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

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Putting My Head on the Block

Usually, in my home country Australia, we'd describe what I've just done using a much more personal bit of the male anatomy, but there we are.

Without mandate, without permission, without budget or recognition, I have today invited a group of troublemakers within the United Nations system - and beyond - to launch a real-world attempt to build a spatial data infrastructure here in East Africa. "Yippee-yoo, and so what?", I hear you ask. Then consider these facts:
  • we are trying to apply some absurdly advanced technologies - geographical information systems, satellite image analysis, data mining and integration - in a place that is very far removed from Silicon Valley or NASA HQ
  • we have urgent and immediate humanitarian issues to respond to every day, with real peoples' lives and well-being and futures at stake
  • we have to manage urgent environmental issues - wildlife conservation, sustainable resource usage, and on and on - most of which by their very nature cross boundaries, -whether national, cultural, social, tribal - that can only be bridged by fair and acceptable information
  • we have a telecommunications infrastructure that stinks, and many of you reading this will have more bandwidth to you home than the whole of a country like Kenya.
So, on this thin trampoline of good intentions, a group of us working in UN bodies here in Nairobi, have taken it upon ourselves to do what - so far - has only partially been done with large-scale federally-funded initiatives, to whit: make a practical case that the open-standard principles of SDIs can really help disparate groups like UN agencies and their partners tackle deep and immediate problems in immediate and measurable ways. Can we cut waste? Can we cut the crap of agencies not sharing? Can we pull in more partners, like the US military, on the basis of goodwill and clever data access and sharing agreements.

Most of these problems have not yet been addressed in the "easy" parts of the world. And us dummies are going to take them on here.

Why such silliness?

Because Nairobi hosts an implausible concentration of skilled and capable individuals that can actually make this stuff work, to get the data flowing, with what are now mature technologies that can deployed open-source or proprietary - who cares, as long as they have open-standard interfaces - committed to address practical questions. In fact, we may have one of the densest concentrations of such players anywhere. If not, who cares?

There are over 25 UN agencies with offices (or headquarters) in Nairobi. There are two international agricultural research institutions (ILRAD and ICRAF), a colossal number of NGOs, universities, commercial players and government departments all using spatial data, and none of them effectively discovering, integrating or embellishing it. The duplication and waste is horrid. The frustrations are tangible. The bottlenecks are universal, well-known and largely ignored rather than tackled.

So this idealistic group now choose to tackle them. A core group of UN agencies - FAO, OCHA, UNEP, UNHCR, UN-Habitat and UN_ECA - will attempt to clean up one small corner of the UN's backyard as a step towards a UN Spatial Data Infrastructure, as a step towards the reformed UN's "Delivering as One", as a step towards increasing the value that the UN delivers to countries in this region, and in step with the social, economic and environmental needs of counties in this region.

I sincerely hope that subsequent posts are going to be way more about our collective experiences, frustration and surprises. I hope that what we do here can help Write The Book about how SDI might be done in other parts of the planet. I hope we actually make a measurable difference that we can take some small pride in.