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Guest posting from Rachelle Desrochers

Report from the field: Teaching GIS mapping in Tanzania: A lesson in overcoming barriers

View from the workshop (Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College)

I am on my way out of Moshi, Tanzania after spending a little over a week in a capacity-building workshop at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College. It’s the medical university associated with Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, a hospital co-founded by the father of the guy that wrote Three Cups of Tea. But I digress.

The workshop is part of an IDRC funded project whose main research focus is to generate maps of suitable habitat for Anopheles sp. mosquitoes, which transmit malaria, and Aedes sp. mosquitoes, which transmit arboviruses such as Dengue Fever and Chikungunya. We want to map the habitat of these two groups of mosquitoes so that we can relate habitat availability to the frequency of clinical cases of malaria versus arboviral infections. My favourite part of the project is its strong capacity-building component. Two PhD students, Debora and Filemon, and a postdoc named Michael are going to build and analyse the maps, and we’re showing them how.

In this workshop (the first of three), we tried to cover basic GIS (Geographical Information Systems): importing points from GPS units and laying them over base maps of administrative boundaries and vegetation, and where to find GIS data online. We also covered some much more advanced GIS operations like changing the coordinate system for a map, doing map algebra, and fancy stuff such as making the cells in different maps all the same size and line up. Then we went over how to use software called Maxent to create maps of habitat that is likely suitable for mosquitoes that transmit malaria. I admit it: we bit off a little more than we could chew. It would have been a lot of ground to cover even if I hadn’t forgotten about the importance of two key barriers: language barriers and technological barriers.

Language barriers:

The first thing I always forget: I talk funny.

It doesn’t matter if I’m speaking French in Francophone Africa with my Franco-Ontarian accent and vocabulary or speaking English in Anglophone Africa with my Canadian accent and its harsh A’s: to people in Africa, I just talk funny.

Lesson #1: Repeat things, often, in a few different ways before moving on.

The second thing I always forget: Not everyone speaks Nerd. In fact, most people don’t.

For most people, the matrix is a movie starring Keanu Reeves not a rectangular array of numbers, and navigating is something that sailors do rather than something you do to get to a folder. I tried to explain that the software operates heuristically to converge upon a best model. Hmmm, no good. Ok, it iterates to find a model that maximizes the measure of goodness-of-fit. Not a whole lot better. It repeatedly tries different values for the coefficients until it gets as good a final equation as it can. What’s a coefficient? Ah shoot. What’s coefficient in Swahili? Strangely, that one wasn’t in my phrase book…

Lesson #2: Practice explaining things to my mom before leaving the country.

Technological barriers:

The third thing I always forget: Not everyone’s computer works like mine.

Java isn’t just another word for coffee, it’s a programming language. A popular one. I don’t know it or think about it much but I do have a Java platform on my laptop. It asks to be updated a lot. Turns out not everyone has Java on their computers and Maxent won’t work without it.

Lesson #3: Check software dependencies before leaving.

The fourth thing I always forget: Wifi is weak or occasionally non-existent in Africa.

Downloading is challenging!

Lesson #4: Bring EVERYTHING on a USB key. Then check it repeatedly for viruses.

The fifth thing I always forget: Power outages are frequent.

While laptops have batteries and will keep running when the power goes out, projectors do not. And take a while to turn back on when the power comes back.

Lesson #5: Invent a projector with a backup battery. Get rich.

In spite of these challenges, Debora, Filemon and Michael were real troopers and we all got a lot out of the workshop. I will be back in Moshi for Round 2 at the end of October.