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GIS team blog

Welcome to Kew's GIS team blog. Here you will find information about the Geographic Information Science (GIS) Unit and its staff. We'll be posting updates on new developments in the field and our projects, also our thoughts and musings!

From the field - fly-camping in the Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra

By: Jenny Williams - 10 Feb 2012
Kew's GIS and South East Asia team report from their study sites deep in the forests of Sumatra. In this - their second post - they venture into the jungle, seeing all sorts of things on the way.
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Fly-camping: life on the river - a photo essay

Half the Kew GIS team staff took the two small wooden motorboats and our local team members out for three days on the river to explore the harder to reach sections of the Harapan Rainforest. Whilst there they stayed in fly-camps - temporary advanced camps usually some distance from base camp which get their name from the idea of flying in and out out (i.e. quickly!).

People in a boat on the Harapan river

 If the rain had been on our side, the river would be twice as full as it currently is, and we could have taken a speedboat.

People pushing a boat up some rapids

This however, was the relaxing way to travel, if you don’t mind crashing into a few hidden, submerged trees and pushing the boat up a few rapids!

Spider on a piece of wood

 There is plenty of wildlife along the river. We saw a lot more than we were able to photograph and often had a few stowaways!

Harapan monitor lizard climbing a bank

Frequent sightings were: 1) enormous monitor lizards - usually much larger than the little one in the photo. The biggest we saw was close to 6ft long;

Harapan Macaques in undergrowth

2) troops of Macaques;

Harapan Kingfisher sitting on a branch

3) and many birds, especially Kingfishers (this one was still for a second, but obviously far away!).

Water cannister next to a constructed shack

We found a fly-camp base by the side of the river where we could set up our tents. Some machete action was needed to clear the tangle of roots and plants. We also set up our water purification system. I was warned over and again that it would need clean-water as a source, but we only had river water so thought we would give it a try. I don’t think that clay sediment which doesn’t fall out of the water when still was the ideal test candidate - and after a few litres of water, the system stopped working altogether. I think some sort of pre-filter is required. Our system seemed a great idea at first but was not really practical in this instance.

Bees on person's arm

It is a hot day everyday and the bees at our campsite seemed particularly happy to crawl along my arm drinking in the sweat - lovely!

Cooking in the forest

We couldn’t find a cook to accompany us on our journey, but all the local staff as well as Pak Deden, the botanist from Bogor, were ready and willing to cook up delicious food every meal time.

Eating at night

In a thunderstorm, there is no better place to be than out in the jungle under a relatively dry tarpaulin with some lovely Indonesian food - as long as the leeches stay away (I only got one bite that evening!)

- Jenny -


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From the field - Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra

By: Marie Briggs - 27 Jan 2012
Kew's GIS and South East Asia team report from the forests of Sumatra. This is the first of their posts.
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24 January 2012 – first day of fieldwork

We are sitting here in the field office in the Harapan Rainforest still working at 11.30pm after our first day in the field. It’s been a long day already and we will probably work further into the night (collating results from the day’s work / labelling photos / tweaking data entry forms) but it has been very productive.

We set out from the main camp this morning, excited with anticipation of what the day would bring and keen to get on with the job at hand, only to be stopped in our tracks five minutes outside of camp by a fallen tree, blown down by last night's storm (it’s the rainy season). Fifteen minutes and several machete chops later we were on our way again, driving along the boundary road towards our first study sites.

Two men stop to move a fallen tree from the road

Moving a fallen tree from the road

The boundary road from camp is interesting in that it marks the official boundary of the park in this area. On one side of the dirt road is Harapan Rainforest and on the other is an oil palm plantation. This is such a potent image because much of Sumatra’s native rainforest has been chopped down to make way for this lucrative crop and here you have both facing each other in an apparent ‘stand-off’.

Harapan oil palm on one side of track and forest on the other

Oil palm plantation on the left and rainforest on the right

Our aims

On this trip we will compare the different vegetation types we think we can see from our satellite images with what is actually present on the ground. From this we can produce an accurate and up-to-date vegetation map for the forest. Our mapping expert, Jenny, looks at satellite maps of the forest and decides from them what she would like us to classify. We then go to those points in the forest, set up plots and record various data including the diameter of some of the trees. Some of the buttress roots mean that our team have to think of innovative ways to gather the data.

Harapan Tree climbing

Not letting large trees get in the way of collecting data!

There is much to do before tomorrow’s foray out into the forest so we had best sign off - see our next blog for a selection of images showing what we’re finding in our forest plots. 

- Marie -

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Introducing the GIS Unit

By: Justin Moat - 03 Jan 2012
Find out more about the GIS Unit at Kew from Justin Moat.
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Welcome to the first entry of the GIS team blog. We’re really excited to tell you about all the projects we are working on around the world. In this blog we will share more about our work, which ranges from species distribution maps to detailed vegetation surveys and classifications of entire countries and everything between. We’ll tell you about our experiments with new tools and techniques such as ways to automate the process of Red Listing i.e. assessing how endangered specific plant species are or how we use mobile devices to capture data in the field. We like gadgets too, so expect the occasional review of the latest equipment being used in the GIS Unit.

First, we should introduce ourselves:

GIS Unit postcard

Vegetation mapping, going from satellite imagery to classified map (right to left). Also shows species distribubtion (black dots) and some conservation analysis (lines).

What we do 

The GIS Unit deals with all things spatial. Plants and geography have always been closely linked and never more so in this ‘geospatial’ era where location data is everywhere. We generally split our work into main two areas: species and vegetation, although there is a lot of overlap.

Species level work:
By spatially referencing where plants are i.e. by assigning a latitude and longitude co-ordinate pair, we provide a basis for furthering our understanding. With this data we can produce a distribution map for different plant species - these often appear in scientific papers along with the description of a species when it is new to science. We can also compare the location of a plant with environmental layers such as climate, soil, geology etc. to help tell us what might be influencing the distribution of that plant. We also use GIS as a tool to help us understand how threatened a species may be i.e. how close to extinction it is. We have also developed some tools to make that process easier and quicker (see GeoCAT). On a more advanced level we can model where a plant may occur and even how it might be distributed in future climates.

Vegetation and habitat level work:
Here we are mostly dealing with characterising and quantifying the worlds vegetation. This is done in the main with remote sensing; where we are using aerial photo and state of the art satellite imagery to detect and classify the earth vegetation. With satellite imagery we can view the planets surface in a completely different way, we can use radar or lasers to feel the texture of the earth, we can also use light that is not visible to humans, to distinguish what is on the ground (infra-red is one of the best for differentiating vegetation). We can also use modeling techniques to model the vegetation often again thought time (past and future). Find out more about our vegetation and habitat level work.

Get connected with the GIS Unit

  • We like to tweet about what we do. You can follow us here @KewGIS
  • We are occasionally allowed out of the office and we use Flickr to post up our fieldwork photos. You can also find some examples of the work we do. Have a look at the photostream here GIS Unit Kew
  • If you have any questions or are interested in working with us, you can always drop us an email gisunit@kew.org



Coming soon...

We are busy working on the new GIS Unit website, the old one is more than a little out of date. We hope it is useful.

We are looking forward to another exciting year of GIS and plant conservation. See you in 2012 - happy mapping.

- Justin and the GIS team -

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About the GIS team

Plant families and genera map in Google Earth

Kew was one of the first botanic gardens to have a dedicated Geographic Information Science (GIS) Unit. This was officially established in 1998 with the mission to ‘provide an interface for Kew's plant diversity research, presenting data and producing tools to underpin surveys and inventories, conservation and environmental monitoring’.

More than ever, GIS is part of our lives from GPS devices in smart phones to the latest satellite images in Google Earth. We use GIS techniques to support Kew’s science and conservation and most importantly, we like maps too! We are going to use this blog to tell you about the projects we are involved in and the new technology and techniques we are investigating. Make sure you subscribe to the GIS unit blog feed to keep up-to-date with all things GIS.

GIS Unit website

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