Maps-R-Us? Geodata and Moving Beyond Data Visualization

Geodata is popping up everywhere. Companies, agencies and organizations now dazzle audiences with beautiful graphics that are supposed to represent what’s happening in a given industry, geographic area etc. Uber, the car service has maps that show the location of every Uber driver across the world, in what they call “God View.”

At the February Technology Salon “How Can Geographic Data Improve Development Outcomes?” specialists wrestled with topics such as benefits and challenges of geodata, and accessibility.  Participants said development organizations have the skills to create maps now, but most are figuring out how to take maps past 3-D visualization,and, what one participant called the Cambrian explosion of maps. The geodata specialists want to move the application beyond “Maps-R-Us,” to prove the analytical value that geodata can bring to aid work. Would aid projects benefit from having a “God View?”
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Carrie Stokes of USAID GeoCenter and Mika Valitalo of Plan Finland started the discussion.

Benefits of Geospatial Information

Geospatial information specialists discussed a number of benefits for geodata in aid. The first one is that organizations can map resources on the ground. This is not limited to people (although one discussant said it is much harder to map people than things).Participants said through the use of geospatial information, they have been able to pin point where their field teams are working. Other orgs have used maps to indicate where latrines or water sources are. One discussant said the biggest boon of geodata may be better overall coordination to break down silos in development sectors. As surprising as it sounds, most participants agreed project leaders from the education sector rarely sit down with agriculture project leaders and so on. One discussant proposed that maps could be the medium to actually bring these different parties into a room together to talk about resources.

Challenges in Using Geodata

Most specialists agreed there are several factors that prevent Geodata from being as useful as it could be to aid orgs. The first is the issue of data collection. This takes money and time. Some orgs described trying to take census numbers in a given community, and deciding if new numbers are needed or if 5-year-old data is relevant. Some participants proposed organizations working in the same geographical areaor sector should share some of this basic data, because so many organizations are duplicating efforts to get baseline numbers for projects. This brought up the competitive nature of aid projects. Some organizations in the past have been hesitant to share this information because of competition for procurement. Several attendees voiced concern that geodata as a practice is extractive. Who is the data really for? Donors? Communities? Aid orgs? These participants pointed out the lack of access to basic tools like computers in some of these areas prevent communities from participating in the mapping, let alone if the have the broadband speed to access maps. As discussed in the M&E Salon a few months ago, how will information be communicated to people who have the power to affect change based on the data?
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Geodata and Accessibility

One participant said the aid field is currently in a renaissance for sharing data. There is now more data available then ever before. Many organizations are concerned about accessibility and licensure, and how to pool resources among orgs to stop duplicating efforts. Some said this is only possible through using open-source platforms. Some agencies said that they are working towards sharing more of the data they have, but this release requires a process and tools. They have to sort through personal information, what is useful to share, and what is unnecessary. Both the World Bank and the UN have chosen to use open-source platforms for their geodata work. In projects where they work with communities to create maps, they have chosen these platforms to ensure that people in communities have rights to the data.

Geodata still has a ways to go in terms of capabilities and analysis. As many participants pointed out, just creating maps or gathering data does very little without analysis and communicating the information to people who can do something. It could take an overarching organization or agency to work towards a “God View” of these projects and figure out how to bring them together.

Written by Asia Hege, a Kurante Associate and future development expert.

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