal.

The field data acquisition efforts of a typical geospatial project can represent anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of overall effort, and you can anticipate this rule of thumb to be significantly influenced by the challenges of working in a region that routinely saw the need for concrete suicide blast barriers and signs in Arabic stating "potential un-cleared landmine area."

In personal experience, we had always been somewhat skeptical and ambivalent to the potential benefits to be had by an internet-based public tool such as Google Earth, but we were pleasantly amazed to discover just how useful this tool can truly be for the purpose of reconnaissance and orienting to our audience purposes.

For the detail map requirements specified by our client's technical specifications, we made use of a combination of DigiGlobe and Ikonos satellite imagery. One of the most challenging aspects of the project was generating a one-meter contour interval map layer for our area of interest, derived from a 90-meter DEM data set, augmented and interpolated with results from one of our ground team's GPS surveys of the region.

In the end, we were able to deliver a 1,200 page report with recommendations, more than 2,400 hard copy maps, literally a "truck load" of supporting hardcopy findings and supporting documentation, a "blueprint" to establish an "in-house" Geospatial Informatics (GIS) department, several on-site public consultation sessions, and several hundred one-meter-cubed concrete benchmarks scattered throughout the area of interest to physically communicate proposed activity concept extents.

We believe it was an invaluable experience that we would not hesitate to do all over again if given the opportunity. Our compatriots and we have lived our cumulative lives to come up with the suggestion that although knowledge is power, knowledge sharing is empowering, and empowerment is sustainable.

About the Authors

Ahmed Mohamed is assistant professor at the geomatics program, School of Forest Resources and Conservation of the University of Florida. His current and past research and work interest is in geospatial technologies including navigation, georeferencing and mapping (NaGeM).

J.R.R. (Reg) Letourneau pursues private business interests as the president of companies that include SARGON Energy International Corporation and ANVIL Geospatial Corporation based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, along with BlueFox Geomatics Inc. operating out of Sulaimaniyah and Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Manufacturers

Trimble handheld mapping-grade and survey-grade GPS receivers were used for feature mapping and ground control; Google Earth maps were used for the purpose of reconnaissance and orientation; DigiGlobe and Space Imaging satellite imagery were used for the detail maps; Thales, Leica GPS, and Trimble handheld mapping-grade and survey-grade GPS receivers were used for feature mapping and ground control.

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