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Launch of Mapping Website in Kenya Garners Praise, Commitments

Two weeks ago, WRI and Kenyan partners Upande Ltd., Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, Jacaranda Designs Ltd., and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) launched Virtual Kenya, an interactive website designed to improve Kenyans’ access to spatial information and cutting-edge mapping technologies. At the launch event, two Kenyan government officials committed to support the project and contribute data, all in the name of increasing access to information and improving education, environmental management, and development planning in the country.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for education

The Honorable Peter Kenneth, Assistant Minister of State for Planning, National Development, and Vision 2030, gave the keynote remarks at the official launch of Virtual Kenya. Citing the government’s commitment to becoming a leader in education and training, Hon. Kenneth stressed the importance of e-learning tools to “help our children learn and appreciate the important issues of environment and development.”

He praised Virtual Kenya for exposing educators and students to the latest spatial analysis tools – including geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and mobile phone-enabled mapping. Crucially, Hon. Kenneth offered to “partner with the Ministry of Education to encourage e-learning schools to use Virtual Kenya for their geography classes.” The Virtual Kenya project will be pilot-testing these tools in 2,000 upper primary and secondary schools around the country and hopes to work closely with Hon. Kenneth and the Ministry of Education to bring this initiative to scale.

Promoting transparency and accountability through access to information

In addition to using ICT for education, several speakers at the launch event emphasized the importance of new internet technologies for “promoting transparency” in the context of Kenya’s new Constitutional provisions on access to information. As Hon. Kenneth explained,

The spirit of the new constitutional dispensation is pushing for more transparency in decision making. Kenyans play an important role in keeping their leaders accountable…This requires making data accessible and readily available. Virtual Kenya, with its web-based spatial tools, opens the door to apply national crowd sourcing…to meet this transparency requirement.

Both Hon. Kenneth representing Gatanga constituency and Hon. Wilbur Ottichilo, Member of Parliament representing Emuhaya constituency, committed to making data on their Constituencies available on the Virtual Kenya website to promote transparency and accountability. The Virtual Kenya team hopes to take advantage of this opportunity with the help of additional support to process and upload these data.

This is an important step, as a lack of access to spatial information has been a chronic problem in Kenya. Many students, professionals, and interested citizens in Kenya have so far only been able to access limited spatial data sets of variable quality. By making high quality 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.

Ms. Anne Angwenyi of the Embassy of Denmark, which supported the development of Virtual Kenya, echoed these sentiments: “We believe that it is only by sharing of information and data analysis that development programmes supported by not only donors but also the Government are enriched.” Ms. Angwenyi further predicted that, “the sort of interactive media platform created by Virtual Kenya will in the very near future be critical in helping development partners prioritize hot-spot areas based on the best available data.”

Supporting planning and development in Kenya’s new counties

Kenya’s new Constitution, approved by voters in August 2010, creates new county level governments to decentralize power throughout the country. As Hon. Kenneth noted in his remarks,

“With the devolution of power to the county level, accountability and transparency is paramount, but, most importantly, planning, and thereby development, of our country will rely more and more on information and tools for visualization of this development. Virtual Kenya is going to be so important towards this end with its Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing features.

“Furthermore, Virtual Kenya is designed to include several easy-to-use web-based mapping tools that can be used to examine the features of individual counties, such as roads, water points and health facilities, among others. The website further allows users without Internet access to connect to the Virtual Kenya community via mobile phone technology. It also accommodates data downloads and enables the creation of an experts’ community. My Ministry will be keen to participate in these efforts by making data available on-line and assigning one staff to be involved in the on-line community.”

Hon. Kenneth encouraged other stakeholders “to make their data available to Virtual Kenya” to ensure that the website continues to host accurate, up-to-date spatial data that can support planning and development across a variety of scales and sectors in Kenya.

Building the Virtual Kenya community

Following the launch of the Virtual Kenya website, an extensive national outreach program will be implemented by Upande Ltd., the Nairobi-based firm behind the website, along with the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya (WCK), Jacaranda Designs Ltd., and ILRI, who together have developed offline educational materials to complement the website.

Upande Ltd. will work closely with university professors and other GIS professionals in Kenya to develop an online expert network that will facilitate the sharing of data, publications, and lesson plans related to spatial analysis. In addition, WCK and ILRI have partnered with Jacaranda Designs, Ltd. to publish a series of learning resources, including wall maps, student activity booklets, and a teacher’s guide. These resources will help teachers in upper primary and secondary schools incorporate the tools and data featured on the Virtual Kenya website in their classrooms, even if they don’t yet have access to the Internet. WCK Education Officers will also travel to 2,000 schools across the country and deliver the learning resources as part of a training program to roughly half a million students and their teachers.

Please visit this website again in December to learn more about the impact of these outreach efforts.

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