Smartphones, Smart Maps: Rachel Mason Dentinger Explores How Kew Scientists Are Using the Latest Technology to Map Harapan's Vegetation to Help Effectively Target Restoration Efforts

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Botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have been involved in the Harapan project since 2008, when Rogier de Kok and his team, who specialise in Southeast Asian flora, helped to establish a local herbarium and trained staff to collect indigenous plants.

Earlier this year, in a project funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' International Sustainable Development Fund, Kew staff returned to Harapan to carry out a rapid survey for the whole area, which, according to project leader Justin Moat, 'is what is desperately needed. This gives an idea of what's happening on the ground, which can drive restoration planning by the forest's managers.'

For more than a decade, Moat has led Kew's Geographic Information Science (GIS) team, generating vegetation maps. However, for many more decades--centuries, in fact--generations of Kew botanists have traversed the same regions and returned with a very different view of the world-one focused on individual species.

This field trip brought together these two perspectives on plant life, requiring Kew's botanists to break with tradition Instead of collecting hundreds of plants to bring back to Kew's herbarium, they collected the data necessary to summarise and map different vegetation types within the whole of Harapan.

In the project's first phase, geospatial scientist Jenny Williams used specialised software to analyse the few existing images of the region The software automatically differentiates the rainforest into sections, based on the similarities and differences apparent in the vegetation from above.

But what do these sections represent? In the next phase, Williams drew on her previous mapping experience assessing the overwintering sites of monarch butterflies in Mexico and orangutan habitat in Borneo. She examined the differentiated regions and attempted to roughly identify the type and quality of vegetation they represented Is this tract of green a healthy forest with a high canopy? Or is it more uniform and brighter green, perhaps suggesting bamboo, or unstructured re-growth of a recently deforested area? The result was a prototype vegetation map of the Harapan area.

Finally, it was time for the field team to head to Harapan for 'ground-truthing--visiting each distinct region of vegetation to test and refine the labels that they had been given. Two teams, each composed of Kew scientists, botanists from the Indonesian Bogor Herbarium and Harapan scientists, moved swiftly through the forest, recording data from a staggering 300 plots along the way.

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This type of mass data collection doesn't come naturally to botanists, Moat says. 'We are forcing the botanists to observe the landscape. "Look around you," we tell them, "we don't need to focus on individual plants now."'

Botanists sometimes miss the forest for the trees, but here in Harapan, the forest was their primary focus. 'This is mainly about observing what's going on, on the ground, about recording the information within each plot,' says Moat. …