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Geospatial Planning: The Beginning of Everything or the Ending We Seek?

Geospatial Planning: The Beginning of Everything or the Ending We Seek?

For every objective that is pursued, there is (or should be) a supporting plan. This is the vocation of the National Geospatial Development Agency. The institution has already contributed research to banking and the prevention of natural disasters, among others. But it needs more resources, especially technological resources, to achieve its ambitious goals.

The National Agency for Geospatial Development (ADE) is a public institute created in 2020, which is responsible for promoting spatial development initiatives, developing socio-economic analysis tools and carrying out important studies for the formulation of policies that influence the geospatial planning process. But… what is it? Sérgio Niquisse, who specialises in geospatial intelligence at ADE, will explain below.

ADE was created to provide tools for identifying optimal locations for the development of a particular activity

Even so, we can say that the importance of a geospatial agency for a country is unquestionable. It produces information that makes it possible to monitor everything that exists, whether on land, in space or at sea. For example, it helps to monitor ships that circulate clandestinely off the Mozambican coast and the movement of aeroplanes in the airspace. But this is not yet happening to the extent that the country needs. Among other requirements, we need technology and innovation.

One of ADE’s main aims is to promote good practices in planning the national territory. I’d like you to talk about the limits of the Agency’s activities and its specific objectives.

This question takes us back to the reason why this institution was created in the first place. It has become apparent over time that many government actions have been implemented in a non-integrated way. In other words, various sectors have their specific plans and each institution or ministry is concerned with implementing its programme and delivering results. But in the meantime, their actions depend on other sectors that are outside these institutions, hence the need for integrated planning, which only makes sense when related to a physical space – the territory. For example, if you want to build an industry, you first have to ask yourself where to do it. So ADE was born to provide tools for identifying optimal locations for the development of a particular activity or the creation of an enterprise. As such, ADE strives to promote spatial thinking, i.e. everything we think about is related to physical space – localisation. For example, to open a heavy sand extraction industry you need access to electricity. If you don’t take the geospatial plan into account, you run the risk of double investment: installing the project and then creating the conditions for energy. But if the plans of the various sectors are integrated, it’s easy to see which areas should be prioritised for the installation of this project.

Given the complexity of ADE’s activities, I imagine that it has a large team of professional technicians who coordinate inter-institutionally. Can you give us any specifics on how you identify areas to implement different projects?

Unfortunately we only have a team of 18 professionals, including the technical teams and the administrative structure. Even if we had 100 professionals, we wouldn’t be able to meet all the existing needs. So, strategically, we strive to internalise knowledge in the different institutions we support. We have a component of training the institutions so that they have the knowledge to continue what we started together, using the tools that allow geospatial solutions to be created internally. For example, we carried out a similar exercise with the Bank of Mozambique in order to find out the areas in which the bank could expand as part of its financial inclusion strategy. And because we have to relate our activities to physical space, the work consisted of identifying where banks are currently located and where the people who need their services are. So we built tools to collect geospatial data and mapped the banks and all the facilities that provide financial services. To do this, we had to train a group appointed by the Bank of Mozambique to collect this data. At the moment, we are in the process of finding out which populations are well served, which are not well served and where the best places are to open new banking services. This is also possible using the geospatial technology that ADE uses.

Apart from banking, what other sectors are geospatial services most important for and where are they most in demand?

Being located in a region prone to natural disasters, the geographic information system is a powerful tool for preventing, mitigating and reducing the impacts of these events. It allows us to know which areas will be affected, identify the population in risk areas and issue alerts. In this context, we are working together with the National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction (INGD). Most recently, we built a tool that consisted of spatialising the contingency plan that the INGD presented for nine river basins at national level, so that this institution knows the risk levels in these basins and which infrastructures and population would be affected in the event of floods. It makes it easier for INGD technicians to identify the population to be evacuated and the safe places to harbour them. In addition, in the most recent cyclone in Zambezia, ADE provided data used in the post-disaster decision-making process, namely the locations and number of people affected, allowing for easy allocation of support.

“We still have a lot of needs. We’re not at the level we’d like to be, but we’re using technology that’s valid around the world, namely enterprise solutions.”

One of the major issues internationally is the use of technological innovation to develop geospatial planning. We have information that ADE is no stranger to this context. What are the technologies involved, how do they work and where do we stand?

Geospatial knowledge existed before technologies and spatial analyses were carried out manually. But it’s important to emphasise the importance of technological evolution in the geospatial industry, because every step that technology takes has a direct impact on this area. Mapping used to be done on paper and now it’s done on computers. The emergence of the Internet has brought the possibility of working remotely, making it easier for technicians in the field to work on the same projects, even if they are in different countries. Recently, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken another leap forward. It is now possible to produce much more detailed and specific spatial information than before. In other words, we can now use satellite images to analyse similar patterns of different variables. For example, to map poverty, we can take a few samples that show a typical pattern of low-income or high-income families. Satellite data can be used to map a lot of information, including infrastructure such as schools, road networks, etc. Manual work that used to take several months or even years is now, with AI, done in weeks and with impressive results.

But does ADE have these innovative means?

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We still have a lot of needs. We’re not at the level we’d like to be, but we’re using technology that is valid around the world, namely enterprise solutions, which are cutting-edge technology when it comes to producing spatial analysis maps. But when we talk about analysing large amounts of data, we need to expand storage capacity to enable the use of AI. We even have big data servers in the country, but they’re not yet capable of meeting all our needs. We are aware of where we want to go, the technology we would like to use and the contribution we want to make to development, since geospatial intelligence is applied to all sectors. We want to get to the point where we are unavoidable, i.e. that all sectors use our data to make decisions. The efforts being made by ADE are to find support partners in order to further enhance what is being done, increasing technical capacity in terms of equipment and know-how.

And speaking of know-how, how is ADE doing? How and where are the technicians trained, and in what speciality?

They are currently trained in geographic information systems by the Catholic University of Mozambique and Eduardo Mondlane University. There will probably be other institutions that train in these areas, but these two were the pioneers. However, it’s not easy to sustain a course in this segment, because it requires very expensive investments in terms of equipment. In addition, maintenance is very difficult because technology keeps evolving and all the groups that have trained in this area need to be kept up to date.

In Africa and around the world, what are the best examples of countries that have evolved in the geospatial industry in terms of equipment, skills and, of course, contribution to the organisation of institutions and development?

In the world it’s the United States Space Agency. It’s fantastic. It has its own satellites and a vast team. At the moment we only do part of what they do, but I believe that the next generations of Mozambicans are going to fight for us to get there. In Africa, we have South Africa, where even in its legislation, Parliament cannot make decisions without using geospatial information. When the government reports on its achievements, it uses the information provided by the geospatial agency to support its credibility. I dream of our Parliament reaching this level.

So you mean that we have gaps to fill in legislation?

Until recently we didn’t have an agency like this. Legislation had to be created just to accompany this process. ADE has worked on creating various legislative packages, and the open data policy has been created, which has yet to be published. But most crucially, Parliament recently approved an authorisation for the government to create Mozambique’s geospatial data infrastructure. Through this instrument, we will be able to regulate the production of geospatial information.
information.

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