Mapmakers reach cr...

Mapmakers reach crossroads in Singapore

Highlights from the infoDev workshop at the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association annual conference in Singapore from Tim Kelly

Geographers like crossroads. They create focal points on maps help to build networks. The geographical profession found itself at a crossroads in Singapore on the occasion of the 12th annual meeting of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association (GSDI), from 19-22 October.

Developing a "how to guide" on SDI in resource-scarce countries (pdf)

Presentation by Tim Kelly and Bruce McCormack

Developing a "SDI How To" Guide for Resource Scarce Countries 

Presentation by Tim Kelly and Bruce McCormack

Over the past decade or so, the industry has invested heavily in geographic information systems that promise to unite multiple “layers” of data on a common framework of a spatial data infrastructure (SDI). Such SDIs require intensive coordination, computer processing power, cash and, above all, time to prepare. The European Union’s INSPIRE Directive, for instance, which came into force in May 2007, has used a budget of around US$100m, and is expected to take until 2019 to be fully realized. Many developed countries now have an SDI and infoDev is working with the governments of Jordan and Uganda to help them establish one too, under a project sponsored by the Korean Trust Fund for ICT for Development.

But the top down approach of professional geographers towards structuring geographical data is increasingly being complemented, and sometimes challenged, by a bottom-up approach to mapmaking, facilitated by the widespread availability of new tools such as Google Earth or Open Street Map. Such tools have been used to create maps in a matter of hours using crowdsourcing techniques. As an example, a map of Port au Prince, Haiti was put together following the January 2010 earthquake, with real-time updates from relief workers on the ground and support from volunteers at a Random Hacks of Kindness event taking place in the USA and networked around the world.

Such bottom up mapping efforts, based on open source platforms, are becoming increasingly popular, such as MapKibera in Kenya or the World Bank supported GeoNode project. They have the advantage of providing “high definition” real time updates but they frequently hit problems of verification. Place names are a particularly thorny issue as anyone who has tried to give a name to the patch of sea between Japan and the Republic of Korea will have realized. There is an ongoing project to come up with a formal, UN-backed Global Gazetteer, but it is politically sensitive and will not produce shore-term results. Another problem with volunteer efforts is that they may work well in emergency situations, or help to locate the nearest skinny latte, but they fall down when dealing with more mundane issues, like mapping watersheds or soil types.

Clearly, top-down and bottom-up approaches can be complementary, but it’s hard to make the links. The two communities use different terms: the “top-downers” refer to metadata, ontology and raster; “bottom-uppers” refer to Web 2.0, user reputation and maps. INSPIRE, the poster child of the top-downers, can impose multi-million Euro fines on public agencies for failure to comply, but its critics say that it fails to create incentives. It’s all stick and no carrot. It tends to “depress” rather than “inspire”. It has reams of documentation, but when machine translated into the many languages of the EU, the techno-babble quickly becomes incomprehensible. Another flash point between the two communities comes over the issue of how to price access to data. Top-downers tend to look for cost recovery mechanisms to pay for their expensive GIS systems, satellite imagery and coordination mechanisms. Bottom-uppers promote open, free access to data. The World Bank’s Open Data initiative and Apps for Development Challenge is an example of the latter.

infoDev project that was presented at the conference aims to demonstrate how SDI can be used for monitoring development outcomes. The project, sponsored by the Korean Trust Fund on ICT for Development, is developing best practice case studies of Brazil and the Republic of Korea and providing technical assistance to Jordan and Uganda. One of the outputs will be a “how-to” manual for developing countries on developing an SDI. But what advice should we be providing? In an effort to “crowdsource” opinions, infoDev worked with the GSDI Association to run an opinion survey, which garnered almost 200 responses. The results were presented at the conference by infoDev’s Tim Kelly and World Bank consultant Bruce McCormack (see table and presentations). The most useful feature of such a guide would be a step-by-step timeline of what to do when in the process of developing a national SDI. This should be backed up by good practice examples drawn directly from developing countries.

Access to (or creation of) digital DATABASES of geographic information 49.2
POLITICAL WILL of the state and public institutions at the highest level 48.6
Availibility of TECHNICAL PROFESSIONALS and appropriate TRAINING 44.3

ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY (e.g. internet, serves, high resolution screens, software licenses, etc)


Existence of  a LEGAL FRAMEWORK to implement SDI 36.6
Availibility of EARMARKED RESOURCES for SDI/GIS projects 26.2
Existance of RESEARCH INSTITUTES linked to SDI/GIS remote sensing, environment, etc. 24.6
Access to a user-friendly interface broadening the POOL OF USERS able to use applications 21.3
Access to cutting edge GOOD PRACTICE information on SDIs 17.5
Existence of an enabling environment for PRIVATE SECTOR investment and initiative 13.7
Existence of active PRIVATE MARKETS for ICT and GIS services 13.7
Strong judicial instruments to curb MISUSE OF PUBLIC FUNDS dedicated to GIS/SDI development 12.6

Moving forward, infoDev will try to forge a middle way between the top-downers and the bottom uppers by showing how Web 2.0 techniques can provide a more user-friendly front-end for complex SDIs. Ultimately, what we need is a map for the mappers.

Have a look at the official GSDI12 website here.

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