AfricaGIS 2005
Beyond Talk:
Geo-information working for Africa

CSIR International Conference Centre
Pretoria, Tshwane, South Africa
31 October - 4 November 2005

Over over 600 delegates and exhibitors from various parts of the World converged on the CSIR International Convention Center in Pretoria (Tshwane - South Africa) to attend the biennial continental GIS conference. One week (31 October to 4 November 2005) during which government, industry and international institutions met to assess the situation, look at new ideas and identify a way forward.

Madmappers was there to listen and learn how "things" are working out and what the future will bring us. And to present to an international audience the World Wind Africa initiative in association with NASA LT.

Africa GIS2005: The largest event ever
Africa GIS2005: Beyond Talk: Geo-information working for Africa
Africa GIS2005: World Wind Africa: African GIS accessible to all
Africa GIS2005: Lack of data or lack of disclosure?
Africa GIS2005: Accessibility to data and reporting map inaccuracies
Africa GIS2005: Who is the "bad" guy?

Africa GIS2005: The largest event ever
The event was organized by GISSA (Geo-Information Society of South Africa). We compliment the organizing committee and all the staff for an excellent effort which will be very difficult for anyone else to match in the future.

The CSIR International Conference Centre was a well suited venue and coped well with the larger than anticipated number of delegates which made this event the biggest ever. The staff was exceptional in coping with the situation and none of the delegates even noticed that resources had been stretched over the limit.

South Africans are indeed gifted for organizing international events, this kind of personal commitments (and patience) is seldom found in other countries.

The exciting display stands by the industry were another unexpected pleasant surprise. Maybe too much of a distraction from conference proceedings. As children in a toy store we lacked the required self-discipline!

Africa GIS2005: Beyond Talk: Geo-information working for Africa
The theme of the conference "Beyond Talk: Geo-information working for Africa" created the expectation that traditional debates on the way forward were now being replaced by concrete actions.

Since this was our first conference we have no real terms of comparison.  A number of concrete case studies from South Africa were presented, mostly at municipal level (e.g. Johannesburg and Durban), on ways in which GIS is used to make citizen's life easier. An unexpected surprise was the fresh presentation Crime Mapping and Analysis in Ghana: Beyond "Pin Mapping" where GIS was put at practical use for identifying and apprehending criminals. It is remarkable how much can be done with a bit of imagination and committment even with scarce resources.

Given the theme we obviously expected to be bored by duplicate presentations on the African problem issues such as heathcare and education. This was not the case. We asked the organizers why and we were told that they were also surprised by the lack of papers on these topics.
It is our guess that this is due to lack of recognition that GIS might have a meaningful role to play in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB. Some effort should be made to educate how GIS could be beneficial.

Africa GIS2005: World Wind Africa: African GIS accessible to all
This is the title of our contribution to AfricaGIS 2005. The paper was co-authored by Patrick Hogan, the NASA LT World Wind project manager and attracted positive response by the African community. A number of African countries have expressed an interest in a customized World Wind country version.

You can download the paper by clicking here!

More information on the World Wind Africa initiative can be found at


Africa GIS2005: Lack of data or lack of disclosure?
For years we have heard that Africa is plagued by lack of accurate maps and GIS data and that most of the existing information is outdated, some from colonial times.

We were startled when a prominent member of the industry made the statement:
"you will be surprised of how much new and high resolution data is available out there, probably too much".

Talking here and there, and participating in presentations and discussions, we learned that indeed lot of data exists and that huge amounts of high resolution satellite imagery have been acquired from African countries in the last couple of years.

We noticed lack of representation by telecommunication, mining and oil industry which are supposedly the big GIS users on the continent. We would have expected them to be main event sponsors or at least speakers but if present they chose to maintain a low profile.

There are good reasons why the private industry prefers to maintain confidential GIS data they have paid for. Why should it be shared with competitors? It makes perfect sense.

On the other hand it also makes perfect sense the South African mining industry approach on geological data: geological data collected during exploration and mining operation is to be handed over to the department of minerals and energy. With this mechanism a geological data archive of the land is created for the future benefit of the nation. The state is bound on maintaining confidentiality.
But: the industry has paid for those costs, why should they simply hand data over to the state? Simple: at the end of the day exploration costs are actually being paid by the tax payer: aren't they tax deductible? It all make sense once again.

We ask: shouldn't the same concept be applicable to GIS data? Confidentiality? Would leaving to a company the  option non-disclosure=no-deduction address the confidentiality issue? We see no reason why a mining or telecommunication company would be negatively affected by "disclosing" the existence of a road or water stream.

Africa GIS2005: Accessibility to data and reporting map inaccuracies
It is task of the state to provide good data. Obviously if there is lack of good and updated maps it means that we as citizens have not paid our fair share of taxes.

Certainly we could contribute a great deal to data improvement by simply (and cheaply) reporting data inaccuracies to the mapping authorities. But then we are too lazy to do so.

Another aspect widely debated is: taken into account that we have already paid taxes for compiling the available maps, why should we pay again in order to access them? Lately the trend in some countries has been to supply free of charge ordinary data useful to ordinary citizens, and to charge for data useful to specific users only. South Africa is the African example we are aware of and we understand that some more countries in the region are considering similar policies.

We welcome this progressive approach that has already had positive repercussions in South Africa. Free data makes our responsibility even greater for reporting inaccuracies to mapping authorities. Shouldn't the private industry compelled to report to the mapping authorities any inaccuracy found in governmental data?

Africa GIS2005: Who is the "bad" guy?
Over time we had arrived to the conclusion that Industry and Government were the bad guys interested only on maintaining the status quo while everyone else was trying to pushing the cart forward.

We were positively surprised:
Industry is vibrant and open to new ideas although dominated, as in every part of our lives, by larger companies focussed on holding on or increase market share and obviously with their corporate interests at heart: nothing wrong with that.
There might be space for a debate on anti-competitive practices by some, but in truth there are many smaller companies ready to take advantage at the first opportunity and even in the world of high resolution satellite imagery competition is fierce.

The surprise was government (and here I refer to all African governments without exception): genuinely looking for a way forward to improve their citizen livelihood and with open mind on new technologies.

After one week of searching for answers the question was: who is holding the cart behind? Maybe the cart has no wheels?

"My" answer came in the very last session of the conference, when almost everyone but handful of participants and organizers was left.
It was time for Summary and Conclusions.

It was then that the dinosaurs came out and spoke from their pedestal. We heard phrases of the kind: "computers are not essential", "give a paper map to a kid and he will fall in love with geography" or "availability of metadata is more important than data access", "Google - what? Is it Map or Earth? Does any one know what it is for? Is that the only one?"

At first we thought this was part of a humour we were not familiar with, then after a while, as the subject went on and on we began to wonder and then HORROR the realization that these were genuine questions!

In our mind, anyone in the GIS world who has not spent at least one hour session playing with Google Earth (or one of its equivalents) and realized that there is no better medium to educate youth on geo-sciences, should seriously reconsider his vocation for geography and realize that it is time to give space to others.

We have entered the Virtual Reality Age and GIS is one essential component. Not to be familiar with this trend means to be out of touch with reality. Every teenager who has played a computer game is aware of the concept (but not of the meaning of the word GIS).

If we indeed wish a better future for our children, it is one of our responsibilities as parents to make certain that lack of computers in African schools is confronted head-on. Surrogate solutions are simply a waste of resources in the wrong direction and will achieve no purpose but to change the "digital divide" into a "digital apartheid".


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