Friday, November 23, 2012

Open source GIS : it it really what stakeholders in the developing world want?

In Ethiopia, where rainwater management is often still promoted as "blanket approaches" (these are approaches that do not take the specific context into account), producing suitability or feasibility maps that show where the biophysical and socioeconomic criteria for successful adoption are met is essential. Most policy-maker, researchers and extension services have little access to GIS technology and lack in GIS knowledge. For this reason Nile Basin Development Challenge program (the project i am working on) is working on an open source GIS tool that allows to do the suitability mapping without any prior GIS knowledge.
The participants in Addis
The last two weeks, i have been giving a training on the beta version this GIS tool in Addis and Gondar. In addition of simple manipulations, we also taught participants how to feed their own maps. The maps need to be in a GIS software, we offered the possibility to do this preliminary work in ArcGIS (the most common commercial GIS software, which license costs about 1400 USD per year) and Grass, an open source solution. The trainings were based on competence based training approach, letting participants discover the tool and GIS software on their own. The trainings went well, participants seemed to enjoy the training, and at the end almost everyone understood the stories behind geographical coordinate systems (taking the earth as a ball) and the projected coordinate systems (for which the world is "made flat").

The participants in Gondar
 Representing an official organization funded by the world bank, I cannot provide pirated software. So each participant who wanted to use ArcGIS had to request a personal trial license from ESRI (the company providing ArcGIS). It is a pretty cumbersome process, which needs internet. (As in Ethiopia most organisation work with static IP,  each laptop had to be programmed separately). Despite of this whole hassle all participants in the Addis chose to use ArcGIS, and only 2 advanced GIS user in Gondar took up the challenge to test Grass. Most of the evaluation were very positive about the training, but the major complaint was that we did not teach sufficiently ArcGIS.

the computer room in Gondar where every laptop has to be configured manually to access internet

 (static IP)

I am wondering why everyone wants to learn so much about ArcGIS, and why there is so little interest among my partners and stakeholders for open-source solutions. Is this the widely spread availability of pirated software? Is it the fear to not being mainstream? is it the fear to not get support when things don't work? or is it the ease and user-friendliness of ArcGIS that allows you to make tools even when you don't understand what your are doing?

For whatever reason, open-source software still has a lot of promotion work to do in the developing world... the NBDC open-source tool is now in revision, some new features will be added and some bugs removed. When it will be finished, we will promote it broadly and see if at least this tool can be used by our stakeholders. The tool will also make available a whole bunch of geographical layer, that otherwise are difficult to access in a country with weak internet access. Maybe this could be a good reason for stakeholders to overcome their fears and doubts about open-source...
The most admired participant : the duck that participated in 2 trainings : "if you don't train GIS you will be like the duck, you have a certificate but can't map anything :-)

A story to follow up...
the link to the beta version of the tool can be found under material and output : 

and find here the link to the official NBDC blog about this training : 

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