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Winter 2008/2009
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GIS Emissaries Build Communities of Harmony

GIS HeroThis article is part of an ongoing series honoring individuals who have made a difference in the world by applying a GIS solution to challenges or needs within conservation or their communities. Since these unique individuals have been selected for their innovations or special achievements in a particular field, the series is appropriately named GIS Heroes. Esri recognizes Prashant Hedao and Lata Iyer as GIS heroes.

"All problems of existence are essentially a problem of harmony," said Sri Aurobindo, an early 20th-century philosopher from India. Indian couple Prashant Hedao and Lata Iyer's lifework has been about resolving problems of harmony on our planet. They have traveled the world performing environmental work, studying ecosystems, and building communities. In the aftermath of the infamous tsunami of 2004, Hedao and Iyer adapted their skills and talents to aid the rehabilitation efforts for those in and around their community who were ravaged by the disaster. In the course of their lives, Hedao and Iyer have become ambassadors of GIS to the nation of India.

Lata Iyer (left) and Prashant Hedao.

Today, Hedao and Iyer reside in Auroville, India, an intentional community where people from around the world have gathered to live in human unity. Auroville is a place where people can do what they aspire to do rather than what they are forced to do. Owned by no one, the community widely embraces diversity, greatly respects continued learning, and idealistically endeavors to build the community of the future. Hedao and Iyer contribute their enthusiasm and skill to the community by working on landscape and city planning projects.

The road that eventually led the couple to this utopian township has wound around the globe. In the early 1990s, after finishing bachelor's degrees in India and completing graduate degrees in the United States, the couple entered ecological work. Hedao, a landscape architect, got a job at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), United States, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) for conservation, research, and restoration of the environment. Iyer, who is skilled in regional planning, was hired by Conservation International whose mission is to conserve the earth's living heritage and global diversity. They moved to Washington, D.C., and began careers, which sent them to many parts of the world.

A World of Conservation

World environmental funds are limited, and program administrators ask, "Where should we prioritize our efforts?" Determining the location of earth's most critical needs for funding was a prioritization task that was greatly aided by GIS.

A water inundation line map easily shows villages, settlements, and infrastructure affected by the 2004 tsunami.

WWF had listed more than 200 ecoregions as globally significant. Identifying these helped direct the efforts of the organization and aided in gaining funding for conservation. Hedao says, "We used GIS to support scientific analysis about regions and bring attention to environmental needs. A map can effectively make a point. It can educate people, define areas of concern, or show best options for conservation."

Meanwhile, at Conservation International, Iyer was using GIS in preserving forested areas. She was involved with setting priorities and traveled throughout the world to develop consensus among different stakeholders about environmental needs and policies. Her team supported workshops of scientists and policy makers who considered what regions needed to be preserved because they had the greatest biological importance. Iyer worked on projects in Madagascar, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guyana.

A variety of maps brought success when securing conservation projects. GIS was used to assess vegetation and locate species. It would be brought to a given country's workshop where scientists and policy makers could visualize ecological data about their country and decide on courses of action. The layering capabilities of GIS provided dramatic insight to the interrelationships of topography, soils, climate, and species.

"In most places where we visited, GIS was a relatively new technology," Iyer explains. "We created workshops and materials to help people build databases. Our GIS team used GIS to plot this data onto maps."

Their GIS work strengthened the couple's ties with the Esri Conservation Program (ECP) and the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS). Between 1999 and 2003, Hedao and Iyer came to work at the company's U.S. headquarters, where they further honed their GIS skills and knowledge of GIS applications. Remaining involved with SCGIS, they participated in fund-raising to bring together scholars from different parts of the world to the annual conferences of Esri and SCGIS. They worked with the program to help people get GIS software and training and acquire hardware, such as laptops and GPS units, that would help them in their local environmental projects.

Return to India

Having come to the United States with the intent of eventually returning to their native country, in 2003, at long last, the couple headed home. They settled in Auroville, which has a population of about 1,700 people and is near Puducherry in southern India, not far from the coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Both of them joined the planning office of Auroville and worked toward addressing environmental concerns of Auroville and its bioregion. During this period, they also organized training workshops and seminars, made presentations in different forums on GIS, and conducted specific projects using GIS.

In the wake of disaster, this map was created to identify Indian communities and villages in the areas that are vulnerable to sea-level rise. This type of map, which includes topography data showing 0–5 meters above sea-level (red) and backwaters (blue), is helpful for rehabilitation planning.

In addition to their newfound citizen duties, Hedao and Iyer continued their conservation efforts in the country, participating in a grassland mapping project. Up to this point, the couple had been ensconced in pursuing their interests, but the forces of nature changed the immediate direction of their lives.

Disaster Strikes

An undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia set off the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that killed more than 225,000 people. Many people living in communities around Auroville lost their lives, and others lost their houses, possessions, and means of making an income. Soils and water sources were inundated with seawater, leaving land worthless and water unusable.

Auroville citizens rallied, instantaneously forming relief teams. Soon, these teams came together to form the Auroville Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Project. Hedao and Iyer immediately got involved.

GIS proved very useful to the project, especially when NGOs and government officials came onto the scene to assist. A familiar-sounding question was raised, "Where should we prioritize our efforts?" GIS provided answers. Maps were used to direct volunteer cleanup work. Using data from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the GIS team depicted the border of the tsunami inundation line, showing what farms and land parcels were affected and which water sources were most likely contaminated.

When it was time to rebuild, the project's focus changed. Accordingly, the Auroville Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Project became the Auroville Coastal Development Center. "We provided government officials with criteria to help them choose the best sites for rehabitation," explains Hedao. "Using GIS, we produced maps showing vulnerable areas where building should not occur. They showed areas prone to flooding, low-lying areas, steep slopes, and backwater areas."

Unfortunately, conservative government officials were skeptical about the practicality of such criteria that would delay the rehabilitation process and therefore did not pay much attention to the center's rehabitation site selection criteria. Just eight months after the tsunami, the torrential monsoon rains flooded many areas the government had designated for rehabilitation. Realizing the value of GIS for analysis, officials returned to the center seeking help. The center gladly provided it.

Hurdles Ahead

The Indian government has yet to adopt GIS fully as part of its national disaster response system. The lack or unavailability of geographic data is a hurdle to the development of a nationwide GIS program. In many countries, certain map data is under high security and inaccessible. For India, the lack of data and GIS analysis tools makes it particularly challenging to perform disaster response functions from planning mitigation to assessing damage levels to directing relief activities.

Hedao and Iyer are working with their district and state officials, making them aware of GIS and the value of shared information systems. Although the body of work the couple has generated offers indisputable evidence of the benefits of geographic technologies, these two ambassadors of GIS in India still have a long road ahead of them.

More Information

For more information, contact Prashant Hedao (e-mail: or Lata Iyer (e-mail:

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