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.