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Teaching GIS to Humanitarian Aid Workers in Thailand

This mission was in partnership with Partners Relief Development (PRAD) and Free Burma Rangers (FBR). The request was for one GIS instructor to teach an introductory ArcGIS course and also assist PRAD/FBR with database design and application development for two weeks. Joe Forrest, a Geological Consultant with Resource GeoServices LLC in

Austin, TX, was selected for this project and spent two weeks in Mae Sot, Thailand.  He wrote the following article upon his return.

By Joe Forrest, Geological Consultant, Resource GeoServices LLC, Austin, TX


My recent GISCorps assignment was to Thailand, where I was involved in training a group of twelve NGO relief workers in the use of ArcGIS 9.3.  Goal of the training was to introduce the workers to ArcGIS for use in their efforts to (1) document human rights abuses in Burma, (2) document movements of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP’s) in the country, (3) assist NGO’s in establishing logistical and communications networks for providing aid to IDP’s, and (4) analyze and assess the effectiveness of relief efforts over time. The training took place in the town of Mae Sot, which is 400 km northwest of Bangkok on the western border of Thailand directly across the Moei River from Burma.

City of Mae Sot

Mae Sot is an amalgamation of Thai, Burman, Karen, Chinese and smaller ethnic groups, with a population of around 110,000 people.  Being directly on the border, it is a major gateway to Burma via the Moei River Friendship Bridge. The city looks and feels like a frontier boom-town, bustling with people, pickup trucks, motorcycles, skooters and tuk-tuks that speed along dusty, crowded streets.  Mae Sot is reportedly a hotbed of black market trade – gemstones, teak timber, drugs and human beings. A number of factories and sweatshops are located there that produce products for western companies.

The city also has a gentler side. Many humanitarian aid organizations are headquartered there with their accompanying ex-patriot and local staffs, and, though remote and wild, there is something almost cosmopolitan about the community. The people are friendly and hospitable and accustomed to foreigners. The various religious groups in Mae Sot make for an interesting aspect. The main groups are Buddhists, Muslims and Christians and all appear to live and work together in harmony. The Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city are eerily beautiful, and I spent much of my free time visiting and photographing them.

Entrance to Buddhist temple in Mae Sot.

There are a large number of small cafes and restaurants in Mae Sot, as in other Thai communities.  Some streets comprise nothing but eateries – holes-in-the-wall, street carts, sidewalk stands, covered pavilions, garden seating – one place after another. These establishments are open late into the night, and their bright, colored lighting gives the city a carnival atmosphere. Many families in Thailand do not have kitchens and they take most of their meals in local eateries, which are very inexpensive. Several excellent eateries in Mae Sot cater to ex-patriots and serve both western and Asian fare.

Mae Sot has many different types of markets. There are street markets where one can find every type of food eaten in Asia, raw or cooked.  Some of the markets are permanent, such as the famous Moei River Market at the Friendship Bridge. Here you can purchase wares from all over southeast Asia and China: clothing, shoes, furniture, electronics, local crafts, CD’s and DVD’s, foods, sweets, cosmetics and perfumes, jewelry, jade, watches and more. The permanent market in downtown Mae Sot is in a covered, open-sided building and specializes in vegetables, fruits and nuts, fish, meats, and baked goods. I found the markets especially interesting since many (perhaps most) of the food items were unknown to me and unidentifiable. Fortunately many people in Mae Sot spoke some English or German and we were always able to communicate with spoken or sign language or a combination of both.  A little more knowledge of the Thai language would have been helpful, but I got along very comfortably with my meager amount.

GISCorps visitors to Mae Sot will have no trouble acclimating to this exotic city.

Travel to Country

After my selection for this assignment I was put in touch with the head of the sponsoring organization and the convener of the workshop.  Together we picked mutually acceptable dates for the training, which turned out to be February 2 – February 14, 2009.  Various airlines and routes were suggested to me for travel to Thailand, but I was allowed to make a final decision and my own arrangements.  Since I live on the east coast of the US, I decided to travel the Atlantic-Europe route rather than Pacific-Asia, as it involved fewer layovers and airline changes.  I departed Raleigh-Durham, NC on January 27 and flew directly to London.  I departed London on January 28 and flew directly to Bangkok, arriving there on the afternoon of January 29.  I spent the night in Bangkok and departed there on the morning of January 30 (Friday), arriving in Mae Sot in the afternoon after a bus ride of about 8 hours.  I was able to rest and adjust to jet-lag the next two days (Saturday and Sunday).  We began the training on Monday, February 2.

Joe Forrest Teaching GIS to PRAD/FBR Team

Accommodations in Country

Accommodations in Mae Sot had been made by the sponsoring organization in the Poon Na Gunn Hotel, a 10-minute walk from the training venue.  The hotel is new and very comfortable, and I felt very much at home there.  The reception area and restaurant are located in a beautiful open-air pavilion at the front of the hotel.  The restaurant served an excellent breakfast buffet with both Asian and Western dishes.  In addition it was possible to order meals at other times.  Each room was equipped with a small refrigerator and bottled drinking water was provided each day.  I would rank the hotel accommodations as excellent.
Taking GPS coordinate measurements of boundary post during field work at farm near Mae Sot.

Trainee Group

There were 12 trainees, all male, ranging in age from 21 to 33 years old (with the exception of the convener and coordinator of the group, who was a few years older).  Some of the trainees were essentially beginners in GIS, while others had been using ArcView 3.3 for several years (Again, the convener of the workshop was quite experienced in ArcView 3.3 and had good knowledge of ArcGIS 9.3).  All of the participants had some previous elementary training in ArcGIS 9.3 but limited practical application of the software.  Eleven of the trainees were non-native English speakers, while one was an American who spoke typical American English.  The non-American trainees were all quite shy about speaking English, despite numerous attempts on my part to get them to do so.  The convener of the workshop spoke excellent English and served as interpreter; he provided native language interpretation when required, usually when a more complicated concept or function was explained.  For most of the workshop extensive interpretation was unnecessary, as the trainees all had some knowledge of English.

In addition, I demonstrated all concepts and functions using a computer projector and made every attempt to speak slowly and clearly and reduce explanations to English that was concise and easy to understand.  With 10 days available for the training it was not necessary to move too rapidly, thus we were able to slow the pace during difficult concepts and to do numerous repetitions of demonstrations as required.  The pace was such that I was able to address individual problems at the computers of those needing help.  I also solicited the assistance of more advanced trainees in helping those who needed more explanation or who fell behind in specific steps.  The trainees were a very compatible and friendly group and willingly pitched in to assist one another.  My strategy was to progress slowly, to observe the group closely and to identify the individuals who were having problems, to ask them if they needed help, and then to provide it individually as required.  After the first two days it became obvious which trainees were beginners and which ones had more previous GIS experience.  In all cases I found it best not to be dismissive of any individuals who were having problems; instead I tried to address the problems right away and keep the group at the same level at all times.  In one case I asked an individual to stay for a short while after class for additional tutoring and to get him completely caught up with the group.

Taking elevation reading during field work at the farm.

Training Plan

Prior to traveling to Thailand I reviewed numerous training texts to use in the workshop.  I found none of them particularly good for the group I was to train.  Though most of the existing training manuals are quite good for Western GIS users, they are not particularly applicable to the culture and background of the group I was to train in Thailand.  I did finally recommend two texts for my workshop, but simply because they explain much of the basic functionality of ArcGIS, not because the examples and datasets are relevant to Asian users.  For example, concepts of geocoding, marketing, selecting a location for a new pizza parlor based on demographics and population, and calculating the quickest route from a fire station to a hospital are not particularly useful for groups that are working in remote jungle locations in which there is no electricity and roads.  I therefore tried to devise datasets and exercises that were more applicable to the group’s culture, background and applications.Here’s an example of how culturally inapplicable some of our Western exercise examples can be:  When introducing various types of raster data I showed a LIDAR image of a major US city and asked the group to identify features that I pointed out.  They did not recognize the regular pattern of streets and city blocks that show up so well due to slight elevation differences.  The group was astounded when I explained that the regular pattern of streets reflects planned development in urban areas.  The trainees come from remote jungle areas in which a few tens to a few hundred people may live with little or no connection or communications with neighboring settlements.

I did not restrict my examples and datasets to Thailand or Asian examples.  I used non-Thai data as a way of conveying some geographic knowledge.

To read the detailed accounts of 12 days of training click here.

Classroom scene

Problem Areas

We had very few problems during the workshop.  The training facility was well-equipped with computer projector, plenty of room for all the trainees and the trainer, a staff that provided a nice lunch each day and coffee, tea and water at regular intervals during the day.  The one thing that gave us some minor problems was that trainees were using two different operating systems on their computers (Each participating organization provided its own computers for the workshop).  Those using Vista seemed to have an inordinate number of crashes and periods when their computers would freeze up and have to be rebooted.  In addition some of the ArcMap functions simply did not work for those using Vista.  I cannot absolutely attribute all the problems to the Vista OS, but the number of incidents is suggestive.


This training workshop in Thailand was an inspiring experience, and I would recommend that anyone who has the opportunity for a GISCorps assignment not hesitate to take it.  The head of the sponsoring organization, the convener of the workshop (I cannot praise these two individuals enough for their hospitality and kindness and for the hard work they have put into providing relief for indigenous peoples of Burma) and trainees in Thailand welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like part of the family there and a part of their important efforts.  All accommodations and facilities were excellent and made for a comfortable working environment.  The trainees treated me with great respect and were appreciative of the training opportunity; they worked hard and diligently and were very interested in the concepts and functions presented.  I believe with additional practical experience these trainees have the potential to be very accomplished GIS users and that their goals will be enhanced by ArcGIS technology.

I made a lot of new friends during this assignment and look forward to continuing to work with them and maintaining contact in coming years.  The trainees and their organizations are involved in important efforts and I am proud to have contributed a small part to them.  I thank GISCorps for providing me with this opportunity and encourage all volunteers to take advantage of future assignments.

We are extremely grateful that GISCorps came to train us, a small group of humanitarian workers who are working in a remote area of Burma, which is hidden by geopolitical issues.  We hope to show the world more effectively by using GIS technology the human rights atrocities that have been happening in Burma for decades.

PRAD/FBR Host, Tah Doh Moo
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