GEMS World Bank

The COVID-19 crisis has not only led to an exacerbation of poverty and the undoing of development gains in many countries around the world, but it has also shed light on the significant access constraints and data gaps on local conditions that the international development community has had to face. However, access to granular ground data remains indispensable to accountably monitor the provision of urgently needed emergency relief for communities in need amidst the pandemic and to build back better in a transparent way.

The Geo-Enabling initiative for Monitoring and Supervision (GEMS) is a global program launched by the World Bank that trains government agencies, donors and development practitioners to systematically leverage field-ready technology for remote real-time monitoring and adaptive risk management related to development activities. GEMS aims to create a Public Good and build capacity with local stakeholders to adapt geospatial open-source tools to specific needs. Through this, GEMS aims to support a democratization of geospatial data collection and analysis, to further enhance accountable service delivery in developing countries around the world.

The innovative GEMS method provides a highly-demanded solution for the problem of limited real-time information from the field, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in situations of Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV), and beyond. A central element of GEMS is to use simple-enough and low-cost tools, such as KoBoToolbox, that are appropriate for any environment and can be owned and scaled sustainably by local stakeholders. The core of GEMS is hands-on support provided to project implementation units to help them create customized geospatial monitoring and risk management systems, in response to local development challenges.

GEMS was launched in 2018 and is supported by the Korea Trust Fund for Economic and Peacebuilding Transitions (KTF) and the World Bank Partnership Fund for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Fund). As of March 2022, GEMS has supported over 800 development projects in 90+ countries and trained more than 5,000 government staff around the world in geospatial monitoring techniques. Also, various Multilateral Development Banks, UN Agencies, bilateral donors, and NGOs, are adopting GEMS for their COVID-19 response and beyond. Therefore, GEMS was listed by the United Nations among the best UN innovations in 2020 and it received a 2021 Geospatial World Excellence Award from the Geospatial World Forum.

Extending the reach of development in the most fragile situations

Fragility and violent conflicts do not only result in destruction, displacement, and devastation, but also entail access constraints on the ground, for security and logistical reasons. Therefore, even long before the COVID pandemic, there has been urgent demand by development practitioners for solutions to remotely supervise projects and improve the capacity of local stakeholders to conduct well-structured and accountable Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). GEMS was launched to close information gaps in such areas with limited access to get eyes on the ground, where we cannot always have boots on the ground.

GEMS is an integral part of the World Bank Group’s FCV Strategy and has been deployed to get real-time insights in FCV settings like Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Kosovo, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen. Around the world, GEMS team members have supported projects through a range of effective geospatial monitoring tools, from mobile data collection over interactive dashboards, to remote sensing analyses through satellite imagery.

The real-time field insights created through GEMS have helped enhance urgently needed service delivery in fragile contexts. Moreover, the geospatial tools have supported the provision of relief services for victims of violence, through the systematic mapping of medical, psycho-social and legal service providers for GBV survivors. This helps protect the most vulnerable and maximize development impacts and human capital, while building peace incentives for communities.

Innovation via simple tools, sustainable methods, and local capacity

GEMS leverages innovativetechnology through simpleenough and ready-to-implement tools and methods, by linking low-tech approaches on the frontend (digital questionnaires on mobile phones) with hightech processes on the backend (automated data analytics and geospatial mapping).

Technically, the main system is based on the use of cost-free software and common smartphones for the collection and direct integration of rich, geo-tagged field data into project monitoring systems. Based on tailor-made and highly adaptive forms, the integrated data can include a large array of formats, including qualitative and quantitative indicators, photos, audio, videos, time and date stamps, barcode scans, digital signatures, and GPS coordinates that will automatically map the collected information. GEMS also provides support with advanced technology solutions such as remote sensing through satellite imagery analysis as well as big data analysis.

Yet, the key innovation of the GEMS initiative does not lie in the used technology, but the systematic local capacity-building in its effective use for better data management among government employees and local communities.

International satellite programs including Landsat (United States), Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 (Europe), and ALOS (Japan) will provide the analysis-ready Data needed by DE Africa. The Data Cube itself uses the Open Data Cube software, allowing African countries full control over the products that are generated by the system. DE Africa has access to skills, knowledge and open algorithms developed by the broader Open Data Cube community and leverages international work to rapidly build capacity and adapt products for Africa. DE Africa produces routine data products and services for the African continent that are freely available to all users, analogous to the operation of a weather service.

Creating a sustainable public good to boost human capital

The team provides local stakeholders with simple and easily scalable tools that help to get real-time insights from areas that cannot always be accessed. The added transparency and accountability that GEMS fosters contribute to the confidence of development practitioners to operate in remote and high-risk areas, and thus, increase the footprint of development in places that are most in need of support.

By focusing on capacity- building in the use of ICT tools, the team contributes to strengthening the foundations of developing countries to build back better, while seeking to decrease the digital divide vis-à-vis the donor community. The aim is to foster local ownership over the use of technology, by promoting digital skills of people and institutions geared towards achieving better sustainable development results.

To reach these goals, GEMS is strongly committed to the International Principles of Digital Development:

Design with the User: The hands-on trainings as provided are demand-driven and customized to the specific needs of developing countries and local stakeholders.
Build for Sustainability: The focus on capacity-building and local ownership, combined with the use of low-cost/no-cost tools ensures the sustainability of GEMS. This stands in contrast to one-off support or costly service contracts, which are unsustainable for many developing countries.
Design for Scale: The versatility and simplicity of the tools and methods enable local communities to use them flexibly and scale them for most effective use, as showcased by the swift use of GEMS for the COVID response.
Be Collaborative: Combining the use of open-source tools with the GEMS train-the-trainers approach has allowed for close collaboration between partners across regions and organizations.
Address Privacy and Security: The digital platforms used by GEMS are secured and all data is encrypted according to the latest standards, while the trainings include best practices in terms of data protection and privacy.

Bridging the gap between geography and humanity for better development results

The investment in local skills for geospatial monitoring has created Resilience Dividends and enhanced crisis preparedness, by allowing local stakeholders to quickly adapt the tools to specific needs during emergencies. For instance, in Bangladesh, Guinea, and Haiti, GEMS was crucial for rapidly creating digital monitoring systems for urgent COVID crisis mitigation and livelihood support. In Malawi, Nicaragua, and Somalia, it allowed local teams to swiftly respond to the devastation of natural disasters and safeguard vital service delivery.

Also outside of acute emergencies, the geospatial data platforms provided by GEMS have proven beneficial in addressing a broad range of development challenges. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, detailed geospatial data on 85,000+ schools was collected via GEMS, allowing the government to enhance service delivery in education throughout the country. In Afghanistan, GEMS helped track the distribution of seeds to over 280,000 farmers across the country. In the Sahel, a GEMS platform is used to integrate operational information across development agencies. It also serves as a tangible tool for the coordination of investments in service delivery and Human Capital, independent of national boundaries and donors.

The GEMS team is constantly humbled by the level of dedication and desire to learn that local partners muster during the trainings. It feels privileged to be able to support the work of dedicated women and men who try to improve development in their countries amidst very challenging conditions. When asked about the best part of their job, all GEMS team members agree that it is the chance to directly work with the dedicated stakeholders on the ground.

Bernhard Metz, Senior Operations Officer at World Bank, focuses on the use of innovative methods to enhance international development projects. In this regard, he launched the GEMS initiative and currently leads a team of 40 geospatial monitoring experts in 25 countries.