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.