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

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.

 

 

Open-Source Permaculture

A group of college nerds came together collectively at the UC Berkley campus in the 70’s and ushered one of the most technologically important inventions of the modern age…fully functional personal computing.  Fueled by their desire to figure out problems and impress their friends, these students and enthusiasts worked hard and for long periods of time to crack the problems of computing.  Their club was called Homebrew, and the ethic was sharing and open-sourcing.

I am currently working on applying such an ethic and also provide some insights in how to apply open-source to permaculture design.  The sheer power and swiftness of computers makes them well-suited to creating scaled basemaps which can be easily traded, shared, and printed for various uses.

The roster of Open-Source programs and their uses are as follows:

LibreCAD- Scaled Basemapping

Inkscape – Vector Based Editing

GIMP – Pixel Based Editing

Scribus – Desktop Publishing

Krita – Digital Painting

There are other free but not open source programs available to the budding permaculture designer:

Google Earth Pro (Yeah buddy) – GIS and Geositing

Google Mytracks – GPS Tracking

Xmind – Mindmapping

SketchUp – 3d Modeling

Let me briefly explain which programs I am using so far and for what purposes:

Open-Source

LibreCAD – With this program I am trying above all to create a basemap that is scaled, and on which I can make visually appealing with other software.  This is done by typical low-cost surveying techniques like triangulation and offset/extension.  I build the basemap with my own personal measurements combined with any found measurements from existing maps.

Inkscape – Basically the mainframe of the operation.  Even though on the surface inkscape is basically an open-source version of Adobe Illustrator, it can support a large array of file types.  The most important file type it supports is .dxf which is integral to using and then improving upon work done in LibreCAD.

*Here is a link to an example of the first full basemap I created with the LibreCAD/Inkscape Combination.

GIMP – A photo editor.  I use it personally to edit digital photos that I’ve taken.  Right now I’m working with a Canon A2300 modded with CHDK.  Essentially CDHK makes certain point & shoot Canon cameras able to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg, as well as other useful features like altering shutter speed and aperture.

Scribus – Really haven’t been able to sit down and figure out this one yet.  I have experience with InDesign, so I will have to learn the different interface.  From what I’ve seen and read it can get most jobs done.

Krita – A lot can be done with this digital painting program.  This program is for painting the basemaps that I finish in Inkscape.

Free to use

Google Earth Pro – Now the pro version is available, all one needs to do is download the pro version and use the code GEPFREE when logging in to it for the first time.  It is pretty powerful and I sometimes get lost in all that can be done with it.  It is perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of your site and the context of where you are doing design work.  There are topography maps available to put as overlays and there are soil maps that can be overlaid as well to find out what kind of soil types are existent on your site as well.  The soil types can be clicked on and then sent you to more information.

Google Mytracks – This app requires a GPS device via cell phone, so you’ll need a smart phone in order to use this.  It basically tracks the path that the phone moves in.  This can be used to find out how long it takes to travel certain paths, changes in elevation and other data.

Xmind – Just a mindmapping software.  Bubble diagrams and webs are created through topics and subtopics.  Can be used to organize ideas, plans, and projects.

SketchUp – Used for 3D modeling.  Any kind of architectural work and concepts can be hashed out on sketchup for the site.  I have used it briefly to model the garage and see what it would look like with a second floor.  The garage is right in a central location of the garden, so I imagined that with a second floor and large windows facing the garden (and simultaneously facing south as well) a nice space could be created up there that takes advantage of the solar gain during colder months.

Open-Source is an ethic I really like, and computing is important to design.  Things just move faster with open-sourcing, when many users can access the code and change it to improve the programs and offer more applications.  Companies tend to stop innovating when they become a certain size and opt instead to buy innovation from smaller groups or individuals.

But with more focus and time spent on the learning curve with the open-source programs, innovation can be occurring all the time, because individual coders and small groups can constantly be tweaking the source code in order to provide a tighter designed program.  This is what I’m after as a designer, tightest design possible.

So if you have the time, go for open-source, collaborate, and get more sites implemented.