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.

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