Tuesday, 2 December 2008

RIP SDI-EA ver 1?

I am about to rant.

This blog has - let's face it - been pretty moribund this year and it's time to put it out of its misery, at least in its current form.

The good news is that the ad hoc SDI-East Africa effort, as it was, has been overtaken by events and - in a perfect world, rightfully - been made redundant. How so? Firstly, the work that started in 2007 was possible because certain individuals had enough institutional leeway to get away with it. Many of those individuals have moved to other organization, had their responsibilities shifted, or - as in my own case - found their institutions shifting around them. One key institution seems destined to non-existence, period.

Meanwhile, Kenya got off to a very rocky start to 2008 that focussed many origanizations' attention on life-and-death realities of addressing real humanitarian needs, not indulging in the abstract niceties of data sharing. A lot of institutional momentum was lost. November 2007 saw the SDI-EA showcase exercise for UNGIWG and then.... nothing.

So, now, to SDI-EA 2.0, or Son-of-SDI-EA, of SDI-EA - the Next Generation or whatever we seek to call it. Why will this be better, stronger and faster? Firstly, it seems that its natural institutional home is coming of age. A year ago, NASA and USAID opened negotiations around the notion of a SERVIR-Africa, building on the experiences building SERVIR at CATHALAC in Panama. SERVIR has been described before in this blog and elsewhere in ways that don't need re-hashing here. What is newsworthy is that, just over a week ago, Africa-SERVIR was inaugurated at the Regional Centre or Mapping for Resource Development (RCMRD) in Nairobi. The lights are on, the disks are spinning, the staff are trained. Now, let the apppications begin.

Why is RCMRD a 'natural home' for SDI-EA? Because it has a regional mandate to serve over 15 states. Because it is already a centre of technical excellence. Because it has a long track record - nearly 30 years - of international partnership and support from many OECD countries. because its management 'get' the notion of SDI as a necessary tool for national development in its constituent states, and because they are good neighbours to and collaborators in their host country's efforts to build a Kenyan national SDI. No agency of the UN system based in Nairobi has so many of the right attributes.

Secondly: the institutional context for the UN bodies that kick-started SDI-EA is also changing. Namely, the evolution of a UN SDI that stands to move these types of data and service sharing initiatives out of the realm of well-meaning amateurism into one that programme managers can understand and treat seriously. To whit: the meeting of UNGIWG in Vienna last month saw 31 UN agencies unanimously endorse a statement directed to the highest levels of UN management that SDI is a necessary capability in which the UN must invest.

The text of statement has not appeared on-line yet but the fact that such a variety of interests - headquarters, field operations, humanitarian, food security, disaster relief, environment, nuclear regulation, public health, security and peace keeping - sent such a clear message all the more powerful at a time when UN business is under heavy scrutiny and the demands for reform are strident. Yay. Back that statement up with a clear, deliverable work plan - also agreed at UNGIWG-9 - and it now almost becomes behoving upon UN management and donors as to why such a sensible, noble and widely-agreed recommendation ought not get the funding it needs.

So: SDI-EA can now legitimately be seen as the juxtaposition between delivery a UN-wide joined-up services and a regional-wide clientele leveraged by RCMRD, an example of what I think of as an 'apex network' - the type of hight value single point of contact through which the limited resources of the UN can reach the greatest number of Member States. Let UNEP work across eastern and southern Africa with RCMRD and with UNHCR and FAO and UNIDO and WHO to join up services to focus on issues of environment and health, or climate change and ecosystem management, or the social and environmental dimension of agri-business such biofuels.

Let the applications begin. Roll on SDI-EA 2.0

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Benefits of Open Access Data Policies

Tom hammond at IUCN Canada posted the following to the Conservation Commons mailing list today. It describes the measurable impact felt when Canada opened up access to what had previously been fee-based access to standard framework national data sets, and you'll see that the result is impressive.

What I will be more curious to see is what effect this has on the quality of these data once they're being used more by more people in more different applications - more aggressively perhaps - and the Government starts getting specific feedback about inaccuracies, omissions and required updates. A key component of the "Better Data Sooner" mantra is that community-driven feedback is the best driver for custodians' continuous improvement of their data products and services.

Perhaps the Canadians are providing a real-world laboratory in which to test this theory.

" The HYPERLINK http://www.cits.rncan.gc.ca/cit/servlet/CIT/site_id=01&page_id=1-005-002-001.html National Topographic Data Base (NTDB) comprises digital vector data sets that cover the entire Canadian landmass. This product includes thirteen“layers” such as hydrography, hypsography and the road network.

" The NTDB is a complete and uniform product that can be highly useful in a broad range of activities– such as planning, research,conservation work,and private sector development. For example, it can be used for preparing thematic maps and makes it suitable for geographic information system (GIS) applications because the NTDB and its attributes make it possible to use a variety of spatial analysis techniques.

" Downloads of NTDB data during the government fiscal year ending in 2007, when a fee for use policy was still in place, numbered under100,000. A change of policy was enacted during the current fiscal year making the NTDB an open access resource– during which downloads jumpedby a magnitude of 54to well over 5 million."

HYPERLINK http://www.thinkwell.ca/cgdi-icdg/libraryDocs/FeevsFree.pdf

Saturday, 17 May 2008

'Scraping'the web for geo-information

By now most of us will have seen the joint ESRI/Google announcements at Where 2.0 about the upcoming ability to use Google Earth and Google Maps to discover, locate and portray geo-data hosted in ESRI ver 9.3 geo-server stacks to be released later this year.

In the interest of balance (and with no desire to provoke any flame wars) I draw your attention to another announcement at Where 2.0 addressing Geoserver's upcoming 1.7.0 release with similar capability - see http://blog.geoserver.org/2008/05/13/geoserver-and-googles-geo-search/

The point here is not about commercial versus free versus proprietary versus open source software. It's about two other more important things.

First: the maturation and acceptance of standards. Google has embraced the OGC specifications process and KML is now an anointed OGC standard; ESRI has embraced the OGC specifications standard and is positioning its products appropriately (e.g. ver 9.3 will also provide a fully-compliant web feature service as well as full support for PostgreSQL/PostGIS back-ends). The more this momentum build the more of this joined-up capability we'll all benefit from.

Second: the maturation and acceptance of visualization tools for non-specialists. If the Google/ESRI announcement had happened 5 years ago there'd have been barely a ripple outside the hard-core GIS community. The fact that The Rest of Us can now contemplate being able to publish geo-information (whether social and community based, conservation-related or whatever) --and-- have it discovered, integrated, employed and appreciated by non-specialists audiences via attractive spinny-globe-type-products is a powerful combination.

What is crucial here, and to me will make or break this effort, is the ready availability of easy-to-use tools to take my existing geo-data and get it into a search-able, discover-able, use-able form without having to have a masters degree and without having to learn to speak techno-babble. And that is equally true whether 'I' am individual Mick Wilson or whether 'I' am a multi-national conglomerate.

We need to keep lowering the bar to the publishing of real-world data about real-world events by real-world-people.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A Little Ray of Sunshine

Well! Finally some light falling upon what has been a decidedly dark and gloomy SDI-EA landscape over the past few months, at least I hope so for the practitioners in this region.

I yesterday discovered that, after almost a year of hushed expectation, the UN in Nairobi has finally gotten operational with KIX, the local Kenyan internet exchange point. The upshot is that users of any of the local network providers in Kenya now have much better access to web services operated at UNEP Headquarters. And by 'much' I mean that I tested it from home last over my dial-up connection and response times to sites like http://dewa03.unep.org/geoserver/ or http://www.dephadata.org were about 1/20th what they used to be. The practical consequence is that there is now a chance for real operational interoperation with partners in Nairobi like KNSDI (who, by the way, have started operating a geo-portal at, the CG centres, FAO/SWALIM, KWS, ACC and the like. The long-awaited showcases recommended at the Better Data Faster workshop last October might start making better headway.

And for the tech-heads out there - why does the KIX link make so much difference? Because, up until last week, internet packets going from my house in Nairobi to servers at UNEP Nairobi had to go all the way to Canada, across to Italy then back to Nairobi via the UN satellite links; of course, responses from the servers then had to traverse that path the other way a total of 4 satellite hops to geostationary orbit and back and each introducing 750 ms latency because of the finite speed of light. It was impossible to get a response in less than 3 seconds, no matter how speedily the servers at UNEP run. Then there's the factor of congestion i.e. that the satellite links are expensive and therefore kept as narrow as possible, which means at peak times packets have to queue and so are further delayed. In short, the UNEP internet experience was less than dazzling for folk here in east Africa. The link to KIX eliminates all that fiddling around with satellites and enables a brisker user experience. Yay.

So, why have these past months been "dark and gloomy"? A number of factors...

First was the whole disturbed environment in Kenya at the start of the year, which rightly preoccupied most GIS workers either professionally or domestically, so there was little chance to maintain momentum. Secondly, I lost my loyal and faithful sidekick John Mugwe for lack of contract renewal. When it came to delivering hands-on training about geographic web services in local institutions, John was far better able to communicate the practicality of OWS setup and operations than I ever was with my tendency to talk over peoples' heads. So the whole capacity building effort has ground to a halt as well. Thirdly, UNEP as a whole and the section where I work (the Division of Early Warning and Assessment) has been going through a protracted period of programme re-alignment, so it's been back-to-back management retreats for the better part of a month, with all that that entails about re-crafting work plans, drafting strategy papers and the likes. Little time left to even think about SDI-EA.

Anyway, I hope that's all history and that we can get back on track. We've just gone past the first anniversary of SDI-EA (yay, again) and I guess we can point to some progress but still have a ways to go....

And a question for next time: we now have the global geospatial xperts social networking site, which has in a few days attracted an impressive amount of talent (over 620 players) from around the world. I have set up an SDI-EA group there and now wonder: should I migrate this blog that new home? Your opinions, please.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Life and Times in Nairobi

The post-election violence in various parts of Kenya was front-page news for at least two or three days, a remarkably long period. Kenya will be months or years recovering from the aftermath, one dimension of which is more than 200,000 people estimated by the UN to have been displaced. Setting up camps and safe-guarding the inhabitants, ensuring food and medical supplies, establishing and maintaining sanitation are task that will keep UN agencies, NGOs, IGOs, church groups and the Government engaged long after the story has ceased to be even page 10 newsworthy.

The crisis has - no surprise here - exposed a number of shortcomings in the management of the information needed to plan and manage responses. The story has been the same old confusion, duplication, crossed efforts and lost time that always seems to mark such times. Yes, of course, crises always occur at the most inconvenient time and the circumstances in Kenya were particularly confounding - key staff are out of town or out of the country because it's still holiday time here means that many ; the UN in Nairobi effectively closed down for the whole Christmas - New Year week and then stayed closed for the first week of January, with staff ostensibly 'working' from home so no access to servers or datasets that weren't visible to the internet; some key staff who happen to have data on their computers can't get to office safely. Mostly, though it exposes the fact that few agencies as yet manage and publish their data in ways that enable true use and re-use a la SDI.

Pertinent points include:
  • UN bodies in New York seeking to upgrade their security plans for Nairobi, and looking for the data used to create the last set of maps, couldn't find them and contacted me (at home) by e-mail (on a Friday night) wondering if I could find the right people they think might have had the right data;
  • the custodians of the data respond, but one's out of town on holiday, one is in town but cannot get to the office, and anyway the data are on the hard disk of a third staff member's PC and they don't have the password;
  • the data were never published to the web, nor was their metadata, because they were prepared as a small contract job and no-one thought there'd be any re-use. Whoops.
  • a colleague in another agency not only has the requested data (not just the PDFs) but even better built up for their own purposes since, but shouldn't distribute them as per agreement with their originator... but then again his agency has rectified the data and extended their attributes so, yes, okay, he sends the data to New York, who are appropriately appreciative...
  • ...except that the data dispatched are in a proprietary format because that's what they use in their office. Does New York use the same software? I have no idea but would think it a damn shame if NY couldn't use the data for lack of a software license...
  • ...and, meanwhile, a third colleague charged with coordinating information management for humanitarian response is sending out requests to the same people for the same type of data, admittedly for different application but still involving the same players in more work.
They foregoing highlights just how far we have to go with an exercise like SDI-EA before we can claim real legitimacy:
  • where is the one-stop shop catalogue discovery system that would enable to New York to at least confirm the identity of the custodian of the original data? Such catalogues are alive and kicking in Nairobi (see FAO/SWALIM's GeoNetwork node) as resources for the community - why aren't they being used?
  • where are the metadata being routinely published that describe the sort of interim data products that underlay the UN security plans, that in a very real sense have been produced using taxpayers money, but are allowed to languish in dark cupboards?
  • where is the sense of planning for re-use, of seeking to maximize return-on-investment on these data products? Why is it not yet routine that all data end up in managed repositories from where maybe they could be published to the web? in vendor-neural formats that guarantee their re-usability?
  • where are the instances data improvers being willing to return to the data originator the enhancements that they've made? Can we ever expect to do better than using the same old tired framework layers from DCW or whatever if no-one is prepared to feed back to authoritative custodians their improvements made to baseline products?
  • where are the mechanisms by which data improvements can be proposed or lodged? How many data distributors have procedures in place for dealing with feedback from their users when it comes to quality improvement?
Sorry to start the New Year with a rant like this but these issues are to important to not grasp an opportunity to highlight them. Fine we can talk melodramatically about "life and death situations in Kenya" and not be entirely exaggerating, but even the prosaic tasks of getting food distributed to camps on time, or ensuring that water is tanked from the most accessible clean sources, can help alleviate an otherwise completely miserable situation for thousands and thousands of people.