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

No comments: