Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Our cover story on the geospatial milieu in Africa brings out the promises and pitfalls associated with the induction of new technologies in any developing country. There is no question about the benefits accruing from the induction of geospatial technologies in governance, land management and infrastructure management, to name a few areas, in countries trying to accelerate development. Why then do we not see a smooth adoption of the technology in such situations? We do see pockets of promising and successful applications but we also see slow uptake in other areas. Geospatial technologies do not get institutionalised but remain as ‘case studies.’ The devil, as they say, is in the detail.
To be able to get the best out of any technology, a country needs to establish basic infrastructure which can support the technology. This becomes a chicken-and-egg situation. While international institutions like the World Bank mandate the use of geospatial technologies for funding developmental projects, such external stimuli have not succeeded in making the governments make this technology an integral part of the development process. For this to happen, the stimulus needs to come from within and needs to be supported at all levels of government – from federal to local. This will ensure that the technology is not a foreign implant but an organic part of the development infrastructure. Such support will foster industries as well as create trained professionals who will in turn internalise the use of geospatial technologies in different applications.
African countries have two advantages. They do not carry the baggage of legacy systems and they have the second mover advantage who can learn from the early adopters. However, these advantages often may get nullified by other circumstances. As the story shows, there are internal factors like an immature industry, lack of established geospatial companies and flight of already scarce trained personnel to greener pastures. Then there are external factors like regional imbalances, political instability and the bane of developing economies – corruption, which hamper progress. What is heartening, however, is the fact that many countries are geospatially enabling various developmental efforts at the government level. This move, at one stroke, institutionalises the technology and will hopefully encourage the retention of professionals and the growth of indigenous industry.
We usually talk of geospatial technologies ‘and’ ICT. I believe that geospatial technologies should be considered an integral part of ICT because experience shows that geospatial applications are heavily dependent on ICT infrastructure for successful implementation. ICTenabled development should therefore automatically include geospatial enablement as well. Since ICT enablement of development is recognised as the way to go in developing countries, this may be a better route to the institutionalisation of geospatial technologies and applications.