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GIS arrives to rescue researchers

Margaret Nagwovuma

In the past, researchers would scour various parts of the country looking for variables in their statistics before they could make conclusions over particular phenomena.

This usually caused research projects to take long. However, there is a new tool in town that could dramatically change how research is carried out – Geographic Information System (GIS).

Recently, 20 researchers at Makerere University were taken through a two-day session on how to use the GIS tool to further their studies. Supported by Sweden’s Lund University, the researchers were taught how to use its varied resources to enhance their research.

One of them, Margaret Nagwovuma, is pursuing a PhD in Information Science, particularly looking at disease spread and prevalence in Uganda, particularly for schistomiasis [bilharzia] control.

“This technology helps one sift through various variables to help one predict how particular phenomena are spread,” she said.

“GIS will be important to policymakers in the future, especially those seeking information that can be used to find solutions to problems. Future scholars will find it harder to avoid GIS. More people need to appreciate how technology is affecting their outcomes.”

She explained that GIS tools like ArcMaps help a researcher set up maps to determine how things have been going so that they can make interventions – such as mass drug administration, at a lower cost.

Kizito Ongaya, another researcher pursuing a PhD in Information Science, agrees. Ongaya, who is ordinarily a member of staff at Gulu University, is pursuing his postgraduate degree studies at Makerere. In particular, Ongaya is looking to understand how nodding syndrome is spreading in northern Uganda.

"GIS helps us quickly figure out the extent of the problem, by looking at relevant variables in an area and how they are distributed,” he explained. “Indeed, the results [are] helping me find solutions that will bring better understanding to related crop and plant diseases.”

HOW GIS WORKS

These students are pursuing the studies under the Training Spatially Enabled E-Services Delivery project (TSSEEDD).

According to TSSEEDD student supervisor and project coordinator, Dr Aminah Zawedde, GIS is vital in allowing students to increase their appreciation of policy insights and solutions.

“You can use GIS to learn how particular phenomena like weather, famine and floods are affecting agriculture or health in the areas while likely variables feature,” she said.

Dr Zawedde explained that a researcher looks at the issues surrounding a subject, then uses the programme to determine while similar patterns are developing, and hence likely problems, leading one to plot corresponding solutions.

The TSSEEDD project started at Makerere in 2016 and is supported by Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Zawedde explained that the project is now training 20 postgraduate students on various programmes at Makerere, with the hope that more will join in the future.

“For now they are doing a two-day introductory course, but we expect them to return for advanced course – to update their skills after at least a year of practice,” she said.

Dr Gilbert Maiga is the principal investigator on the project at Makerere, with Dr Ali Masourian of Lund University as his SIDA counterpart.

Under the programme, Makerere has set up two GIS labs, one in the college of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology and another in the college of Computing and Information Sciences, which are open to students, on various programmes.

Prof Petter Pilesjo, from Lund University, is one of the experts who have been teaching on the TSSEEDD programme. Prof Pilesjo, a director of the GIS centre at Lund University, is pleased how the programme is developing.  

“The idea was for us to introduce GIS and for Makerere to take over after sometime … and it is looking good so far … that is how sustainability is developed,” he said.

“We think that GIS will become very important in research and more students will begin to appreciate it,” she said. “Just like people first appreciated computers in the late 1980s and early 90s, I’m confident that researchers will appreciate GIS more in the future.”

Martin Ngobye, another of the PhD students, this time on the Computer Science programme is also positive about GIS.

“We are using such tools as arc catalogue to collect details to determine which conditions are prime for paediatric infections in particular areas,” Ngobye said. “GIS is going to be very important in research, especially in access to information that policymakers need to make vital decisions.”

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