African governments could become more sensitive to what their people really need by harnessing the wealth of available geospatial information, a meeting of scientists and policymakers has heard.
This was one of the recommendations put forward by a meeting of the sub-committee on geo-information on the sidelines of the Second Session of the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST-II), in Ethiopia, earlier this month (2–5 May).
"Given that over 80 per cent of public and private planning and decision-making processes use geospatial data, governments of developing countries need to recognise and acknowledge the importance of GIS [geographic information systems]," Wilbur Ottichilo, a Kenyan parliamentarian, told SciDev.Net.
One of the success stories presented at the meeting was the work of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) — based in Nairobi, Kenya, and established in 1975 by the Economic Commission for Africa — which provides advisory services and capacity building for GIS services such as surveying, mapping and remote sensing.
Over the last seven years, RCMRD has been collaborating with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to establish a satellite-based early warning system for disasters, SERVIR-Africa.
Ottichilo, a former director-general of RCMRD, uses GIS to determine which areas within his constituency, Emuhaya, lack infrastructure or have poor harvests. The entire constituency is being mapped using the Constituency Development Information System (CDIS).
The aim of CDIS is to create a 'smart' system that analyses, stores and displays geographical data to help with improved planning and management for food security and poverty alleviation. For example, it allows online monitoring of how crops are doing by looking at satellite images of vegetation in the area.
But Africa is still poorly mapped, with much of the data unreliable or held commercially, according to Derek Clarke, chief director of South African mapping organisation National Geo-spatial Information.
This could be attributed to the lack of a methodological approach to the collection and maintenance of geospatial data, Clarke said. It is also a clear indication that the continent's national mapping organisations are poorly resourced.
He added that any GIS technologies developed must be affordable and appropriate for the African context.