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Winter 2001/2002
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National Spatial Data Infrastructures in the Making

Central American Project Provides Framework for Geographic Information

By Kate Trinka Lance, Central American Geographic Information Project Coordinator

New census data is creating an unprecedented opportunity for progress in applying information to development in Central America. GIS specialists in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been working together to integrate data from their respective agencies. These specialists come from the national statistics institutes, national geographic institutes, the ministries of environment, and the ministries of agriculture--28 institutions in total. These are the primary government data producers. With technical training and support from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), each country identified a data product that it could put together as a group and make available to the user community on compact disk or via the Internet.

 a map of Costa Rica showing population pressure on conservation areas; click to see enlargement
Using a model developed by the GIS lab at CIAT, Costa Rica project partners estimated the population pressure on protected areas and conservation areas.

Guided by Dr. Glenn Hyman, a geographer with the GIS/Land Management unit of CIAT, these efforts have evolved into the Central American Geographic Information Project (called PROCIG, its acronym in Spanish). It was Hyman's idea to create a two-year project to promote the integration of census data with digital administrative boundary maps.

"The geographic information community in Central America was not tapping sufficiently into socioeconomic data sources," said Hyman. "Few examples existed of studies making use of available tabular population and agricultural data in a spatial way."

Although PROCIG started with a technical focus to link census data with maps, it evolved to promote spatial data infrastructure--data documentation, data standards, data policies, and data access mechanisms. The project partners became keenly aware of data inconsistencies as they tried to integrate their data. These inconsistencies were due, in part, to institutions using different coding and classification systems, different projections, and different basemaps. The project partners formed committees and organized seminars to draw attention to the lack of data coordination in their countries.

The partners recognized that the primary barriers to coordinated spatial data management at the national level were more institutional than technical. For this reason, they generated discussions between key data producers and users on the legal, economic, and political factors surrounding geographic information management.

A significant factor in PROCIG's success was teaming up with the USGS/EROS Data Center Mitch Clearinghouse Project, which was responding to damage from 1998's Hurricane Mitch. The Mitch Clearinghouse Project, an initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development, has been supporting the development of geographic information clearinghouses in four of the countries in which PROCIG was operating. There were many complementary GIS-related activities between PROCIG and the Mitch project. Project coordinators of both projects took advantage of opportunities to meet and work out how the two projects could strengthen each other.

Indeed, Hurricane Mitch was instrumental to the advance of spatial data infrastructure in Central America, not only because of the projects that were implemented after the natural disaster but also because the events demonstrated to government institutions that they need to make information management a national priority. Relief efforts required immediate access to data that often was nonexistent or, if the data did exist, was not readily accessible.

In 1999, Esri provided ArcView 3.1 software, along with its ArcView Spatial Analyst and ArcView 3D Analyst extensions, to the institutions participating in PROCIG. In addition, the infoDev program of the World Bank provided funding to CIAT for workshops and project coordination.

As the work progressed, National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDIs) developed--that is, frameworks for managing geographic information that encompasses the technology, policies, standards, and institutional arrangements necessary to acquire, process, store, distribute, and improve the utilization of geospatial data.

Building the NSDI

Many of the new NSDI initiatives in the region are in an early stage, but significant progress is being made. The participants are actively pursuing a number of projects to enhance the collective spatial data infrastructures of the region. For example:

  • In Panama, the project collaborators are developing an application to deliver population census results via the Web. They are also establishing a metadata clearinghouse node.
  • In Costa Rica, collaborators conducted a project to study conservation areas in the country in relation to the human population and agricultural development.
  • In Nicaragua, the PROCIG partners are developing a digital rural atlas with accompanying metadata to promote information integration and exchange among the project collaborators.
  • The Honduras partners developed metadata and a Web site for searching for available data.
  • In El Salvador, a Web site was built using ArcView Internet Map Server (IMS) to provide access to maps from each institution.
  • Guatemala is also using Web mapping server technology to provide access to data and metadata.
  • Belize joined PROCIG only recently, so it does not have a formal project. However, it is developing GIS products and services.

PROCIG Up-to-Date

In May 2001, in El Salvador, several ministers signed an agreement in support of national activities, and a similar agreement has been drafted in Honduras. These are important developments because spatial data infrastructure requires governmentwide, intersectoral commitment.

As the director of the National Geographic Institute of Honduras, Dr. Noe Portillo, points out, "If there is no political consensus, there will be gaps, but if consensus can be obtained through a legal mechanism approved in each country, things can move along smoothly."

Francisco Delgado, from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in El Salvador, is very positive about this collaboration. "Much more often, we see the opposite, where projects duplicate each other's work, and when the projects end, things fall apart. I am pleased by the combined efforts of CIAT and USGS in helping us establish a national strategy for geographic information--the strategy goes beyond individual projects and individual institutions."

During the final PROCIG meeting, held in Cartagena in May 2001, parallel to the Fifth Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Conference (see Fall 2001 ArcNews ),the directors of the national geographic institutes of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama signed a declaration to carry forward NSDI activities in Central America. The directors agreed to several resolutions including leading the development of NSDI in their respective countries, galvanizing support for national interinstitutional NSDI committees, dedicating at least one staff member to NSDI coordination, and developing an NSDI Web site in each country. The resolutions acknowledge PROCIG as a catalyst in promoting NSDI in Central America, and they stress the need for continuing the regional network of GIS data producers and users.

Luis Zuniga, director of land use planning of the Nicaraguan Institute for Terrestrial Studies and one of the proponents of the agreement, echoes the sentiments of all the PROCIG partners: "The adequate use of the GIS is fundamental for sustainable development and wise decision making in the development processes in our countries."

For more information, contact Kate Lance, project coordinator (e-mail:

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