Paul Bartel, Data Lead At SERVIR West Africa Hub, Discusses Africa’s Geospatial Sector

Paul Bartel is an economist and geographer specializing in the application of science and technology to address complex problems in the areas of resiliency, climate adaptation and economic development. Bartel has Masters Degrees from the University of Oregon (International Studies) and the University of Florida (Food and Resource Economics). He is recognized for his geospatial and GIS expertise, having received recognition from the U.S. Department of State, USAID and the US Department of Agriculture as well as the Government of Burkina Faso, and ESRI for his contributions to promoting geospatial science and technology for sustainable development in Africa. He has served on advisory boards for United Nations Environment Programme, NASA and the World Federation of Scientists.

Currently, Bartel serves as the Science & Data Lead at the SERVIR West Africa Hub, where he designs and implements geospatial programmes aimed at providing science-driven decision support services for governments and development organizations.

Bartel is one of the experts lined up to speak at the 2019 African Geospatial Data and Internet Conference (AGDIC) in Ghana starting 22 – 24 October.

Space Africa, the official media partner for AGDIC 2019, interviewed Mr Bartel on SERVIR-West Africa projects and Africa’s growing geospatial sector. Below are excerpts from the interview:

Q. Could you explain the relationship between SERVIR Global, Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), Agriculture, Hydrology and Meteorology (AGRHYMET) and Tetra Tech Inc. in relation to the SERVIR-West Africa Hub?

SERVIR West Africa is part of a global set of hubs covering the Amazon, Himalaya/Hindu Kush and Mekong, as well as East & Southern Africa. SERVIR West Africa is organized as a consortium, which comprises of CERSGIS (Ghana), Centre du Suivi Ecologique (Senegal), AFRIGIST (Nigeria), ICRISAT (Niger office), the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development, and the AGHRYMET Regional Centre (Niger). AGRHYMET serves as the coordinator for the consortium. Tetra Tech has a five-year contract to establish the hub and develop its consortium capacity to maintain SERVIR West Africa over subsequent years

Q. What are some of the ongoing projects currently being carried out by SERVIR-West Africa? Are there projects or initiatives that you consider as huge milestones in relation to SERVIR’s activities in Africa?

SERVIR develops demand-driven services that focus on using geospatial science and information for decision-making. These services fit generally within four themes: agriculture and food security, weather and climate, water and disasters, and land use/ land cover and environmental services. We are engaged in four flagship efforts at present:

  • Development of service to inform pastoralists and resource managers on the availability of water and forage during the dry season in northern Senegal;
  • Monitoring charcoal production in Ghana;
  • Monitoring illegal mining (galamsey) in Ghana, and
  • Increasing the precision of identifying current risk levels for the outbreak of desert locusts in West Africa.

All of these services are developed based on extensive consultations and needs assessments. They are co-developed with regional experts, with the support of our NASA partners. They are based on open science principles, and they are designed from the outset with the sustainability of the service in mind.

Q. You brought together teams to address geospatial science for sustainable technology during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2000 and led a team of scientists for the Science and Technology Advisor to the United States’ Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of geospatial science and technology capabilities around Africa in 2008. What are your thoughts on the application of geospatial data and satellite technology in Africa over the past two decades? Have you noticed any paradigm shift in the generation, application and use of geospatial data for developmental activities in Africa?

Considerable progress has been made over the past twenty years in the appreciation and application of geospatial science and technology. There have been, of course, immense advances in science and technology, as well as the ability to access data. Africa has moved in several forward directions; the continent has developed and demonstrated considerable capacity in the field of geospatial science, which has allowed it to become less dependent upon external support. There has been considerable growth in the understanding of open science principles, though this understanding is yet to permeate the policy realm.

Q. You have invaluable domain expertise in the African geospatial sector, following your experience in helping to found EIS Africa and leading other initiatives across the continent. What are your thoughts on the growth potential of the geospatial industry in Africa? Do you suggest that more private and commercial ventures should be encouraged to look at the business side of things within the industry?

Certainly, there is an opportunity for growth in the industry, and that has been demonstrated by the growing number of businesses and startups that have been established. The key challenge, however, is to cause demand for these services to grow among the government agencies of African states.

Q. Concerning the application and sourcing of data in the geospatial industry, do you foresee the possibilities of emerging drone technologies overlapping with the use of satellite technology, especially in the area of mapping and aerial imagery? Which areas do you think both technologies can efficiently complement each other to improve precision and resolution while remaining affordable?

Drone technology and satellite data are all remotely sensed data. As such, they are compatible. An analytical approach may be applied in the use of both. Drone technology offers a very valuable contribution in terms of validation of satellite imagery. Satellite imagery offers the advantages of multiple spectra of data (drone data is largely optical in nature) and it has a regular schedule for its collection.

Q. Do you think that the abundance of data and improved precision poses any threat to individual privacy and/or increases the risk of spying activities among and across governments in the near future?

There has been a general tendency for imagery as a source of information to be free and open. As such, everyone has access to the information in question. When everyone is aware of the data, there are no secrets to hide. Ultimately, geospatial data has become borderless, and we all have to adapt to that. This is, however, different in the case of field or survey data, and that is why international principles on the collection and use of such data are important and are being increasingly considered as integral to research.

Q. What are your expectations with respect to the African Geospatial Data and Internet Conference (AGDIC) 2019?
I anticipate that the AGDIC, from a general perspective, will expand the community of geospatial experts, and that it will create closer ties between end-users, service providers and the decision-making community. I would also hope that, as a result of the ministerial meetings, we will see increased progress in policies relating to geospatial data and data infrastructure that promote reliable and affordable internet across the region.

Q. SERVIR-West Africa is a co-organiser of AGDIC 2019, alongside the Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation. How do the Conference objectives directly align with SERVIR’s mission in West Africa?

SERVIR’s prime objective is to increase the use of science-based and geospatial analysis for decision-making. We would have members of both communities present at the AGDIC conference. The awareness, exchange and synergies resulting from the conference will help SERVIR achieve its goal. Additionally, we are very interested in fostering constructive dialogue on capturing the opportunities and overcoming the challenges faced in increased use of cloud computing and big data for sustainable development.

To register for AGDIC 2019, please visit the official conference webpage.