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Spring 2008
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Global Dialogues: GIScience and Sustainable Development in Africa

Doug RichardsonThe Association of American Geographers recently had the opportunity to participate with hundreds of African geographers, GIScientists, and environmental scientists in a new dialogue around the theme of Geospatial Science and Sustainable Development in Africa. These discussions, which were initiated in March 2008 and have already generated several promising new areas of research and educational collaboration, were sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Global Dialogues on Emerging Science and Technology (GDEST) program. Follow-on activities and continuing interactions resulting from these dialogues have the potential to generate considerable ongoing and long-term cooperation among African and U.S. scientists in geographic research, geographic information science (GIScience) education and GIS applications, sustainability science, and many related fields.

Five other GDEST programs also have been undertaken, including dialogues in Japan (focusing on nanotechnologies), China (biotechnology), and Germany (quantum computing). However, the recent Africa GDEST program is the first to be initiated on a continental scale and the first to address geography-related research fields, such as geospatial science and sustainability.

The Global Dialogues on Emerging Science and Technology program focusing on Geospatial Science and Sustainable Development in Africa began in March 2008 with site visits to universities, governmental ministries, and nongovernmental organizations in nine African countries, followed by a conference on the same theme in Cape Town, South Africa.

The U.S. delegation was divided into two teams, East Africa and West Africa, and included members from the U.S. Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit and its Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, as well as representatives from other U.S. governmental agencies, several U.S. universities, the American Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) regional offices. The teams conducted more than 50 site visits and met with hundreds of African experts in the fields of environmental remote-sensing interpretation and modeling, GIS cartography and analysis, agriculture, education, health, surveying, mining, climate, hydrology, population, urban systems, and information and communication technology.

Care was taken to listen to and learn from our African colleagues, to identify needs rather than prescribe solutions, to build upon existing regional capacity in geospatial science and technology rather than duplicate or displace it, and to explore opportunities for collaboration between U.S. and African scientists and institutions, as well as among African organizations and networks, in ways identified as useful to scientists, educators, and governmental agencies from the region.

It was clear from both the country visits and the conference that significant progress has been achieved since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in terms of the diffusion and sophistication of geospatial technologies, applications, and coordination, both regionally and in individual countries, and their use in sustainable development planning and program implementation. Despite progress, however, optimal use of geographic information science and associated technologies is often constrained by a lack of resources, a lack of access to suitable data, and a lack of coordination among users and data producers.

Among other topics, GDEST participants particularly sought to promote future dialogues that would identify partners for collaboration on specific projects or programs; make better use of collaboration among U.S. and African scientists and practitioners to create a sustainable critical mass of African expertise; support regional and indigenous educational and institutional infrastructures; and develop educational and research collaborative mechanisms, including faculty and student exchange programs, online interactions, and better access to research and curricular information.

The AAG currently is implementing some of the above resource sharing and online interactive coordinative mechanisms through its new subsidized Developing Regions Membership Program and through the existing AAG Center for Global Geography Education programs.

Also important to sustaining collaboration is supporting existing African networks of excellence and platforms for dialogue, information sharing, and communication. For example, African networks of excellence, such as the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment (AARSE), African Geo Information Research Network (AGIRN), African Reference Frame (AFREF), Environmental Information Systems Africa (EIS-AFRICA), Mapping Africa for Africa, and university networks (e.g., University Network for Disaster Risk Reduction in Africa [UNEDRA]), are vital infrastructures of communication and coordination for research, education, and applications collaboration. Descriptions of and linkages to these and many other existing African networks can be accessed directly through the AAG Web site at www.aag.org/developing.

The U.S. GDEST delegation representatives, both individually and in coordination with U.S. embassies in the countries visited, are currently following up on contacts and acquaintances made during the site visits and will be continuing discussions on specific projects for which opportunities for partnerships and collaboration were identified. A report on the African GDEST program's progress and findings is under development and will be made available in the near future.

I would like to thank Lee Schwartz, director of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues at the U.S. Department of State, together with Nina Fedoroff and Andrew Reynolds of the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, for providing key leadership and logistical support essential to the success of the African GDEST program. Most importantly, on behalf of all of the participants, I would like to express our deep appreciation to our African colleagues for the opportunity to learn from them during these dialogues and for their insight and guidance on how to sustain ongoing interactions and useful collaborative activities in the years ahead.

More information on African geography and GIS research, education, and sustainable development activities, as well as collaborative needs and opportunities, is available and updated regularly on the AAG Web site (www.aag.org).

Doug Richardson (with input from Lee Schwartz)
drichardson@aag.org

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