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Improved Internet Access Brings Better Mapping and Spatial Data to Kenya

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 Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing, the Central Bureau of Statistics, and the International Livestock Research Institute. 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.

Growing Internet Access

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.

Spatial Information and Kenya’s Development Goals

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.

Overcoming a Lack of Access to Spatial Data

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.

An Upande interview with Edward Mutuma, Chairperson of the Geospatial Engineering Students Association at the University of Nairobi, confirmed that students can typically only access limited data sets through their lecturers, but these data are rarely up to date and are often insufficient to meet students’ project goals. Mr. Mutuma also stressed that while students – and employers – are increasingly interested in using new mapping tools like Google Earth to solve problems both in the classroom and in the field, there has so far been little support for these technologies.

Virtual Kenya can help overcome these challenges by collecting existing public data sets in one easy-to-use interface and combining it with cutting-edge mapping technology.

Teaching the next generation of leaders

Virtual Kenya also seeks to inspire Kenya’s future leaders to make better use of the wealth of spatial information and innovative mapping technologies available to them.

By taking advantage of these resources, students will sharpen their ability to interpret maps and draw inferences from geospatial data. Through community-based outreach activities, students can also apply these skills to support wildlife conservation and better environmental management in their schools and communities. With these tools and knowledge in hand, the next generation of leaders will be empowered to make better decisions for a more sustainable Kenya.

Examples from Virtual Kenya

The greatest concentration of mammal species (more than 69 species, indicated by the dark brown-shaded areas) is most likely to be found in Kenya’s central and western highlands – areas that are now dominated by cropland and human settlements (Figure 1). Understanding the spatial distribution of different species is important for assessing the effects on wildlife from the ever-expanding reach of human activities and settlements into formerly undisturbed habitat. For instance, the expansion of large-scale mechanized agriculture and human settlements into the dry-season wildlife range can interfere with the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras to Masai Mara Game Reserve from the Serengeti plains of Tanzania.

The high variability of rainfall throughout the seasons, between years, and across space has influenced the distribution of plants, animals and humans in Kenya (Figure 2). The blue and green areas along the Indian Ocean, in central Kenya close to Nairobi, and in western Kenya bordering Lake Victoria have annual rainfall totals of more than 800 millimeters – the minimum amount necessary for growing rainfed maize. As such, these areas can support high potential farming and are also the most densely populated parts of the country. In contrast, areas with low rainfall – shown here in orange and yellow – tend to support lower population densities. These arid and semi-arid areas, which are common in the northern and eastern parts of the country, receive less than 600 mm of rainfall annually and comprise 80% of Kenya’s land area. Pastoral livelihoods dominate in these dry areas to make the best use of scarce natural resources.

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