Metadata Clearinghouse and Open Access to Geographic Data in Namibia
Ndaendelao (Emma) Noongo and Nico Willemse
Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Namibia
This presentation focuses on the metadata clearinghouse and open access to geographical data in Namibia. Namibia is located in southwest Africa and comprises 825,000 square kilometers, approximately the size of France and Germany together. It has a population of 1.8 million, according to the 2001 census. The population is growing at a rate of 2.8 percent.
Namibia is an arid country; only 3 percent of the land is arable, 1 percent of it is in permanent crops, 46 percent is permanent pasture, and 22 percent is forest and woodland. About 17 percent is identified for conservation. The rest is wasted land. The climate of Namibia is typical of a desert country—very hot and dry, with variable distributed rainfall.
Namibia, after its independence in 1990, became one of the first countries in the world to include an environmental clause in its constitution. That is a luxury owing to the climate of the country, and given that the majority of the Namibian people rely on natural resources for their livelihood. It is very important to manage natural resources while caring for the environment. Therefore, Namibia must explore means of sustainable development.
DEVELOPING AN ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION SYSTEM IN NAMIBIA
In January 1998 the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, jointly with the Government of Finland, launched a 4-year (1998-2001) national program—Information and Communication for Sustainable Development (Infocom) with the aim to promote sustainable development in Namibia through
developing an effective Environmental Information System unit within the Ministry of Environment and Tourism;
developing communication mechanisms to disseminate environmental information; and
defining sets of National Core Set of Environmental Indicators, and compiling the State of Environmental Indicators based on the former.
“We can only manage things we can measure”
To measure the environmental indicators, there is a great need for data.
Infocom started with defining the environmental indicators based on the thematic reporting of the state of the environment. For each indicator defined a data set was collected (or efforts were made) for monitoring purposes. This approach, nevertheless, had many shortcomings largely owing to a lack of communication in the scientific community. As the indicators were defined thematically, there was little communication among data-producing agencies as well as data users; the process of data collection allowed duplication of efforts. Thematic groups ended up collecting similar datasets, as some or many of the indicators were cross cutting the thematic domains.
It was not until Infocom’s review and a stakeholder analysis in December 2000 that Infocom realized that it had to broaden its scope. Both the project’s term review and the stakeholder analysis indicated that a lack of easily available, up-to-date, and reliable data was a big problem in environmental decision making in Namibia. The team therefore, altered its main project components and work plan, which was adopted by its Steering Committee in 2001. The following specific adjustments were made to the approach and workflow of the project, as the team strived to
make available and manage environmental data in the form of a metadatabase; and
initiate and facilitate communication with and among data-producing agencies and data users.
These two main adjustments marked the progress toward an operational spatial data infrastructure in Namibia. To date, an Environmental Information System unit is fully established and is incorporated in the ministry’s structure.
The Environmental Information System unit seeks to provide infrastructure that supports the collection and maintenance of geographical information in Namibia. A significant aspect of this effort is to ensure complete and efficient access to data. Activities are currently being funded jointly by the governments of Namibia and Finland. This donor assistance will terminate at the end of 2003. To sustain these activities the Namibian government has incorporated the unit’s activities in the structure of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. When the project is phased out, the government will continue the activities.
EFFORTS AND ACTIVITIES TO MAKE DATA ACCESSIBLE IN NAMIBIA
Before discussing the accessibility and availability of geographic data it is imperative to consider Namibia’s data access policy, which has been the subject of many discussions since independence in 1990. A number of resolutions were passed by professional bodies at the end of their seminars, workshops, and meetings; however this approach was neither sufficient nor appropriate for such important issues. There was no responsible body or institution mandated with the responsibility to develop a national data policy. The Environmental Information System unit was created to be an information center that would coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders in this area and to monitor data sharing and facilitation in Namibia.
The Environmental Information System unit established the Environmental Monitoring and Indicator Network in 2001. This network is made up of institutions and individuals that are involved in data collection or are using data in the ministries, NGOs, and in the private sector. Network officials strongly recommended that Namibia form a committee to be responsible for the national spatial data infrastructure development in the country. This committee is responsible for data sharing and exchange policy, data storage and facilitation, and standards and guidelines, including metadata standards. A cabinet paper for formulating the data sharing and exchange policy is currently under review. This paper addresses such issues as cost of the data, data formats, and intellectual property rights.
The Environmental Monitoring and Indicator Network is also looking at data standards that will allow the data to be compatible and interoperable for different uses. This is especially important because different institutions have developed data using their own standards. The data are not compatible and cannot be exchanged. Therefore, one has to duplicate effort and collect data that have already been collected, because the available data do not comply with their format. The Environmental Information System unit is developing standards regarding the format, content, classification, and exchange of data for implementing the national spatial data infrastructure. Eventually these standards will also align with the work of the international standards technical committee, once it is available.
The accessibility of data in Namibia is increasing, even though the draft data access policy is still under review.
In the past it was a problem for institutions to exchange data even if the data were in compatible formats. One could only get the data by knowing an official in the next institution; otherwise, it was very difficult. This has changed recently. Most institutions now show a willingness to distribute their data in digital format on request.
Over the past years the Environmental Information System unit has initiated efforts to produce and make digital databases freely available. A national Atlas of Namibia (hardcopy format) and a digital Atlas Database were completed toward the end of 2002. The atlas provides basic reference material on the geography of Namibia, including social, demographic, economic, infrastructural, physical, climatic, and biological features of the country. Throughout the book relationships between these features are explored to highlight the most important and interesting environmental potentials and constraints, especially as these relate to sustainable development options as Namibia enters the twenty-first century. The book has been designed and written in a format to reach as wide an audience as possible.
All data obtained for the production of the book are being made freely available wherever possible. This is being done as a service and in the spirit that all data should be as readily available as possible. All datasets are accompanied by metadata. Most of the data are in ArcView format and accessible as zipped files. The data are downloadable from the ministry’s information portal.1 Upon request the data are distributed on CDs to those who do not have access to the Internet.
A series of Regional Environmental Profiles have been completed, and more are being produced or planned. The profiles provide environmental information, compiled on a regional basis, for planning, managing, and monitoring of natural resources toward sustainable development.
The information compiled in the profiles is environmental in an encompassing sense. The profiles provide baseline information on such natural resources as water, soils, fauna, and flora. Essential information on climate, demography, agriculture, infrastructure, environmental threats and issues, land tenure, and governance is also provided. The information is gathered from various organizations collecting and using data from the government, NGOs, and the private sector, and from studies initiated by Environmental Information System projects both in the field and remotely, such as satellite images and aerial photographs. Wherever possible data are collected with geographical coordinates to allow the information to be mapped and used in spatial analyses.
To date, two regional profiles have been completed: the Caprivi Regional Profile (1997)2 and a North Central Profile (2000).3 The North Central Profile covers the four regions in the central north: Oshana, Omusati, Oshikoto, and Ohangwena. Natural resource mapping in the Kavango region has also been initiated for the third environmental profile, while the planning for a profile of Kunene region is envisaged for the near future. The profiles produce enormous digital databases and the data are available at no cost, under the principle that human development is stimulated by the unrestricted flow of information. The data can be downloaded from the ministry’s environmental portal. As with the Atlas data, the data are distributed on CDs upon request to those who do not have access to the Internet. All data distributed via Internet or on CD ROM are accompanied by metadata.
Most of the data are available in unprojected latitudes and longitudes in ArcView shapefiles. Other data are available in Microsoft Excel files. Besides the digital data there are satellite images, aerial photographs, and bibliographies available through the Environmental Information System unit on the regions covered thus far.
Metadata have rapidly become a buzzword among data users in Namibia. The creation of metadata can be regarded as the essential point to describe data and improve on data availability and access. As a component of data infrastructure, metadata are key to maximizing community access to information and helping users find the information they need. The benefits of having quality and accessible metadata are clearly evident from the National Metadata Directory.4 A metadata Web page has been created that includes introductory information on
metadata, use, and management thereof. The Web page contains over 500 metadata records from various agencies involved in data collection and usage.
The Environmental Information System unit has developed a metadata standard that sets out minimum requirements for metadata to be included in the National Metadata Directory. The standardized metadata design is for use by data custodians to create, store, and distribute core metadata elements. The standard, which conforms to Federal Geographic Data Committee standards, has been widely adopted and used in the creation of metadata by various agencies. The Environmental Information System unit plans to ensure that the metadata standards comply with standards set for both the South African Development Community and the International Organization for Standardization’s Technical Committee.
The Environmental Information System unit has also created and registered a metadata clearinghouse node for Namibia at the global Metadata Clearinghouse, where metadata can be searched and viewed at the international level.5 The global clearinghouse activity, which is sponsored by the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee, is a decentralized system of servers accessible through the Internet that contain field-level descriptions of available digital spatial data. This clearinghouse allows individual agencies, consortia, or geographically defined communities to band together and promote their available data.
Over the past 19 months the Environmental Information System unit has made efforts to systematize and consolidate the resources in the different directorates’ libraries. In November 2002 the Environmental Information System unit officially launched the Ministerial Resource Center, well known as the MET Resource Center, with the mission to “provide environmental related information to the Namibian nation at large, especially the scientific community and students.”
A database has been created combining the resources from the Directorate of Environmental Affairs, the Directorate of Forestry, and the Etosha Ecological Institute in Okaukeujo. This database is being maintained and updated regularly by the main center at Environmental Affairs. It is available for viewing and information searches on the Resource Center Web page on the ministry’s Web site.6
Our Web site is rich in information. Research discussion papers, policy, and legislation are also provided as downloadable files. Descriptions and contact details for ongoing projects in the ministry are also available, as well as links to other natural resource sites and a variety of geographic and textual resource data.
Worthwhile mentioning is the good working relationships that government agencies have with local NGOs. Not only are the government and its institutions providing data, but NGOs and private companies are also making data available on the Internet.7 In the Environmental Monitoring and Indicator Network the NGOs and private companies are also well engaged, and some are members.
The information is available on national and local levels. There are local people working on the ground who are quite involved from the very beginning of the projects. They assist with the data collection. Once the data are captured into geographic information system environments, the maps are returned to the local participants for verification of the information. So the data reach the localities, and are not only at the national level.
Currently we do not sell the data. All data are distributed free of charge. Only a few government institutions have cost recovery mechanisms for providing the data. It is unique to Namibia that their NGOs and the government work so closely together; the government commissions them to produce data and the data come back to the government free of charge. So, in a way, sharing of the data is natural.
The success of this initiative involves political support, as well as coordination and cooperation. Initially there was no single body or individual responsible for creating or establishing infrastructure in Namibia. Making it work required collaboration and the production of a Web site, which hosts all of the environmental data.
See, for example, http://www.drf.org.na.