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Africa must make it easy to access and share geo-spatial information, says head of South Africa's mapping organisation, Derek Clarke.

Development has to do with place and space — that is, it takes place in a spatial context. So it needs appropriate information — namely geo-spatial information. Without this, it is impossible to use planning and decision-making tools and technologies, such as geographical information systems (GIS), to analyse needs, plan projects or monitor outcomes. But, so far, African countries use geo-spatial information only sporadically to support development.

Seeing things differently

GIS is a computerised way of capturing, manipulating, storing, retrieving, analysing, modelling and displaying geo-spatial information. It brings together different types of geo-spatial information, for example about rivers, topography, roads, towns, soil type, rainfall and land cover. Its strength is using the spatial relationships between these to create new information that would otherwise be missed.

From primary health care to food security planning to disaster relief to water management, geo-spatial information and GIS technologies can help development projects succeed.

For example, they have helped tackle high nutrient levels in Lake Victoria that promote water hyacinth growth, lower water quality and kill fish. Using GIS, it has been possible to size up the problem and trace its source — poor farming practices in the lake's catchment area. Agriculturalists are now helping farmers use fertilizers more effectively and improve ploughing methods.

In South Africa, agricultural advisors and farmers themselves are using a GIS that brings together information such as seasonal rainfall, availability of irrigation, soil type and depth, ground elevation and slope, for agricultural planning. GIS analysis helps farmers choose which crops or animals to put where.

Under-used and under-resourced

Yet, despite the power of geo-spatial information and technologies, few African governments use them. So why does GIS remain as ad hoc projects in development applications, mainly conducted by development agencies?

It's probably because reliable information and technical capacity are both lacking on the continent. Africa is poorly mapped — as a recent study of geo-spatial datasets confirmed. Where geo-spatial information does exist, much of it is either out of date or inaccurate.

This may be because African countries (and regions) lack a programmatic approach to collecting and maintaining geo-spatial datasets. Many African mapping organisations are poorly staffed and cash-strapped, making it difficult to collect or update geo-spatial data.

Private companies usually only collect commercially valuable data to trade with. And even if international and donor organisations collect geo-spatial information for specific projects, they do not plan to either maintain these or hand them over to help grow geo-spatial information as national assets.

Finding the right information

Knowing what information exists and how to access it is probably the biggest obstacle to using existing geo-spatial information in Africa. Everyone who holds geo-spatial data must make more effort to record and share information about their holdings. It is thismetadata (data about the data) that helps people find the data sets they require. This would save time and effort by not duplicating data collection. Those savings could be put to better use collecting new data and strengthening existing datasets that are incomplete.

Achieving this requires skilled people working in supportive organisations. Yet in many African countries the public service has frozen recruitment for existing mapping posts, or does not create new posts because of budgetary constraints. And few African countries offer degree programmes in geo-spatial information science. So the critical mass of geo-spatial professionals Africa requires will be slow to build up.

Africa needs clear policies, adequate resources and visionary leaders determined to make it easy to access and share geo-spatial information.

It is time for African governments to recognise that geo-spatial information is a national asset that underpins development. It must be turned into knowledge, using GIS and other geo-spatial technologies, for the betterment of Africa.

Derek Clarke is chief director of Chief Directorate: Surveys and Mapping, South Africa and chair of the Working Group on Mapping Africa for Africa. The opinions expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisations he works with.