Development cooperation GIS

For almost ten years now I have been working in the areas environment and development cooperation with geographical Information Systems (GIS) as my foremost tool. My recent postings and tweets about the theme begs for a proper term and a definition. I have chosen development cooperation GIS. For my tweets I will follow up with the twitter hashtag #devcogis.

Looking at the term development cooperation GIS I will point to related policy level work and exemplify the development cooperation GIS by highlighting current projects where it could find its use. I will also briefly present parts of my own work and discuss challenges in development cooperation GIS.

Development cooperation GIS

There is nothing special about the GIS as such in development cooperation GIS. Wether it is Uganda, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Norway or the USA GIS is a tool to make complex spatial information more readily available for its users. The difference between GIS in a developing country and countries like Norway and the USA is the level of penetration in the potential “markets”. For many reasons developing countries may lack capacity, legal mandates, awareness, equipment, software, initiative or even will – to start using GIS in their government administrations.

Development cooperation GIS is therefore a process where partners in the development cooperation meet on a technical level to work on issues which restricts the use of GIS and through this also restricts development. The shared aim for the partners is to promote the development of the developing country.

Development cooperation GIS – drafting the systems (Illustration: Ragnvald)

Before continuing I think time has come to clarify some of the most central terminology in this posting.


Development is defined in many ways. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) describes the outcome of a development processes as a situation where people in general can have a better life:

UNDP is the United Nations’ global development network, an organization advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. (Source: UNDP)

For a more operationalized understanding of development the UN millennium development goals illustrates how the global community works towards development:

The Millennium Project was commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2002 to develop a concrete action plan for the world to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to reverse the grinding poverty, hunger and disease affecting billions of people. In 2005, the independent advisory body headed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, presented its final recommendations to the Secretary-General in a synthesis volumeInvesting in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The bulk of the Project’s work was carried out by 10 thematic Task Forces, each of which also presented its own detailed recommendations in January 2005. The Task Forces comprised a total of more than 250 experts from around the world including: researchers and scientists; policymakers; representatives of NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank, IMF and the private sector. (Source:

There is also a wikipedia article on development studies which provides access to a wider list of definitions. Good intentions for the well being of other humans pretty much seems to be the common denominator.

Development cooperation is when a developing country enters into a partnership with a more developed country to work on a thematic area with development as an expected outcome.

Development cooperation GIS is when GIS is an important tool in one or more thematic areas under the development cooperation.

Policy level development cooperation GIS

In a recent speech by US Ambassador Betty King at the conference “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for the United Nations and the International Community” the Ambassador conveyed a good insight on global challenges and how solutions based on GIS could help solve them. More to the point she offered examples of how the UN Millennium development goals can be achieved with the contributions of GIS. Her aexamples were many.

To get an overview of how individual countries are performing  one could also use GIS. On a global scale this has been done through the establishment of of the MDG Monitor which helps with visualization. To evaluate performance and help shaping new policies this GIS tool is essencial.

Figure 2: MDG Monitor showing land area covered by forest per country

The MDG monitor makes use of land cover data in combination with country borders. With some straightforward calculations, cartography and a web map system MDG monitor gives us a good overview of how nations are doing on their way towards the UN millennium development goal number 7 – Environment.

Practical GIS

On a more practical level development cooperation GIS contributes to establishing information flow by supporting collection, storage and dissemination of spatial data. The data can then be subject to analysis, generalization and more. This again can support processes and products like Environmental Impact Assessments, Strategical Environmental Assessments, Environmental atlases, Sensitivity Atlases, National level State of the Environment, different types of clearing houses and much more.

Common for all data is that they must be part of a workflow like this:

Figure 3: The very basics of a geographical information system.

Data collection usually serves one initial purpose. Later the data might find some other purpose(s) as well. A well documented process is important to facilitate for intended use, as well as for other use at a late stage. Explaining the process and the data handling is done through establishing meta-data. The TC211 meta data standard could be used to document datasets. The collection process might also have implications on the legal status of the data – as well as on a host of other issues.

Storing data requires the custodian to keep track of meta data and to make sure that the data integrity is kept. It might sound easy, but in countries lacking a spatial data infrastructure this is not easy. If the original data is not kept apart from that flow it can easily loose it’s integrity. In other words – data should be kept in a one-way only storage system. Routines for making backups should also be established. This and more constitutes long term access to the data. If it fails the data is gone forever.

Dissemination is usually a difficult one. With governmental institutions operating in an environment with unclear mandates and a weak legal framework, data sharing is not straightforward. Sharing the wrong data even for the right reasons could get the GIS operator or institution into trouble. With legal issues out of the way battling with low bandwidth, lack of knowledge to run GIS servers, lack of funding for GIS servers and server software (if one should choose to use commercial alternatives) could provide enough problems to stop the process. The Open Geospatial Consortium is an organization which has provided the GIS community with standards for exchange of data. Knowing about the different standards and how to use them is more than enough for mere mortals.

Figure 4: Systems in environmental data management

The collection, storage and dissemination should find its place in a data management practice existing of the entities mentioned in the above figure. A policy describing the institutions and responsibilities in the chain could be very usefull.

All data should of course serve a purpose. In other words there should always be a question where the above process leads to an understanding which again could lead to a decission. Working with GIS is expensive and rather pointless if it can’t be part in changing the physical world in one way or the other. The information made available through the process should contribute to changes – and in this context to development.

My own work

Part of my job is to contribute to development assistance projects. On these occasions I travel to environmental administrations in developing countries and look at how systems and procedures related to environmental data infrastructure are set up and managed.

Figure 5: Structuring data. From a process where we tried to get an overview of available data.

If mandated, contributing to processes developing skills and methods often follow such visits. I have so far been actively involved in Zambia, Uganda, Timor-Leste and Ghana. I also spent around one and a half year working with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute working together with them on developing wildlife survey systems and databases.

In an earlier posting I presented thoughts about development aid and technology in the two postings Open source software and development aid and Environmental Spatial Data Infrastructure – technology. I have also also written about a workshop i ran in Timor Leste. The development of relevant tools to support this type of processes is also part of my contributions.


One of the main challenges  in my own work, and probably also for other development cooperation GIS practitioners, is project sustainability. The German Technical Cooperation says it this way:

The sustainability of GIS projects is still questionable in quite a number of countries as they are rarely developed by insiders but most often by external advisors and consultants who leave the country once the pilot project has been finished leaving the intended users without sufficient skills to make use of it.
(Source: Geographical Information Systems (GIS), The spatial Dimension to Development Cooperation. 2009. GTZ)

Development cooperation GIS relies on many partners, governments, NGOs, commercial companies and consultants. It is a complex game of networking, knowing the tools of the trade, being able to make decent presentations, being able to stand up and comment when the discussions loose direction and much more.

The work within development cooperation GIS has received a lot of help from commercial partners like ESRI, FME and many more. Professionally I have rather big problems with the way ESRI in particular supports partners in developing countries. I have gone into detail on this issue in an other blog posting.

Concluding remarks

I am one of the GIS consultants trying to make my contributions sustainable. I work with environmental data for a reason. I believe that a sustainable management of our earth is possible if we are able to provide relevant and up-to-date information to our decision makers – the politicians. I believe in our politicians, although I in dark moments have my doubts about their abilities to look beyond the 4 year horizon to the next election.

I believe we are all trying to make development cooperation GIS work. Sometimes we will fail, but more often than not we will contribute to ever lasting changes in the governments governments and institutions of developing countries.

Other sources of information

  • Esri
    ESRI provides the most commonly used desktop and server GIS systems.
  • Global Information Society Watch
    GISWatch is a collaborative community committed to building an open, inclusive and sustainable information society.
  • Norad
    Norad is the Norwegian directorate for Development Cooperation
  • OpenGEO
    The OpenGEO consortium is a geospatial division of openplans aiming at bringing the best practices of open source software to organizations around the world.
  • Tanzania Conservation Resource Centre
    TZCRC is an Arusha-based NGO working to facilitate for research and education in Tanzania.
  • Tanzania GIS User Group
    TZGISUG is a loose constallation of GIS practitioners in Tanzania.
  • UNEP


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