Open-Source Permaculture Design: Intro to the Observation Workflow

Months ago I wrote a post about Open-Source Permaculture.  I introduced the programs and wrote briefly about their usage tied together with some stories and fluff.  For this post, I am going to provide an update to the material from the last post as well as begin to layout a workflow for the Open-Source Permaculture Designer (OSPD).

Updates on Software (9/30/15): Most up to date versions of previously mentioned software.

LibreCAD 2.0.8 (August 24th, 2015)

Inkscape 0.91 (January 28th, 2015)

GIMP 2.8

Google Earth Pro 7.1

Sketchup Make 2015

Scribus 1.5.0 (May 22nd, 2015)

Of course, I mentioned other software in the previous post, but I have been mostly using Google Earth Pro, Inkscape, and GIMP for my initial workflow dealing with site A&A.  I have heard calls from some in the community for a permaculture specific software, or accessing knowledge related to permaculture in a open-source way.  I think that these calls are valid and I hope to answer them in my own ways.

My ideal permaculture software is really a workflow of all of these other softwares.  When I look at the whole point of the design process, it is to get from observation to implementation and management.  That means for every aspect of the whole design process, I can fabricate a workflow that can produce a coherent and organized final product.  Let’s begin.


Observation can come in two different flavors…indirect or direct.  I won’t belabor the efficacy of either flavor of observation, but the way that each is recorded and utilized is unique and this is the first aspect of the workflow.

-Indirect Observation-

I’m discussing indirect observation first because it will most likely be the most robust source of most information on a site before even stepping foot on it.  Generally speaking, indirect observations are from secondary or tertiary sources;  you didn’t do it.  The bulk of this information comes from a variety of sources like the NOAA, USDA, and USGS.  Climate, landform, and soil info can come from these sources.  Beyond this there are countless sources for soil science, species identification, species utilitarian value and more.  Maps are an important form of indirect observation.  Survey maps, soil maps, geological maps, maps that show water locations, topography maps and etc will all fit here.

-Direct Observation-

These are things that you personally observe and interpret in your own unique way.  We all tend to focus on different aspects of experience, there is simply too much to take in all at once.  At any given sliver of time, a group of 5 people in the same general area may record observations on some sort of spectrum from exactly the same to completely different.

Anyway, how does one incorporate direct observation into the OSPD workflow?  I like Google Earth Pro (GEP) for this one.  I will do a full length tutorial on this soon enough.  The beauty of GEP is the tools that are available and the way that the tools work.  I can create polygons and lines that demarcate, on satellite,  different parts of a given site.  Furthermore, I can add text and descriptions to the shapes I draw in GEP.  A dialog box will pop up when clicking on shapes.

A real time saver is that if I have had a survey done, I can put in the GPS coordinates and start out right off the bat with my site boundaries on GEP.

So essentially, all direct observations can be recorded with shapes and descriptions on GEP.  This makes it a quick and powerful tool for taking experiences of the day and recording them for later design use.  Keep vigilant though, there is a pitfall of analysis paralysis here.  The point of direct observation in permaculture is not to have a large archival repository of individual observations, the point is to have relevance of observations and attempt to distill patterns from them.  The other point is to have information in context that can inform design in the future.

Verbal Representations (VeR)

After observation comes representation and communication, with verbal communication being the next logical step.  Observations need to be in a streamlined and coherent package.  This is where some sort of publication comes in, or a working document.  The working document needs to be able to communicate direct and indirect observations of the site in a coherent/organized manner.

Direct– Time is a major factor in the organization of the document, the time that the observations occur is really important.  Location is another major factor, a lot of observations are tied in with a specific location, and can be organized in this way.  Biological individuals/groups are another major factor.  Some observations are tied to a specific species and their behavior in interaction with another.  For example, if I observe that birds are making their nests in a particular kind of shape on the facade of a building, I may be able to design a similar shape to make housing and encourage that species.  These major factors effectively fulfill who, what, where, when, how, and eventually why.

Direct observation can be done in different ways as well.  It can be done in a directed or non-directed way.  For example, if I want to understand the changes of the season more, I can embark on a phenological study, eliciting patterns of seasonal change ultimately.  Non-directed, obviously, is just experience that you pay attention to for whatever reason and deem as important enough to record.

Indirect-More or less, indirect observation is an easier thing to represent visually.  A lot of the information from indirect sources is fairly stable.  Things like climate, landform, soils, water, and plant communities remain stable beyond human lifespans.  One can create a document and be secure in the fact that a lot of the information will not change until site specific information is gathered.

Visual Representation (ViR)

Basic yet undeniably unique in it’s representative power.  Verbal representations are quite weak in how they can connect someone to the subject matter.  The context of text is limited in its explanatory power.  Think, if all textbooks had strictly just text, you wouldn’t nor couldn’t really grasp a lot of the concepts contained within.

The visual representations can be educational, artistic, and most importantly as resources to inform design and implementation.  For all the sophistication and uses of Google Earth Pro, it looks ugly, no offense.  With GIMP and Inkscape, one can make much more compelling illustrations to convey the data cleanly and easily.

If you’ve read Ben Falk’s book “Resilient Farm and Homestead”, you know what I am talking about.  The illustrations in the book are really nice, and convey information real easily while displaying a clean look.

Observation Workflow Overview (2 Flows)

Direct Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Indirect Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Software – Google Earth Pro+Open Office+Inkscape+GIMP+Scribus+LibreCAD

Observation Workflow Broken Down

Direct Observation>Google Earth Pro (VeR&ViR)>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR) or LibreCAD(ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.

Indirect Observation>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.



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