As highlighted by Keir on the excellent Google Maps Mania last week, AfricaMap is an interesting attempt to build a repository of geospatial data about Africa, developed by the Center for Geographic analysis at Harvard University.
What is interesting about this site, is both the scope of the project and the approach taken.
From decades many individuals, groups and organisations have been trying to develop Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI) at a regional or global level (GSDI), with it must be said very limited success so far.
Unlike many previous attempts at developing a portal to a regional SDI, Africamap tries to hide as much complexity as possible from the user just presenting a map display and a search tool – Great start after-all I would argue that more than anything else a SDI is really just an example of a vertical search application.
But no.. You have been mislead dear user, just searching for something like “Sudan Population” or Nile Delta won’t give you any results – you need to select which maps layers (data-sets) you need to search first. This is not unusual in SDI implementations, but it would be like having to tell a generic web search tool, which websites the information you are looking for can be would.
This approach is, I believe, the result of a culture of system design that is dominated by data providers, not users. The user interface here has been influenced I’m sure by the creation of the metadata that SDI convention states is always the first step in building an SDI.
It’s not that the data is not available, it’s just that the approach taken so far by the SDI community makes its inaccessible to almost anyone other than the original data provider or someone who has the time to work out which map layers should be searched.
So some may argue, this and similar sites are designed for specialised users, who have intimate knowledge of this type of data and how it is structured, even so there is no reason to make access to this more difficult than it needs to be..
OK rant over, from a technology and tools point of view Africmap demonstrates what is possible now with a freely available web tools and open standards based geospatial services, and without doubt the team at Harvard should be congratulated for doing the hard back office work to provide access to all this important information from one place.
This is not yet GSDI 2.0 then, but GSDI 1.5 and a pointer to the direction which ultimately may finally deliver on the GSDI vision.
Written and submitted from the Google Office, London.