Basics of the System
While creating an information system for mine action, some decisions need to be made about the database engine and the Geographic Information System (GIS) software. For the Bosnia and Herzegovina system, these decisions were made at the very beginning by the FGM Company, giving us MapInfo 4.0 as GIS and Paradox 7.0 as a database engine. Later on, although several other software products were on the market, we decided that this winning team should remain intact, and today we are running our system on Paradox 9.0 and MapInfo 6.5. In order to avoid problems with different geodesy parameters (projection and ellipsoid), we decided to use an interim solution, Lat/Long and WGS 84. We also decided to split data by keeping descriptive data with the database engine and keeping spatial data linked to their descriptions within the GIS part of the information system.
Vector data are being processed by use of an exported .dbf file having vector data input finalized by the use of the drawing tools. This rather odd solution was chosen to give the data entry personnel the ability to check all coordinates once again prior to entering the shape into the database.
Regarding raster data, after several tries with Defense Mapping Agency (DMA)/National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) maps, satellite images and a variety of other sources, we came to the conclusion that maps used by warring factions during the conflict are the best possible backdrop for initial minefield data entry and planning, if available. The reason for this is the easy identification of the reference points taken from them at the time of the report creation. Because of their accuracy, cadastral maps are the best for reporting on humanitarian demining activities in our experience.
Raster data in use by the Bosnia and Herzegovina information system for mine action are as follows: In order to improve the accuracy of the reporting, GPS is in use (less 20 cm accuracy).
Once You Have It
One way or another, the information system will most likely be the first visible part of any MAC; thus, all the training will be done according to the information system in use. Since we are dealing with mine affected countries, or countries that have just finished a war, it is unlikely that one can be in a situation to hire pre-trained staff. More likely, initial education will be provided to further inform department staff members and later on hopefully propagated through a kind of help desk provided to the rest of the staff. Being the first department up and running, and being attractive because of its results, this becomes the most exposed department and takes significant role in PR activities.
Looking at things from the other perspective, all possible errors that will occur while prioritizing or making periodical reports, any kind of propaganda, or any fundraising materials will be automatically attached to “wrong data provided by the database,” making them perfect victims for all other errors.
My experience says that besides laziness of the staff—there is no other term for not entering data that is available—another significant reason is a line of thinking something like this: “When data start talking, people will ask questions. If we don’t enter (provide) them, we are on the safe side.” Surprisingly enough, it is not only the local side that gets blamed. The only way to sort out the problem was to create the law that will force information flow and get the system running.
Need to Have
So what could be a solution to have an information system and have data entered into it? First, an absolute necessity is to have clear, well-defined procedures providing as much data as possible and, if possible, have it organized in such a way that they can be entered into an information system with a lot of predefined values. In order to emphasize the importance of certain fields, it is advisable to have some fields that must be entered as a condition to proceed.
Another problem is how to keep the entered information. Our experience shows that there are two solutions: either not delete records (just declare them canceled) or have well-formed and carefully programmed routines for record deletion. Over time and with the expansion of activities, it becomes obvious that some sort of traceability has to be implemented, and ideally, there should be a printed journal file (log book for major changes).
A need to have a chance to educate and re-educate staff is more related to program managers, as they often forget the simple fact that one may gain knowledge not only through trial and error, but also by attending seminars. This is not only more cost-effective, but it also creates a sense of importance for the staff and in the long run creates a better environment and more effective employees.
Besides the problems mentioned so far, there are also some points that simply cannot be over looked. When the staff moves, things are forgotten. Being (at least in Bosnia) the first organization in place maintaining a live database, the staff educated during the process become an asset desired by other companies. By rule, salaries reflect funding, and it is difficult to keep quality staff together.
Another problem is purely physical: paper copies are inclined to disappear or get damaged by manipulation. With luck (from the program’s point of view), the amount of activities is growing and the paper archive is growing, which means more data to enter. A solution would be to scan all the reports and to use the scanned images as information carriers.
Statements that say that minefield report data lose their importance with time are simply wrong. In the end, they become the only written proof of contamination. A survey report, while an expert’s opinion, is still just an opinion on the possible mine risk for certain areas.
Prioritization and the Information System
It is not always easy to find a mathematic algorithm to define priorities. Sometimes even scoring does not help; for instance, the complicated state structure reflects procedures for priority definition. Also, the term “impact” can be understood in many different ways. Speaking of complexity, here is a Bosnia and Herzegovina state structure equation:
1 State + [1Entity+1Entity (10 Cantons) + District] = 14 Governments
Taking into consideration the fact that real executive authority lies in municipalities (more than 120), it becomes obvious why priorities cannot be defined based just on some “points.”
Through six years of data collection, we learned that where the mines are and the real impact of them on the population and society is the question. The problem is that priorities have to reflect needs and be part of plans for development as desired by authorities. Otherwise it’s simply not working.
Southeastern Europe Approach
In order to have a broader scope and to share experience with neighboring countries, we used an opportunity kindly provided by the European Commission (EC) to start a project on regional data sharing. So far, the beneficiaries of the project are the following countries in southeastern Europe (SEE) region: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Azerbaijan—and this list is likely to expand.
So far, we have sent four exports to the Joint Research Center and information interchange has proven possible. Based on data inconsistency, it becomes obvious that some sort of standardization has to take place. Thus, we agreed on standard hardware and software packages. In order to be able to show data for the region on a single map, we agreed on basics for use of the satellite images, and we have images provided for the region.
Prior to the information interchange, we had a four-day meeting in Sarajevo yielding some information interchange core standards for SEE.1 Based on experience gained through these activities, exported data sent could be harmonized. Once a standard for information interchange is provided, information can be interchanged. An exporting exercise helped a lot because some of the mistakes became visible. A “house cleaning” was necessary. More than that, countries within the region are helping each other sort out problems. A good illustration of this is the BHMAC’s GPS campaign in Albania.
Since all participants provided data without any problems, SEE could be used as an example of equality in diversity. In fact, once the “one-size-does-not-fit-all” philosophy was accepted, it was considerably easy to achieve awareness on information-sharing benefits.
Having seen all aspects of information sharing and cooperation, I think it is time for the Global Information Exchange Standard for mine action. We fully support the Mine Action Extensible Markup Language (maXML) initiative, which becomes more and more accepted as a standard protocol for information interchange.