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Researchers get key GIS skills at Makerere

Last week, the second cohort of 25 researchers completed their studies on spatially enabled e-services, also known as Geographic Information System (GIS) at Makerere University.

The GIS employs elaborate tools like ArcMaps to improve how researchers analyze raw information before drawing actionable conclusions.

(Left to Right): Dr Mitch Selander, Prof Micael Runnström, Dr Mahdi Farnaghi, Rose Nakasi (a participant), Dr Aminah Zawedde and Prof Gilbert Maiga

Carried out in Makerere’s College of Computing and Information Sciences, the programme is the fruit of a partnership between Makerere and Lund University in Sweden through the Training for Spatially Enabled E-Services Delivery (TSEED). It is funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and started at Makerere in 2016.

One participant, Willingtone Nsubuga, a master’s student in Information Technology, said the programme would advance his work on developing a decision support framework for disaster risk management.

“We have been lacking a tool that would help us appreciate the data that we had collected from the field and plot it on a web- based map,” he said. “So, we have learned several skills, especially how to convert our raw data into GPS [Global Positioning System] coordinates, which we can plot on an online map and use it to determine areas with similar variables.”

His classroom neighbour, Kizito Ongaya, another researcher pursuing a PhD in Information Systems, agreed. Ongaya is a staff member at Gulu University and is looking at how the debilitating nodding disease syndrome is spreading across 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. “This time, I learned how to plot my findings onto a map and will be able to project a more realistic picture of the problem we are facing.”

Rose Nakasi, pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at Makerere, is based at Busitema University. She was learning how to use GIS to study the spread of malaria spatially. 

“Before this, I didn’t have a background in spatial data, but I have learned how to make geographic inferences. The technology helps one sift through various variables in order to predict how particular phenomena are spread,” she said. “It is an opportunity for me to teach others the same skills. More people need to appreciate how technology is affecting their outcomes.”

According to the TSEED project student supervisor and project coordinator, Dr Aminah Zawedde, the programme targeted postgraduate students and staff on various programmes at Makerere, Busitema and Gulu universities. The hope is that they will train others in various GIS use in the future.

Zawedde explained that during the study, a researcher considers the issues affecting a subject, then uses GIS tools to identify patterns and where they are developing.

“With this information, one can draw insights into where similar problems are likely to develop, and recommend interventions,” she said.

In the past, researchers would scour the country, looking for variables in their statistics, before making conclusions over particular phenomena -- but only in the areas visited. With GIS, researchers can now sample areas and make more concrete conclusions over vast areas in a shorter span of time. 

She explained that GIS is vital in public policy formulation.

“You can use GIS to learn how particular phenomena like weather, famine and floods are affecting agriculture or health in the areas where similar variables exist, with more precision,” she said.

The training is carried out twice a year in two sessions of three days each. The first is in November and the second in April-May. Prof Micael Runnström, by Dr Mahdi Farnaghi and Mr Mitch Selander comprised the training team this time.

Runnström was pleased with the outcome of the course.

“Many of the students have appreciated the concepts, although we did not have enough time for the programme,” Runnström said. “We still have more material and if they are interested; we will remain in touch with them.”

The TSEED principal investigator, Prof Gilbert Maiga, said he was pleased with how the programme has developed.

“The idea was for us to introduce GIS and for Makerere to take over after sometime … and so far, it looks good … we are hoping to continue developing capacity in GIS,” he said. “We think that GIS will become very important in research and more students will begin to appreciate it.”

One of the lecturers on the programme, Mr Paul Bakaki, said this is a turning point in his doctoral research.

“We are developing a research programme that will require spatial data on how livestock diseases spread. We needed this knowledge to be able to study the dynamics of disease spread,” he said. “Beyond that, we will be in a position to extend that knowledge to our students in future.” 

Martin Ngobye, another PhD student 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.”

Uganda is the first African country to implement the TSEED programme, which is part of a long-term strategy to roll out e-services on the continent. It is also one step forward in the journey towards supporting decision makers in their efforts to cause development.

mtalemwa@observer.ug

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