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Tracking the Tonle Sap lake

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081218_03.jpg

An online database helps NGOs and the government share their knowledge with each other, helping them to prioritise their time, effort and money

Photo by:
Christopher Shay

A man steers his boat on the Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang.

THE Tonle Sap is Cambodia's pulsing heart. Three million people live directly off the lake, which provides 70 percent of the country's protein intake.

Not surprisingly, millions of dollars and countless hours are spent trying to maintain the vital waterway, but too often, well-meaning groups - which have no idea what the others are doing - waste resources reproducing the research of others, according to Dr Neou Bonheur, the project director of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve Environmental Information Database (TSBR-ED).

The TSBR-ED, an online database and research portal focusing on the Tonle Sap region, lists 762 distinct NGOs active in the area and hopes to make information about their activities and research more accessible, helping those 762 NGOs and the government focus their investments and reduce overlapping projects.

"If donors can rely on a common database, they can better prioritise projects. They won't have to spend money getting the same data anymore," said Sanjay Saxena, the team leader of the project.

The database houses more than 10,000 papers, 150 data sets and 130 maps and graphs. All in all, the site includes more than 500 gigabytes of information about the crucial area.

The online portal may not have a catchy moniker, but the TSBR-ED is "not only the world's largest knowledge repository on the Tonle Sap region, but one of the largest portals of environmental knowledge in the entire world," Kol Vathana, deputy secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, told a workshop explaining the website on Wednesday.

"And the best part," he continued, "is that most of the information is available to everyone in the world."

Now, organisations and government agencies can more easily incorporate what people have discovered in the past.

"You can compare your data to data from 1998. It's a tool to evaluate your activity," Neou Bonheur said.

At the government level, the project hopes that the database will lead to improved transparency and accountability.

Twelve ministries have agreed to share information through the website, which helps save the individual ministries time and money but also makes the information more accessible to the public.

Sometimes, you had to run from pillar to post to find something simple.

"If you know that the government is supposed to be investing US$5 million on roads in your area, and you don't see anything, then you're going to start asking questions," Saxena said.
As in any large library, it is important to have a system that makes searching easy.

Using metatags, Saxena is confident that TSBR-ED is just that system. "Even if you know just one element about the document you're looking for, you will be able to find it. Sometimes, you had to run from pillar to post to find something simple, but now it's all here."

In just over a year, the website has had about 200,000 visits from 55 countries, Neou Bonheur said.

Currently, the site receives about 60 percent of its traffic from search engines that draw interested parties from around the globe to the database. The main goals of the site's founders focus on helping local actors, but ultimately, some of the greatest benefits may go elsewhere.

"This data from the Tonle Sap basin will help those interested in similar basins around the world," Kol Vathana said, 

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