Birth of a Software: GIS

originally published in 1991 (Computer Jagat Magazine)

Zaved Iqbal

DataBases are complicated things. They scare the typical end-user: Words like RDBMS & SQL are not everybody’s cup of tea. So database designers try to make programs as user-friendly as possible. The result is windows, Mac-OS, GUI.

Now lets try to put this into database terms. As a designer, what do you do ? Design a menu-driven database, says the conventional thinker. But we thought differently. And the result, as we see it now, is a product called GIS.

After last year’s devastating cyclone, everybody was busy distributing relief. Becase there was no coordination; it seemed ten NGO’s showed up in the same union, whereas some unions went unnoticed. The regional coordinator’s office was supposed to be the information pool, but due to the lack of a coherent database, things were moving whimsically. In this situation, a leading donor agency approached us. Their requirements: (1) Design a database; (2) Make it easy enough to be operated by people seeing a computer for the first time. Time: 72 hours.

People were dying for lack of food, shelter and medicine so we went full throttle, putting in as much as 13 hours a day, and this is what we did.

We scanned in the maps of the affected areas. Short programs were developed that put up windows on screen when certain hot-spots (Buttons) on the map were clicked on the screen through a mouse.

Suppose the user launches the program. A map of Bangladesh comes on screen. He wants to know about the Chittagong area, so he clicks on the Chittagong part of the map. Bangladesh goes to background, and Chittagong zooms in. Click once again on the particular upazila. The upazila map shows up, showing little pictures of Tubewells (drinking water source), small houses (Pacca Shelters), Red Crosses (Health Camps), etc. Even the layman counts the pictures, and finds an accurate picture. Because it is superimposed on a map, a relief worker knows exactly where the next health camp is if the oral salines run out at his.

When you pause and consider that everyone, from high-level beaurocrats, army officers, doctors, relief workers down to operators (most of them touching a computer for the first time) used this database confidently after being shown a five-minute demonstration, you may begin to appreciate how useful this was.

Then the disaster was over, and the hardware came back with tons of “thank you” notes from the users, and germ of an idea began to form. Why wait for another disaster to strike? Top decision makers want information without any fuss, but MIS departments are always busy. So lets take our product all the way. We approached Notre dame college. Students were eager to participate. They earned money and learned at the same time. We got a dedicated work force. All the maps for all the upazilas of Bangladesh were digitized and basic information like Area, Population, Livestock, Main Crops, Households Primary education, Health Care Centre, etc. were fed into the database.

Did you know there are places with names like Char Alexander or “Pilot-Nama?” Now imagine looking for information for these places from files. Good-luck to you sir, hope the files don’t bury you.

But with the GIS, you just click your way through the hierarchy of Division-District-Upazila-Union — Mouza and you have all the information at your fingertips. Print it, use it for research, quote it in your report, the possibilities are limitless.

If you know how to move your wrist (Move the mouse) and your index finger (click the mouse), you already have all the expertise needed to use GIS.

20 MB of data is now ready for use; Author’s notes:

(1) All data/Maps in GIS; Source: Bangladesh Bureau of statistics.

(2) Readers familiar with PC Globe will know what I am talking about. But instead of different countries of the world, we have concentrated on each village of Bangladesh.

(3) The author would welcome suggestions for improvement through “Computer Jagat”.

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