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Summer 2010
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NGOs Contributing Geographic Information as a Public Good

By Jonathan Palmer, Director, Global Information Communication Technology, Wildlife Conservation Society

diagram of the potential role of NGOs in SDIWhile for many, the term BINGO conjures the imagery of cozy, and perhaps outdated, social gaming halls, it also refers to big international nongovernmental organizations (BINGOs), a collective term for the world's largest nonprofit organizations, typically working across multiple continents and with annual budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Their function in implementing major science- and evidence-based programs, independent of direct commercial and government interests, gives them a unique role as consumers and generators of geographic information across a range of scales from the local to the global. This unique role is accentuated by much of their effort being focused in the information-poor environments of the South, a loose geographic term based on the global North-South Divide (with countries such as Australia and New Zealand being in the North). Many BINGOs are household names like CARE, The Nature Conservancy, Oxfam International, Save the Children, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and World Vision.

One key question facing BINGOs is this: To what extent should they publish the knowledge and information they generate as a free, public good (as in the sense of a free service or product)? From the point of view of economics, two conditions are required to be considered a public good: use of the good by one individual does not reduce the opportunity for others to make use of the good (nonrivalry), and everyone has access to the good (nonexcludability). While there is a range of physically free goods (e.g., clean air in most locations), the Internet and the supporting information technology revolution have seen the explosion of electronically free goods—ranging from free software to open access to data. While BINGOs have benefited from this explosion, many are what economists would refer to as free riders, with limited capacity to contribute back to the pool of the public good. Looking to the future, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic that BINGOs will increasingly contribute to the information capital of free goods available to the societies in which we work—not only based on the commitment of BINGOs and their supporters but also based on the support (and demands) of our donors and on the innovations by our technology partners, which are making contributions to information as a public good both easier and, increasingly, a competitive necessity.

BINGOs work across a broad range of industry verticals, including conservation and the environment, emergency response, and development. In turn, development covers almost any sector you care to imagine—including areas as diverse as agriculture, water, microfinance, health, and education. Within these verticals, BINGOs play a range of roles including policy formulation and advocacy; the facilitation of change through capacity building and innovation in partnership with governments, civil society, and others; and direct service delivery together with the promotion of transparency and access to services. Across all vertical sectors and for all the different roles BINGOs adopt, geography mediates almost every aspect of our work; most of the major issues we face have an explicitly geographic element. There are many great examples of how geography underpins the work of the global nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector: land-use planning and creation of management plans for protected areas, rapidly assessing needs and gaps in services following a natural disaster, and balancing efficiency and equity in the delivery of health or education support services.

Geographic information has a key role to play not only because of the geographic nature of the issues we all are trying to address but also because geography provides a rapid and meaningful way to aggregate information and place it into a meaningful context. GIS is increasingly underpinning the decision making that takes place in the mashup society in which we now live. Such projects are not restricted to the North: grassroots, crowdsourcing initiatives, like Ushahidi (the international open source data visualizing project), while only leveraging basic points-on-a-map technology, demonstrate the power of simple GIS technology for promoting transparency. What will the future hold where more complex geographic tools are made easily available and usable for the people of the South to tell the compelling stories of the challenges they face in addressing poverty and securing their man-made and natural environments? How will BINGOs assist in telling these stories?

  map of villages in Mareko Woreda
Map of villages in Mareko Woreda (district), Ethiopia, showing villages in two colors (red: communities traveling more than 1,500 meters to fetch drinking water; green: communities within the government water-fetching distance standard, 1,500 meters). Maps such as this are used by the NGO International Rescue Committee to identify gaps in safe drinking water coverage. This map shows that roughly half of the communities in Mareko District need additional water points (courtesy: International Rescue Committee).

While historically BINGOs have been criticized for working in isolation, a range of factors has transformed and continues to transform the collaborative landscape, especially with regard to information sharing and information as a public good. First, the majority of agencies are now focusing on partnership and supporting local governments as civil society and other organizations address their needs, commitments, and priorities. Second, the interdependency of issues within and across both the natural and man-made world is increasingly making collaboration a prerequisite for success. Third, a range of initiatives is changing the competitive landscape in which we work. Beyond initiatives in the North, like Data.gov, a range of institutional and collaborative frameworks is emerging in the South that not only facilitates collaboration and data sharing but is also beginning to throw down the challenge that others collaborate and share information. For example, in East and Southern Africa, the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) is increasingly taking on the challenge of responding to its mission of facilitating access to geographic information and products for use by its member states and beyond. Through engaging in the NASA- and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-initiated Regional Visualization and Monitoring Station (SERVIR) project, RCMRD is ensuring the increasing capacity of its member states to respond to environmental threats such as wildfires, floods, landslides, and harmful algal blooms. The Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC), based in Panama, provides a similar role to RCMRD but focuses on Mesoamerica. It will become increasingly challenging for BINGOs to claim the mantle of facilitating transparency if their own efforts are not visible at some level in initiatives like RCMRD. Finally, multisector initiatives, such as Conservation Commons as well as member-driven collaborations within the BINGO sector such as NetHope, are providing the institutional framework for collaboration linked with the single point of engagement for partners to support our collective efforts. For example, with leadership from The Nature Conservancy, WaterAid, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, NetHope is in a dialog with Esri about how, through collaboration, Esri technology can benefit the missions of 30 of the world's leading NGOs.

While geography underpins our work and collaboration is increasingly accepted as both a valuable and competitive necessity, we still have a long way to go to achieve the vision that many of us aspire to. Investing in capital projects is a challenge for any organization in the current economic environment. By their very nature, NGOs are extremely resource limited, and the issues we address are, almost without exception, massive in scale: global environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, the needs of billions of people at the bottom of the pyramid surviving on less than $2/day, and disease outbreaks and natural disasters that threaten the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe. In addition, only a percentage of the funds going to BINGOs are unrestricted, that is, funds that the organization is free to decide how they can be used. Even where a capital investment in technology might deliver significant value to an NGO's mission, it may also push up the administrative overhead—one of the most common yardsticks used to compare NGOs' performance. Beyond resources, we must also acknowledge the slow pace of organizational change—and this is not just driven by resources but also by each of our own organizational histories. The fact that data sharing has been, for all intents and purposes, prohibitively expensive has in the past allowed a range of genuine needs to protect data—such as individual health data and locations of endangered species—to expand into a persuasive myth in some organizations that data sharing is not desirable, not a priority, and not possible.

It would shock many readers to discover how few of the major international NGOs have developed a spatial data infrastructure (SDI) for optimizing geographic information investments and sharing information even within their own organizations. For others, this is perhaps less shocking; implementing an SDI remains a challenge in many private-sector organizations, and with a choice between frontline needs and back-office investment, where do you think most people would choose to invest? Many in the NGO sector see the emergence of cloud services, like those available via ArcGIS.com, as an opportunity to leapfrog our peers in the commercial sector and build spatial data infrastructures without incurring the massive hardware and software costs traditionally associated with such work. Of course, this involves more than just logging in and uploading our data—our success will depend on leadership from the private sector, leveraging not just the technology provided but also the wealth of expertise. Perhaps more than anything, the evolving technological landscape and support of our technological partners contribute to the belief of many that we are truly in a position to move the needle in terms of BINGOs' capacity to contribute to geographic information as a public good.

As we do not generate a dollar bottom line, we are all heavily dependent on the wishes and demands of our donors. While donors are increasingly requiring data collected with their funds to be, at some stage, made public, few are fully committing the funds and enforcing the concomitant requirement that data be made public in a secure, timely way that drives outcomes across our missions. Notable exceptions include USAID's PREDICT project, for example. Here, through engaging University of California, Davis, and leading experts in wildlife surveillance, including the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, the Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wildlife Trust, USAID is funding a program to monitor, and provide the foundation for a response to, the emergence of new infectious diseases in geographic hot spots. Collaboration and the public sharing of geographic information within the PREDICT project are a central component of its information management strategy. Beyond support from the technology industry, for BINGOs to successfully transform some of their collected data into a public good, donors will need to facilitate a change that will see information sharing being transformed from a poorly specified contractual clause to an outcome-driven, fully funded activity within a project.

So what is the future role of big international nongovernmental organizations in contributing to the world's wealth of geographic information as a public good? There are many reasons to be hopeful and many challenges ahead. Geographic information has a critical role to play not only because of the intrinsic nature of the challenges facing both the man-made and natural worlds but also because it far more easily aggregates, or meshes, into a meaningful story. The signs are strong that we are rising to the challenge of finally consigning to the historical dustbin any suggestion that contributing knowledge and information for the broader public good is beyond our collective capacity. With the continued support of our donors and technology partners, we, as BINGOs, can increasingly move from primarily being consumers of free information goods to taking the lead on contributing to the public information capital that is essential to the success of all our missions.

About the Author

Jonathan Palmer is the Wildlife Conservation Society's director of global information communication technology (ICT). Palmer has a strong professional interest in strategically aligning technology with business objectives. His outstanding technical and analytic skills have enabled him to deliver a range of solutions—from online collaboration and mapping tools for the WCS Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance project to the NetHope ICT Database, engaging 30 international NGOs in sharing strategic ICT information. Palmer lives with his wife in northern Tanzania.

More Information

For more information, contact Jonathan Palmer (e-mail: jpalmer@wcs.org) or Carmelle Terborgh, Esri (cterborgh@esri.com).

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