Arab Spatial’s First Six Months

August 22, 2013
by Perrihan Al-Riffai

IFPRI Senior Research Analyst Perrihan Al-Riffai discusses the progress and promise of Arab Spatial, an open-access database and interactive mapping tool she helped design that houses and geographically displays data on more than 150 indicators of development in the Middle East and North Africa.

Q: What makes Arab Spatial unique?
A: It’s the first tool of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa. In the intensively technological time we’re living in, people working on policies rely on technology and data more than ever. Arab Spatial provides them with a constantly expanding repository of high-quality data and maps linked to micro- and macro-level information. The goal is that this spurs organizations—especially regional and international ones—to really work in a cooperative way instead of in isolation.

Arab Spatial looks at poverty, food security, and other development issues using more than 150 indicators, for instance the visual relationship between access to cities and conflict breakouts in Sudan and Somalia. For the first time in the region, publicly available information from online sources is compiled, synthesized and presented in an interactive visual knowledge tool able to provide the necessary information for various stakeholders working in and on the region. We hope that by filling in the knowledge gaps wherever we can, national and regional organizations will be motivated to do the same. Then users can customize the outputs according to their needs. For example, if they want to see whether there’s any relationship between access to drinking water and violent conflict, Arab Spatial can map only those indicators or selectively add more layers depending on the question raised.

Q: How has Arab Spatial been received?
A: Since the launch in February, we’ve been very encouraged by the positive reception Arab Spatial has received. Regional think tanks and research organizations realize the value of Arab Spatial as a way to provide much needed data and information on the region in an innovative and interactive way. Shahira Emara (Knowledge Services Manager of GDNet Egypt) has been a close follower of the Atlas’ progress. She has shared her experience using Arab Spatial on several occasions since its launch through social media. The beauty of Arab Spatial is that it is an open-source, open-access tool that can be updated and expanded as new information becomes available, and data contributions are welcome and encouraged.

Food security and food prices have been, and will continue to be, a major part of the political transitions in the Arab world. I think the website and IFPRI’s work in the region in general has been so well-received because the demand for information on these issues, especially readily viewable information, is growing. We’ve seen a good amount of traffic already, however we have also identified several areas for improvements. As with every new technology, it is critical to learn from actual user experiences. For example, we noticed that many users stay a relatively short time on the site, which is why we are currently making the site even more user friendly by – for example – including a gallery of various maps for the region.

Q: Who did you have in mind when your team developed this innovative tool?
A: In a word? Everyone. But, first and foremost, I’d say policymakers. Now more than ever, policymakers need substantial information (accurate, rigorously vetted information) so they can design, implement, and monitor sound policies. It’s absolutely crucial for them to have access to high-quality, evidence-based research in a format that’s tailored to their needs. So, the quality of data needs to be improved but also the way data is presented. A map or visual tool can be really useful.

But, if the Arab Spring has shown us anything, it’s that people crave information. In fact, they demand it. They want to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives, which means, they need all the facts to do so. Arab Spatial fulfills that need, especially with regard to food security and development information. It’s open to everyone: researchers, policy makers, students, educators, journalists and overall, the general public.

Especially during this pivotal time in the history of the Arab world, valuable products like Arab Spatial can infuse public debate and policy dialogue with the most up-to-date development details. We believe this will promote the necessary dialogue that may lead to solutions that really benefit the vulnerable.

Q: Have you learned anything from Arab Spatial so far that perhaps you didn’t know before?
A: We ourselves are continuously finding new stories to tell when we use the different indicator layers in Arab Spatial. One such example is that on a multi-layered map of Egypt that highlighted both crop value and soil quality, you can see how agricultural crops of the highest crop value are also grown in the areas with the worst soil quality. That’s a policy issue right there. These areas depend on degraded soils. The numbers themselves will tell you the same thing, but when you see it mapped out, it raises a flag.

Q: What does the future hold for Arab Spatial?
A: Based on the reactions and uptake in the first six months, I think we can expect to see greater and wider use of Arab Spatial. As our users and their needs increase, the depth and breadth of material on the site will also expand. We’re working on updating the atlas with new data and with new charting and other visual analytics. We are also working on making the tool more user friendly by including a gallery of pre-fabricated maps for those users with little time. In addition, we are complementing the current site with a knowledge sharing component—a platform with publications, data products, communiques…that sort of thing.

Since circumstances vary drastically across the Middle East and North Africa, we’re also developing country-specific spatials. Countries can fill in a generic template that we are developing with their own information that we can then use to build the relevant country spatial. We hope that exercise will spark national policy debate and action. Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt will be the first national-level sites, but eventually we want to launch this type of microsite for as many countries that we can in the region. Finally, there has also been interest from other world regions, so we may see the tool expanding beyond the Arab world.

In general, I hope that this entire process and the existence of Arab Spatial will generate the type of data we’ve been trying to get for so long in this region and promote the sharing of that data. Lack of data is always a handicap when putting together policy. If we, as researchers, can support decisionmakers with critical, complex information in a palatable way, they can establish the evidence-based policies that form the backbone of economic development.

Arab Spatial is an IFPRI start-up initiative supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutes and Markets. Please visitwww.arabspatial.org for additional information.

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