An interview with Carmelle J. Terborgh, Federal/Global Affairs team lead, ESRI at the Africa Geospatial technology for Agriculture week in Nairobi
Launched 40 years ago as a consulting and research firm, ESRI created the first commercial geographic information software, ArcInfo. Since then, geographical information system (GIS) solutions have found use in at least 40 industries– from environmental management to epidemiology; agriculture to transportation; disaster response to demining.
ESRI and the CGIAR centres enjoy a close and longstanding relationship. It’s easy to see how the CG benefits: The memorandum of understanding with ESRI provides CGIAR centres with a number of licenses for software, plus technical support, training and professional development opportunities for a fraction of their commercial cost.
In her interview, ESRI’s Carmelle Terborgh describes, among other things, the arrangement from her company’s point of view.
Q: Why focus on GIS?
A: Our founder and president, Jack Dangermond, likes to say: When humans first developed a microscope, we could see things smaller than we could otherwise. GIS is a “macroscope.” Now we can see bigger parts of the world than we could without it. You can only see 13 miles on flat terrain. But the macrosocope gives you a way to understand the world in a way you could never experience from one location. You can sit in Nairobi, say, and see the world.
Q: How do you view the CGIAR?
We want to support people working in agriculture, food security, livestock—their work is critical, and we can’t do it ourselves. We support a number of conservation, humanitarian, educational programs.
As far as the CGIAR goes, we feel honoured that CGIAR centres are using this.
Jack and Laura (Jack’s wife and VP) have a passion for seeing these tools applied for really good purposes. When you see a huge need, you just have to respond.
Q: Any big event coming up for geospatial specialists to get together?
A: We like to convene the people who are using our software and give them a forum. We host the ESRI International User Conference–this year it’s July 13-17 in San Diego. It’s a really good professional development opportunity for CG staff. Usually representatives from about five CG centres come.
A few years ago we focused on poverty mapping. I’d love to do another one focused on food security. That’s an offer we can make to the CG.
Q: What’s a favorite example of using GIS for agriculture?
A: One of our customers, USAID, had a project in Ghana called TIPCEE. It was really innovative in that they had women using GPS to go out and map the size of farmer fields. One thing they found was that plots were generally considerably smaller than people had thought. So farmers had been wasting money paying extra money for fertilizer and plowing. Also, they were buying too much fertilizer, so it was likely running off into the groundwater.
Another result was that since they had good maps of where the cash crops are grown, they had a better idea of where cooperatives and warehouses should be. Better location of those facilities could mean faster processing for export and shipment.
In addition, the maps helped them get organic certification by European markets. For that certification, you need a map to show you’re not, say, in a protected area, or surrounded by farms using chemicals.
Q: How did you get into this?
A: I’m a geography geek. When I was a kid, I used to read a Time Magazine atlas of the world at night, under the covers with a flashlight.
In college I was a forestry major –I wanted to be working out in the field. But then I developed horrible allergies to trees. So I went back to my first love and did my Master’s and PhD in geography.
Also…my father’s blind, and I think his lack of vision made me passionate about seeing the world. I got pretty good at describing the world to him as we walked together, and as we traveled. And geography is the art of describing our world.