Sunday, October 20

UCLA doctoral student John Scott-Railton uses mapping technology to help villagers in Cambodia and Senegal

John Scott-Railton first stepped into Cambodia in 2006 carrying three global positioning systems receivers, determined to revolutionize the country’s water and sanitation systems.

“What if you take cheap, hand-held global position systems receivers, make points and make an objective … map, and combine it with public health measures?,” Scott-Railton had asked himself. “I just wanted to see if this crazy idea would even work.”

Yet shortly after his arrival to Cambodia, he realized that water and sanitation were the least of his worries. After seeing the government bulldozing and claiming villagers’ land by force, Scott-Railton, currently a doctoral student at UCLA, said he redirected the goal of his project and decided to use his receivers’ mapping technique to salvage the property rights of thousands of Phnom Penh villagers.

“All the people from the village came to me and told me to please help them,” he said. “It was the worst feeling in the world because I felt so useless and they had false hope in me.”

Teaming up with various Cambodian nonprofit organizations, Scott-Railton developed a map of about 5,000 households in a central community of 25,000 to 50,000 people in Phnom Penh. With the help of interns from Cambodian universities, he conducted a census of the entire community.

Because the Cambodian government often took away villagers’ land without properly compensating them, Scott-Railton worked to provide documentation and proof of their property.

“The idea was to do all this work in support of legal cases, and the lawyers would use the maps and numbers to set up a case,” he said.

Scott-Railton came to UCLA to pursue his doctorate degree in 2008. In addition to his studies and work as a teaching assistant, he also began field work in Dakar, Senegal, using his devices’ mapping technique to analyze flood control methods in the city.

UCLA’s Center for Community Partnerships recently recognized Scott-Railton for his work in Senegal through the Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Award. He will also be presenting his project in Belgium this coming fall.

Because the monsoon season periodically brings chronic flooding to 800,000 Dakar villagers each year, families built a complex network of small dams and pathways around the city to keep the waters out. However, these networks only aggravated the problem, Scott-Railton said. After learning that citizens expected the government to aid them in flood control, he spoke with political leaders and advised them to take action.

Scott-Railton said he likens the situation in Dakar to the international problem of global warming because the lack of government regulation has allowed citizens to do as they like, exacerbating the initial problem.

In order to tackle the global warming issue, Scott-Railton said that people must partner with their communities and their governments in a global effort.

In spite of his accomplishments, Scott-Railton holds deep respect for his students and always tries to provide them with as much help and as many resources as possible, said Kennan Cronen, a third-year political science student.

“He’s always excited about his students’ ideas and ready to give his expertise,” Cronen said. “When I got funding for a solar panel project, John said that if we wrote a paragraph on the project, he would get an L.A. Times article written about it.”

Still in his 20s, Scott-Railton embodies what people can achieve through hard work, dedication and passion, said Gary Lee, a friend from Scott-Railton’s undergraduate years who helped him launch his project in Cambodia.

“John is a very easy person to work with,” Lee said. “He tries to understand other parties’ interests, and he’s never thought he was better than others.”

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