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Update of spatial tech is slow but promising

Dr Hussein O. Farah
Director General, Regional
Centre for Mapping of Resources
for Development (RCMRD)
You being the champion of geospatial technology in the continent, can you tell us the status of this technology in the continent?

Geospatial technology is developing fast. It is a new technology for many institutions in Africa. But it is being taken up and used more and more now. GIS is also being adapted very quickly, not only by mapping institutions but by many other institutions that deal with environment, natural resources, infrastructure etc. The technology of geographical information is also being used widely outside the traditional mapping institutions. Positioning technologies are also being used but not as much as we would have wished.

There seems to be a vast disparity among African countries. While some countries are advanced in terms of usage of this technology like South Africa, some North African countries are lagging behind. Being a regional organisation promoting this technology, how is RCMRD trying to bridge this gap?

One of RCMRD’s mandates, as a regional institution dealing with surveying and mapping, is capacity building. We provide training to surveying and mapping organisations’ staff, to improve their skills. In other words, our training aims at transferring the modern and newer technologies to these institutions. Our training courses are short termed, focussed, provide practical skill enhancement so that the surveying and mapping institutions, natural resource institutions and environment institutions can improve the way they do mapping. The other part of the equation is funding. Some countries in fact have trained technical staff but lack funding to buy GPS, all the software and hardware etc.

You will find this situation prevailing even in government-run mapping institutions as political governments have not really been convinced about the importance of these institutions to be modernised. They do not understand that mapping is the basis for all development. We have not been successful in convincing African governments so far about the need to fund and give thrust to mapping activities. The problem is that there are not always immediate benefits from mapping which politicians, decisions makers and economists expect and so they fail to connect to mapping.

African countries do not have basic large scale maps. With this background, how do you see SDIs shaping up in the continent? RCMRD has been actively pursuing the cause of SDI. What is it doing to overcome the hurdles?

We have several parallel initiatives in this direction. We have an initiative for fundamental data sets that is the basis for SDI. It is true that Africa is not mapped as much as other continents to the scales that are required for planning and development purposes. So this is an initiative to improve mapping at suitable scales and is ongoing under the Mapping Africa for Africa and the Fundamental Datasets Working Group of UNAC. At the same time, there are countries that have good data of parts of their countries. This data is either not accessible or not being used. This is an initiative that we support and promote but it has been very slow. The major problem again has been the policies that require standards and more importantly the willingness of mapping organisations to cooperate to setup SDIs.

The idea is to bring the maps of different institutes to one place so that the user can have access or at least know that they can find the data in this one-stop-shop. If data is locked up in government offices and citizens cannot make use of whatever little is available, there is no point in producing it in the first place.In Africa, different mapping exercises are undertaken for different projects. A road project surveys and maps a specific region for its own purposes. There might be a water and sanitation project and they carry out another survey and mapping exercise without knowing probably five years earlier or three year earlier another one has been done. To stop this kind of duplication of efforts and to use resources wisely, SDI is important for countries despite being under mapped. We have to ensure that there is no duplication of already mapped areas. We, as a regional center, have held workshops and trainings to sensitise governments to establish SDIs. A number of countries now are on that path. Advanced countries like South Africa have passed legislations and now putting in institutional frameworks. Countries like Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia are also at various stages of progress.

What are the major initiatives of RCMRD?

Apart from our regional mandate where we have 15 member States who are contributing to RCMRD, we also are involved in continental initiatives along with other partners like UNECA.

Geodetic Reference Frame is an initiative under the Committee on Development Information (CODI) and that was started in 2003. The idea has been around for long and we were selected by the CODI committee to hold the position of the AFREF Steering Committee. Our role is to coordinate the AFREF initiatives right from the start and document how geodetic reference in Africa should be modernised and made uniform. Our biggest contribution is to train the staff required to set up geodetic reference, run it and do the computations. We have been conducting technical trainings for four years not only to our member States but to all African countries.

The SERVIR project was started in November 2008. This is an initiative to make spatial data accessible to African scientists and researchers. International organisations like FAO and UNEP produce lot of data under various themes. SERVIR initiative tries to bring data together on a Web data portal where people can get access to mapping data. Using Web-based visualisation, some of this map data or satellite imageries could be made available. This is something similar to Google Earth. The other objective of SERVIR project is to raise awareness of researchers and scientists in Africa of the possible applications of satellite imageries and maps. There are 3-4 important areas where satellite images/2009/july or maps can be used extensively in Africa.

How do you see this industry and technology growing in this region in the next five years?

I expect rapid changes because mapping is one discipline that is being transformed by technology very fast. For example, the way we record positions to make a map. Until recently, many countries were still using the old method of mapping with a tape and theodolite, which is time consuming and inefficient. Today, a GPS makes things easy. This technology is expected to be taken up more quickly in the next five years and improve our mapping coverage. More private sector involvement in Africa is expected because mapping is now becoming easier – right from the field work to the actual product of the map – the chain of production has become very simple and quite automated. More and more players will come into the scene and I see this as a positive thing as we don’t need to depend entirely on national mapping agencies or government to produce maps.

For example, private companies are producing street maps in Kenya which can be loaded on mobile phones or on car navigation systems. Already, the ministry of health and ministry of education in Kenya are using GIS and location based maps for planning, some thing that they were not doing a few years ago. The demand will come from citizens as they want to know where they are in the city, direction of where they want to go in another part of the city, all such information on their mobile phones. But that does not mean national mapping institutions will be irrelevant. I see a role for them in that high skill would be required in building high quality basic maps which the private sector or a location service provider can’t. This is a chance for national mapping agencies because the demand for basic maps will grow higher as the private sector comes in. We all are aware of how Ordnance Survey has made profits because the demands of the private sector to get the basic maps and the willingness to pay for it. The problem in Africa has been that demand for basic maps is not there. But that situation is changing. With the advent of mobile technology, telecom companies are offering more and more location based services to their clients. This creates more demand and puts more pressure to produce basic maps. That’s how I see the future of mapping in Africa.