Global positioning system (GPS) technology is solving problems for people and organizations around the world. Hikers use inexpensive handheld consumer devices in recreational applications while public safety organizations establish GPS-powered networks to help pinpoint the locations of emergency calls. Huge mining operations put GPS to work every day to help locate and retrieve mineral resources.
For Water Missions International (WMI), a non-profit Christian group in the business of solving various water problems in developing countries, GPS is making work easier and faster in surveying and navigating in the remote areas, and in the vital job of mapping water treatment facilities and distribution systems. WMI had its origins in General Engineering Laboratories, a small environmental consulting firm founded by Molly and George Greene III, in Charleston, S.C., in 1981. That company became one of the top 10 environmental testing laboratories in the United States and one of the largest environmental engineering consulting firms in South Carolina.
In 1998, General Engineering Laboratories responded to the devastation in Honduras caused by Hurricane Mitch by designing, constructing and delivering six portable water treatment units, each capable of producing safe drinking water at the rate of 10 gallons per minute (gpm). Within two weeks, 16 company volunteers were in remote parts of Honduras setting up water treatment units. Other projects followed and, in 2001, the Greene family sold the company and used proceeds from the sale to establish WMI. It’s currently involved in important projects in Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya and Uganda, and recently teamed with FedEx, the Southern Baptist Convention, International Aid and the Department of Defense to provide portable water treatment units to war-torn areas in Iraq.
Like most non-profit organizations, WMI relies on funding from a variety of sources—government grants, churches, foundations and individuals. Given the nature of funding, saving time and money wherever possible is a key element in every project. GPS does just that.
Mapping the water project
GPS played an important role in a project started recently in Santa Rosa Copan, Honduras. The assignment was to find a way to treat wastewater released from a large hospital located in the center of the city. Wastewater treatment is virtually non-existent throughout the city but the hospital’s wastewater—which can contain by-products of radio isotopes, blood or other dangerous materials—was considered more potent and hazardous than the normal city water, and was therefore regarded as a priority.
The project presented several challenges, not the least of which was the fact that the hospital is situated almost exactly in the center of the city. The existing sewage system was nothing more than a few small streams where residents (and hospital workers) simply dumped raw waste. The task was to design and build a sewage treatment line to carry hospital waste away from the population.
Maps of the existing sewer lines were needed since the plan was to construct new lines in relation to them—sometimes crossing them and sometimes paralleling them. Drawings of the overall area were available, but nothing that would help with the project. Instead, a new MobileMapper data collection unit was obtained from Thales Navigation, a leading GPS company that had worked with WMI previously.
Thales Navigation has vast experience with both the consumer and professional sides of GPS, which gave it a unique perspective in creating Mobile Mapper, a data collection device with professional capabilities and consumer-like ease of use. MobileMapper was designed specifically for organizations like WMI that need to collect and format geographical information system (GIS) data with 2-3 meter accuracy in an affordable unit.
Speeding data delivery
Unlike recreational GPS receivers sometimes used for GIS data collection, MobileMapper is an example of a data capture system that eliminates manual data entry and permits direct download via either a secure data card (SD) or serial connection to major GIS office software systems. The direct download capability of these systems can be expected to cut the time it takes to deliver data to the GIS system vs. recreational GPS devices by as much as 90 percent. Not only that, but direct download eliminates human error associated with the traditional method of jotting down notes and later entering them into a GIS, where a reading or writing error can mean significant lost time down the road.
MobileMapper’s easy-to-operate, real-time, direct-to-digital data collection capability enables users to easily record features, characteristics and distinguish between layers of data. In the case of MobileMapper, a full-color screen provides vivid viewing even in full sunlight. MobileMapper also has an easy-to-use, built-in navigation and reference capability, enhanced by the easy uploading of background maps for all of North America and most of Europe.
A quick learner
What makes MobileMapper truly useful is the fact that anyone can use it with very little training. Where organizations once had to hire professional surveyors or technicians for data collection duties, they can now rely on lower-level workers to collect data in the course of their normal tasks. For WMI’s water projects, that means data collection can continue long after the original team has gone.
As work began in Honduras, MobileMapper quickly became a useful tool. Initially, WMI simply mounted the system on the front of one of its trucks as it was driven around the area. The system quickly provided the beginnings of a base map used throughout the project, not just to plan the new sewer lines but to help find a way around the remote and unfamiliar territory.
The system’s true value was in planning the new lines. The objective was to create the shortest route possible while taking into account elevation, physical attributes (buildings), population considerations, etc. MobileMapper allowed WMI to enter all pertinent information into the GIS at every point along the planned route. As the project progresses, WMI will be able to quickly call up data on the electronic map being creating.
WMI is also mapping a wider area within Honduras to help locate about 30 portable water treatment stations throughout the country. Mapping those locations will be useful later as other local personnel take on the responsibility for maintaining the facilities. As a practical matter, MobileMapper performs an even more fundamental task. Early on in the project, a WMI team member became lost in his vehicle well outside the city. With a quick check of MobileMapper’s data, he was back on the right road.
Next on WMI’s agenda is a water treatment system for a large Honduran orphanage. With its first MobileMapper experience behind WMI, the company is confident it will bring the same level of mapping productivity to this and future projects.
About the author
George Greene IV is a process engineer with Water Missions International, of Charleston, S.C. Greene’s parents founded the company. He can be reached at website: www.watermissions.org