– by Shruti Syal
My first experience with a computer was at age 15, and even then, it was all Minesweeper and Microsoft Powerpoint. By 20, I was expected to run Population Viability Analysis on Excel, and SPSS, and I was stumped. I barely made it through stats in college, but four years since, I cannot seem to get enough of data and data-tooling software.
See, somewhere down the line, data visualization became paramount in everything I’d been doing. And with ACWUS, it became quickly apparent that if we want the wetland to work, we needed to monitor it, and if we needed to monitor it, we needed records. Records both maintained by, and accessed by the “public”. As the girth of Indian high school texts reduces, so does the capacity of the Indian students to acquire the crucial skill of information mining. Getting involved in a project that didn’t just deliver a lesson in ecological engineering and environmental monitoring, but took the students from the logic (the premise being that ALL logic is scientific!) behind sampling to the math that could justify a decision, is exceptionally valuable. Plus a database makes the students see exactly what their contributions generate. That was one justification for database construction and updating to be incorporated into the model. The other point in its favour was the painful absence of good data-based decision making in local and regional projects. Such empirical evidence could not just deliver training in research to students, but also give a strong reason to back future sites under the ACWUS model, should the pilot work.
Data was what led us to focus on wetlands for wastewater treatment, data was what we turned to in order to find future investors.
Armed with a lofty ideal, we became a tad disappointed when battering out the details of what to include in the database. Besides listing the site locations where the sampling is done, and the results of the water and soil quality parameters tested…and some pretty pictures of the exact site and sampling locations, what could be added? And how could we make this any better than a few web-pages worth, where the quirks would come more from what was being said rather than just some fancy font and fancier colour coordinates? And certainly something more telling than pages that may just as well serve no better purpose than to be in a children’s book on ‘Introduction to Wetlands for Wastewater Treatment-blah’ or the like.
Enter ArcGIS. Probably second only to AutoCAD, it is the most wonderful tool for visualization. It’s pliable, comprehensive, and- for any aesthete mildly offended by my earlier claim- offers great play options with colour, texture, and other presentation tools. But the nifty little tool that is most exciting is the digitization of selected features from existing maps. How it works is that a point, line, and polygon database can be created for innumerable features using multiple maps as a base to create a composite map. Depending on the scale of our source maps, this composite map we would generate for our website could be anything on a scale of coarse to fine. Insofar, it is likely to be more coarse, given that the scale of one of our main source maps is likely to be about 1:250,000 (picture). This database is represented via shape, colour, texture on the map, and with the mapped objects being dynamic, each wetland site links back to, say, a Google spreadsheet that houses it’s attributes. So for instance, we have a potential site, with the target drain and informal settlement marked on the map. Clicking on the potential site would redirect to pictures, and a listing of settlement population size, and say, other relevant aspects of the settlement and parameters of the drain that help determine the design approaches that could be adopted in setting up a wetland at that specific site. Clicking on a site with an existing ACWUS project would lead to another spreadsheet with pre-construction data on the water and soil quality parameters, and space for post-construction data on these, alongwith, perhaps, a prescribed schedule of the monitoring regime? More on that to come later via detailed discussions with Sumandro Chattapadhyay.
The maps sourced so far come from INTACH and NCT’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department. It’s probably more informative to include not just the seven potential sites delineated, along with the drainage network and informal settlement whose coexistence at a particular site led to its selection for ACWUS, but to also include the existing sewage treatment plants (STPs), major drains, physical contours, and nearest schools. Of course, what finds its way in, will also depend on the scale of the map we choose to upload. These are the kinds of questions we hope to get specific answers to by the end of summer, and there’s probably a dozen more questions we’ll find ourselves asking database generators and website developers before that happens.