Accelerating Africa’s Sustainable Development with Geospatial Intelligence

Sustainable Development has become a priority for most African countries, especially when natural disasters are increasing and most of the population still struggles with poverty, unemployment, and basic amenities. Addressing these challenges through technology is changing the status quo compared to when access to technological infrastructure was little to none. Geospatial application is one among other solutions that Africa has leveraged to solve pressing challenges and maintain development.

Geospatial application stems from geospatial science –  the study of human behaviour relating to how people use the Earth’s natural or artificial resources. The Geographical Information System (GIS) was the first geospatial tool invented in 1963. It’s computer software for collecting data, integrating, analysing and distributing resulting products about the Earth in relation to its physical position.

The digital revolution has accelerated geospatial capture, coordination, and intelligence by fusing the physical and digital worlds, resulting in a merger of geospatial perception and reality. According to Allied Market Research, the global GIS software market was valued at USD 6.3 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach USD 25.5 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 15.2% from 2021 to 2030.

Technological advancement has transformed geospatial science from a mere application into geospatial-Intelligence which informs decision-making. In addition, information from satellites, Global positioning systems (GPS), coordinate geometry (COGO), and unmanned aerial systems (drones) are consolidated with GIS to provide more accessibility to data that artificial intelligence systems and 3D technologies transform into decision-ready intelligence.

Furthermore, geospatial intelligence goes beyond traditional GIS because it involves a unique and essential process known as tradecraft. Tradecraft combines special knowledge and techniques, technology, and analytical skills to help anticipate and make sense of events and actions. It takes the basic information from maps and other geospatial technology and combines it with other types of intelligence, such as information gathered from people or images, to give a complete and clear picture of an event.

It is a cognitive process that combines culture-based knowledge, signal intelligence, human intelligence, and imagery intelligence to unlock the full potential of geospatial technology. In other words, tradecraft is like a secret weapon employed in the military to get the most out of geospatial information and technology.

Different people in everyday life consume geospatial intelligence. For example, anyone planning a trip to a new place could use a map or a GPS to help them get there, avoid traffic, and locate the best places and things. In the industry, geospatial intelligence is used to make important decisions relating to natural disasters, track supply chains, improve public transport, etc.

In Africa, GIS has been helpful in various economic sectors such as agriculture, energy & power, oil & gas, and telecommunications. The most common applications supporting sustainable development and addressing challenges in Africa are disaster management, healthcare, real estate, insurance etc. Below are some institutions committed to sustainable development in Africa, leveraging the power of geospatial applications and supporting commercial and government entities through data access, capacity development, and policymaking.

  • EIS-Africa – Established in South Africa in the year 2000, EIS-Africa has evolved into a pan-African organisation that works to improve the use of geospatial and environmental information to enrich policy debate and support decision-making for the well-being of Africa’s people. It manages and runs AfricaGIS, which focuses on organising conferences and exhibitions. It has contributed immensely to developing skills and institutional capacity in geo-information across the continent.
  • Africa GeoPortal – Managed by Esri, the GeoPortal provides access to geospatial tools, data, and training for users working on Africa’s geospatial challenges.
  • Africa Knowledge Platform – Developed by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, provides a gateway to the geospatial dataset and interactive stories on Africa’s social, economic, territorial and environmental development.
  • African Group on Earth Observations (AfriGEO) – AfriGEO is an initiative of the African community in GEO that provides a coordination framework and platform for Africa’s participation in GEO. It enhances Africa’s capacity for producing, managing and using Earth observations, thus also enabling the Region’s involvement in, and contribution to, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).
  • Regional Centre For Mapping Of Resources For Development (RCMRD) – Established in 1975, it provides geo-information and allied information communication applications. In addition, it offers capacity building, research, development and innovation services utilising space technology for disaster risk reduction, disaster management and emergency response.
  • Digital Earth Africa – Makes Earth observation (EO) data readily available, delivering decision-ready products to the African continent.
  • GRID3 AfricaGeoportal – Geo-Referenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development is powered by Esri and works with countries to generate, validate and use geospatial data on population, settlements, infrastructure, and boundaries.
  • AfricaScope – Provides decision makers with strategic information for the market and socio-economic development of people in Africa.
  • African Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (AGIA) – leverages the power of satellite remote sensing, drones and data analytics to deliver a better life to vulnerable people in Africa.

Geospatial intelligence has broader applications than GIS. With the increasing data availability and state-of-the-art technology, Geospatial-Intelligence will unlock more possibilities for Africa to support sustainable development and address challenges. However, for this to happen, Africa needs to invest in some of the latest technologies required to mine geospatial intelligence, including:

Cloud Infrastructure – Maintaining the current geospatial infrastructure developed for storing and accessing data and leveraging cloud infrastructure to enhance storage capacity for data providers.

AI and Machine Learning for Analytics – Investing in analytics infrastructure for extracting, combining, analysing, and deriving intelligence from all types of geospatial data. Semi-automated geospatial solutions based on satellite data, remote sensing, and mobile contact tracing coupled with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision are spreading fast and are notably useful in big data analytics. Technologies such as automated mapping, big data analytics and detection of land-use changes can reduce costs and enable real-time management of resources in Africa.

5G Technology – Expanding the usage of 5G technology in Africa will enable more efficient data collection. In addition, it will provide the bandwidth and intelligence to connect millions of sensors and devices, making advanced technology capabilities and connectivity more powerful.

3D and Digital Twins – A digital twin is a virtual model that accurately reflects a physical object in 3D. A 3D digital cloud can represent any physical form, such as an object, site, landscape, geographic region, or infrastructure. Geospatial-Intelligence has used this technology for environmental monitoring, urban planning, self-driving vehicles, and building information models. 3D clouds are used to derive 3D indoor models, essential components for real-time building information models, and sensor networks and IoT devices.

Automation –  Developing automated workflows that allow the system to perform operations from data collection to processing and application without supervision will enable organisations to focus on improving processes while the system runs. This automation will require increased processing power and speed of enhanced connectivity, such as an uninterrupted 5G network.

Geospatial intelligence can be a transformative force in Africa, helping to drive sustainable development and addressing the pressing challenges faced by the continent. However, for this to happen, Africa needs to invest in the necessary infrastructure and develop a skilled workforce capable of utilising geospatial technology. In addition, governments, private sector organisations, and international bodies need to work together to promote the adoption of geospatial intelligence and ensure its benefits are accessible to all.