A User’s Experience with Arab Spatial

March 3, 2013
by Shahira Emara

Shahira Emara, GDNet Knowledge Services Manager in the Global Development Network’s Cairo office, shared her thoughts on the new Arab Spatial tool.

How is Arab Spatial beneficial for the Middle East and North Africa region?

It’s one platform that brings many sorts of data together in one place and presents it visually. I live in Egypt, and from my experience, I find it very difficult to find data and information on research topics that are reliable and not contradictory to reality. Data availability, accessibility, and robustness are huge challenges for me. Having used Arab Spatial, I know I can make instant judgments and reactions, and decide on what areas I need to focus my research.  I also appreciate the transparency provided by the initiative; I know the sources of data from which Arab Spatial was extracted and published.

I understand that it is a public-access platform based on open-data accessibility, which is a great example to showcase sharing, based on partnership, and opens the gate to what others can make out of these datasets. The visual representation of data based on GIS systems is another reason Arab Special will be beneficial to the Arab region and to other regions. The platform allows users to manipulate, manage, and come up with different layers of data, and presents this information in many different ways. I also find that the functionality of downloading results with details of sources used and legends enhances credibility and transparency. 

The institutional infrastructure of the public sector does not help with access to information in MENA. Countries in the Middle East exhibit weaknesses in terms of accountability and access to information, so public participation in decisionmaking is much less advanced in Arab countries than in other developing countries. I hope that Arab Spatial becomes the first stepping stone to decisionmakers and stakeholders comprehending the importance of public access to information. 

How will you use Arab Spatial?

I will use it as a source of evidence for research as well as to make recommendations for decisionmakers. 

Who do you anticipate will use Arab Spatial?

Arab Spatial will benefit researchers and academics, decisionmakers and policymakers, journalists, civil society and policy research organizations, risk management analysts, and investors.

How do you see the tool helping influence policy design in the region?

Influencing policy design and processes is very different from one country to another. This has to be studied in local contexts. In theoretical, simplified situations, Arab Spatial will provide stakeholders and decisionmakers an improved way to plan, design, and evaluate the policymaking process.  It provides a visual image of real life datasets and statistics that will aid decisionmakers. 

What are its limitations?  How can they be overcome?  

More data should come from the country level; it’s worth it to keep pushing to get more datasets from local sources. Also, if stakeholders find this to be a useful and comprehensive visualization tool, it will spread throughout the Arab region. The platform is very exciting, so in the future it would be helpful to have a mobile version of Arab Spatial. 

Do you have any other comments?

Arab Spatial is not another form of information overload; it is a tool to visualize real life situations where one can instantly see the problems and make sense of figures. With so much information coming our way, making decisions based on evidence has never been more important. I hope that Arab Spatial will serve as an important tool for decisionmakers to use robust research in their policymaking.