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Challenges of Mapping Applications in Health and Academic Research in the underdeveloped World – Case Study of The Niger Delta Region (Nigeria)

Robinson Tombari Sibe
E-Sense Technologies Ltd
Port Harcourt, Nigeria
Email: [email protected]
Web: www.esensetechnologies.com

Geographic Information System has been used globally as an effective tool in several sectors – health and education inclusive. However, not much has been achieved in this regard in the underdeveloped economies. This paper x-rays the various challenges faced using the Niger Delta Region as a case study. Some of the problems discussed include the lack of technology, man-power (expertise), standardization, unorganized datasets and lack of proper framework to support information interchange between the various stakeholders. The paper also discusses various intervention projects initiated in the region where mapping application was used in health and educational analysis. Prominent of this is the Niger Delta Regional GIS (by Niger Delta Development Commission) and a few other projects by the state governments. The paper also looks at an application designed by an indigenous company that offers a user friendly platform that is relatively cheap and with a huge potential in the implementation of low-cost web-based mapping solutions. The paper concludes by making recommendations on the various ways the health and educational sector can benefit from mapping applications in the region and indeed other underdeveloped economies.

Mapping in simple terms could be said to be the representation of real life geographic features using organized symbols. The history of mapping has progressed from the era of representation on clay tablets to computer generated maps of today. The latter has evolved to what is now known as Geographic Information System (GIS). A detailed history of GIS is not well understood because GIS technology evolved through multiple parallel but separate applications across numerous disciplines (Pickles, 1999). Although there are several claims to this, what is now the GIS field began around 1960, with the discovery that maps could be programmed using simple code and then stored in a computer allowing for future modification when necessary. The technology available at that time meant that the application was deployed on mainframes. However, significant advancement in hardware technology has resulted in a simultaneous advancement of associated software. Thus, in today’s world we have GIS deployed on the desktop, intranet, internet and even on mobile devices. Let us at this point get a working definition of a GIS. The National Center of Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) defines GIS as a system of hardware, software and procedures to facilitate the management, manipulation, analysis, modeling, representation and display of geo-referenced data to solve complex problems regarding planning and management of resource. It is a simplified, yet systematic way of representing geographic reality. It is noteworthy to mention that GIS is much more than maps. A GIS can perform complicated analytical functions and then present the results visually as maps, tables or graphs, allowing decision-makers to virtually see the issues before them and then select the best course of action. In this paper, term GIS and Mapping Applications are used interchangeably. The advent of GIS has broadened the application areas of mapping. GIS has changed from been just a tool for mapping physical geographic features to a tool that can map just about any feature – from physical to socioeconomic, as long as it can be tied to some geography (location). Furthermore, the introduction of distributed (web-based) mapping application with user friendly interfaces has further enlarged the GIS patronage. GIS is applied in areas such as cadastral and land-use planning, utility planning, health, education, public works, energy, agriculture, telecommunication, crime detection, etc. In fact, there is a common saying that “the limitation of GIS is in your mind”. In health and academic research, Geographic Information System has played a significant role in information representation, processing, modelling and interchange. Before now, most features where studied in isolation of the surrounding geography, but GIS has made it easier to tie geography to features under review. Another great feature of mapping applications is that it allows for different layers of information to be combined, analyzed and studied in relation to each other. With GIS, trends could be revealed, patterns extracted and scenarios simulated. Let us now look at the GIS application in health and academic research.

2.0 GIS IN HEALTH AND ACADEMIC RESEARCH – General Application Areas

GIS has been used in health especially in the area of epidemiology and public health. However, in modern times, GIS has been applied in a lot more health areas such as medical research, health insurance, health policy formulation, etc. For the epidemiologist, GIS can be used in mapping disease spread, determining areas of prevalence and identifying the population at risk. This is something to be taken very seriously in the developing world. One of the ways of studying disease spread is by looking at the geography of the locations where the disease seems to thrive most. GIS allows you to visualize the disease spread across several terrain/geography and how it tends to thrive (or not) in these conditions. It can also be used to reveal the trends in the movements of contagions so that health workers can respond in a more effective and efficient way. It can also be used as a prediction and surveillance tool for vector-borne disease, water borne diseases, etc. Good epidemiology science and good geographic information science go hand in hand (Gupta et al, ND). It can assist the public worker plan the location of new immunization centres and plan the deployment of more health officers. This is particularly important in developing economies with non-uniform distribution of health facilities across the populace. This could be made possible with a combination of other layers of information such as demography, road network, etc. The Public Health Policy maker can also decide to map existing health facility alongside other layers such as demographic, prevalent ailments/disease etc to decide which community requires more medical facilities.

Another way to look at it is to view it from basic GIS analysis methods; Proximity, Overlay, Density and Network analysis. In proximity analysis, the epidemiologist may decide to query for communities within a defined radius. This will enable him identify communities within the risk of spread of an epidemic. In overlay analysis, the public health officer can overlay several layers of information to arrive at better decisions, especially as it affects siting of new facilities. In density analysis, the health officer may also decide to map concentration or frequency of occurrence of a particular ailment. In network analysis, the nomadic health worker may decide to find the best route to a settlement or the mobile immunization officer (typical in Africa and most developing countries) may also decide to find his best route using network analysis (routing). There are many more application areas and we only seem to be at the early stages of GIS applications in health. Certainly, the future remains even brighter.

Academic Research
The role of mapping applications in academic research cannot be overemphasized. In x-raying this, we shall look at it from three perspectives; analysis, presentation and information interchange.

Analysis – GIS analysis is what brings the “sense” out of your datasets. There are several analyses that can be done using GIS. This could range from proximity based analysis, Network (Such as routing) analysis, density analysis, overlay analysis, etc. This analysis is what brings out the beauty in GIS. Through these analyses, scenarios can be simulated to study a case, trends can be established from analysis, patterns can be revealed, and features can be queried. These analyses, helps researchers get clearer pictures of the issues under study.

Presentation – One of the great features of mapping applications is the excellent visualization capabilities. Unlike traditional statistical tools that only present data as tables or graphs, GIS gives you the ability to present your data clearly as maps, graphs, and tables. Maps “speak” in a universal way – I do not need to understand a language to read a map. This is really something very important in this era of globalization. Therefore, as a presentation tool, it gives academic researcher that extra advantage in presenting data in the most interesting and user-friendly way cutting across cultural, social and geographical backgrounds.

Information Interchange – The advent of distributed (web-based) mapping application/framework (such as ArcIMS, ASPMap, MapServer, etc) has brought a renewed vigour in the popularity and acceptability of mapping applications. Before now, mapping applications were basically at the desktop level, thus restricting access to just the desktop user. However, these distributed mapping applications allows for global access through networks (intranet and internet), giving academic researchers yet another edge in this globalized world. Thus, spatial data can now be easily shared among researchers through the web browser, making it possible for people to have access to and perform basic mapping operations without having to have the application itself or having complicated mapping skills.


The Niger Delta Region is located at the Southern Part of Nigeria. The region has a combined population of about 31 million people of more than 40 ethnic groups (Ploch, 2008). In terms of administrative composition, the region consists of 9 states (See fig 1.0 below).

Fig. 1.0 Map of the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta accounts for all of Nigeria’s crude oil export. In economic terms, it accounts for over 90% of Nigeria’s foreign income earnings. Yet, amidst all these, the region is largely underdeveloped. Several sectors are begging for attention; there is very little to show in terms of infrastructure. However, with the advent of democracy, there is a lot to hope for.

Previous GIS-based Projects in the Region
Although GIS has been around for almost 5 decades now, same cannot be said of its usage in the Niger Delta region. Although there is no clear picture on the history of its application in the region, from independent studies, one can rightly deduce that its usage has been really very scanty, safe for some industry-specific projects here and there. While in most countries, those driving the innovation have been the government, in the Niger Delta the use of mapping applications was introduced by independent organizations. Ordinarily, one would have thought that the pioneers of this will be the federal or state surveys department. Oil companies in the region like Shell Petroleum Development Company, Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd, etc used mapping applications in their exploration activities. But as mentioned before, most of these applications were industry-specific or project-specific. Thus the first major multi-sectoral project that involved GIS is the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES), an independent study of the Niger Delta environment. This was followed in 2003 by the Niger Delta Regional GIS, a project of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). There have also been a few GIS related project embarked in some states/ministries. For the purpose of this paper, we shall x-ray the most prominent.

As mentioned earlier, the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES) was conceived as an independent survey (in 1995) that did an extensive study of the Niger Delta Region. Part of the success story was the digital conversion of 1960 1:25,000 analog maps of the region. These maps have been largely adopted as a baseline in the region (Nwilo, ND). As successful as this may have been, it is sad to note that there has been no formal and coordinated effort to upgrade/update these datasets.

The Niger Delta Development commission was setup to address the underdevelopment issues of the region. In 2003, the commission embarked on a regional GIS project spanning all the sectors of the economy – health and education inclusive. In health and education, all educational institutions (Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Vocational) and health institutions (Primary health Centres, General Hospitals, etc) were geolocated and stored in Oracle database (ArcSDE). A few analyses were made to reveal areas of need and attention. To date, this has been the most comprehensive mapping exercise in the region and credit must be given to the commission for pioneering the modern day GIS revolution in the region. However, as laudable as this is, it is sad to note that there has been no well articulated plan to ensure the sustainability of the spatial data infrastructure. Six years after the spatial datasets were acquired, there has been no major update. Apart from this, the commission takes the credit for embarking on the most comprehensive mapping exercise in the region.

There have also been a few government projects were GIS was utilized. For example, recently the Rivers State Government commenced the RIVGIS project. The project is a Land Information System that when completed should automate the entire land management and administration process. The Cross River State Government has also embarked on a few GIS related projects. Only recently, the federal Government through the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) has announced plans for embarking on a mapping exercise for educational institutions in the country. With this sudden interest in GIS, we believe more will follow.

The Challenges

Lack of Technology
One major challenge of the use of mapping applications is the lack of the technology. The technology is not readily available in this part of the world. It is surprising to note that even departments whose activities require geospatial technologies don’t even have functional geospatial infrastructure. Even tertiary institutions with departments (such as surveying, geomatics, geography, environmental science, etc) that require interacting with geospatial infrastructure graduate students without giving them any form of exposure to the technology. The high cost of the application has not also helped. For example, most mapping applications are sold for over $2,000, a GPS unit of about 1m accuracy goes for about $460 and most photogrammetry applications are sold above $2,000. For a country that has about 76% of the population living below the poverty line of 1$ Per Day (Agboola, 2009), it becomes difficult to convince a struggling organization to invest that much on software when they have other priorities. Therefore, only a few organizations have the technology readily available. Our health institutions and research organizations barely have functional computers with basic software not to talk of investing on mapping applications.

Lack of Man-Power (Expertise)
As mentioned above, there is a lack of geospatial technologies, this follows with an attendant lack of man power/expertise. Expertise is developed through continuous study and with constant usage of the application and for an application that is not freely available, it reduces the chances of developing a large pool of experts. Another thing that is quite noticeable is the lack of specialization. The few privileged GIS users are simply referred to as GIS experts with the belief that they can do everything geospatial. You are expected to be the remote sensing specialist, the cartographer, the database administrator and the spatial application developer. This is distracting and the result is you hardly see a GIS professional that is so specialized in any of the distinct GIS disciplines such as those mentioned above. Also, there has been a low patronage of geospatial applications among traditional disciplines such as Land Surveyors, Geographers etc that should otherwise be at the fore front of the technology. This is largely due to the fact that a lot of these departments are not even computerized. Another thing that has also not helped is that training is largely expensive, typically between $500 – $2000, an amount that is expensive in the Niger Delta Region where people are barely struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, if the traditional geospatial disciplines like land surveyors, cartographers etc are not even using mapping applications, then one should not expect much patronage in other sectors such as health and education.

Issues of Standardization
Another issue that plagues the industry is that of standardization. There are no standard ways of doing things. You will be surprise that even in a given establishment, you find datasets created there but with different projection parameters, resolution, naming conventions not properly documented. This can result to discrepancies in terms of resolution, orientation and displacement. Field officers are sent to acquire data with different data collection templates thus making it difficult for the acquired datasets to be logically compatible, comparable and useful for decision making.

Unorganized/Incomplete Datasets
Data is a key component of the GIS system. It is what is displayed, what is edited and what is analyzed. Every other component of GIS (Hardware, Software, People and Analysis) works on the data; hence it is the central component. Therefore, you can agree with me that when the datasets are not organized it reduces one’s efficiency. Datasets are scattered with several custodians and no comprehensive metadata available thus making the task of timely retrieval almost impossible. Another issue is that of incomplete datasets. Most of the spatial datasets around are not even complete and can only make very little spatial sense. For example, the educational datasets only have fields such as name of institution, coordinates and location. No detail is made about the number of students, classes, teachers, average students per class, percentage performance in external exams, etc. Such details could help you do more analysis.

Lack of Proper Framework to Support Information Interchange among stake holders
As mentioned above, the spatial datasets in the region are domiciled with several bodies (Government agencies like NDDC, Ministry of Lands, etc and Private Agencies like Shell, Elf, NAOC, etc). A situation where there is no proper framework to support information interchange between the various stakeholders has not helped issues. It is a common occurrence to see even two government agencies going through very unfriendly bureaucracies just to have access to data that is ordinarily an unclassified information. Thus, in most cases what is available is generally deemed unavailable because the difficulties encountered getting such data can very discouraging. This is a challenge that if not addressed in a timely manner would continue to hamper the growth of the geospatial industry in the Niger Delta Region.

No Sustainability Plans
As mentioned earlier, some measure of investment has been made in acquiring geospatial infrastructure and expertise. However, one thing that has been lacking is plans for sustainability of such. In the Niger Delta, most GIS projects have been viewed in the same way a physical infrastructure project is viewed. That is, build, operate and transfer (and even forgotten entirely) without contingency plans of maintaining same. Spatial Datasets are time bound; data that is valid today may be invalid tomorrow. Thus if there is no contingency plan in updating datasets, such investment may loose its value in only a matter of time.

Poor Record Keeping Culture
As mentioned earlier, accurate dataset is central to every successful GIS implementation. Unfortunately, most undeveloped societies have poor record keeping cultures. For example, you could see hospitals who are only preoccupied with treating patients and do not think keeping daily/weekly/monthly records are necessary. Records such as no of patients per day, most frequent ailments, number of deaths, etc are necessary to keep. In the few cases where these records are kept, the local government or state government authorities do not consider it necessary to collate such. Until the organizations continue to instil good record keeping culture and until relevant authorities begin to keep basic records such as these the region may not have datasets to even work with the mapping applications. Without data, the mapping application will be a surplus to necessity.

Lack of funding
GIS projects the world over are expensive to implement. The most ambitious project in the region as yet is the NDDC regional GIS project in which over $2 million was spent. You can well agree with me that for a region with all the sectors competing for attention, one cannot always be sure to get the attention for more investment in geospatial applications. The major GIS projects in the region have been sponsored by government and government alone cannot provide the much needed resources. Our Universities lack the financial muscle to setup GIS departments

Three major problems affecting the use of mapping applications in the underdeveloped world are the lack of funding, technology and expertise. In addressing these, E-Sense Technologies Ltd, an indigenous geospatial company based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State designed an application to address this. The application is a web based application built on the ASPMap framework that allows users to perform basic mapping applications such as pan, zoom in/out, search for features, Toggle labels/features on and off, print map display and result display, add/configure new layers, measure line length and polygon area, etc. The application also has an option for route planning. Since the application is accessed through the web browser, it means that anybody with the basic understanding of the web browser can use it. This we believe will encourage more usage of mapping applications since this does not require sophisticated knowledge of GIS like in traditional desktop applications. The application is cost effective and we believe it is a good alternative. Also, since this application can be easily deployed on the internet, it can be very useful for researchers to share their findings on the internet using this application. The application is also open for customization to meet your unique needs. Only recently, the Rivers State Government incorporated this into the new state web portal. See figs below:

Fig. 2.0 Shows Screen capture for Search Results for Primary Schools in Port Harcourt.

Fig. 3.0 Shows Screen capture Web Mapping Application Main Page

In the course of this paper, we have been able to look at the challenges faced using mapping applications in the underdeveloped societies using the Niger Delta Region as a case study. Although, the region is still very far from attaining the required success level in this regard, however, in recent times we have begun to witness a deliberate attempt by government and some private organizations to promote the use of GIS as a tool for planning for sustainable development. The following recommendations are hereby made:

  1. Government and private organizations should encourage the use of mapping applications by investing more in training and acquisition of the technology. This investment can be systemically done even at the tertiary level to ensure that traditional geospatial departments (Geomatics, Land Surveying, Geography, Environmental Sciences, etc) should have GIS laboratories so that students can have hands-on experience before graduation. Also, other sensitive government departments such as Ministry of Lands, works etc should all be equipped with functional geospatial infrastructure.
  2. Organizations and industry leaders should come together to work out uniform standards for ease of operation. Organizations should insist on best practices in mapping and data management.
  3. Companies that design mapping application should have a different costing regime for the underdeveloped societies. This will help encourage the use of the applications in these regions with low purchasing power. To compensate for this, they could release editions with minimal functionalities since from practical experience the full functionalities of these applications are never put to use in this regions where the use of the application has not gone to advance stages.
  4. Government should setup a framework for data sharing between stakeholders. This will also help stimulate further activities in the geospatial industry. Research institutes should work more closely.
  5. For every new project, there should be proper sustainability plans to ensure the sustainability of same. Datasets should be regularly updated to avoid it becoming stale or outdated.
  6. Government alone cannot provide the much needed funding for mapping applications. Therefore more funding should be solicited from private organizations and international donor agencies.
  7. Private organizations should be encouraged to design more cost effective and efficient geospatial applications.
  8. Before GIS projects commence, they should be properly planned. Field data acquisition forms should be logical and uniform, data sets acquired should be properly quality checked before harmonization. This will ensure that spatial data in the region will have integrity and be accurate and reliable.
  9. More attention should be given to web based mapping applications. This will help demystify GIS that seems to have been reserved for only users with sophisticated IT knowledge. With web based applications, more users can appreciate mapping applications since it is very easy to use.


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