By Paola Totaro
LONDON, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Nitin Gadia's friends were arrested during a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline last year, the 32-year-old Iowa techie decided it was time to learn more about the controversy unfolding near his own backyard.
"I had similar sentiments to my friends about the pipeline, which comes close to my town, but didn't know enough about the issue to want to get arrested," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his home in Ames, Iowa.
"So I started to research it, and realised very quickly that despite the pipeline crossing four states, there was no clear map of the whole thing. I set out to create one."
Gadia describes what he did next as his own "little act of civil disobedience". He approached authorities in each state and collected all the information they would make available on the pipeline's 1,172 mile path.
As content director of mapstory.org, a non-profit foundation Gadia likens to Wikipedia "but for maps", Gadia had plenty of experience. But he was hamstrung by most states' refusal to provide the digital data he needed.
Instead, he found himself working with pdf copies of myriad maps, forcing him to build the pipeline's pathway on screen as if it were a giant jigsaw, interlocking the pdfs like pieces.
Then came the painstaking task of marking hundreds of precise latitude and longitude points along the many stretches of pipeline so they could be drawn into one, new single map.
Daunted by the job but enthused by the possibilities, he enlisted help from two specialist mapping colleagues in the Philippines and Kenya, and together they spent 80 hours - consecutively - working remotely to finish the job.
"It is interesting, I am not the only person to have asked the pipeline company for mapping data for the pipeline's path but they have refused everyone. That just made us want to go and draw it even more." he said.
YEARS OF CONTROVERSY
The $3.8 billion pipeline, built by Energy Transfer Partners, is entering the last stages of construction and this week a U.S. federal judge denied a request by Native American tribes to halt construction of the final link of the project.
Thousands of tribe members, environmentalists and activists set up camps last year on Army Corps land in the North Dakota plains and protests intensified until December when the outgoing administration of U.S. President Barack Obama denied the last permit that the project needed.
However President Donald Trump moved quickly to reverse the stop order when he took office in January, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a final go-ahead not long after.
Gadia says that he has now built the map for use on a mobile phone, enabling the user to find his or her own GPS pinned location in relation to the pipeline. This has been enthusiastically received by activists and campaigners, he says.
The New York Times used his map to illustrate a feature on the conflicts along the pipeline and future plans include an ambitious project to map Native American land titles, correlating them to historic claims.