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 http://212.49.76.177:8080/Portal), 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.

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