Saturday, 1 December 2007

Showing the World

Yesterday was one of the coolest and most satisfying in a long time. We finally got to show an international audience that SDI-East Africa is at least taking baby steps and could in the another year or so start walking confidently and even be running, skipping and jumping.

The venue was the 8th session of the UN Geographic Information Working Group (UNGIWG). Long-time readers might recall was that it was at the UNGIWG meeting last year that the first seeds of SDI-EA were planted, then heavily fertilized at the UNGIWG Global Partners' Meeting earlier this year. So it was somewhat satisfying to return to that forum and show that their inspiration had wrought.

The previous post post to this blog noted that, since the East African consultation back in October, there'd been a flurry of inspired activity to actually get data-sharing services on line. Yesterday we were able to show how flood-related data, originating from four different UN agencies (UNHCR, OCHA, FAO/SWALIM, UNEP and GEMS/Water) and hosted on three different servers in Nairobi and one in Canada, could be at least visually integrated to provide humanitarian relief managers with both synoptic and detailed views of potential impacts on refugees and displaced persons in the region. Across a variety of open-source and commercial services, all agreeing to 'speak' an OGC-standard interoperability dialect called Web Feature Services.

These views were previously separately available but never before brought together on demand. We were also able to showcase the crucial role to be played by facilities such as the inter-agency Data Exchange Platform for the Horn of Africa (DEPHA) as a broker publishing data on behalf of agencies that cannot afford or lack mandate to build the capacity to publish data on-line themselves. The KML needed for spinning the showcase up in Google Earth is <here>. Give me a month or so to get back from leave and I'll have equivalent packages for NASA WorldWind, MS Virtual Earth, uDIG and QGIS, all working off the same services

The amazing part is that it worked. Not just the technology, but the message - UN agencies field and regional offices can actually afford the luxury of starting to think about this sort of inter-operation. The technology hurdles are not the insurmountable barrier so often assumed.

Yes, the scenario shown was limited and somewhat contrived. Yes, there were many, many components of a true SDI missing, like the abilities to discover and integrate additional mdata sources, or to discover and display stuff using the correct UN-standard symbols, or even to know the most basic background information about where the data originate or how they can realistically be used. On the other hand, others here in the UNGIWG meeting do Get It and are keen to start plugging gaps in the next year - FAO Geonetwork will work with us to plug the discoverability gaps; OCHA will work with FAO to get symbologies hosted, discoverable and accessible; WFP with the UN Joint Logistics Centre and the ITHACA project will starte getting their transportation data model to integrate automatically to help drive the symbology and portrayal needs. All good, One-UN sort of stuff! I believe we have a viable kernel around which the emerging UN spatial data infrastructure will gain and document its own experiences and growing pains and lessons learned.

Now I just have to convince my bosses to let me keep up my involvement in all this as we move into next year's shiny new work programme!

I'm off on holiday for three weeks. I may or may not be inspired to follow up this post soon - I should: there were some interesting chats with the ESRI rep that bear telling.... If I don't, and happy end-of-year/ mid-winter/ mid-summer/ whatever season to you all

Friday, 16 November 2007

Sunshine and Happiness

A few months back I realized that, after six months of collective SDI-A effort, there was not actually any more data flowing in East Africa than before when we started the exercise. I got all despondent and sort of lost interest in maintaining this blog. Silly me. Events during the past three weeks have brought the sunshine back into the world of SDI-EA.

The first was the meeting at the end of October that brought together over 40 of the SDI-EA players in East Africa under the theme of Better Data Sooner to consider the question of how best a United Nations SDI would have to be run to be most useful to countries, organizations and societies in the region. Yes, there were all the recommendations about how the UN ought to help SDI proponents with getting policies and standards in place, with finding capacity building opportunities, with getting data flowing out of the UN system while providing opportunities for governments, NGOs and sectoral programmes to publish their data into the UN system. There's more about the SDI-Live effort at and the report should be out Real Soon Now. I'll describe the motivation for the meeting in a later post but suffice to say it s recommendations seem needed as input to the upcoming UN Geographic Information Working Group UNGIWG meeting in Bangkok when we consider UNSDI implementation over the next year.

What was the real surprise was that, having recognized the crucial necessity of communicating clearly with senior policy types, the participants hit on the notion of building SDI showcases around realistic and solid scenarios that managers could associate with. What was even more surprising was they actually went off and started doing it. Within the space of 10 days we went from having only one real internet-accessible source of data on the network in East Africa (that being UNEP) to having nearly half a dozen - FAO/SWALIM, UNHCR, OCHA, UN-Habitat - and can start telling meaningful stories: a lot of the current data being served concerns the floods across Africa during 2007, their potential impacts on refugees and displaced persons. All of this can be spun up in Google Earth, WorldWind, desktop GIS and the likes. Have a look at this bit of KML ( ) or at least the screen caps here and here to get an idea where this might go.

It's actually becoming necessary to think about getting a services registry going for this part of world!

Now, how to maintain this momentum? How to use this profile to get more services running - RCMRD, are you reading this?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Moving Refugees

This is unprecedented! Two contributions from one person in one day!!

Firstly: A bunch of us got an e-mail today from John Marinos at the UNHCR Somalia. I begged and pleaded and he finally relented to me posting his message to the SDI-EA blog. Why? Because to it's got all (well, many) the right elements we seek in SDI-EA: innovative communication, collaboration within a community etc. etc. Of course, in my version of A Perfect World you'd be posting these data to the likes of SWALIM and/or DEPHA and, through the magic of interoperablnes finding it being served in ready-to-use guises through Google Maps or Google Earth, GIS clients and flat browsers, all at no extra cost. I guess we got a ways to go yet but I think it's a goal worth bearing in mind. Anyway, John's KML is posted at

"Dear colleagues,

"This email attempts to kill 3 birds with one stone... as the saying goes.

"1) I am distributing to the usual suspects, the latest version of the PMT [That's Population Movement Tracking for those of us outside humanitarian space. Mick] database. This version is the same as the one circulated last month but now includes the movements from August 2007. It is for your use, and if you'd like to post it for dissemination on GeoNetworks or DEPHA (as a WFS) then go for it. The attached zip file contains the data as a shape file, along with metadata and a document to explain the fields in the table.

"2) Also attached is the latest PMT map. Feel free to put this on ReliefWeb, GeoNetworks, OCHA-Somalia, or wherever.

"3) Lastly, I've been trying to find a way for people to see and appreciate the scale of IDP [Internally Displaced Persons a.k.a refugges that haven't crossed an international border. Mick] movements in Somalia. With the help of Craig Von Hagen, who forwarded a useful email to me we've put together a KMZ file that allows you to use Google Earth (v.4) to view the locations of IDPs and the reasons for movement - per month. It covers the period Sep 2006 until August 2007.

"By double clicking on the KMZ file below it should open Google Earth (assuming that you have it installed on your machine). It includes the districts of Somalia along with 12 maps (actually image overlays) each showing locations where IDPs have moved for that particular month (according to PMT reports received by our partners). Each location is color coded* by the reason for displacement** If you have Google Earth version 4 installed, it will recognize the time tags and a sliding bar will appear at the top of your screen - to the left of your navigation control. This will allow you to "scroll" through time and see the different monthly maps. Notice how Nov 07 had a lot of flood displacement? Notice the displacement because of insecurity from Feb till now, with a lull in May? The goal is to provide you with an easy to use (and very cool) tool to view the data we've collected on IDP movements this last year. The secondary goal is to stop me from making PP presentations with this same information.

"Some problems:
"* I don't know how to put a legend in Google Earth. Therefore there is a PDF attached showing what the different colored dots mean.
"** There are some locations that have 2 different reasons for movement in the same month. (i.e. Some people moved to Baydhaba because of drought, some people because of insecurity). In these cases only one reason for movement is displayed. I've tried unsuccessfully to fix the situation. I'll continue to try. Remember this is only a test!

"If you are one of the techies who would like more information on the methodology of the PMT project or on other Protection Cluster initiatives, don't hesitate to ask. If you're a non-techy and want to know more about the data we have available and how best to use it, don't hesitate to ask.

"I look forward to your comments on the KMZ file.

"Best Regards,"

Secondly, later also from John:

"In other exciting news. I've used my fancy new upgraded MapInfo to log onto DEPHA's Geoserver.
I've even downloaded the (old) Admin boundaries for Somalia. Look! Its there now. I'm using data on my PC thats sitting on your server. How cool is that!?!

"Now that I'm able to party with you guys, may I kindly request that you post some data sets that may of interest to the community.
"1) IDP settlements in Somalia
"2) IDP locations
"- these are different. #1 is the actual IDP settlement within various towns in Somalia. #2 are the towns/villages that have received IDPs over the last few months.

"Now that Somalia is covered I'm sure there are regional datasets that our Regional Hub can send over that people are sure to enjoy.

"Forgive me if I"m jumping the gun a little. You guys at DEPHA are not our personal data posters.. Let us know if you're interested in this data, then in what format it should be in to be the easiest for you to work with. Also bear in mind that this data gets updated frequently.

"Viva la EA-SDI!!!!

Not a bad day's work, I think.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Back to the Conservation Community, and our First Abject Failure

Hmmm. It would seem that my subconsience has been censoring me, probably to prevent embarrassment to both of us. I did in fact write this up a month ago and somehow have just not posted it...

The SCGIS conference back in July brought two important potential follow-ups for SDI-EA, one being with Kenya Wildlife Service to get them to start spinning their protected areas data into the World Protected Areas database (a long-standing goal, yet to be realized), and the second with the Africa Conservation Centre. ACC support SCGIS and are motivated players in the SDI game, and I see them as a potential lynch-pin on regional SDI service targeting the conservation and resource management communities.

So, John and I are off to Lan'gata to meet up with Lucy Waruingi and other friends. And, lo!, they have a little linux (Fedora) server running as their relay for e-mail via and always-on satellite link and with a static IP address. Looks like a piece of cake to get the geoserver in place and set up a Geonetwork node for them, avoiding some of the pitfalls we struck with ICRC. Wrong.

You think you've covered all that bases, that you've planned for all the hardware wrinkles and variants, which you have a good flexible toolkit able to provide the work-arounds you need. More wrong.

We have all our installation software on USB devices. Obviously. So convenient. Does Lucy's server see the USB ports? Of course not. Shoot. Do we know ho to get Fedora to mount the USB ports? Of course not, we only ever cut our teeth using Mandriva and the commands it provides are not the real, low-level unix ones and so we get caught out. Who knows: maybe the server, being intended solely as a mail relay, has some minimal kernel not built with such luxuries as hotplug support. The point is that John and I should better anticipate these realities. Once again, going back to first principles is shown to be the wise move and, once again, we get caught when we cut corners.

Yes, of course, plugging this knowledge gap should take 10 minutes on the net with Google but it's late Friday afternoon and everyone wants to go home and we look like donkeys anyway. Not the best of time for thinking straight. I still think it will be a great face-saver if the USB ports turn out to be kaput anyway, but I have no faith in this.

Oh well, no problem, I've got all the software on DVD as well. But: why won't Lucy's server read the DVDs? Shoot, again! It's not a DVD reader, is it? It's a CD-ROM reader, and of course the UNEP Brains Trust does not have the software on CD. Total frustration. Go home and drink beer.

So, of course, no we're well equipped with many copies of software on CD-ROM and low-level knowledge of how to talk nicely to USB ports on all sorts of linux systems, and look forward to mounting a triumphant return expedition to ACC to rescue our sullied reputations. But I can't help but wonder "What's going to catch us next time?"

Sunday, 26 August 2007

A Matter of Reliability

What do you learn in a community-building exercise when the community building almost fails to happen?

One obvious answer is "Ahh, forget it. We are none of us perfect. Try again and it'll be better". Another is "Well, you guys have failed sometimes; cut some slack to the others". Both are fair answers. But the question itself, and the quality of the answers, underpin a more crucial aspect of the governance of 'bottom up' SDI's, namely how do we fare when, later on, there are services over which we've built our own value-adding services and, tomorrow, the service custodian goes out of business, so to speak: a change of policy, a shift in budgets, loss of key personnel. Any number of reasons might pertain, but suddenly our customers are no longer happily receiving their service.

The point is that when you expose open-standards services to the web then I can come along and build on your service, adding a new value or servicing a new audiences that you hadn't planned for. Sure, you can argue that I'd be at least slightly daft to build a critical need on your service without some sort of agreement, let alone recognition. Okay, but, when I try to make a phone call to the other side of the world, my success or failure depends on a whole chain of agreement between telco operators, any one of which can fail just when I need the service. To what degree can I blame my local telco? Not much, if the failure is three networks away in Outer Mongolia. Problem is that it doesn't matter to me where the failure is - my call hasn't gone through. I'm an unhappy frustrated customer.

So, Tuesday should have been a neat day - meeting with the secretariat of the Kenyan national SDI, with two purposes were in mind, Firstly, helping them set up for evaluation some open-standards tools for establishing a national metadata archive, and the ability to serve geo-spatial data directly to remote clients (Geonetwork and geoserver, respectively). Secondly - and more importantly for me - engaging KNSDI's help to organise a meeting in September where we hope to get together all the national SDI players in East Africa along with their UN counterparts. The purpose? Try to start mapping the institutional interfaces that will be needed between the national and regional SDIs and the emerging UN spatial data infrastructure counterpart.

The UN is meant to serve member states, and the UN relies upon member states to provide data and services needed to inform and address trans-national and global issues. If a UNSDI's purpose is (amongst other things) to promote interoperability, shall this be on the basis of 'best effort' by the member states? Is the UN obliged to help members meet minimum levels of reliability and accountability? If so, what levels, and who is to measure and ensure them? If not, what is tolerably good enough, and what happens when gaps in data availability or reliability lead to flawed assessments or decisions? These and many more questions require attention, probably over and over as methods and approaches are tried.

So what happened? The Nairobi traffic Gods frowned, and three out of the four KNSDI participants got stuck in a jam. Could happen anywhere, couldn't it? Could as easily have been a delayed flight, a flood, or sick child to deal with. You bet, all very normal and we can schedule around it and (I hope) we can get our regional meeting organized notwithstanding.

But it did seem to me a specially pertinent reminder that, as we in SDI-EA try to promote SDI and build interoperability amongst distributed services, that the fragility of the communications and transportation infrastructures remain a constraint. What does it mean if we can implement a world-class on-line repository for satellite images in Nairobi if operational agencies and NGOs cannot access it precisely when needed? Who is liable if, in three or five years' time, humanitarian services' crucial decisions are delayed by lack of reliable data services.

Tough questions that won't go away if we ignore them. Neither, it seems to me, are they likely to be more easily answered unless we start now to articulate and specify the requirements to which telcos and other service providers can respond on a fair and contractual basis.

Anyway, we were back to KNSDI on Wednesday, had a happy and fruitful meeting to organize the consultation, and John at least got through the Geoserver installation training. We'll still need more time to get Geonetwork in and running for them, but at least we hit this important milestone and - fingers crossed - the KNSDI folk will like it enough to move it across to their production server. I'll be especially pleased if we can go into the September workshop with Survey of Kenya delivering on-line one of their signature framework data layers, like administrative boundaries. That really would be a feather in the collective caps. But only if it can be made reliable.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Teflon rules!

Friday two weeks back was the day I've been waiting for - the day the Teflon Principle seemed to actually kick in.

John and I were invited to join Byron from RCMRD ( in a trip to meet the staff from the Geomatics Unit at the Jomo Kenyatta University for Agriculture and Technology ( Professor Gacahri out there is one of the movers in the KNSDI, and had responded to Byron's suggestion that some of the staff out there be given a walk-through on what, in practice, participating in operational SDI could mean to them.

The first surprise was thelab facilities. Remember, I've been in East Africa since the times when a simple PC cost a lecturer's annual salary, a single diskette cost 10 dollars, and too many undergraduate's use of GIS was limited to what they could read about in text books. Here were 30-odd PCs, a functioning LAN and good internet connectivity. My, how things change. And not a bad start at all.. no server, though.

During discussions two interesting things emereged: the first being that, when they'd had the Geonetwork toolkit described to them, the JKUAT staff immediately saw its usefulness to teh school as a potential publisher and provider of geospetial information (as well as the - to me - more obvious attraction of being able to find stuff). The second, and the one that always makes John happiest, is when they twigged that establishing and managing a geospatial would not only streamline their data provision to the students but would open up the possibility for lateral integration of data across studies, rather than just vertically within them. John's alway happiest when this data cohesion aspact emerges spontaneously.

So, the followup is that somewhere towards end of August John and Byron and I will be back out to JKUAT to do the full-blown hands-on training with the Geomatic facluty, and then two weeks after that to do another with the final-year students, though for that one I'll push that it should be the faculty that do it, with John and other's back-stopping them. Like I say, we have to maintain the Teflon Principle, and the idea of a centre of excellence emerging at a school that's already leading the effort for geospatial awareness in the region, achieveing it without any massive financial outlay, and doing it collaboratively with the RCMRD and their training services seems like a marriage made in heaven.

Frustrated Ambitions

One purpose of attempting SDI-EA has been (optimistically?) to test how feasible SDI technologies are outside OECD-type countries, using the UN's own capacities to augment local infrastructure where needs be. Over the last two week has been an exercise in frustrated realization of what the limits can be like.

It all started with a flurry of requests for data and land cover change analysis - one from the GEF evaluation office, the second from a UNEP study of refugee camps, the third from researchers in land use conflict avoidance in Kenya and Tanzania. All good stuff and, thinks I, a good chance to test some of my theories against cold, hard reality.

All these requesters, by thge way, were suffering from the delusion that UNEP/GRID still acted as some sort of massive data archive that would have the necessary data on hand. Alas, no. That's a business model that went the way of the dodo many years ago. Frustration #1 was discovering that our own backyard is in desperate need of a cleanup - the Landsat data and stuff that I know NASA delivered to us years ago is nowhere to be found. Or, more accurately, no-one knows where to find it. Oh dear.

Anyway, this is the age of the internet and postals and all we need do is know how to find the data and use our satellite capacity to pipe it into Kenya for our clients, right? Theory says that we can be clever and use on-line services to slice out justthe bits of the images for relevant study areas - a few megabytes rather than 10's or hundreds of them, smart use of limited bandwidth, more readily accesible to users in developing countries and so on.

Second frustration: NASA's geobrain ( usually provides a neat web coverage service whereby you designate your are of interest and it goes off, interrogates the LAITS catalogues and comes back with thumbnails of the available scenes; you make your selection and it then goes to the WCS, excises the footprint you've selected and send a nicely bundled tar package your way in a matter of minutes. What's wrong with this picture? Just the fact that the services is off the air this week. Sigh

So now I'm using sites that only deliver full scenes, such as the Global Land Cover Facility's Earth Science Data Interface ( Obviously a much greater demand on our satellite link but worth a try. Except for the fact that the link has been slow and flakey and up and down all week - what might otherwise be an easy 20 minute 16 Mb transfer sometimes taking half a day. Sigh. Not the sort of reliable service we'd like to offer our partners.

Glad I didn't offer to mortgage the house as guarantee of being able to deliver on the requests made to us. Maybe things will be better next week. It's still not a great advertisement for SDI, is it?

------------------------ 24 Hours later ---------------------------
Well, things have picked up a bit, and last night I actually managed to pull down 4 MMS scenes and a full TM set, a total of about 350 Mb - not a huge volume of data in these days of streaming media but significant in this part of the world. Now, if only GeoBrain start behaving itself....

--------------- ... and 24 Hours after that? ----------------------
Well, some hacks and work-arounds later, I've managed to pull down about 10 Thematic Mapper and half a dozen MSS scenes, a total of about 2 gigabytes of compressed data moved as scheduled downloads overnight while UNEP's bandwidth is mostly unused. Frustration the Thjird:As it turns out, the usefulness of all this data was pretty limited, usually because the change signals being sought were not significant at the resolution of the Landsat data. This is where having had Geobrain working earlier would have really helped: at least the limitations of the images would have been apparent earlier and more quickly, and the requesters could have adapted their expectations.

Now, this gets me thinking: why am I downloading data from Maryland anyway? What if the Regional Centre for Mapping Resource Development here in Nairobi could bring its Landsat archive on-line, a sort of Geobrain East Africa? Must have a word with my friend Byron about that possibility...

Monday, 23 July 2007

SDI Reaching the Conservation Community

The Society for Conservation GIS last week held their first three-day conference hosted here at the UN compound in Nairobi. SCGIS is an ESRI-supported advocacy group that - as the name implies - promotes uptake of GIS as a conservation analysis, planning and communication. There are nearly 200 eager young minds from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda here presenting and receiving collective wisdom and experience.

They've all also had their minds expanded by such luminaries of the world of conservtaion as Nobel laureate Wangarai Maathai, ex-head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, David Western, and world-reknowned elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Much of the material is what you might expect of traditional wildlife-and-protected-area conservation issues; others, however, have focus on community-based conservation effort, and one, for heaven's sake, concerned the determination of genetic diversity of the Bongo (Kenya's most endangered antelope).

The fact that UNEP has ended up helping sponsor SCGIS is entirely the result of accidentally meeting the powerhouse behind their efforts, Lucy Wariungi. That accidental meeting arose from having gotten another spur from Kate Lance about a Kenyan metadata presentation slated for an ICT conference back in February. I ran away from work (our Governing Council, in fact) and gate-crashed the conference and, thus, ended up taking tea with Lucy and with Richard Okello Oluoch of KWS. Life has not been the same since.

John and I have, of course, taken the chance to subvert some impressionable young people to the joys of SDI. This has been instructive inasmuch as the vast majority of these students and their lecturers are of the mindset of having to build their own stacks - gather their data, hardware, software, skills and personnel in one room and then start their analysis. The potential for component-based services is a novelty and EA-SDI just had to grab the opportunity to prosetalyze. So we've had one keynote presentation (here 9Mb, sorry) on SDI in general, the UNSDI and the SDI-EA effort; another keynote from Craig von Hagen about FAO's SDI-without-being-an-SDI, plus a tech workshop demonstrating open-standards publishing data, plus lots of Q&A over coffee and samosas. A serendipitous discovery on Friday resulted from a presentation by a small start-up company in Nakuru out there promoting open standards and open source on a commercial basis - it would seem that John and I have been out there undermining his market not even aware of his existence. Whoops. Must work on a bit of capacity building to remedy that!

There are two really nice outcomes of all this is. One is that there are now at least half a dozen local 3rd-year students seriously pursuing me to help them organize internships with UNEP, a task that I relish. The second is that we have a have finally nailed down Kenya Wildlife Services for a WFS installation session with John and Mick. This means (fingers crossed) that we'll then be that many steps closer to another goal of mine, namely getting national authorities able to directly load to the World Database of Protected Areas ( ) starting with a showcase here in East Africa, namely, KWS.

Well, actually, there may be three possible nice outcomes, the third being the possibility of trying to schmooze an invitation to Mpala Ranch and Research Centre out on the Laikipea Plateau to see of we can't get some interoperability going there. If it does work out then that's one that I'll do with Sabrina and Mikele rather that with John.

The next task is to try sell Lucy on the idea of SCGIS becoming advocate for evolving an East African conservation SDI... get all these important researchers to actually start doing something about serving data and information to their colleagues, especially the ones across the borders in Tanzania and Uganda. What you think, Lucy?

Friday, 13 July 2007

Whoops! Unanticipated Blessings Upon SDI-EA

One of the participants in last Thursday's hands-on training was Daniel Olilo from the regional remote sensing centre here in Nairobi, the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD RCMRD's constituency is member states from Djibouti to Zambia and a bunch of affiliates - in other words they cover the are very much of interest to SDI-EA AND they have the ear of their governments.

Anyway, Daniel went enthusiastically and enlightenedly back to work and, on Monday, pitches the whole open-standards publishing-to-the-web thing to his director, Wilbur Ottichelo, a man I've known and worked with for over 15 years. Wilbur calls me on Tuesday looking for a meeting and a chance to follow up on this tech support question. I say "yeah, sure" - we've been hoping for months to get RCMRD on board SDI-EA for all sorts of reasons: a centre of technical expertise, a long history of collaboration with UNEP and FAO, close engagement with the Kenyan national SDI effort, and so on and so on. A natural partnership, even stronger with their establishment of a Geonetwork Opensource node ( already publishing ISO 19115 metadata to the web. Wilbur and I agree that John and I will pop over Thursday afternoon which, by pure happenstance, will follow my director's meet-and-greet with Wilbur that morning.

So, off we go, have a quickie guided tour of the facility (which, to my chagrin, I realized I'd not visited in well over ten years - my, how it's grown!) and an excellent chat with Wilbur when, lo!, we're led back to the boardroom and find it converted into a networked training centre with eight RCMRD staff there raring to go for a re-run of last week's hands-on. And, of course, John and I are caught completely flat-footed. I hadn't actually caught Wilbur's intent, and neither John nor I were in the mental zone for a stand-up training session.

Nonetheless, into the fray, and this time in less than three hours we had the workers installed with their open standards server toolkit running and VERY beautifully accessing and combining geo-data from their different servers. A nice test of resiliency, if you ask me. Not least of all, Daniel's resiliency in very competently taking on the training role and supporting his colleagues with the skills he picked up last week. I love viral learning.

Most importantly, however, is that here is a technical institution whose very mandate requires servicing to governments on complex geo-data and remote sensing issues, and that has a truly unique business value to offer to SDI-EA. Most significant to me, thought, is that RCMRD is a training centre par excellence and today presents the prospect that, hey, my 'train-the-trainer' fixation arising from last Thursday's effort might already have at least one natural home.

To whit, UNEP, in a capacity building and tech transfer mode expends time and effort (but damn little money) to get RCMRD staff sufficiently up to speed where they can effectively render John and me jobless, at least in this outreach department. RCMRD get a marketable addition to their training portfolio, one that they can specifically target to the functionaries of the Government of Kenya, the IGOs and NGOs in Nairobi and their constituent members ates, some of whom at least are considering national SDI efforts. Meanwhile, UNEP and DEPHA and FAO and RCMRD (and interested others) work up some specific interoperability testbeds in the local environment and commit to keep these running for the next 2-3 years. As Kenya's national and international comms infrastructure is fibred and brought up to capacity they collectively provide a standard framework in which to measure responsiveness, utility, stability and the likes. Oh, what fun, methinks.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

SDI-EA First Handzon Training Changes Life as we Know It

Thursday last week saw twenty eager trainees from 10 Nairobi-based institutions (see list at the end) got their first taste on-line data publishing. In a three-and-a-half hour session they went from a clean slate to having installed the necessary services and data management tools for implementing open web services for geo-data delivery based on OGC specifications.

The training session, in true SDI-EA fashion, was a no-cost no-fuss joint effort by UNEP/DEWA and FAO/SWALIM. We cobbled together a local network, participants showed up with their own laptops, and mwalimu John Mugwe got them underway installing postgreSQL with postGIS as their spatial database, plus geoserver as their web feature service. In many cases trainees also had their first taste of implementing Java and the Tomcat servlet container. Participants also learned how to take their own geospatial data (shapefiles) and ingest them into the database, and saw for themselves the utility of open-source GIS applications like qGIS and uDIG.

All this novelty notwithstanding, and despite having to deal with trojan-infected PCs and confusion caused by previous unclean installations of some of the software, by the end of the session every single system was up and running and participants were accessing each others data across the network and integrating them in their local client. Yes, they had the beginnings of a microcosm of an SDI running then and there. Now, if only the Nairobi internet becomes ready for prime time then we'll really have something to show.

And quite an eye-opener it was for them. I am sure that if we'd offered to keep the training sesion going that these eager beavers would have kept hacking away all afternoon. As it is we'll just have to see when and where else we can host these and follow-up sessions. I am keen to do at least one out here at the UN for other colleagues in Habitat, UNESCO and Unicef, but there's an obvious need for more sessions in more accessible places. There's also the need to follow-up incorporating the Geonetwork Opensource kit, which some local centres are already running but could use further promotion to help get over the metadata authoring hurdle. Perhaps the RCMRD or Survey of Kenya could be coaxed into hosting (the context of KNSDI development rings loudly here), or maybe we get the CGIAR institutions to engage with some local players. However we do it's obvious that John and I can't do all this in our spare time and, invoking our Teflon Approach, look for ways to pass on the Bright Torch of Training to others. Hmmm, I wonder if UNEP's own Capacity Building programme would give us a hand there?

The participating agencies were: African Rescue Committee AFREC Data Excahange Platform for the Horn of Africa DEPHA Regional Centre for Mapping Resources for Development RCMRD Somali Support Secretariat CEFA UN FAO Food Security Analysis Unit FAO-FSAU UN FA Somalia water and land Information Management FAO-SWALIM UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA Regional UNEP/DEWA UN-Habitat UN High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR-Somalia

There's an SDI-EA training ulumnis' mailing list at

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Kenyan SDI Development on Steroids

Wednesday of this week brought a refreshing surprise. The secretariat of the Kenyan National SDI ( held a one-day seminar to review the current draft standards, to which I was invited. I will admit that, as an observer of the KNSDI process for nearly five years now, I was not anticipating that much real progress would have been made. Boy, was I ever wrong!.

Two important factors had completely slipped under my radar. The first was the fact that the Kenyan Bureau of Standards ( has adopted 13 of the ISO 19100 draft international standards as Kenyan national standards. The second was the fact that the Japanese International Cooperation Agency ( has had a team working here for over a year on a joint project with Survey of Kenya and others. They're taking the 13 standards and, based on the experience gained in developing Japan's own SDI, are coming up with profiles, procedures and practices for putting five of those standards (six if count the ISO 19101 reference model) into operational practice. This is great! In a matter of months they have jump-started the whole Keyan SDI effort, getting past many of the institutional roadblocks that impede progress elsewhere. Yes, this is a first cut and no doubt the current drafts will need modification, or more elements added, as experience is gained. But at least there is now a basis for gaining that experience, such as SoKs campaign to vectorize over 900 topological map sheets at 1:50,000 scale, with all geo-processing, quality assurance and metadata development taking place within the framework of these standards. I look forward to aligning the UN's own SDI development ( and the efforts of SDI-EA to this fabulous work and to further, real progress in the near future.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Political Will

My partner Sabrina works for UNEP's water quality assessment programme, GEMS/water ( Somehow, last night, out beside our campfire in the backyard, we got onto data sharing (yes, we were being that romantic in the firelight) and she told me tow stories that really shook my tendency to stare myopically at technical issues and forget about the institutional and the psychological.

Both stories hinge around the GEMstat database (, a global repository which relies on countries sending in their water quality measurement data. Getting these data can, in some cases and despite having agreements in place, be a trial in patience with unaccountable delays and excuses. In other cases....

Sri Lanka, two weeks after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, delivers 4 years worth of data. Last week, on the same day that a suicide bombing kills 29 in Baghdad, the Iraqi focal point delivers his country's first block of data to GEMStat. "How", one wonders, "can people bother with silly data delivery when really terrible things are happening around them?" and this brings us to Sam's point in these stories - political will.

Examples like these two might be more extreme than most of use would ever wish to deal with but, by and large, the impediments that we perceive as preventing or constraining data and information exchange - whether technical or institutional - can be overcome give sufficient political will. Conversely, all the technology and memoranda in the world are useless if not backed up by such will. I found here tales to be a salutary reminder that, too often, we really do tend to focus on the wrong parts of these problems.

Anyway, more tomorrow about recent exciting developments in the Kenyan National SDI (http :// effort, and the fun and games today of our first hands-on technical training session on open web services.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Acronym smashup - UN meets CG for SDI Q&A

John and I were this week invited to lend an SDI hand to two important institutions here in Nairobi, namely the International Livestock Research Institute ( and the World Agroforestry Centre a.k.a. ICRAF) ( ILRI and ICRAF are two of the 15 international agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research ( These are independent institutions, each with its own charter, international board of trustees, director general, and staff, but do share common requirements.

Spatial data sharing is one of these and their Consortium for Spatial Information ( is a strong advocate of all things SDI-ish. Over recent years there has been a strong push, for example, to get all the CG centres writing and using ISO 19115 standard metadata, for which they've been developing and promoting the Geonetwork opensource toolkit (which just happens to be another jointed-up effort led by FAO and WFP with UNEP and OCHA as more recent recruits).

Anyway, the CSI now has a regular scheduled hierarchical harvesting of metadata across the CG network and available as a consolidated view at their geonetwork site . What John and I were to help them with was getting started with the next step - publishing their data to the net. The two institutions need to move data between themselves anyway and the idea of doing this using open web services is not only an appealing way to go but is also a move that will position ILRI and ICRAF as their community inevitably moves build this capability in years to come.

Needless to say the CG as a whole is an important partner to the UN. FAO obviously has strong alignment with their agricultural focus but a surprising number of other UN bodies also share common interests. UNEP, for example, is co-sponsor with ICRAF of the Billion Tree Campaign ( or The idea of interoperating between the CG and UN networks is an exciting and potentially important one that seems worth investing considerable effort to pursue.

These are early days yet - the Nairobi centres have strong GIS capacity but neither of them even have a local web presence. We have a long way to go before we can point with pride at all the marvelous interoperation within and between the CG, the UN presence in the region and our respective communities. Raising awareness with management while mollifying the concerns of network administrators is going to take time and understanding, and demands that we look for a nice incremental approach that takes small steps and demonstrates success every step of the way. I wonder how we'll do it.

Meanwhile, of course, there were the inevitable glitches that confounded Wednesday's - in this case a lot of it seemed to be because we were installing geoserver etc. on a laptop that was already being hacked to an installation of ESRI's portal toolkit - the Tomcat and java installations had already been "fiddled with" and were not the nice clean environment we assumed. Lot's of time spent trouble-shooting but, in the end, considerable success, an enthusiastic audience, and lots of practical experiences and tips to write up in our SDI installation cookbook - whenever we get around to writing it.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

A real "One UN" opportunity?

Two of the goals stated early on for SDI-EA were getting the UN better able to deliver better member States by boosting their national SDI efforts, and getting at least bits of the UN working better by boosting interoperability amongst agencies as some sort of practical aspect of the UN reform and delivering as One UN. There now maybe cause for think that some of this might actually happen.

On Tuesday this week I had an unplanned but very illuminating meeting with Mr. Georges Tadonki, the senior regional information management advisor with SAHIMS (, the Southern African Human-development Information Management Network for Coordinated Humanitarian & Development Action - rather a lot to squeeze onto a business card but nonetheless important. SAHIM is in many respects the southern African equivalent of DEPHA (, the Data Exchange Platform for the Horn of Africa, the inter-agency group with whom UNEP is working closely as we try to roll out SDI in East Africa.

Georges has been engaged by the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya to assist with the development of a Kenyan Humanitarian Information Management System (KHIM), reviewing the available information management platforms and assessing their contributions to humanitarian information management. He is also to analyze opportunities and challenges of creating some sort of central information repository, and to conduct a training workshop with IMOs from both humanitarian and development agencies, including the Government of Kenya and key donors, to build consensus on a shared platform and design a way forward for the country team.

A number of resonant chords were struck here: the potential institutional line-ups between this humanitarian sector task and the development of more general Kenyan SDI; the overlap with the OCHA Regional Offices interests in both SDI and humanitarian information development; the fact that SDI-EA has already had some engagement with ICRC and (as of last week) has also been approached by International Rescue; plus of course UNEP's focus on climate change adaptation strategies and its impacts on humanitarian issues. Interestingly enough, after Georges had introduced SAHIM and the KHIM, I gave him standard spiel #27 about UNSDI, engagement with national SDIs, open standards, distributed systems and so on, and explaining the SDI-EA effort while drawing my usual back-of-the-napkin cluster diagram when, lo!, Georges flipped back through his notes and showed us virtually the same diagram he'd sketched in a meeting the previous morning. Ahhh, convergent thinking.

Anyway, at this stage it suggests and important and powerful opportunity to align this ad hoc SDI-EA activity with some real, official UN country team activities targeting a specific community with (presumably - I'm no specialist) well-articulated needs. Now all we have to do is get the Resident Coordinator to start thinking less in terms of "central information repository" and more about distributed and custodial but integrated services. I think that's part of Georges' job.

Friday, 15 June 2007

A Busy and Productive Week

Our friends at the FAO Somalia water and land Information Management project ( this week hosted a very successful 2-day workshop on remote sensing applications in the Horn of Africa region. From the SDI-EA perspective there were two major developments of the sort that really are only possible when you have a bunch of people standing around drinking coffee during the breaks.

The first was finally meeting up with the right people from the two CGIAR institutions here in Nairobi, namely the International Centre for Research in Agro-Forestry ( and the International Livestock Research Institute ( The CGIAR is an network of international agricultural research institions and are big advocates of both spatial data analysis and interoperability. It has been a major frustration - and a considerable embarrassment - for me over the past three months to have not succeeded in engaging them in SDI-EA. That, now seems to be rectified and next week John and I expect to make some concrete progress with them.

The second coup was meeting up with one of the committee members of the Kenyan national spatial data infrastructure initiative ( A few committee members have responded on the SDI-EA mailing list but his was the first face-to-face contact I'd managed. The reason this was particularly opportune was that there's the germ of an idea to have a regional consultation in late July between the UNSDI initiative and the national SDI efforts in the region, mostly to find out what expectations countries have about how a UNSDI ought improve their service from the UN. I would dearly love to have KNSDI convene that meeting in conjunction with UNEP, and early indications are that they're keen to do so.

Now all I have to do is get UNEP's agreement and get the thing organized in 5 weeks.

Oh, and by the way, it looks like the long-awaited hands-on training sessions for open web services that UNEP and FAO/SWALIM have been planning might actually happen in the next couple of weeks, now that SWALIM have gotten the workshop out of the way. Standy by for more details.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

OCHA joining the fray, and Africa provides development assistance to Europe.

This entry comes from my colleague, John Mugwe, after his successful expedition to the OCHA Regional Office last week. They're not quite ready for prime time but steps in the right directions are happening and now it's just a matter of getting some hardware in place.

And speaking of hardware: last week we also extended some capacity building and technology support to our benighted colleagues at the UNEP office Geneva who didn't have anywhere to safely experiment with open-standards software, particularly geoserver and postgreSQL. The fact that a colleague was here in Nairobi on a training course was too good an opportunity to pass up so I raced home, dusted off my obsolete 6 year-old pentium PC and boxed it up for its journey north. The point of this rambling? To underline the fact that it's entirely feasible to get going with open web services without major investments in hardware, software, time or effort. Sure, you can upgrade later, once your experience tells you that data services are something that you really want to get into, but you can start today and getting started is the important part.


Dear All,

Today we were at UN-OCHA (regional office) and we installed
(a) A geodatabase - Postgis
(b) Geoserver
(c) Open source desktop GIS tools UDIG And QGIS

We walked Ayub through the steps of installing and adding Web Feature Services. We converted the shape file of admin lines for Somalia to the database and created a feature service for it.
We demonstrated that through a URL he could get UDIG to portray the features from the database.

The first objective we obtained is that now he can organise his data into logical areas and put then into the database. Secondly he can share the data with other people in his offices much more easily. He can also through UDIG get data from other WFS sites.

However he has no webserver outside to the world. So his data is still locked to his small group.

I see the next possible step as
(a) describing what we have ( round table meeting) as of now I have found Somalia admin boundaries in DEPHA, OCHA, FAO_SWALIM and maybe in ICRC)
(b) having DEPHA as custodian of all reference data
(c) Having DEPHA as custodian for all metadada on the reference data.

What else? We need to move this forward.

(Soon I will ask for a pay check!)

best regards

John Mugwe

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Another Reality Zap

One of the goals for SDI-East Africa has been to improve service between the UN bodies in this part of the world and their "external" (a.k.a. non-UN) partners. One of the early potentials has been the Nairobi office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Not only are they major user of geo-spatial data but their extensive field operations mean that they need to share and coordinate on common needs with the likes of UNHCR and OCHA.

So, back on March 26, I noted that we were to be heading off to build some capacity at ICRC. This we then did and, so impressive were the results that we were invited back on Monday to get Geoserver running on a publicly-visible web site. And this is where the proverbial hits the fan, not over technical issues but institutional ones.

ICRC are very rightly concerned about the integrity of their global network operations. These are coordinated from Geneva and are subject to policies originating there. The network administrator's here in Nairobi operate and manage a "black box" that proxies for users on the unsecured portion of their LAN, but does not provide any means for announcing a web service per se. (ICRC Nairobi do not have their own web site, for example). So although Java, Tomcat, Geoserver and the PostgreSQL spatial database back-end could all be installed and demonstrated to be running, there's no way that an outside user could address that machine and see the services.

This, for the first time in the course of the SDI-EA exercise, exposes and instance of where an institution has a programmatic imperative to publish data and is prepared to establish and maintain the services to make this possible, but runs afoul of higher-level institutional policies. I doubt that this will be the last such instance. For ICRC Nairobi it raises two potential courses of action, one being to get ICRC Geneva to review and revise their network policy, the other being to see an outside host for their outward-looking services. Most fundamentally, though, it demonstrates how moving into a web services framework can (and probably will again) expose tensions between different aspects of institutional philosophy. It will be interesting to see how ICRC choose to resolve these.

Monday, 7 May 2007

A Satisfied Customer!

I know this is likely to come across of blowing one's own trumpet but, on the other hand, when there's a happy and satisfied customer who sees further potential and value flowing from their first foray into this interoperability stuff then that's an important message to get out. Part of the hope of SDI-EA since the outset has been the idea that being able to take incremental steps and demonstrate success every step of the way is key to ensuring management support and community acceptance for these SDI-type activities. Maybe we start seeing justification for that approach.

Anyway, the short version of the story is that UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) prepare periodic reports based on field asessments of the movements of internlly displaced persons (IDPs) in Somalia. As you know from the news hundreds of thousands have fled Mogadishu in recent months and the humanitarian agencies and NGO's scramble (sometime literally) to keep their supply lines up to those in need. UNHCR have distributed the location of the IDP camps as lat/lon coordinate pairs coded in Excel sheets and/or as accompanying maps.

What DEPHA (the Data Exchange Platform for the Horn of Africa, offered to do with some support from UNEP was take those data and publish them as an open-standard Web Feature Service. One consequence? The same data can be output as KML and viewed via Google Earth. And our man at UNHCR is very happy about this, and sees real utility in not only having a new vehicle for communication but also for integration with other types of data. Download or try the WMS at, or try the WFS at

As an aside, a colleague here at UNEP who saw UNHCR's data coming up last Friday was very quick to see the potential for integrating with his existing ArcIMS service depicting refugee camps across Africa. He was even more impressed when he saw that he didn't need to copy and integrate the data but could just link them in via the WFS interface. Yea. Interoperability. Getting our own back yard in order.

Now all we have to do is get the IDP data showing up in the context of UN Habitat's urban areas data and I will be glad to say that this humble little SDI-EA effort will have passed a major milestone.

PS FAO, UNEP and DEPHA are contemplating a (couple of?) hand-on session(s) for technical types where we'd actually set up a network and have practitioners bring their data, set up their own WFS's and start interoperating at least on a local scale. As usual there's no budget or blessing for this but we figure that we can scrape together enough PCs and network gear and a meeting room for half a day to make it work. The whole session would not take more than a morning, starting from scratch with the server intllations (takes about 10 minutes), setting up the spatial databases, and transforming existing static data into exciting dynamic content being integrated across institutional boundaries. Think of it as a "train-the-trainers" exercise; if we're successful then, who know, maybe RCMRD might offer to host a followup at Kasarani, or add such offerings to their schedule of courses.


Mick Wilson
Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA)
United Nations Environment Programme
PO Box 30552 - Nairobi 00100, Kenya
Tel: +254 20 7623436
Fax: +254 20 7624315

----- Forwarded by Mick Wilson/UNEP/NBO/UNO on 05/07/2007 04:19 PM -----
"John Marinos"
05/07/2007 03:12 PM

, ,
Re: Fw: IDP settlement coordinates to be hosted by DEPHA..also onGoogleearth

Thanks John,

I think this looks great. Really. I will share with our HQ because they love stuff like this.
It seems I need to get an update to my ArcGIS before using the WFS files. Nevertheless, I think the information on Google Earth is super-cool.

In theory there is no reason we couldn't merge this GIS file with a whole bunch of attribute data - pop, major area of origin, whatever... I suppose that this can easily be updated on GE, right? We'll work on that when I'm back from leave.

Thanks again. Seriously this is really good.


>>> John Mugwe 05/07/07 02:40PM >>>
Sorry all for that UNEP logo...It was just a proof of capabilities.

We have now a new kml file ( see attached ) which is also going to be
uploaded on by close of the day

(See attached file: idpSomalia.kml) where anyone access it.

Best regards

John Mugwe

Thursday, 26 April 2007

SDI-EA metastasizing?

If SDI-EA was a cancer then it's showing worrisome signs of spreading. This afternoon John and I are off to the Nairobi off of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to help them bring up a web feature service.

Part of the original design concept for SDI-EA was for 'clustering'. The UN gang recognized that we really are few in numbers and short on resources so need to focus on interoperation amongst ourselves but with the goal of reaching outward to our respective sectoral communities - environment agencies, departments and NGO's in the case of UNEP, humanitarian agencies and NGO's in the case of UNHCR and OCHA, and so on. What I did not anticipate was that this spawning of second-generation sites would happen so rapidly - it's just weeks since we went to FAO/SWALIM to get their WFS running, now they're the ones promoting similar services to the likes of ICRC.

Of course, in a perfect world, it would be someone from FAO/SWALIM who would do the hand-holding with ICRC - John and I have to adopt a Teflon Approach here because cannot take on an infinite of dependants and, besides, it's better to spread the skill as widely as possible to avoid single points of future failure. Still, I really like the idea of this development and am happy to encourage it and more like it.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Some ideas for Direction

I'd like to put in front of you some ideas about where we might take this SDI-East Africa effort.

A few years back Chris Holmes, Alan Doyle and I put a paper into GSDI-8 in Cairo ( that, amongst other things, posited the idea that amongst the reason why open source is a Good Thing in Developing Countries is that it opens up the possibility for what in Kenya we'd describe as jua kali software development or customization. In other words, the opportunity to adapt methods, algorithms or services developed in one part of the world and hack them to into a customized form better suited to local application requirements. Examples that I had in mind at the time included super lightweight map viewers that stripped out many of the bells and whistles that clog up narrow communications channels. Or targeted server-side applications that would return a useful list of information rather than a whole complex map when responding to geo-spatial queries like "What airfields are best located for servicing Town X?"

But these were just speculative musings at the time. What I am now wondering, given that amongst the SDI-EA listers we have academics, students and software developers, whether it's not time to see if there's any substance to this jua kali development notion. Can we, between us, find one or two tractable problems that could (say) become project material for students who would work with knowledgeable academics and programmers to apply best open-standards and open-source practices to come up with some nice, targeted, robust little web services meeting some real community need. If we could get some collaboration going between students at different schools in different countries then, hey, so much the better.

At the other end of the spectrum there are honking great problems out there, like reliable, accurate and up-to-date gazetteer and location data that are sorely needed in this region, but such tasks are far too ambitious for a small self-motivated group like this. No, what I'm proposing here would be far more modest, more targeted, more realizable with the resources we collectively have..... any ideas out there?

PS real work continues on building SDI capacity though, I have to admit, the focus so far is within the UN. This is no just because they're the ones who pay my salary but because I know the individuals to talk to, and we have some common problems that we will benefit collectively from solving. But the real reason is that Any Time Now we will have better direct connection to the internet service providers in the region and I want to have in place some nice, meaningful services working across agencies that will show that this SDI business is not just smoke and mirrors. Maybe at that stage our regional colleagues like RCMRD, the CG centres and some of the NGOS might stat seeing some real potential in SDI-EA.

PPS there will be joint presentation at the upcoming meeting of the Committee on Development Information in Addis Ababa by UNEP and FAO that will touch on SDI-EA and the sorts of institutional (an technical, but emphasising the institutional) issues that are already emerging as we try to get this SDI stiff working. I hope this will be an opportunity to get increased interest and engagement from the likes of some of the national mapping and statistical authorities.

PPPS I am no longer directly 'spamming' mailing lists such as osgeo, SiMAC or TZGISUG; this is not because I think their members are disinterested but rather that their most motivated members have already subscribed and, rather then risk annoying the rest of the community, that we can rely on the motivated ones to pass on news about SDI-EA as they see appropriate. The invitation of course remains open for members of other communities to get involved with SDI-EA and can drop me a line or register themselves at

Friday, 13 April 2007

Quick progress, slow reporting

The past week has been really, really good, except that it has taken this long to get around to describing it. (My colleague Johannes is now back in the office so there goes one excuse for slack blogging - I guess I can still blame the Easter break for some of the dead time).

But, anyway, we've actually made one tangible piece of progress towards SDI-EA: last Thursday, 5th of April 2007, can be encribed in the chronicles as the day that any two UN agencies here in Nairobi were able to share geospatial data services. Yes, FAO/SWALIM got their production WFS on-line at and so along with UNEP's existing service at we are now able to separately and jointly serve data about Somalia to our colleagues in UNHCR, OCHA and the NGO community. The mugshot at left captures the info-warriors at their moment of victory [L to R John Mugwe (UNEP), Stephen Waswa (FAO), Mick Wilson (UNEP) and Craig von Hagen (FAO)].

The downside reality, of course, is that the comms links here in Nairobi remain a majors constraint, and the chances of anyone being able to reliably use these WFS's are pretty slim but at least a principle has been established.

And there are glimmers of hope on the horizon - this week's announcement of US$ 150 million support to kenya for broadband rollout has to help (sometime), plus the notion that the UN will real soon now be linked to the local ISPs exchange point, so at least internet traffic between UNEP and FAO won't have to go to Italy and back!

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Another Gluey Week

Almost another week past and continuing frustrations, notwithstanding the on-going interest in the exercise. In fact, I guess that's is the frustrating bit - I keep getting positive and enthusiastic responses from some really interesting-looking players and feel that I don't have the time to followup quickly eneough or in enough depth. I guess I fear that enthusiasm will wane if I don't keep the momentum up. Anyway, I hope that my colleague will be back next week and progress will be not so "gluey" as it has been in recent days.

Not to say that there's not progress: John and I are again off to FAO/SWALIM tomorrow to do install geoserver and postrgresql on their production server so that -yay!- another UN-tagged OGC-compliant system will be running in Nairobi. Perhaps not terribly zoomily but at least here, hosting East African data in here East Africa. Then all we have to do is get OCHA, UN Habitat and UNHCR enabled and at least one small target will have been met; then we'll have to start the extension to our neighbours and partners our there amongst the CG, the NGO's and so on.

We've also been boosting DEPHA (the Data Exchange Platform for the Horn of Africa - see ), up to an including getting a large chunk of high-value data for Mogadishu that the local humanitarian agencies really want but cannot afford at 160 Mb for the download plus the need to be able to host a geo-database. Fingers crossed we'll see this content (courtesy of UNOSAT) on air early next week. Strike another blow for intra-UN cooperation and brotherhood.

The SDI-EA effort also got a heathy boost being covered in the latest of GSDI's SDI-Africa newsletter. I suspect that's where the recent flurry of sign-ups to the tsk have gotten their inspiration. May this not be the last such time where we have good stuff to report!

Meanwhile, and most interestingly I feel, the one group from whom I've had least success in visibly signing onto SDI-EA are my erstwhile UN colleagues! I know they're interested and collaborative but for the life of me I just cannot get them to declare their interest publically, before the very communities that we're supposed to be impressing with out One-UN-ness.
I guess I'll just have to keep badgering them. Strange, really.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

UNEP, SDI and empowering citizens

Well, today I am UNEP's online expert-for-the-day (see for the mugshot and capsule bio.) and have actually already received a question! A citizen here in Kenya asked

Practically speaking, how can UNEP agencies engage the public in an empowering way? That is to say, from what I have observed, UN agencies act more at the policy / political level, engaging more with governments and other agencies than with the lowly man on the street. This is not particularly effective, since it is the public who at the end of the day make decisions that affect the environment and, directly or indirectly, governments (even non-democratic ones). So what would you suggest to UNEP in order to really engage with the public?"

An expurgated version of my response is given below. Please note that I actually believe most of this stuff. I believe that SDI-EA really is a step towards addressing country-level and regional needs in parallel with the systemic and global requirements of the UN as a whole.

Your question touches on what is obviously a very broad topic, and I trust that you'll understand if my reponse seems a bit blinkered by my technological perspective. Part at least of the answer to your question lies in the area of public participatory GIS (geographic information systems), a global effort involving academe, NGOs and individuals across Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular, looking for better ways to use the riches of information technology to gather and understand the concerns and aspirations of indiviuals and communities, and how best to support and empower their ability to articulate and coomunicate these to governments, donors and others (see for a better decsription).

UNEP's (and other UN agencies') involvement in and promotion of spatial data infrastrcucture development is a step in the right direction, as yet not reaching the mwananchi-in-the-street but plausibly getting there. Take an example from Kenya's recent past - the attempted excision of part of Karura forest by influencial individuals. The 'grab' was thwarted by a group of citizens including Wangari Mathai. At that time is was not feasible for those activists to quickly get hold of satellite images that would provide the before-and-after evidence needed to build their case - they would have had to contact a specialist centre like RCMRD, ICRAF or UNEP, the data would had to be requested, moneys would probably have had to change hands, and weeks later the data would arrive in Kenya by mail, have to be processed by specialists and, finally, the pictures made available to the press or whoever. Of course, by that stage, the damage would have been complete and the protest useless.

These days it's already possible that -anyone- with access to the internet could go to NASA's geoBrain site, select on a map the area around Karura, and in the space of an hour or so have downloaded just the pictures they needed - no impossibly-huge masses of data to move, no need for specialist equipment, software or staff, no paying of bills outside the country, and no waiting for months. The message can be delivered graphically and forcefully in time to be useful. This all is possible because the right technical standards and protocols are agreed and in place - the barriers to acces are (slowly?) coming down. That's what SDI's are all about. Part of UNEP's job is to encourage this process - both within the UN systems and amongst our partners and the Governments - and to continuously create awareness of the opportunities that are opening up.

Yes, of course, Kenya and many other countries are a long way from universal access to the internet. Of course telecommunications are slow, expensive and unreliable. But, still, it only takes for one individual in any advocacy group to be able to use the web, to get be able to get to a cyber cafe, and to -know- that these types of solutions can be used via the internet.

I'm sure there are lots of other UNEP-driven activities that do strive to empower the average citizen, but this is one domain in which I feel qualified to speak.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Reality Check

We're now a week and a half into this exercise and the first reality check has occurred - a colleague has been off sick all week, meaning that I've had to cover his load, meaning that the fun parts of this job (like SDI indulgences) get less attention. I guess this won't be the last such distraction but it is annoying to get enthusiastic responses to the initial invitation and not have the time to respond well.

At this stage I have about 30 expressions of interest, from as far afield as South Africa, Zimbabwe, the US and UK, from within the UN as well as academe, industry (even a cement company!) and the conservation community. Not a bad start, but I'm hoping for more a we make progress and word spreads.

My colleague John Mugwe and I last week even struck our first small blow for Real Interoperability when we visited our colleagues at FAO/ SWALIM (Somalia Water and Land Information Management System) to install the geoserver web feature service. John argues that we delivered 100% of what we promised, with SWALIM staff now able to install and run geoserver against the shapefile library (also available for doenload from their GeoNetwork node). Me, I wanted to get them up to a spatial database and pushed for installing PostgreSQL and PostGIS which all went fine, right up to the point where we actually tried ingesting their shapefiles using qGIS. Whack! Instant embaressment. Oh how we tried and struggled and seated and cursed, all to no avail. Shamefacedly did we crawl away from the scene of defeat. Humbly and contritely did we check and recheck and analyze and re-analyze what could possible have gone wrong with something that between us we've done dozens of times.

Back at the office we ripped out, reinstalled, tested and retested and just could not re-create the problem. Until, that is, we asked SWALIM to send over one of the shapefiles we'd failed with. And, Lo!, the problem resurfaces. Obviously those FAO losers have bad data. Lets test it with and import into ESRI's own products to see at what point the process stops. Except it doesn't stop. Re-export the data and try again importing to postrgreql using qGIS and it flops. Until, that is, the import-and-re-export cycle is tried again but this time not using the original shapefile name. And thus did we successfully import to postgreSQL. Why, oh why, were we struck with such problems. As it turns out the culprit was not bad software, or bad data (the FAO teams are not such losers after all), but bad file names. It seems that any name with a hyphen in it is poison to postgreSQL when it's setting up the tables. Sigh.

Now all we have to do is work out how to unsully our reputation with FAO. But at least tomorrow, perhaps, we'll be able to show the first interagency interoperation here in Nairobi.

Monday, 19 March 2007

First-round responses and an emerging plan?

Well, the first round of responses to Saturdays' invitation are coming in, all positive so far. One, in particular, promoted me to start articulating the broad outlines of a plan as to wher this unofficial SDI-EA thing might be going. Please have a look and comment telling us what you think.


Mick Wilson

03/19/2007 10:09 AM

To: Nyoike.Mugechi at
Subject: Re: Invitation for Expession of Interest to participate in an East African SDI Mashup

Thank you for your support. At this stage there are neither dates nor venues for any meetings. My plan is, initially, to survey the field and see who's interested in contributing and, as far as possible, get some organization going without disrupting too much people day-to-day. We are a net-enabled group and I think we can get some momentum going without waiting for physical meetings.

Already, in a matter of days, we have offers between agencies to help with some swapping of basic skill slike setting up OGC web feature services. Call this phase zero, out of which comes a sort of directory of "who's who in East Africa SDI stuff" and at least an initial indicator of what their capabilities and/or needs might be. This is however just a proposal and I'm open to suggestions how better to proceed.

Once past phase 0 then would be the time perhaps for some more "formal" structure. We the UN gang have an obligation and capabilities to start getting our own house in order but we don't have the assets or mandate to attempt to solve all the problems this exercise uncovers. What we can do, however, is get organized with "clusters" of our neighbours - for example, UNEP with the conservation community, wildlife management and NGOs like Green Belt Movement; UN-Habitat with civil society and social equity NGOs - and try to use scanty UN assets to boost local capabilities. Call that phase 1, and that is probably the point where some "real" meeting would yield some real results and give the local players a chance to meet each other and the UN gang. This plausibly could happen in a couple of months' time, before everyone disappears for the northern summer.

Would you mind if I copied this response to the SDI-EA list?

PS Via which did you get the invitation? Where possible I want to drop the "list of lists" approach and get individuals registered so we can do our laundry within the community and reserving announcments to more public lists for when really neat things. It'll also make it easier for you to respond directly to the list without relying on me.


Mick Wilson