GIS Training in Africa

I have recently become involved with the International Mining for Development Centre – an initiative set up between the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland to support the development of the mining industry in developing countries around the world through both training and short-term research projects and collaborations. The initiative was supported by AusAid (which has recently been integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – now nicknamed Aid and Trade), and much of the focus from the geoscience side has been in Africa.

In January, I was involved in delivering a training course on introductory Geographic Information Systems (GIS) use for mining. The course was run at UNZA in Lusaka, Zambia in collaboration with a colleague from UWA and another academic from UQ. Attendance at the course was dominated by staff from national geological surveys throughout developing countries in Africa, although some attendees were from mining/cadastral departments or from academia.

The course was a success, and I think was a good learning experience for me. My previous teaching history involved running GIS training courses in Australia. I had naively thought that a similar teaching approach would work in Africa. After all, the attendees all had Bachelors degrees from university, with some even having Masters or PhD level qualifications. Technically, most were more qualified than the students I teach back home in Australia. Yet despite this being a professional development course, I think we struggled to appreciate just what the participants needed.

It is one thing for us to make assumptions about what needs to be taught based on our prior teaching experiences. It is an entirely different thing to find out that what you’re teaching may be of limited practical use to your course participants. Things I learned:

  • Whereas in Australia academics and government employees have access to relatively high end desktop computing facilities (and even supercomputers), the computers some countries have access to will struggle to load geophysical or remote sensing grids into GIS due to lack of memory. Or do not have suitable CPU power to process and analyse large datasets. This is something I apparently took for granted.
  • Then there is the issue of software licensing. As an example, a commercial license for ArcGIS with the necessary processing toolboxes costs on the order of $10,000 (academic licensing is cheaper, although not cheap). If your department has (for example) half a dozen GIS users, you’re looking at a budget of around $60,000 per year. Just for software licenses for one product. Australian companies, government departments and universities complain about the cost of geological software licenses – so imagine the situation in Africa! Although there are free open source GIS packages available, and these were incorporated into our teaching, some places do still use ArcGIS (albeit quite old versions for which they no longer have maintenance contracts), so it was necessary to teach both.
  • As much as I groan and moan about the internet access on campus, sometimes I forget how good we have it. While things on campus might be slow, really slow at times, at least the connection is stable. When you need to download a bunch of remote sensing images or geophysical datasets (which in some parts of the world are made freely downloadable), it’s all well and good if you’ve actually got an internet connection that can handle downloading gigabytes of data at a time. Getting these datasets when you’ve got an unreliable connection that cuts out unexpectedly, or simply won’t allow you to download such large files? Not so practical. There needs to be alternative methods of accessing these types of datasets for those who simply can not download them, whether they are freely available or not.
  • The World Bank and the EU funding agencies assist a number of African nations to set up mining cadastre (tenement management) systems. Consultants are employed to come in and create customized systems for each nation that manages to obtain this foreign aid funding. But at the end of the consulting job, the consultant goes back home and the country is left to their own devices. However the countries then need to make modifications to the system, but have no idea how to do so, and can not afford to re-employ the consultant to come in and do more work. Or the software used in the initial setup has a limited period of licensing (12 months) incorporated into the initial consulting job. But then the license period expires and the government is stuck because they do not have the financial resources to renew it. Meaning they are often stuck with a system that is years out of date with no ability to resolve the problem.

I had assumed that we would just go in and teach everyone how to use GIS for some geological problems. However I think in the future, before we run such courses, we should do some more networking with the people who are hosting the training courses to determine exactly what they need rather than us making assumptions about what they need. I understand that sometimes you don’t know what you need until someone teaches it to you. But this course seemed like an example of “too much, too soon”. We needed to spend more time on setting up GIS capability in the first place. Teaching some technical material on data processing tools is a moot point if they can not go back and utilize it because they do not have the computing capability to do it.

So at the end of the day, while I went to Africa to help deliver a training course and for the participants to learn from me – I also learnt from them.

IMG_4925Course participants from GIS training in Lusaka, Zambia, including representatives from UWA, UQ, IM4DC and the Honourable Matthew Neuhaus (Australian Ambassador to Zimbabwe and DRC; High Commissioner to Zambia and Malawi).

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