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Mapping: The view from above

By Gordon Ojwang in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 20 May 2010 13:58

Geospatial images are now being used to help farmers guard

against loss from weather changes, but more African satellite capacity

is needed to aid scientific research

Since 1972, when the US launched the first earth observation satellite, information from remote sensors has been used to create early-warning systems, analyse land-use patterns and survey the spread of disease. Although space and geo­spatial technologies are used in many parts of the world, they have not been widely adopted in most of Africa.

A key use of satellite data is for disaster early-warning systems, such as the SERVIR-Africa project managed by the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development in Kenya, with help from NASA and the US Agency for International Development. Its initial work has covered flood forecasting, risk mapping for Rift Valley Fever and analysis of the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Other long-term climate forecasts derived from satellite observations and rainfall data can also help formulate scenarios for crop growing and predictions of soil moisture levels and crop yields.

I use a satellite to get around

Even without the traffic jams, navigating the streets of Lagos is no easy business. Amongst a wave of new applications aimed at mapping the continent, GeoLife UK and Nigeria’s Telecgsm launched Nigeria’s first navigation application for smart phones in January. Users of the Navmii application can search for a street name or junction, or just point to a spot on the map. Another application, GeoFamily, lets users track the locations of their family members using their mobile phone numbers. The application then plots a route to them.

“With the exception of South Africa, there’s absolutely no navigation out there,” Peter Atalla, chief executive of GeoLife, told The Africa Report. In South Africa, GeoLife will launch a World Cup application to help tourists navigate the tournament’s venues. It plans to target Ghana, Togo, Cameroon and Kenya. The Dutch navigation company TomTom, which operates its car global positioning system in South Africa, launched services in Morocco in February, with detailed coverage of 67,000km of roads. Google launched its Google Maps service for 30 African cities in February. Annotated with business locations and contact information – and with the option for a satellite-image view – African urban landscapes will now be far more visible online.

Google also plans to launch its Street View service in South Africa in time for the World Cup.

Gemma Ware

In Kenya, the Green Belt Movement is using geospatial technology to monitor the growth of trees and changes in forest cover. Global positioning system (GPS) units have been used to find locations for replanting projects. Data from a group of satellites, called the Disaster Monitoring Constellation, is also being used to map ongoing deforestation in the Congo River Basin, which is nearly impossible to monitor by other means.

There are many more areas where satellite data could be used in the future. In conflict situations, data could help assess human security and monitor the use of conflict resources. High-resolution images of cities can help urban planners and tax collectors, while GPS tracking can allow shipping lines to plot the location of ships to time their arrival in port. Farmers could acquire more information to watch over their crops. Weather-indexed crop insurance has already begun, with small-scale farmers in Kenya’s Laikipia East District now insured by UAP Kenya against the effects of drought and excessive rain.

Almost all the satellite data for Africa is obtained through collaboration between government institutions, international agencies and satellite-data providers. NASA and the EU have been crucial in providing information, although Indian, Chinese, Russian and Japanese satellites are slowly coming into use in Africa. A lot of earth-observation data is now freely available through open sources, either via the internet or compact disks. Data from the MODIS Rapid Response System, a NASA-backed project which provides satellite images of fire hot spots, is freely available for download. That information is a key component of South Africa’s Advanced Fire Information System, which has an automatic alert system to warn people by phone when a fire is approaching.

Commerce vs. science?

Despite these opportunities, most of Africa’s satellites are used for commercial communications. This means that research involving the use of satellite data suffers due to a lack of equipment and funding. Higher-resolution satellite data is often very expensive and can only be acquired by governments and international agencies or through donor funding.

Politicians and decision-makers are aware of the importance of remote sensing for disaster management, resource planning and environmental monitoring, but lack funds for the equipment.

Some governments have realised the value of investment. In February, the South African government agreed to take a 55-60% stake in SunSpace, a Stellenbosch-based company that manufactured the South African Sumbandila observation satellite which launched in September 2009. Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria have also launched satellites, although Nigeria’s NigComSat-1 – built by a Chinese company – failed soon after launch in 2008. A replacement is due in 2011.

Governments also use satellite images for security purposes. According to court documents, the Angolan government paid $136m in 2002 to buy satellite images from Israeli-company ImageSat during the country’s civil war.

This article was first published in The Africa Report April-May 2010 edition

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