Sunday, August 28, 2011

the desperate need for more Geographical Information System

In Ethiopia and many other countries in the world, many agricultural policies are promoted as sort of "blanket" approaches, despite of the fact that agriculture is crucially location specific, driven by soil, rainfall and temperature. One way of getting more location-specific in policies is to be able to manage and analyze data in a spatial way with so called Geographical Information Systems (GIS). The increasing need for GIS is now recognized, at least in my project for which I gave a GIS training a the regional agricultural research institute in Bahir Dar. 
Introduction to GIS given by the trainers from the reseach institute
Participants learning how to use a GPS
Participants puzzled by one of 

Participants were coming from the local research centers, were relatively young and above all enthusiastic about learning how to use this seemingly complicated program called ArcGIS. It was so hard to push people out of the computer room and convince them to go for lunch (this despite of the fact that we had booked the Lake Shore resort, one of the nicest place in town). Every participant felt so privileged to be allowed to learn how to use GIS...
During my stay i also met people from GIZ (the German development cooperation). One of their objective is to delineate watersheds and work in close collaboration with the agricultural bureaus. They also got the task to train 190 people on GIS. 
Finally, I met a student in her second year in land planning. Each program like that in Europe would start with an introduction to GIS, but she did not know what I was talking about.
The view from Lake Shore Resort, a small paradise on earth to forget about GIS for the lunch hour...
At the end of my two week stay in Bahir Dar, i just realized that people start to understand the urgency of understand how location matters and create a huge demand for GIS in the area. A demand is too big to be addressed overnight. But there is an obvious need to make GIS training available and affordable to people. Therefore, the partner I have been working with for the GIS training will continue training more people based the developed training and build up a pool of trainers. In this manner, the training will not depend on me, a foreigner anymore, but fully passes in the hand of local partners and hopefully this initiative will spread GIS knowledge around Ethiopia. 
But one question stays : why are we still teaching ArcGIS which license costs about 1400 dollar per year, when we could teach open source software (free software)? This is mainly because our partners wish to be trained on ArcGIS and probably lack of information about open source software.
I recently met a young man, campaigning for open source GIS teaching open source GIS for almost for free. He is running an NGO to increase GIS knowledge in Africa
In the end, the software does not matter as much as the fact that there is a huge need for understand what spatiality means and how we can come up with more location specific knowledge. Both my training, and the training offered by mapping across borders is just a drop of water on a hot stone... 

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