USAID to stand up new Geospatial Data Center

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Capability will allow the aid agency to combine disparate data sets to make development work more efficient and productive.

A new geospatial data center at the U.S. Agency for International Development aims to mash together satellite imagery and on-the-ground surveys and reports to cut down on field-based work and give the agency a better sense of where development dollars can do the most good.

Agency officials are in the early stages of planning the GeoCenter, as they have dubbed it, and will officially launch the center sometime before the end of the year, Shadrock Roberts, one of its designers, said at a USAID seminar Wednesday.

GIS data can be combined with a range of other data collected by USAID and nongovernment aid organizations to make development work more efficient and productive, panelists at the event said.

Project workers focused on food security, for example, can map data on conflict, economic development and population movements with satellite-based maps of agricultural production, roads and weather patterns to predict where food shortages are most likely to occur and focus resources there.

In other cases, rapidly gathered satellite imagery can save workers on the ground minutes or hours of busy work during humanitarian emergencies.

As a research fellow with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Roberts used satellite imagery and data sets from the CDC and other organizations to map the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, home to more than 60,000 East Africans fleeing violence in neighboring Somalia and Sudan.

CDC workers told Roberts that maps of other camps could drastically cut down the amount of time they spend monitoring the spread of disease, he said. Currently, CDC workers who go to newly formed refugee camps spend a great deal of time establishing the camp's contours and sometimes get lost in unfamiliar terrain, he said.

GIS information also is helpful for monitoring and evaluating existing programs, Karl Wurster, a geographer who worked in the USAID mission in Rabat, Morocco, said during Wednesday's panel.

Wurster worked mainly on mapping attendance data from training programs and workshops that USAID and other agencies conducted. That data ultimately could be overlaid against the training objectives, such as lower HIV transmission rates, higher female literacy or greater crop yields, to measure its effectiveness he said.

Many USAID missions such as Wurster's already are working with GIS, Roberts said. The GeoCenter's goal will be to collect best practices from those missions and try to establish common data standards among both different missions and between USAID and other aid organizations working in a single country or region so data can be more easily shared.

The group also plans to standardize, as much as possible, the metadata different missions and agencies use, said Carrie Stokes, another GeoCenter organizer, so different groups can confidently use the same maps and datasets without duplicating work.

The center will likely contract out some mapping work from USAID missions that lack the capacity to do it locally, Roberts said, and create standard mapping products to be used across multiple missions.

"The key part about thinking spatially isn't about computer programs," he said. "If your thing is food security or health or agriculture or economics or governance or internally displaced persons or whatever, it always starts with a question and we're here to help people sharpen those questions and to start thinking about the spatial components to them."

The description of USAID's GeoCenter was clarified to avoid confusing the center with intelligence community assets. There is no relationship between the GeoCenter and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.