Information plays an important role in the formation and implementation of policy. The provision of timely, accurate, useful information can spell the difference between a desirable policy outcome and an indifferent or even damaging one. Making such information widely accessible can elevate the policy debate within government as well as between government and citizens.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an information technology that has found increasing application in public decision-making — particularly in environmental planning and management — over the past 20 years.
GIS is a “system of computer software, hardware, data, and personnel to help manipulate, analyze, and present information that is tied to a spatial location.”
GIS allows users to collate and analyze information far more readily than is possible with traditional research techniques. With GIS, investigators can map, model, query, and analyze large quantities of data all held together within a single database.
In many countries, GIS is now used extensively in government, business, and research for a wide range of applications.
Important uses include environmental resource analysis, land-use planning, locational analysis, tax appraisal, utility and infrastructure planning, real estate analysis, marketing and demographic analysis, habitat studies, and archaeological analysis.
Over the past decade or so, international assistance agencies have been engaged in efforts aimed at helping developing countries, particularly in Africa, to adopt GIS technology. These efforts have encompassed acquisition of computer software and hardware as well as the development of human capacity to apply GIS technology in environmental policy development.
The time is right to ask: How is GIS being used by developing-country policymakers? What impact has there been on the decision-making process and the quality of decisions made?
Access to timely, accurate information is fundamental to sound decision-making. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an information technology increasingly used in public policymaking, particularly for environmental planning and management. Over the past decade, international assistance agencies have worked to help developing countries, especially in Africa, adopt GIS as a tool for strengthening environmental policy development.
Because the use of GIS is in its early stages in many West African countries, and because policymakers remain relatively unaware of its benefits, the achievements to date of GIS-based analysis are perhaps not spectacular. However, several important results have been observed, falling into three general categories:
• planned impacts,
• opportunistic impacts, and
• multiplier effects.
With respect to planned impacts, GIS has successfully helped to: identify and guide needed government action on environmental planning and management; enhance the accuracy and efficiency of government operations; increase the transparency of government decision-making; and help build national networks of geo-information professionals. For example, in Burkina
Faso, GIS analysis undertaken for a famine early warning program provided timely and accurate predictions of crop production shortfalls, enabling the government to take corrective measures. In Côte d’Ivoire, introduction of GIS-based tools has helped increase the efficiency and transparency of forest management as well as improving public management in other economic sectors, including transportation and health care.
In some cases, the policy impacts of GIS analysis were indirect and unexpected. In one such example of an opportunistic impact, the on-site inspection of areas selected through GIS analysis as suitable for future waste-disposal facilities in The Gambia revealed that some of the areas were actually human settlements.
These findings led to the development of draft legislation to reform the official recording of land allocation to make the system more comprehensive.
GIS-based analysis performed for one project can often exert multiplier effects by attracting attention from far afield.
The GIS components of various projects in West Africa have generated much interest among policymakers from other ministries and neighboring countries. For instance, GIS analysis of water resources in Burkina Faso spurred visitors from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Togo to use these analyses to plan their water basin projects. In Côte d’Ivoire, spatial databases built for one municipality of Cocody have led several others to adopt similar tools for managing their territories.
GIS stands for geographic information systems. In today’s digital age, billions of pieces of data are collected every day, and much of this information includes a component that tells the geographic location of the data (this is called georeferencing). GISs are automated systems used to capture, edit, store, manipulate, analyze and display all this spatial data. Almost all maps of places on the earth are created today using these computerized systems. Becoming expert in GIS qualifies you for a huge array of jobs that use spatial information.
GIS is about much more than just making maps, though. It’s a tool with a
mind-boggling number of uses, from modeling how far a toxic spill will reach given wind and water currents, to analyzing the best location for a new cell phone tower, to storing and maintaining data about global climate change, to finding the most energy-efficient route for your mail carrier, to helping government officials figure out how to get aid to storm vicitms, to determining the vulnerability of a wetlands area to pollution.
As long as a project has a spatial component, GIS and mapping sciences can be involved. And guess what? There aren’t enough professionals who are expert in GIS to go around. The digital revolution has created an unprecedented demand for people who understand how to make and use maps.

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