By Liana Razafindrazay
During the final two days of a two-week training hosted at the Malagasy National Academy in Antananarivo in August 2016, fifty technical staff from 25 institutions aimed to use their newly learned skills to better address issues such as flooding in the Metzinger valley in Mahajanga, precipitation and malaria in the Eastern Region of Madagascar, and integration of risk management in urban planning.
This particular training was aimed at enhancing participants’ practical and conceptual understanding of using Geospatial Information Systems (GIS). To tackle these challenges, the trainees put to use a set of available tools and data in the context of these pressing use cases. In groups of four or five, they debated which topics to tackle, searched for relevant data to apply, selected the most appropriate tools to do their analysis, and worked to fine-tune their presentations. While the exercise itself only lasted a few days, the process began more than a year ago when the World Bank (WB) responded to a request from the Malagasy Government.
The Malagasy Government wanted to strengthen the capacity of its technical staff, enabling them to understand and use geospatial tools and data—a need the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) is perfectly aligned with. The resulting project started in May 2015 and was launched four months later in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. The effort aims to promote open source tools and data to ease data sharing and data management among government, academics, civil societies, and community groups, and was funded by the African, Caribbean, and Pacific program of the European Union (ACP-EU) through the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) of the WB.
From first-hand experience, I know what a difference this initiative will make. Years ago, I studied the impact of cyclones on the Fianarantsoa-Manakara (FCE) railway in the Eastern region of Madagascar for my Master’s thesis. I used to run from one institution to another across the country to collect data for my research. While I enjoyed feeling like a “real geographer” executing diligent fieldwork, it was time consuming and arduous to figure out what data existed, who it was produced by, and how to gain access to what I needed. The same challenge was experienced by researchers, policy-makers, or even curious citizens who sought risk information and data in Madagascar.
As a part of this project, OpenDRI supported the development of an online data-sharing platform called “Mahatsangy”, which means “resilience,” in order to help address this critical problem. The Prime Minister Cabinet, the Disaster Risk Management Department (CPGU), and the Innovation Hub Habaka have jointly implemented the Mahatsangy project alongside the World Bank. Training and capacity building workshops, which are now being held, are the path to more people in the Malagasy Government being able to effectively use and further contribute to this platform.
For the hundred and twenty people who took part in the August 2016 OpenDRI training, the prior year had been one of excitement, fear, and confusion. They had learned new technologies and joined the worldwide open data and open source movements while navigating the process to overcome an inherent lack of the institutional frameworks necessary to make open data work in Madagascar. Over the course of fifteen workshops, webinars, and trainings offered as a part of the OpenDRI technical assistance, lively engagements, informed questioning, and “a-ha” moments emerged. Despite of the lack of high-debit internet connection, relevant geospatial data, and sustainable financial mechanisms for data collection and production, training participants always showed a thirst for learning more about what open data and open source data platforms have to offer. The trainees were eager to apply these skills to their own work, looking for ways to deliver more data-driven decisions in their respective missions.
The OpenDRI project has catapulted discussions around data sharing in Madagascar, and productively problematized the lack thereof. It has engaged stakeholders to talk about best practices in geospatial data production and has reminded the country of the value of statistical and geospatial data in policy and investment decisions. While the OpenDRI project started from the disaster risk management angle, it has now sparked conversations at national level.
The Ministry of Research and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) organized a Geo-Week from October 17 to 21, 2016 which concluded with a Geo-Day. The Geo-Day took place at the World Bank office in Antananarivo and focused on the question of harmonization of geospatial data across sectors in Madagascar. There, a team from CPGU, the National Geospatial Center (FTM), and Habaka presented the Mahatsangy data-sharing platform to the public.
Mahatsangy is a promising illustration of how technology can bridge institutional and resources gaps. Trained technical staff can now use free, licensed, open source tools and open data to manage climate and disaster risks, plan urban development, and promote agriculture, among much else. Another encouraging outcome of the OpenDRI project has its role in revealing that young Malagasy women are capable of mastering new technologies for solving development problems. For example, the local lead developer for the online data sharing platform was a 21-year-old female student from the IT University of Madagascar. At the end of the project, she and a few of her friends were inspired to launch Women in Tech Madagascar (WITM), a group that aims to make data and technology accessible to everyone.