Africa: 'Misguided' Nations Lock Up Valuable Geospatial Data

Many governments, particularly those in low-income countries, are "shooting themselves in the foot" by failing to give research and development communities open access to their caches of geospatial data, experts have warned.

The potential of such data that incudes geographic positioning information, including satellite imagery, to aid fields such as disaster response, agriculture, conservation and city planning far outweighs any potential value from selling the information, they say.

Some examples of the beneficial sharing and opening up geospatial data were highlighted at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week (13-17 January) of the Group on Earth Observations, a voluntary partnership of governments and international organizations.

But the misguided belief that government data represent a lucrative revenue stream is still stifling countries' development potential, says Paul Uhlir, the director of the board on research data and information at the US National Academy of Sciences.

"They see it as a valuable commodity that they can make some money from, but, quite frankly, open [data] policies are much more economically generative than closed ones," he tells SciDev.Net. "By hoarding the data they're minimising massively its value for other uses and shooting themselves in the foot."

Restricted access to official data troves is not limited to geospatial information, but the considerable expense involved in collecting it amplifies governments' desire to recover some costs, he adds.

While countries, both rich and poor alike, have a mixed record of making their geospatial data freely available, developing nations are generally "uncooperative", Uhlir says.

Projects such as gROADS - an open-access data set complied by the International Council for Science's Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) to map road infrastructure - aim to encourage governments to loosen this grip.

Although companies already provide accurate road maps, data cannot be extracted freely for other applications, limiting their use to navigation, or to commercial users with deep pockets.

By offering open-access information, gROADS allows the development sector, governments, civil society and researchers to conduct studies, plan services and develop new applications from the existing data sets.

The initiative has greatly improved the availability of roads data but is still impeded by a "twentieth century mentality" that data are power and must be guarded closely, says Alex de Sherbinin, chair of CODATA's group working on the gROADS project.

"In many countries, and very important ones like China and India, just getting simple data to draw lines on a map to show where people are living are almost impossible to obtain."

But, he adds, the situation is beginning to improve, with signs that developing world governments are becoming more receptive to the development potential of open data.

For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo has recently made its entire road data freely available online, in an initiative separate to gROADS, he says.

Michael Simpson, the executive director of the Secure World Foundation - a US space technology foundation - agrees that many developing nations are taking positive steps towards better sharing of geospatial data.

During the Geneva meeting, which he attended, delegates heard many encouraging examples, including Caribbean nations' efforts to share satellite information for natural disasters response planning, he adds.

Any restrictions to data sharing, of which there are still far too many, often result from the complex rules that shape relations between government departments and beyond, rather than an overt resistance to openness, Simpson says.

"It is a classic bureaucratic tangle rather than a cultural issue that is specific to developing countries," he adds.

The only way to solve this problem is by national governments taking the lead, says de Sherbinin.

Without a clear directive towards open data from the highest levels of government, civil servants will instinctively hold onto information from fear of displeasing their superiors, he adds.

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