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African Students Leverage Open Data to Aid Communities Vulnerable to Disaster

A clear theme emerged at the ResilientAfrica Network launch event – the importance of accessible, transparent information to bolster resilience against man-made and natural disasters.

August 1, 2013
Lindsay Read

Arriving in Kampala, Uganda in June, I attended the launchof the ResilientAfrica Network(RAN) with AidData Summer Fellows Cherie Saulter and Elsa Voytas. Spearheaded by Makerere University and 19 other African universities in partnership with USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, RAN harnesses locally based solutions to mitigate disasters and rehabilitate communities in disaster-prone areas. The launch event showcased innovative projects designed by students at the University to enhance resiliency. A clear theme emerged – the importance of accessible, transparent information to bolster resilience against man-made and natural disasters.

Government officials, faculty and other participants attending the RAN launch acknowledged that many disasters are aggravated by a lack of information and coordination, or, as one person put it, the fact that “knowledge is an enclosed box.” Rural areas are often most vulnerable, as they are isolated from information systems constrained by limited access and awareness. Participants called for greater cooperation between government ministries and civil society to make information more transparent.

The student projects at the RAN launch were diverse, but one recurring theme was the potential of open data to improve development outcomes. A phone program tracked and mapped disease outbreaks throughout Uganda in real-time. Another project used light refraction technology to test for malaria and incorporated mechanisms to relay incoming data to the government and make information widely available to the public.

A student from Makerere University demonstrates a motorized system for spraying farm animals to protect against diseases.

Stimulating meaningful use of this data requires more than expanding access if it is to increase resilience against natural disasters, pervasive health threats, food insecurity and conflict. Information must not only be available and transparent, but also immediately relevant to communities in disaster-prone areas. Most of the projects at the RAN launch were inspired by development gaps the students witnessed in their own districts or villages. These students used local, subnational data combined with mapping technologies to illustrate existing gaps and the potential impact of proposed interventions.

Aiding vulnerable communities to increase their resilience requires both innovation and iteration. RAN is establishing Resilience Innovation Labs within participating universities throughout Africa, coupled with online laboratories and a new online science library. With these labs, RAN mobilizes students and faculty to increase “the capacity of people and systems to mitigate, adapt to, recover and learn from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces vulnerability and increases well-being.”  

If the June launch event I attended is any indication, the ResilientAfrica Network has great promise to leverage open data for more resilient communities with students leading the charge. Participants left the event invigorated, not only to promote strategies for communities to bounce back from disaster, but also to use knowledge and information to prosper in the face of adversity.

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Lindsay Read is an AidData Summer Fellow training students and professors at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda on how to incorporate geocoded data into the current research initiatives of the ResilientAfrica Program.