V1: How did your company become involved in this project?
Quartararo: We’ve been involved for a while behind the scenes, and then we acquired the assets of the project. The group which had started the project was not familiar with the geospatial industry, and didn’t really appreciate the issues on the ground in Afghanistan, and lost patience with the business model and the lack of return on their investment.
We had the finances to acquire the project, so we stepped in, and we’ve been realigning the project with our vision, and getting familiar with the team on the ground. I went over to Kabul in early December to visit the host organization, the Afghan Geodesy and Cartography Head Office (AGCHO), and spoke with management about my company, my background and my vision for the project. I then spent a few days in the office with our local teams that are working on the project.
V1: Is this a public-private partnership between yourselves and the national mapping agency?
Quartararo: The project is similar in a sense to the major infrastructure development projects in the developing world that are done by companies like Booz Allen, Bechtel, and URS that build and operate facilities for a period of time under a concessionaire arrangement until they earn their profit back, and then will transfer the physical infrastructure asset to the local municipality. We’ve applied that model to the geospatial industry, and we’ve had successes in the past in other areas of the world.
When we saw this opportunity, it seemed to be inline with our experience. It’s funded entirely by us, and there is no investment by the locals, except in dedicating people to learn how we are going about a project of this magnitude. When the project is complete, then we can depart if they want and hand over the national map assets for them to be the stewards. They will have learned the A to Z approach in how we went about constructing the data so that they can do it themselves. The problem that we’ve encountered is that, despite a great deal of enthusiasm, they lack a significant amount of capacity.
It is a public-private partnership in a sense, but the part that AGCHO lends is credibility from a domestic standpoint, with a permit and a memorandum of understanding to conduct this project. They are the only national authorized mapping agency, and we take it very seriously that we have their support and confidence. Their staff is posted with our local teams to shadow them and learn from our activities about how to complete various aspects of the project, including fieldwork.
The project is going well. We have a lot of work to do, and are continuing to learn about the local perspective on technology and on national mapping assets, and the whole Afghan political system.
V1: This conflict has been ongoing for such a long time now, and I recall back in the early years what an accomplishment it was for the National Geographic Society to create a map of the country, because there wasn’t much data or mapping to draw upon. Is the lack of data a continuing challenge?
Quartararo: There are some efforts. We know that Jim Anderson in Anchorage has done a 1:50,000 series map that they sell. LandInfo is offering the same kind of map from old Russian topographic maps. There are a few other initiatives, with a Japanese project underway. There is a lot of politics involved, as you can imagine. As far as I know, we’re the only national mapping effort that is alive and well at this point.
We didn’t have a lot to start with, and I count that as kind of a blessing. We’re not encumbered with deciphering historical fact from fiction. Not basing our mapping on any foundation of previous work frees us from the constraints of knowing when it was done, knowing who did it, and knowing whether it was true and accurate at the time.
We’re building a national map from the ground up that is based on our own spec that we have taken the time to evaluate for its relevance to that part of the world. It’s not a NAVTEQ database, it’s not a U.S. Geological Survey DLG or DEM or DRT-type spec. It’s a rather unique specification for that part of the world.
For example, there is very little railroad infrastructure in Afghanistan, whereas most of the rest of the world that is a significant part of any basemap. We’ve had to customize our spec for Afghanistan, and do the training and knowledge transfer accordingly. We’ve used the fact that there hasn’t been a lot done at this scale for the entire country as a blessing.
V1: I recall that the U.S. Geological Survey had put together a map of natural resources, that was based in part on fieldwork done by Russian scientists, that showed a great wealth in raw materials and minerals. Is your mapping project an economic development effort to some degree?
Quartararo: That’s a great point, and it is in some way aligned. One of the things that got us excited about this project, and that caused us to invest in the project, is the fact of the unknown latent value that Afghanistan has as a natural resource base. There was a story about a year ago about a gold deposit that Afghanistan was looking to exploit, and China is very aggressive in trying to buy up concessions in mineral rich areas that they want to exploit. The Afghan government should certainly be the beneficiaries as a sovereign entity, but we think that this map data will help others get involved.
One of our plans is to take this data and go out to the various industries, whether it be natural resource exploration, ground water development, potable water networks, sewer networks, electric network, and anybody that wants to develop the basic infrastructure. Anyone in the infrastructure business is going to need current high quality maps, and we intend and are in the process of working on different licensing agreements for the data.
V1: I’m impressed by the scale of your efforts, with plans to do maps at 1: 25,000 scale, and then even at 1:5,000 scale for the cities, when there are only maps to date at 1:50,000 scale. You are also collecting points of interest, which seems like it would lend itself to online mapping. Is there an intent to do map products, spatial data, and online mapping?
Quartararo: We haven’t really thought through the idea of putting data online just yet, primarily due to a lack of critical mass of point of interest data. We do have an ongoing field data collection effort with teams that go out that do field collection when and where possible, and that data is being stored in a repository and made available to local agencies and departments that are interested.
When I was there, we set up some follow-up meetings with internal agencies that were interested in security applications with the data. These agencies get the first right of refusal of the data, and we want to be sensitive to their concerns about how widespread certain aspects of the data are given regional and internal security concerns. We want to be there as long as they’ll have us, and we want to honor any concerns that they have about potential threats that they may face.
V1: That brings up the element of danger in your own fieldwork. How is your field data collection work done in order to ensure the safety of your field crews.
Quartararo: You’ll have to forgive me for not divulging a lot of our tactical details. We’re a commercial operation that is not affiliated with the military, but nevertheless we have to be somewhat circumspect given the nature of the Internet, and who can read this.
Our teams go out with permission from AGCHO, and they coordinate with the provincial AGCHO office. They have permits that they have in hand in case they run into any national army, police or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols. We’ve asked them to coordinate with any local ISAF office to advise them that what they’re doing under is under a national authorization to avoid any suspicion.
It’s a fluid situation, and that’s why they need the permission of the provincial AGCHO offices. The conditions change day-to-day, they may be out in the field doing collection work four days out of the week, and then they may have to stand idle for a couple of weeks until some issues pass. Each team is left to organize the logistics themselves, whether they have an armed escort or not, but obviously that’s the preference.
Because it’s all local Afghans doing the work, they’re familiar with their surroundings. The work is also fairly specific, there is not a lot of loitering in areas with standing around holding clip boards and drawing attention to themselves. They move through an area that needs to be field verified very quickly, they do what they need to do, and then move on.
V1: You mentioned that you purchased the rights for the work. Did you also inherit the local field crews?
Quartararo: The local manager in Kabul manages the entire domestic aspect. We did inherit local field crews, and have had to hire some ourselves. One aspect that we’ve been very sensitive about is not hiring people from out of the region to go into a region where they’re unfamiliar with the territory, not from that tribe, and don’t know the local language. It’s a constant logistical juggling act to make sure that we have contextually relevant field teams doing the work.
It’s an ongoing training challenge, but we view that a positive thing. An underlying part of the mission is that the more people we engage in fieldwork, with proper geospatial technology training, the more people are learning skills that they otherwise wouldn’t have. We pass those names on to AGCHO, because they are potential hires for the national mapping agency at some point, should they want to hire these people themselves.
V1: You mention that you’ve done some similar mapping projects in other areas of the world. What countries or regions have you been working in?
Quartararo: When I started the company a little over ten years ago we did make an effort to go into a partnership with another GIS company to finance telecommunications and outside plant mapping in Pakistan. The business model was to build it and finance it, and then collect one extra rupee per minute on the back end after the project was implemented over a period of five or six years. We did a proposal, got to the negotiation stage, and did a pilot project, and then whether it was 9/11 or some other geopolitical issues it just fell by the wayside. We’ve made some efforts in Kenya to get this concept of geospatial financing for projects and technology started, and we’ve also been working to get things started in Sudan. Before I started the company, we worked with some people in Madagascar to do more of a 1:50,000 scale mapping effort, with USAID as a part of that. We’ve had a lot of interest in this concept in India as well, with some of the smaller municipalities.
What’s attractive about it as a business model is that getting started with any kind of GIS activity can be quite a capital intensive effort, and a lot of organizations don’t see the value in spending a quarter million to half a million dollars on software, hardware, and hiring people, but they do need the data to be able to improve the quality of life for people. They’re willing to sign up for some sort of agreement that provides a measure of return on investment for companies like ours that are willing to finance the up-front development.
The devil is always in the details in terms of how it gets structured, what’s the level of risk to us, and how can we monetize it over a certain period of time given the volatile nature of some of these geographies we’re looking at. These are areas where historically there hasn’t been much geospatial technology or mapping done for a whole host of reasons, but these are the very same geographies that absolutely need it if they’re ever going to escape the cycle that they’ve been in for generations.
V1: It has to be exciting to get in on the ground floor in some of these areas, and it must be rewarding work.
Quartararo: It’s terribly rewarding and compelling when you see a team who a few years ago were either unemployed or didn’t understand what their future might be because it was highly uncertain. Now, they can talk to you in terms that they understand what they’re doing for their own country, and see them enthusiastic about that.
I don’t want to overstate the importance, or fill shoes that don’t fit us, but we’re very proud of the team there. They are taking ownership and contributing to a part of Afghanistan’s future that doesn’t resemble the past. They are making an effort to change things, and that’s incredibly rewarding to see.