M’Lis Flynn looks at how the Ugunja Community Resource Centre has overcome the lack of technical and human resources.
At the edge of the town of Ugunja, in the Siaya district of Kenya, there is a small blue and white building where the activities of a group of volunteers are generating considerable local interest.
The volunteers at the Ugunja Community Resource Centre (UCRC) are involved in a new project to develop their skills in spatial technologies, and to build the foundations of a locally owned and managed hub for GIS and mapping. The volunteers are collecting local data and developing a GIS database that can support decision making, planning and the implementation of projects to improve health care services and natural resource management. The overarching principle is to ensure that the GIS remains a community resource.
The development of the project began in October 2004, with discussions on how to introduce GIS to the Centre in a way that was culturally appropriate, and involved all members of the community. To help kick-start the project, Oakar Services (ESRI’s local distributor) generously donated ArcView 3.3, the Mapping Our World teaching kit and other materials, and offered technical support.
Before the Centre could establish a stable and useful GIS, however, it first needed to address a number of technical and organizational challenges. Ugunja’s electricity supply was unreliable, with regular prolonged ‘blackouts’, and the Centre was equipped with old standalone computers with limited disk space and processing capacity, and different operating platforms. In addition, the Centre would have to address the impacts of introducing a technologyheavy project (GIS) on an organization whose funding was sporadic and which could afford to pay its volunteer staff very basic wages. In particular, without a ‘champion’ who would motivate the staff, develop and maintain the GIS database, and establish networks with other organizations using GIS, it was more than likely that the project would grind to a halt.
It was agreed that to ensure that the GIS was successful in the long term, the Centre needed a solid foundation in terms of skills. Thus a number of volunteers were selected for training to take up key positions, including an IT manager, potential future trainers, and a champion who would network with other organizations, seek technical support, and manage the sharing of resources and knowledge.
The trainees would utilize ESRI’s Mapping Our World training data to avoid the accidental corruption of real local data. Once collected and entered into the system, the GIS data would be regularly backed up and immediately downloaded. These tasks would be performed by at least two people for cross-checking and training a group of volunteers. Finally, the Centre would seek the long-term involvement and support of the Ugunja town council and relevant Kenyan ministries.
In the three months that followed, seven volunteers were trained in the concepts and uses of spatial data and the GIS, including data collection, development of databases, map design, and how to use GPS devices. Instruction manuals were developed for more complex processes such as downloading and converting GPS data, and the planning, design and management of the GIS databases. In December 2004, Oakar Services, ESRI International, and the UCRC launched the GIS project to more than 50 community members and gave demonstrations of data collection and GIS applications. The level of interest was high, and the feedback extremely positive.
Addressing local issues
By July 2005 the volunteers were already training others in GIS, and seven comprehensive datasets had been established. The UCRC is now organizing community meetings where they are utilizing the map data to address local issues. One of these concerns the local brick-making industry and its impacts on supplies of firewood, water quality and increased soil erosion. Using GIS data on brickmaking sites, the community now has firm evidence establishing a relationship between these sites and the declining area of forests. They are now pushing for changes in the way the sites are managed, and are planning to lobby the Ministry of Environment to regulate brick-making in the district and to promote sustainable forest management.
What of the future? The Centre plans to develop their system as a hub for the whole of Siaya district and to extend their GIS capacities by developing participatory 3D modelling for the community. Involving farmers, health care workers and others in data collection would greatly enhance the datasets the Centre has already compiled. While the growth of the GIS will present many challenges, particularly in relation to computers and funding requirements, their commitment remains strong - and that has already taken the UCRC a long way!
M’Lis Flynn ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is project officer in GIS and indigenous issues at the Wet Tropics Management Authority, North Queensland, Australia ( www.wettropics.gov.au ). ESRI GIS Mapping and Software: www.esri.com.