CSIRO in PNG: John McAlpine, Gael Keig and David Freyne

A previous contribution to Una Voce briefly charted the course of the 25-year history of the Resource Survey of TPNG carried out by CSIRO. As stated, by Independence maps, books and other technical reports had been published covering the nation’s geomorphology/landforms, soils, climate/hydrology, vegetation, forestry and current and potential land uses. Other agencies such as the Bureau of Mineral Resources were also conducting survey programmes. It could be said that the natural resources of TPNG were then better known and mapped than those of Australia. Yet, apart from the wider scientific and academic community, the receiving end of this flurry of publications was mostly limited to expatriate technical and scientific staff in the TPNG Agriculture and Forestry Departments. While the latter staff grew considerably in numbers as Independence approached, the detailed survey side of their work was mostly concerned with specific development projects (Gogol timber, New Britain oil palm). There were few Papua New Guineans trained to deal with this mass of resource information.All that was to change post 1975.

There was an hiatus in activity by CSIRO until the early 1980s. During this time Papua New Guinean scientists and technicians were now graduating from the tertiary education sector. The problem was how to make the mountain/goldmine of resource information readily accessible to these people without their having to reference and work their way through the voluminous publications produced up to 1975. How to do this? By 1980, a number of events had occurred which suggested a possible direction.

Firstly, during the 1960s and 70s,  the CSIRO research group of which the PNG team had been part had been developing a computer-based method of combining large amounts of resource data so they could be made readily accessible for analysis and planning. However, at that time the computer analyses could only be carried out on large and very expensive mainframe computers and hence the method was not suitable for transfer to PNG. Interestingly, the test bed used for part of this research work was based on the earlier CSIRO resource mapping of Simbu Province. The other significant  events  were the capture of the Skai Piksa aerial photography for the whole country, the publication of the 1:100,000 topographic map series by the PNG National Bureau and the 1:250,000 geological map series produced by the Geological Survey of PNG in association with the Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources.

The stage had been reached at which it was possible to make an overall and comprehensive inventory and assessment of the country’s natural resources and their use. At the prompting of Paul Aland and David Freyne of the PNG Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL), and subsequently funded by the World Bank and CSIRO, in 1980 a project was commenced to integrate and make available the information in all of the publications mentioned above in such a way that it could be readily accessed and used by the Papua New Guinean scientific and technical graduates. A number of the scientists who were involved in the previous PNG resource surveys contributed to this project also. John McAlpine was the project leader, and David Freyne was John’s PNG DAL counterpart.

Very briefly, the method adopted involved mapping the entire country at a scale of 1:500,000 into a series of “resource mapping units” or RMUs, each of which represented a unique description of the natural resources of an area. The RMUs were delineated by reference to all previous resource data from survey publications and maps, including the available air photography. Standardized data describing each RMU, including its landform, soils, climate, land use intensity and extent, and vegetation were recorded manually. To these natural resource data were added information from the PNG National Censuses on the rural population resident in each RMU and the smallholder economic activities in which they were engaged. As the work proceeded, it quickly became apparent that the number of RMUs (which eventually exceeded 4,000 for the whole country) and the amount of data recorded for each RMU were far too large to be readily accessible in printed form only. A computer-based method for recording and analysing the integrated data was clearly needed.

Very fortuitously, technology came to the rescue in the form of the microcomputer. In the early 1980s these machines were 8-bit wonders that could be found only on the desks of dedicated computer “geeks”. However, their potential for use in the context of disseminating information in a country like PNG was recognised in CSIRO immediately they came on the scene. 

With the RMU mapping proceeding apace, the recorded data were entered into one of the very first microcomputer databases. Fortunately again, as the amount of data grew, so did the capacity and sophistication of the available microcomputer technology. The RMU mapping and data recording were undertaken on a province by province basis, and took over three years to complete. At the end of that time, there were hard copy RMU maps for all twenty provinces, plus a microcomputer database containing some 52 items of resource and associated information for each and every RMU.

The next step was transfer of the information to PNG, installation of microcomputers and training of PNG staff in how to make the best use of the system, which by then had been named the Papua New Guinea Resource Information System or PNGRIS. Initially, the system was installed within the DAL Land Utilisation Section, and in-country training of the staff involved in its use was carried out. Subsequently, as other PNG Departments such as Forestry, Environment,Transport, Works and Defence became aware of the system and its potential, PNGRIS was also installed in a number of these government Departments.

In 1987, funding was received from AusAID to conduct a comprehensive training course in the use of PNGRIS for nominated PNG Government staff in Australia. This took place in Brisbane, and the Papua New Guinean attendees learned how PNGRIS could be used to assist their work in resource and environmental analysis and development planning. Subsequently again, during the period 1992 to 1995, AusAID funded a further expansion of PNGRIS to include the newly-available microcomputer mapping technology. At the end of the almost 50 years during which CSIRO had been involved in describing and mapping the natural resources of PNG, the country was in possession of what was one of the first “geographic Information systems” which covered an entire country. That system, in an updated form, is still being used for national development planning in PNG today.


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