Palm computers for spatially referenced social surveys in upgrading informal settlements

Conditions in informal settlements are complex, at times violent, and continually changing. Managing these settlements in a way that will result in a functional, healthy urban environment constitutes a major challenge. Effective upgrading strategies require accurate, up-to-date social, economic and spatial information. This is especially so when the information is used for adjudication and titling. Moreover the information should be regarded as legitimate by settlement residents themselves.

Thus, residents participating in collecting data can contribute to an upgrade project succeeding. We describe two pilot studies where residents, with moderate levels of literacy, volunteered as field workers to collect data. They used a palm computer linked to a GPS and, using the Cybertracker system, collected socio-economic and spatial information. These studies were in an informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa, and a rural land reform project close by. To simplify the process, icons were developed to represent questions or items of data to be recorded. After some initial difficulties, the field workers proved to be competent in using the hardware and software and the data that they collected were accurate. However, using icons to represent data items was found to be impractical. Instead, short text phrases were found to be appropriate and practical.

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Learning to Track Like a Bushman

NORDHOEK, South Africa — Sitting at his laptop computer, Louis Liebenberg compares two maps of the same area: While the first is plotted thickly with yellow dots, the yellow areas on the second map are far sparser.

These dots represent sightings of lowland gorillas recorded by trackers both before and after an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo. Using CyberTracker, a software program that allows conservationists to record their observations in the field on handheld computers linked to global positioning system, or GPS, units, the trackers were able to gather data that revealed in detail the decimation of the local gorilla population.

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Initially skeptical, scientists later confirmed their findings that the virus is killing gorillas and other animals, and published an article that appeared recently in the journal Science.

“It’s quite a stunning example of what fairly regular collection of data by game guards doing patrols can tell us,” Liebenberg said.

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Rolex Awards Journal: CyberTracker Revolution

CyberTracker, the brainchild of 1998 Laureate Louis Liebenberg, is a handheld device originally developed to modernise the ancient skill of tracking. While it has proven highly successful for its original purpose, Liebenberg has discovered that its software has revolutionary potential to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change; CyberTracker technology can monitor, predict and help prevent irreversible damage to our ecosystems.

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CyberTracker fuses ancient knowledge with cutting-edge technology

In 2003, trained trackers combing the rich jungles in the Republic of Congo’s Lossi Sanctuary for gorillas and chimpanzees stumbled upon a disturbing trend. Duikers, dog-sized antelopes that weave and dive through the jungle’s dense undergrowth, were dying at an astounding rate—local indices dropped 50 percent compared to a 2000 census. Gorillas and chimpanzees were dying at similar rates. Blood tests confirmed the culprit was the deadly virus Ebola. The surprise was that no one had previously known that Ebola killed antelopes.

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Photo taken by Kabir Bakie at the Cincinnati Zoo May, 2005

Yet there was no doubt the terrible data were real. The findings were based on hundreds of observations precisely mapped with CyberTracker software. CyberTracker allows hand-held computers to use stylized images instead of text for data entry. Its heart is a menu of icons that depict whatever elements researchers choose. Trackers need only select a pre-programmed image that matches what they see—a grazing antelope, a carabid beetle—and with one tap, the observation is recorded and paired with geographic coordinates via a Global Positioning System (GPS) link. Trackers hardly have to break stride as they work, which allows enormous numbers of data points to be amassed with little effort. The information can be downloaded to a computer and immediately mapped, thus enabling scientists to make real-time observations about trends, such as the ones from Lossi Sanctuary that showed duiker declines.

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In the far reaches of the Kalahari Desert, in southern Africa, researcher Louis Liebenberg is deploying what may be the first illiterate computers integrated into a hunter-gatherer society, a group known as the San Bushmen. The desert natives, now thought to be the first people, are famous for their mysterious capacity to decipher animal tracks, or spoor, in the natural environment. The plethora of specific data that a Bushman can extract from even a partial spoor has astonished scientists for decades: This unusual ability is subtle and multispectral; it’s steeped in an experience of nature that recognizes no division of life into distinct categories.

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Liebenberg’s handheld device allows a Bushman to enter spoor readings and other observations, hit a button, and register, via satellite, the place and time of the observation. The information is transferred to a central database, where it is correlated to produce a dynamic map of the location, and then used to study ecological relationships, animal behavior patterns, and even poaching activity (a Bushman can tell from a track whether an animal is fleeing a human or natural predator). The info is also used to inform guides about activities of scientific, documentary, or tourist significance, as well as for a wide variety of conservation applications.

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Food was prize in early marathons

A run around the park or on a treadmill in the gym is the best most of us manage these days. We should do better really, given that our body shape – upright, with large buttocks – apparently evolved for running.

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Anthropologist Dan Lieberman of Harvard University suggested two years ago that our body shape evolved to allow our ancestors to run long distances, and reach animal carcasses before other scavengers. After observing modern hunter-gatherers from the !Xo and /Gwi tribes in Botswana, Louis Liebenberg, an anthropologist from Cape Town, South Africa, has suggested that the next evolutionary step was to become good at endurance running in order to run down prey.

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Hunter-programmes: A new device puts an old skill to work.

WHAT really goes on in Africa’s remote national parks? Though satellite imaging and aerial surveys give a rough idea of changes in animal and plant life, the most detailed data still have to be collected on foot. This is all very well for those places where skilled botanists and zoologists swarm in the undergrowth, but what about everywhere else?

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When Ebola fever struck Lossi sanctuary in eastern Congo two years ago, the zoologists who were studying the gorillas there noticed that 139 of their apes had disappeared, presumably killed by the disease. As an aside, they also recorded chimpanzees, antelopes, bush pigs and other species that were struck down, suggesting Ebola is more deadly than once thought. The toll elsewhere was unknown.

The useful extra data were collected only because the zoologists in question had a convenient system for doing so. They were testing the prototype of CyberTracker, an invention of Louis Liebenberg, a self-taught animal tracker who lives in Nordhoek, near Cape Town. CyberTracker is a hand-held device that lets users record what they see quickly and easily, and then plots maps showing exactly where the observations were made, using the Global Positioning Satellite navigation system.

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Keeping Track of a Dying Art

The science of tracking–following the paths of animals in the wild–has been practiced since hunter-gatherers first appeared on the African savanna some 100,000 years ago. Interpreting nature’s vocabulary of footprints and foliage, Stone Age hunters not only pursued their prey but also acquired a practical understanding of recurring patterns in animal behavior. But the tracker’s knowledge was never written down. Even today, among the few remaining hunter-gatherer communities in Africa, Asia and Australia, the best trackers can neither read nor write. Instead, their skills are passed down through the generations by oral tradition. But as these dwindling, isolated communities face increasing social marginalization, their tribal cultures and means of survival are under threat. Now, a South African scientist is using advanced computer technology to revive the dying art of tracking.

After spending 11 years on periodic field trips with the San tribal communities in the remote Kalahari Desert of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, 39-year-old physicist Louis Liebenberg decided that their ancient tracking skills–in his opinion an original, natural science–could not just be documented but could indeed be saved by the use of modern communications technology. In collaboration with the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town, he came up with the CyberTracker, a handheld computer that enables

native trackers to record their observations of animal behavior. In addition tohelping indigenous people preserve their traditions, Liebenberg’s invention makes the tribesmen’s knowledge available to others, opening up potential applications for managing wildlife populations and combating poachers.

The CyberTracker device consists of a 3Com Palm Pilot that is linked to a Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) satellite network. The user interface is a palette of symbols rather than a keyboard of letters: animals are listed by clear silhouettes, while functions such as drinking, running and eating are identified by easily understood symbols. Options are selected by simply touching the appropriate icons on the screen. Using this icon menu, detailed information on everything from feeding patterns to habitual hunting grounds can be logged for more than

40 different animal species. The integrated G.P.S. allows the tracker to pinpoint the exact location of each sighting. “These mostly uneducated trackers have an enormous mental database of information,” says Liebenberg. “Now they can begin to put that information into a modern scientific framework.” The computer recording system is now bringing the San scientific recognition in the field of conservation and wildlife management.

But the San are not the only ones to benefit from this technology. Data from the CyberTracker is fed into a geographic information system, a suite of statistical and graphics software that can compile maps and chart the migrations of various animal populations. Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s premier wildlife sanctuaries, is planning to use 100 CyberTrackers for wildlife tracking and

scientific research on animal behavior and movements. And Liebenberg, himself a master tracker, is training a team of experts to help distribute this technology elsewhere in southern Africa and beyond. The goal, he says, is to enhance rather than replace the native tracking abilities of communities like the San. If he succeeds, then the CyberTracker could symbolize the fusion of Stone Age and Space Age.


Running and Thinking

Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Running seems to require a great amount of high-level thinking. A study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that the brains of competitive distance runners had different connections in areas known to aid in sophisticated cognition than the brains of healthy but sedentary people.

Runners’ brains displayed a number of different connections than did the brains of sedentary young men, and those connections involved areas of the brain needed for higher-level thought.

In particular, the scientists noted more connectivity in the runners than in the inactive men between parts of the brain that aid in working memory, multitasking, attention, decision making, and the processing of visual and other sensory information.

There was also less activity among the runners in a part of the brain that tends to indicate lack of focus and mind wandering.

In essence, the runners seemed to have brains in which certain cognitive skills, including multitasking and concentration, were more finely honed than among the inactive men. Earlier studies in older adults have found that similar connections are associated with improved memory and cognition as people age.

Running seems to be a kind of mobile math puzzle. It requires complex navigational skills, plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.

Further Reading

Excerpts from “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport,” by Gretchen Reynolds. 14 December 2016, The New York Times.

David A. Raichlen, Pradyumna K. Bharadwaj, Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari A. Haws, Gabrielle-Ann Torre, Theodore P. Trouard and Gene E. Alexander. 2016. Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 29 November 2016