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‘Virtual Kenya’ online access to maps will improve the country’s environment and development planning

Bruce Scott, Director of PartILRI director Bruce Scott addresses guests at Bio-Innovate Program launch

Bruce Scott, director of Partnerships and Communications at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), was a main speaker at the launch of ‘Virtual Kenya’ at Nairobi’s iHub this week (photo credit: ILRI/Mungai).

Spatial information—including where different populations live and where natural resources are located—is essential for sound development planning and decision-making. A new website launched today, Virtual Kenya, opens up a wealth of maps and spatial data about the country for citizens and students to use.

‘In 2007, the World Resources Institute published Nature’s Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being in partnership with the [Kenya] Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing, the [Kenya] Central Bureau of Statistics, and the International Livestock Research Institute [ILRI]. Through a series of maps and geo-spatial analyses, the Atlas explains the relationships between Kenyans’ daily lives and the environmental resources they rely on most, such as soil, water, forest, rangeland, livestock, and wildlife.

‘This publication has already been used to promote better management of Kenya’s natural resources and to shape Kenya’s Draft National Environment Policy. The National Environmental Management Authority also used the Atlas’ underlying data to set up its first Geographic Information System (GIS) unit, established to support the mapping and analysis of spatial data on Kenya’s environment.

‘However, users with little GIS expertise previously had limited access to the extensive data used to produce the Atlas, and Kenya’s low Internet connectivity made it difficult even for advanced GIS users to download data and charts from the Atlas.

‘By making public data sets more accessible, Virtual Kenya provides planners and policy makers with the spatial information they need to make evidence-based decisions for improved environment and development planning.

‘Since the Atlas was released in 2007, Kenya’s access to telecommunications technology has grown rapidly. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of Internet users in Kenya nearly doubled, from just over 1 million to 3 million users. As of 2009, nearly 4 million Kenyans were online, and this number has likely grown significantly since East Africa’s first fiber optic cable reached Mombasa that same year, bringing with it previously unimaginable opportunities for sharing information with even the most remote parts of the region.

‘Kenyan entrepreneurs have been among the first in East Africa to realize the potential this new connectivity offers for increased spatial data sharing. In the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 elections, Ushahidi—a Kenyan non-profit technology company that develops free and open source software for interactive mapping—created a website for people to report acts of post-election violence using mobile phones, text messages and a Google map. Taking advantage of similar open source technology to store, analyze, manage and display spatial data, Upande Ltd., a Nairobi-based technology start-up, is launching Virtual Kenya to revolutionize the way Kenyans access and understand public spatial data sets for better decision-making, development planning, and education.

‘As Hon. Dr. Wilbur Ottichilo, Member of Parliament and former Director General of the Nairobi-based Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD), explained in an interview with Upande:

You can’t talk of planning without information. This country has failed for the last forty years in our endeavor to develop because planning has not been based on information, but on political whims. I want planning to be objective, and to be able to do that, you need information.

‘By making public data sets more accessible and encouraging users to add their own GIS-related content to the platform, Virtual Kenya will provide planners and policy makers with the spatial information they need to make evidence-based decisions for improved environment and development planning. For example, by creating a map showing the location of elephants alongside the location of cropped fields, analysts can identify areas where wildlife are likely to conflict with human activities. Decision-makers can then use this analysis to, for instance, direct assistance in the form of elephant-proof fences or crop insurance to farmers in these areas.

‘A lack of access to spatial information has been a chronic problem in Kenya. Hon. Dr. Ottichilo noted, “We have so much information stuck in government offices, in our universities, in our research institutions, but all this information is with individuals and is not always accessible to the public.” Without the necessary contacts and permissions, most Kenyans are unable to take advantage of these valuable data. . . .’

Read the whole article on the World Resources Institute website: Improved internet access brings better mapping and spatial data to Kenya, 22 June 2011.

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