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Data access, usability must for sound decision-making

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Stefano Toscano(left) & Oliver Cottray

Technological developments of the last few years are opening up exciting opportunities in that respect, feel Stefano Toscano & Oliver Cottray from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining

As we enter into the digital age, the future will be all about data. Do you feel data will have a significant role to play also in global development?

Stefano Toscano: In today’s world, data and information really are the basis for sound decision-making and optimal action — and there has never been any doubt about that. The real issue has always been accessibility and usability of data. Technological developments of the last few years are, however, opening up exciting opportunities in this respect.

Olivier Cottray, who is the Head of the Information Management Division at GICHD, earlier worked in humanitarian emergencies, running GIS support cells in UN and NGOs field operations. In 2002, he was behind the creation of MapAction. With degrees in Economics from the London School of Economics and GIS and Remote Sensing from the University of Cambridge, Cottray initially worked as a geographic data analyst and aerial photographer for the British Antarctic Survey, before joining the humanitarian community.

Olivier Cottray: The shift from heavy and complex software tools to role and task-specific applications has helped to put information systems and the information they contain truly in the hands of those who need it and use it. It is the operations and program managers who interact directly with the information in a way that fits within their day-to-day activities and decisions. The increase in data availability must be accompanied by these kind of end-user tools if the potential of data to support development is to be utilized.

Tell us about some of your initiatives where you have used satellite data/GIS/maps. Also, when and how did you realize the value of spatial data for building a sustainable world?

ST: One of the founding objectives of GICHD was to provide the mine action sector with a robust information management system (known as the Information Management System for Mine Action – IMSMA). In mine action, geography is of fundamental importance: we need to know where the explosive hazards lie and to understand their proximity to relevant socio-economic infrastructure to determine where clearance has to happen first. This is why GIS has been at the heart of IMSMA since its inception.

Can you share some of your future missions in which you are planning to extensively use data?

OC: The current version of IMSMA being deployed worldwide is fully built by configuring Esri’s suite of GIS tools. Since these tools are also widely adopted across the humanitarian and development sectors (and employ industry standards in GIS), we are more and more able to reach out to other data platforms such as the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) and leverage that information for planning and prioritization. We are excited about this new phase of mine action, a phase in which data bridges to these other sectors of work.

There is a growing disparity in terms of data access. For instance, the developed world has emerging data economies and the underdeveloped parts have populations with absolutely no access to data. How can we bridge this divide?

ST: GICHD’s mandate is primarily to support national mine action authorities in developing their capacity to manage their mine contamination problem. So, national ownership of tools and processes is at the core of what we do. In terms of information management, we work with our national partners to design and implement appropriate IM systems.
OC: Indeed, we equip them with the tools and skills that they need to run them on their own. Sustainability is the key here; our partnership with Esri allows us to provide the software at affordable rates and the scalability of the tools means that we can adapt the complexity of the system to the size and complexity of the different national programs.

What are your views on open data, especially government data that has been created with the taxpayers’ money?

ST: In principle, publicly created data should remain public. In our line of work, however, there are some exceptions due to security considerations. We should see mine action as tax money going towards the generation of data that allows for the reduction of risk from explosive ordnance, which is a public good in itself.

Ambassador Stefano Toscano has been the Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) since January 2014. Toscano was earlier with the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a diplomatic collaborator, he was instrumental in the creation of Small Arms Survey in 1999. He has also worked as Counsellor at the Swiss Mission to the UN in New York, and has served as the Vice Chairman of the 2nd Committee of the UN General Assembly.

OC: The challenge here is to find a balance between data protection and data openness. On the one hand, we obviously do not want to lead people to explosives, but on the other hand we need to keep the population abreast of demining efforts in their area and to inform donors on the progress of mine action programs. The ability to provide user-specific dashboards and infographics means that we are increasingly able to deliver the right level of information to the right audience, all stemming from the same data source.

With mankind facing unprecedented crisis in the form of Climate Change, depleting resources and growing global social and economic disparity, are we running out of time?

ST: The climate crisis is a reality that we cannot ignore. There are those who feel that we as humans have run out of time, but that is not the case in my opinion. We must maintain hope, because hope prompts action. GICHD exists precisely because we believe that action — mine action in our case — can make a difference. But that’s possible only if it is well thought through and based on carefully considered evidence. However, what we definitely do not have time for is misinformed action.

OC: Errors in our realm of work can indeed have devastating consequences, therefore a high level of consideration is required, which is only possible when in possession of the right information. When talking about Climate Change, it also comes down to how the public and decision-makers can absorb the vast quantities of information coming from scientists. The key will be to understand how we can distil climate science data into manageable information that provides clear lines of action.

Can you share that one heart touching moment or experience that made you feel very proud of the work you do?

ST: Only a few months ago, I was in Mosul, Iraq, where I saw the effects of war. The city had been under ISIS occupation for over three years, and the effects of war were devastating to see. Most of the city is destroyed to a level beyond imagination, and also heavily contaminated. When you see this with your own eyes, you really realize what we are working for. GIS is helping us greatly in such scenarios. Its impact can however be felt well beyond the areas that we are mapping. We see people going back to their homes, starting to live again — this is what we are ultimately working for.

OC: We believe GIS has an important role to play in preventing conflict from turning violent in the first place and in sustaining peace in a wider sense. GIS is all about managing space in collaborative ways, which in turn helps resolve potential conflicts over that space. In fact, peace prevails when groups of people agree on how to share a same space. Agreement comes through collective discussion and through understanding different perspectives, needs, constraints and preferences. Maps can offer that common language needed for this discussion. They can provide all parties with a factual, common 0picture of the space within which they cohabit and can help to identify non-violent solutions to conflicting needs.

What would be your message to our readers?

ST: Technology, and especially GIS, is helping us make the world safer in a very concrete way. They are having an impact well beyond the immediate one. GIS is all about managing space in collaborative ways, which in turn help resolve potential conflicts over that space. Thus, GIS makes a tangible contribution to peace.

OC: Providing means to integrate, analyze and visualize the geographic factors that influence peace is key to successful conflict prevention and peace building processes. GIS were designed to do just that: First, GIS allow the integration of different information sources; they ensure that multiple criteria from multiple stakeholders are taken into account when defining optimal solutions for peace. Second, GIS allow us to perform complex analysis of data to provide new information and insight. And third, GIS allow clear visualization of these new insights. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a thousand more.

ST: We’ve been calling this GIS for Peace because we very much believe that through the use that Olivier just mentioned, the GIS community at large has a real potential to contribute to peace in this world of ours.