Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is this a Problem? The Market for Information in Indonesia

Iron ore picture from here.

Yesterday I made the mistake of asking an acquaintance of mine who works for the district government here if he knew where I could obtain a general map of iron ore deposits for Indonesia.  I wanted the map because last week I received a request via email from someone that was working on a school project for help in procuring such a map.  The person asked me because I can speak Indonesian, and so presumably it would be easier for me to find something like that online.  I agreed to look into it, because I know how easy it is to get information like that in the US.  I figured it wouldn't take too much time, and if it contributes to people in the US learning more about Indonesia I'm all for it.

All I Want Is A Map.....

If you visit the website of the United States Geological Survey, you can find all sorts of wonderful information on a variety of topics ranging from mineralogy and geology to streamflow, all available for free.  They even have a clearly labeled tab for "Maps, Imagery, and Publications" where you can download maps or use the handy tool to make your own.  For free.  It took me about a minute to find a map that provides a general overview of mining and minerals for the United States.  I didn't have to pay anything to get it.  I've included the map (below) so you can get an idea of what I was looking for.  I assumed that it would be relatively easy to find a similar map for Indonesia.

Map from USGS.
As you can see, there is a lot of information on this map.  You can easily get a general idea of where the iron deposits are.  I navigated to the webpage of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the Indonesian ministry responsible for mining and minerals.  Although I didn't expect the sophistication of the USGS website, I did expect to find some maps that show the general distribution of mineral resources across the archipelago.  The government here is big on promoting its mineral resources and talks the talk of wanting to attract investment in the mining sector, and so I figured it would be easy to find maps geared towards people interested in possibly investing in the country.  But no such luck.  So I called an acquaintance that works in one of the local offices here to ask if he might know where I could find an iron-ore map.

"Why didn't you say you were looking for mineral information?  I used to work in mining and I have map data for all minerals for all of Indonesia!  Come by my office at 8am."

"Wow, [name], that's great.  I'll be there."  Making a trip to an office was actually more effort than I wanted to expend in this endeavor, but I couldn't really turn down the invitation.

I went to the office the following morning with a flashdisk expecting to leave after a cup of coffee with a jpeg map showing iron over the entire archipelago.  What I got was something completely different, and I left empty-handed.

"You can bring investors interested in mining directly to me and I'll help them out.  That way you can benefit and I can benefit," my acquaintance said.

"I don't think this person is an investor, [name].  I think he wants the map for a school project."  Again, I just wanted a simple map of iron for Indonesia.  I didn't expect it to be that difficult.  Moreover, I have absolutely no interest in getting involved in anything relating to mining here, since, especially on Sumatra, mining folks and conservation folks are often at loggerheads (1)(2).

Evidently not hearing me, my acquaintance continued: "Yeah I've worked in mining all over the place.  I only came to this government office last year; I know how to use radar imagery to identify petroleum traps, coal, all sorts of minerals.  And I have all this map data."  After he showed me his 27-page CV complete with pictures, he loaded a bunch of layers into GlobalMapper to show me all the different kinds of data he had.  I was impressed.  But after 45 minutes I started to grow weary.  After all, I was there as a favor to an anonymous internet person.  There were a million other things I could have been doing with my time.

My acquaintance: "So bring your friend here and we'll talk about all the possibilities for mining and investment around the district.  I've already identified a lot of potential sites."

Me: "So you're not going to give me the map?"  Again, I just wanted a general map of iron-ore, which he could have produced in about 3 minutes.  I wasn't interested in the classified maps revealing the location of strategic minerals he seemed to be interested in.

My acquaintance: "It's better if we all discuss mineral deposits...."

Me:  "Okay.  Seeya."  With that I left the office and headed home.

Money Talks...

I was a little annoyed with this experience because just last week I had been cornered into paying a bribe to get some rainfall data here.  I wrote a few posts ago about how I got interested in the rainfall patterns here because the month of March was particularly dry.  From a purely scholastic standpoint I wanted to examine recent rainfall patterns, but this would require rain gauge measurements.  At first I was content with monthly totals, but then I realized I needed hourly totals as well.  No big deal, I thought, the head of the weather station that gave me the monthly data said he had hourly figures if I needed them.  And in return I'd happily provide him with the results of any analysis.  He'd also invited me over to his house for coffee.

I went over to my new friend's house and he transferred all the data to my flashdisk.  We sat drinking tea and then he told me that I needed to pay him for the spreadsheets.  He told me the money was for "upkeep" of the station.  When I asked him how much he wanted he told me that he had recently charged some company $100 for some meterological data, but he just wanted $25 from me.  By this time I already had the data, and so I couldn't really refuse to pay.  I should have seen this coming, but again, in the US the government makes this sort of data available in an easy-to-use downloadable format free of charge.  So I forked over the money and immediately understood why my friend invited me to his house.  Definitely a learning experience, but if I had known up front that I was going to have to pay for the data, I would have said "Fuck it.  I just won't do the project."

There's No Profit in Scholarship...

These experiences have brought up a couple of questions for me.  The first is, if I have to pay for data, can I ethically use it?  I asked my advisor about this and she said it's basically up to me.  At this point I don't feel any compunction about using the rainfall data; I also don't feel that I'm under any obligation to share the results of my work with the government or anyone else here.  My adviser suggested to me that if you have to pay for data, it's likely you're getting information you're not supposed to have, which to me is a little shady.  Academic research is different from journalism in that way.  Normally you shouldn't pay fees to get access to privileged information, since the academic is motivated by scholarship rather than profit.  Newspapers and other media pay because they in it for the money.  In this case, though, the data should be available to the public.  What's the point of keeping meteorological records if you're not going to use them?  And I think the information probably is available, only like most other things in Indonesia you probably have to jump through a lot of bureaucratic loops to get access to it.  My sense is that my "friend" identified an opportunity to make a little cash, so instead of informing me of the proper procedure, he'd go the entrepreneurial route and cut out the middleman.  I imagine the way this is justified is that it saves the "customer" (me) time.  The practice of accepting gratuities to facilitate licensing, permitting, and other paperwork is actually pretty common here (in Indonesian it's called uang licin, or "slippery money"; like "greasing the wheels") but this was my first direct experience.

The second question is what effect does this Feringiesque approach to information have on society in general?  I come from an academic culture where people collect and analyze data not to make money from it, but (ideally, at least) so the results of the research can be used for the betterment of society in general.  The government makes all sorts of data available to scholars because, generally speaking, the academy is perceived to be the best place to process and analyze data.  That's one of it's roles in society, and that's one of the reasons universities are publicly funded.  And even if the data you want isn't provided by the government, you can often get information from other sources, so long as your willing to cite where the data came from.  This seems not to be happening here, or at least in my little district.  Instead what you have is "gatekeepers" that jealously guard information supposedly owned "by the people", only sharing it if they can gain by doing so.  I think that this must have a stifling effect on scholarship and research here, and that's bad for everyone.


(1)  I have to be honest of my major funders, an organization whose goal it is to promote educational links between the US and Indonesia, receives a significant annual contribution from the giant Freeport mine in Papua.  So I do benefit from mining here.

(2) I get an average of a call a week about mining from someone that has somehow obtained my number.  These people, for some reason or another, are under the impression that I am an executive with some mining concern and can get them a job.

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