Complementing National SDG Platforms

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are shaping global development, from how national policies and legislation are developed, how recipients of aid report their outcomes, to how all countries will report (and set baselines for) the state of their infrastructure, economy, and practically all elements relating to human development. From establishing the 17 Goals, 169 targets, and 232 indicators the inter-governmental discourse is now changing to how to monitor attainment of the SDGs. One facet of this is the technical one, on the 22nd to the 24th of January, the United Nations Statistics Division convened the National Platforms for SDG Reporting forum.

This convened countries, international organisations, and platform service providers to discuss differing approaches to monitoring the SDGs, technical implementations and innovations to discuss how to set recommendations and guidelines for such platforms. The outputs and presentations are all online too.

Given the nature of the forum, the data powering the platforms is drawn from National Statistical Offices and other data custodian agencies, as a component of their existing data collecting programs. For the inter-governmental process, this is essential – countries produce their own authoritative data and this will always be used as a primary source. But, what about secondary, complementary sources? This is compounded by methodological questions on how to analyse specific indicators.

For example, SDG Indicator 9.1.1 regards understanding the “Share of the rural population who live within 2 km of an all-season road”. Breaking this down:

  • How to differentiate between rural and urban populations – where do peri-urban areas lie?
  • How to calculate 2km from a road – is this in a straight line, what about geographic features, such as rivers and valleys?
  • How to define an “All season road”.

The question on urbanization/rural communities is a very common discussion, so I’ll leave it to one side. The last two points however do not have easy answers – and a lack of documented methodological guidance is severely hampering progression of the SDGs.

In many countries, road inventory is scant (see here), but there isn’t full GIS coverage of the road features, let alone an understanding of the quality. So, in effect, can we use what’s already out there, free and open data, to work out the SDGs?

Right now*, “80% of the world’s user-generated road map is more than 80% complete”. Global population data  – WorldPop and the High Resolution Settlement Layer – can offer insights into where people are globally.

So, in theory, sources like OpenStreetMap and WorldPop can already offer a level of insight that can assist with the methodological development of the goals. They could provide the data foundation for methodological development of the indicators and run in parallel with strengthening activities within the countries – ie. when the most aid dependent countries are capable of producing authoritative data for the indicators, technical platforms and methods will already exist to transform these data into actionable insights and drive data-driven policy development.

The SDGs should leave no-one behind and while attainment of the SDGs should be country-owned and country-led, what actions can the global commons take to work in parallel to support this agenda? An open test bed for SDG methodological analysis, modeled on OSM Analytics perhaps? Authoritative data and the choice of whether to use complementary/user generated/crowdsourced (etc etc) data will rest within the National Statistics/Mapping/Data Agency, there is an opportunity to develop the methods alongside this strengthening process – that way, when the agencies are strengthened, they’ll have a method to use for their indicators, targets, and goals.

*It’s using OpenStreetMap, OSM has a variety of sources, from crowdsourced data to imports. But… something’s there…!

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Moving On, So Long, Farewell and Hello!

The past three months have bought about a massive change, both personally and professionally. I’ve moved to New York, to take up a post within the United Nations’ Committee of Experts for Global Geospatial Information Management or UN-GGIM for short. Acronyms aside, it’s been a hard, but fun change with much challenging work ahead!

In moving from operational work (World Bank in Tanzania and with the N/LAB at the University of Nottingham) to a secretariat role, I’m hoping to bring a little field experience to Headquarters, especially in terms of supporting the development of policy and direction for geospatial data.

With geospatial information at the heart of global policy, from the 2020 round of Census to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the next few years will be very exciting!

Looking back, I’m quite sad to to leave my previous colleagues behind, especially given the opportunity to build and lead the Tanzania Urban and Geospatial team from its inception – or to turn the phrase of my then boss Edward Anderson in 2011 “Build a mapping empire!”…

The 2017 World Bank’sPresident’s Innovation Award Winners (from left, Deogratias Minja, Edward Anderson, Justina Kajenge, Myself, and Freddie Mbuya)

From the pilot of mapping the Tandale neighbourhood in 2011 mapping ~65,000 people, Ramani Huria grew, from an initial start of 10 neighborhoods to scaling across Tanzania and supporting global projects like Missing Maps and national ones like Crowd2Map, while delivering its main mission of building flood resilience in Dar es Salaam. The Zanzibar Mapping Initiative has mapped Unguja Island at an unprecedented 3.5cm – 7cm resolution with Drones and laid a foundation for improved geospatial collaboration in Zanzibar. These innovative projects (and others) are now being mainstreamed into frontline operations through the Tanzania Urban Resilience Program – taking an innovation-led approach to capacity development operations, integrating innovation and research into projects, as opposed to leaving it as a footnote. Academically, surviving a PhD and helping bring the N/LAB Centre for International Analytics into being at the University of Nottingham are fond memories – bar the last few weeks of the PhD!

Ultimately, what has been the most rewarding has been the people, whether it has been Ward Officers in Tanzania; blue-sky scheming with Edward, Josh, and Samhir on the direction of the World Bank’s innovation work; being academically challenged with James, Gavin, and Andrew; Learning with the commons with Willow, Dirk, Giuseppe, Heather, Mikel, Florian, Sara, Tyler, Ivan and Nico; to being in the thick of one of the fastest growing cities in Africa with Msilikale, Deo, Beata, Devotha, Daud, Rashid, Roza, Darragh, and many others, too many to count.  Thank you to you all – it was an honour.

Hopefully more Bernard than Sir Humphrey!

To win against the tide, though somethings never worked out (ie. jet ski lidar for inshore bathymetry!) friendships were made, and there was a little bit of love there too! Looking back at six years, 3 months on it really was a wonderful journey, here is to the next one. So, with that in mind, I am ex  field ops, I have shuffled off mapping, ran down the scale bar and joined the international civil service in a secretariat – in time, leaning towards more Bernard than Sir Humphrey!

Towards the Next Generation Road Survey

Over the past few weeks, I’ve managed to escape the office and get back to the field. With an impending change, it’s been a very refreshing time to get back into the mix – especially out onto the roads of Zanzibar.

Alongside work with scaling out Ramani Huria and working with (awesome!) colleagues on the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between Ardhi University, World Bank, and DfID to support the development of curriculum (with ITC Twente) and the sustainability of community mapping in Tanzania for the next five years. I’ve been working on a side project to look at how machine learning can be used to assess road quality.

To do this, the N/LAB team at University of Nottingham and Spatial Info (the spin out of my team that helped build Ramani Huria/Tanzania Open Data Initiative) and I are working with the Zanzibari Department of Roads, under the Ministry of Infrastructure, Communications and Transport to survey all roads in Ugunja Island Zanzibar.

The Department of Roads & Uni Nottingham Team

So far, we’ve worked on getting a surveying vehicle back on the road, initial back and forth with government stakeholders, and working on pulling together the various road data sources (such those from the Government and OpenStreetMap) to work out where to drive and the sequencing of the survey. All of this will support a data collection protocol that merges traditional surveying techniques, with novel ones such as RoadLab Pro.

All of these data streams will then be used as a training dataset to see how machine learning can inform on road quality. But first, we’re getting the traditional survey underway. It’s going to be long road ahead – as long as all the roads in Zanzibar!

Watch this space, the project’s Medium page, and the N/LAB’s blog on using machine learning for automated feature detection from imagery. Get in contact below in the comments as well.

Written in the Al-Minaar Hotel, Stone Town, Zanzibar (-6.16349,39.18690)

FOSS4G 2018: Dar es Salaam

This will be a different FOSS4G. As the first in a developing country, our vision is for an accessible and inclusive FOSS4G, a FOSS4G for All.

In 2013 I was fortunate to be on the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) of OSGEO’s Free and Open Source For Geospatial Annual Conference – aka FOSS4G. Each year, the location of FOSS4G is decided on the basis of Europe, North America and “Rest of the World”.

As Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is in the “Rest of the World”, when the call for proposals was released, myself and a small group of co-conspirators figured that we’d submit a letter of intent for Dar to be the host city. Ultimately, Dar es Salaam was selected by the OSGeo Board to be host city for 2018, co-chaired by myself and Msilikale Msilanga.

This will be a different FOSS4G. As the first in a developing country, our vision is for an accessible and inclusive FOSS4G, a FOSS4G for All. 

In aligning FOSS4G 2018 within the Sustainable Development Agenda, we aim to complement the existing OSGeo stable while empowering the Open Data, Participatory Mapping and Internet of Things work currently underway within Tanzania, the region and worldwide. This will expand the scope of the conference from traditional geography and location tech, to applications, use and best practices of our tools.

Location and geography are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals: FOSS4G 2018 in Dar es Salaam would invigorate our existing projects, bringing them to new users and developers while supporting and nurturing the existing OSGeo community.

The clock has started for the LOC to organise the conference and the press release from OSGeo is out! It’s going to be a few months till FOSS4G 2017 in Boston till Msilikale, our LOC and I will pick up the keys to the FOSS4G car. In the meantime the Dar LOC will assemble and start laying the groundwork for 2018. It’s going to be a long and rewarding road ahead!

Putting Crowdsourcing In Action


Crowdsourcing is increasing in popularity as a form of distributed problem solving enabled by digital technologies. “The crowd” is invited to contribute towards projects, this contribution potentially being in the form of knowledge or design skills. On June the 3rd this year an interdisciplinary workshop investigating crowdsourcing and citizen science convened. It brought together experts and practitioners from many disciplines that apply a crowdsourcing approach, presenting outputs and how crowdsourcing aids projects from GalaxyZoo (an interactive project for volunteer classification of galaxies), Artmaps (an application for crowdsourcing information on Tate digital artworks) and Taarifa (a platform and community supporting the crowdsourcing of public service issues in the developing and developed world).

My personal presentation was on Taarifa, a project I started in 2011 to support community based public service delivery. Since then I’ve worked in collaboration with the World Bank in Uganda to support the Education and Local Government Ministries with reporting across the country; what started as a pilot was rolled out quickly to cover 111 districts, over a year of an at-scale pilot 14,000 reports were received and acted upon. This resulted into wider research into the wider use of public participatory service delivery in developing countries (FOSS4G Taarifa paper). The uniqueness of Taarifa is that it has been developed and maintained by wholly volunteer contributors, creating free and open source software. The contributors to Taarifa are as diverse as the problems which Taarifa addresses, ranging from PhD Candidates like myself to Physicists, Bankers and Community Organisers. Consequently, Taarifa doesn’t just look after a platform of software; it acts as a forum to share knowledge, experimentations and innovation.

Taarifa was conceived at the London Water Hackathon, as an innovation around water access and quality in Tanzania. Access to water in Tanzania currently covers less than 50% of the country’s population and with 38% of the water infrastructure, like taps, are graded as non-functional. Currently the Ministry of Water has a WPMS (Water Point Mapping System) developed after a countrywide survey. However, the system has is no functionality to update the status of the water point or view a history of service problems. This is combined with poor performance of repairs nationally if water points are repaired; citizens are disenfranchised with current methods of reporting water faults, if they can report at all. The ecosystem around supporting the repair of water points is non-existent; consequently millions of Tanzanians have no access to publicly delivered water.

It is important to stress that there isn’t ‘one’ solution to the problem of water access nor is there ‘one’ platform or software to ‘fix’ the problem. There is no one discipline that can resolve the issue of water access, there has to be a multidisciplinary approach, to a multidisciplinary problem. Cartography, Economics, Engineering, not one discipline can wholly resolve the issue of water access, nor it is an issue which can be researched and resolved through the lens of one discipline. The societal side of technology needs to not be just taken into account, but integrated into the core of the design with the people who face the issue and who will use the technology to resolve it. It is imperialistic and deterministic to assume that technology can just ‘fix’ the kind of complex issue of water access, especially as the technology is, in effect, imposed broadly by outsiders to the community in which it is intended to take root. Hence, an understanding of the community is needed; who the users are, how water access is dealt with currently and the general state of affairs. From this we have created two streams of Taarifa, one that is currently implemented and one that is currently being designed, incorporating lessons learned from initial deployments.

The first iteration of Taarifa’s design story and user action assumed that mobile connectivity wasn’t an issues and that there was an active organisation, be it government or an NGO wanting to resolve water access issues, another predicate was that the water infrastructure was adequately mapped. This led to the following reporting process for a water issue; When a report is made, for example from a Community Water Officer or a concerned citizen, it goes into the Taarifa workflow, which identifies the specific water point from the database. The reporter is then notified, thanked that they have made a report and given an estimation, based on prior time taken to repair broken water points in that district on how long it will take. An engineer is informed what is wrong with the water source. Once an engineer has been selected, a verifier can verify that repair has been completed satisfactorily. Importantly, at each stage the initial reporter is informed about the progress of the repair. This was the version trialled in Uganda.

Subsequently, learning from how Taarifa was deployed and used, the design is now intended to incorporate offline capability and ‘marketplace’ functionality. The offline capability due experiences in Uganda that connectivity wasn’t universal (this was not a surprise, however, improvements to the paradigm should be incremental) the marketplace due to the capacity of local government and organisations. If a district has no capacity to repair a broken water point, the cost could be estimated by a number of engineers receiving information about the problem and they bid using their phones. A micropayment is taken to support the system, providing a surplus, potentially reinvested into creating new capacity. Micropayments are ubiquitous in the developing world, effectively replacing a formal banking infrastructure, hence are familiar to the communities who will use this method. Consequently this should hopefully be viewed as an extension of what already exists, not something completely new.

What does all this mean within the context of the Crowdsourcing in Action workshop? Broadly it allows us, as academic researchers to typify crowdsourcing and understand more. Taarifa acts as a community crowdsourcing code and by extension curating community reporting issues in developing countries. Artmaps develops applications for use on smart phones that will allow people to relate artworks to the places, sites and environments they encounter in daily life. GalaxyZoo leverages the many eyes of the crowd to process space imagery data. Thematically, all the projects presented utilised volunteers to provide information, process it and return it to the user and other interested actors.

After the initial presentations we formed groups, of other experts and practitioners to build a common model of what crowdsourcing means to their projects and work. Then coalescing at periods to feedback practice and information learned from other participants. In doing so, we learn from successes and failures of others, understanding common themes for collaboration.

In identifying these common themes, it hopefully sets an agenda to focus on specific factors and communities under the crowdsourcing agenda. Jeremy Morley and I are planning a future “How to Hackathon” event building “Crowdsourcing in Action”. Hackathons allow volunteers (generally) to co-create ‘hacks’ to problems. In its truest sense you accelerate innovation by combining a random mix of people and skills, providing a set of previously unsolved problems, then observing what happens. As was identified in the Crowdsouring In Action, we can observe the states before crowdsourcing; we can help provide a process for participants; we can observe and process the result. However, an understanding of how participants use the tools to conduct crowdsourcing is scant. By now focusing on hackathons, we hope to discover more on how the design and development of crowdsourcing works.

Prologue to the Sanitation Hackathon

Florian Rathgeber and Fayaz Valli at the World Bank, Washington DC.
Florian Rathgeber (right centre) and Fayaz Valli (left centre) at the World Bank, Washington DC.

Taarifa was announced in various mediums as being a winner of the sanitation hackathon. To this end two Taarifans are currently representing all Taarifans in Washington DC and San Francisco. More will come from this, I’m sure. However, all of the projects of the sanitation hackathon should be given the same pedestal and treatment.

The number of projects and energy that the sanitation hackathon generated should not be lost, and energised by the constant support and coverage;

“The event featured nearly 1000 registered hackers at ten locations worldwide who developed some 62 new prototypes.” – Sanitation Hackathon Site

While this moment is still in the here and now we should all move forward, collaborating, instead of competing. From this solve the technical challenges within the sanitation issues which we face. Undoubtedly, it is a naïve and deterministic proposition to suggest that technology will solve the world’s problems. However, events like the sanitation hackathon have demonstrated that technologists from all walks of life can work together. Building a social side to these systems is a bigger problem than the technological ones, prizes and recognition aren’t replacements and should not be considered replacements for this. The hard work starts now.

Written and submitted in the Hotel Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (-6.81669, 39.293198)

H4D2 April 12th – 14th

The HXL-Team
The HXL-Team

Last year I attended the H4D2 (Humanitarian for Disaster 2.o) organised by (and at) Aston University and Geeks Without Bounds. One of the outputs that I worked on was the HXL Extractor. Basically take data out of  GeoSPARQL, a geospatial semantic database and fire it into a GIS program. One of the team members had already been experimenting with and semantic databases and triplestores (this was most definitely a good thing, allowing us to move quickly) so our ‘mission’ was to create a middle layer to connect to a triplestore, then using the WFS-T standard to fire the extracted data into a GIS program of your choice. Interestingly the ‘project lead’ was communicating with us from Geneva via Skype, this and the prior work bellies the need for clear and concise problem statements prior to the hack. Because some of the team had been able to think about what they had to do we’d been able to work more effectively, even while learning technologies on the fly.

Going to the International Conference for Crisis Mapping Hackathon in Washington a few months later, HXL was still going strong and I got to meet the instigator of the project CJ Hendrix face to face. He’d amassed a team which went on to rightly take first prize at ICCM, now its being used by by UNOCHA with papers forthcoming. The project is growing, as evidenced by the amount of work going on in the team repository. Understandably our small team in Birmingham just did a little bit, but every little bit, helps.

Now H4D2 is coming around again on April 12th – 14th. This will then be followed up by SMERST (Social Media and Semantic Technologies in Emergency Response) a more academic focused conference on April 15th – 16th. Most importantly, you didn’t need to code to contribute, all are welcome from designers, videographers, bloggers, journalists and you! Registration for the H4D2 is open and is again at Aston University in Birmingham. Register here: http://h4d2.eu/registration. It’s going to rock.

Written and submitted from the Serena, Dar Es Salaam (6.810617, 39.288284)