Planning, growth made easier with digital maps

Anastasia Wahome, an expert at the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development.  PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG
Anastasia Wahome, an expert at the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG 

Imagine a map of Kenya that shows not just our national boundaries, but the geographical spread of the maize-crop in Western Kenya.

Maps such as these, providing granular data on resource and land use, are essential tools for public sector planning. Yet for many developing nations the data included in such maps is often scarce and out-of-date, crippling state planning.

This information is also not always available to the public.

These are some of the challenges that the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) is trying to resolve by developing publicly accessible digital maps using technology developed partly by America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The interactive digital maps offer high resolution satellite images of land covered by various crops of economic and food security importance to a country.

“The country had been relying on a previous map that was over a decade old and thus outdated. The technology used to develop it was also old,” says Anastasia Wahome, Science and Data Lead at RCMRD.

“We know that land use changes have taken place over the years. We therefore wanted to track new developments in crop cover using advanced geographic information system (GIS) technology so as to provide an accurate tool for decision making by various stakeholders.”

The advanced mapping tools and satellite technology used by the institution were availed by SERVIR, a joint initiative between the Washington based NASA and the United States Agency for International Development.   

“Most of these technologies were not accessible to developing nations and this affected the quality of mapping done within the continent,” says Ms Wahome.

The digital crop cover map can be accessed online from the RCMRD open data web portal. The platform also provides links to other types of land use maps from RCMRD member states across Eastern and Southern Africa.

Ms Wahome says that due to its low or coarse resolution, the previous technology was only able to capture crops grown on large pieces of land — from nine square hectares. As a result, plants on smaller pieces of land were left out, thus making it hard for governments and other stakeholders to know the exact amount of land covered by crops.

For instance, if a farmer had a huge piece of land covered by maize and a few sections having bananas or watermelon, the map would show the maize but omit the other two crops as it relied on low resolution satellite images.

According to Ms Wahome, the high resolution NASA satellite images used to develop the new digital crop map is able  to effectively capture crops on smaller land sizes with measurements as low as 0.9 square hectares — 10 times smaller than older maps. But the problems faced due to inadequate mapping extend well beyond agriculture into diverse parts of the economy.

Data on mineral resources, settlement in urban and rural areas and even the spread of financial service outlets such as mobile money agents is often out of date or fragmented across different sectors.

“Where do we have gold? Where do we have dams? Where do we have cattle dips? This information should be at the fingertips of the government and available for use by the private sector and non-governmental organisations,” says Samuel Ng’ang’a, a GIS mapping expert, who worked in the public sector and NGOs for decades.

Mr Ng’ang’a has since struck out on his own, starting Career Skills Centre, a Kikuyu-based institution that offers GIS training and carries out research in the field.

Organisations and governments, Mr Ng’ang’a says, can built on good GIS maps to better deliver services and develop innovations for Kenya.
In one such application, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries is using data from RCMRD digital maps to drive its crop insurance programme.

RCMRD is helping the government to select farms in key agricultural zones that they monitor (from planting time until harvesting) to determine the degree of crop success or failure. 

These measures guard against fraudulent claims that may arise from affected communities.

The ministry previously used a manual sampling process that was cumbersome, time consuming and prone to bias and errors. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which advises the government on plant health matters, also relies on improved digital maps to identify areas covered by crops that may be at risk of plant health hazards such as pests and diseases.

“As a decision maker, you don’t need generalities. You want to know the exact location where there’s a problem so you can intervene early enough and channel resources to areas in most need of them,” said Mr Chris Shitote, a climate Scientist at FEWS NET.

The devolved system of governance, says Mr Ng’ang’a, provides rich opportunities for data collection for better mapping.
County governments, he says, have the local know-how to provide the kind of information that could be used to create better, up to date maps.
In addition, the counties also stand to benefit from such granular information.