Geographical information systems to help in erasing poverty

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Researchers of the University of Turku help Tanzanians in the development of their country by sharing their expertise in the use of geographical information systems.

Niina Käyhkö (left.) and Joni Koskinen (3rd on the right) teach Andrew Ferdinands (2nd on the left), Mohammed Badruddin Mussa, Zahor K Zahor, Masoud S. Hemed, Faraja D. Namkesa and Pilly Silvano to utilise geographical information systems. Vesa Arki, a student of geography, is leaving for a three-month internship in Tanzania, where he can use his expertise in geographical information systems in local urban and regional planning.

Now Zahor and the five other Tanzanians, who are all been part of development projects funded by Finland, are in Turku to learn more about the use of geographical information systems (GIS).

Niina Käyhkö describes in a few sentences why geographical information system education and research are necessary. In the 1980s, GIS was only available for few experts such as land surveyors. The field started to quickly digitalise in the 90s and now the open data has provided an access to GIS for the researchers and the citizens. The number of businesses in the field is growing and an increasing amount of operations are based on real time geographical information – from mobile applications to planning the placement of new schools or a quickest route for an ambulance.

– GIS education is clearly growing globally. More and more software interfaces are based on maps and people have to know how to use and develop them. Our goal is that GIS and geospatial analysis would become one of the University’s methodological areas of strength, says Käyhkö, who is working as a Senior Lecturer in Geoinformatics at the University of Turku.

One step towards this goal is strong international co-operation. The Department of Geography of the University of Turku and Tanzanian researchers and government started their collaboration in 2003. At first, the Finnish researchers mainly worked in Zanzibar, but later on the co-operation has expanded to the Tanzanian mainland and become more reciprocal.

In Tanzania, the GIS applications are still new but their significance is well understood. One example is the new SUSLAND research project, led by Niinä Käyhkö, which researches the sustainability and structure-function-benefit chains in the landscape systems of the Tanzanian Southern Highlands. The area is mapped with GIS and with the help and involvement of the locals.

The goal of the development project is to create a better living environment to the Tanzanian Southern Highlands by utilising geographical information systems.

– The area is very poor and we strive to develop the conditions by planting forest and with better planning for the land use. So that we can avoid situations where one person plants a tree and the next day someone digs it up saying this is a field, we have to draw up a plan for the area, describes GIS expert Andrew Ferdinands, who is working in the project.

Text and photo: Erja Hyytiäinen
Translation: Mari Ratia