New Developments in Development Studies at KU

My opening lecture to KU Masters of Development students

My opening lecture to KU Masters of Development students

My first two weeks at KU School of Arts gave me cause for excitement. While GIS had fallen out of use at the campus months previously, a number of people had continued to think of ways to apply geospatial methods to their work. One PHD candidate wanted to digitize a map of internal migration between various Village Development Communities (VDC’s) in rural Nepal. A different graduate student approached me about monitoring land use change to predict future resource constraints. These are encouraging signs that KU remains a potential incubator for social science GIS research in Nepal. Another such organization is Young Innovations (YI), the technical arm of the Open Nepal Movement, which aims to increase transparency and access to information to improve foreign aid and government finance planning. The parallels between Young Innovations and AidData are striking, so I was extremely pleased to meet a member of YI on my second day at the university.

YI’s Open Data Coordinator, Sujata Shrestha, is also a visiting professor at KU. In her first words to me, Sujata commended the previous AidData Fellows’ summer classes, and requested that I provide her with an ArcGIS license as soon as possible for her personal work. We discussed one of YI’s many websites,, which offers free access to select data on government spending, foreign assistance, and development indicators, mostly in the form of spreadsheets extracted from ministry reports. When I suggested the possibility of introducing a web map interface or making the tables map-friendly (as through reformatting or geocoding), Sujata informed me that her organization was already working toward this. I left the conversation feeling confident that I had identified a potential teacher for the GIS course I was planning. I also departed with a deal to include representatives of YI in all trainings and other major events at KU, including the introductory presentation scheduled for the next week.

The following Monday, several members of YI opened the lecture with a discussion of open data, and a number of tools for creating it. If I understood Sujata and her peers correctly, open data is any information that can be used and recycled free of charge, with little to no licensing requirements. Were all census statistics available in open format, for instance, any researcher could access and use them in his research on demography without regard for legal restraints. I followed YI’s briefing with a short history of GIS, and an explanation of the many diverse applications of current softwares. Participation from the audience of masters students was low, possibly because they were overwhelmed by the volume of information I introduced. When several individuals eagerly sought me out after class, I became convinced that enthusiasm for the upcoming classes was higher than it had appeared from the podium.

In a discussion with YI after the meeting, I scheduled the first round of GIS classes for the following week. Eight to ten KU professors (almost the full Masters of Development Staff) and several PHD students would attend a five day refresher course and exploration of more advanced topics. Monday through Wednesday, I agreed to split the 3 hour training session with YI instructors, who intended to teach data formatting, pivot tables, and other spreadsheet techniques. I planned pure GIS instruction for Thursday and Friday’s class. The week after, we would recycle the same or similar material for the twenty graduate students who had attended Monday’s lecture. All in all, the arrangement worked well for every party. KU would receive multiple trainings in a variety of technical topics, and YI would get a free opportunity to promote open data and to recruit potential future employees. I was concerned that the Masters students might lack the prerequisite computer literacy skills for my crash course in an advanced mapping software (a needless concern, as it turns out), so I was glad that YI was willing to instruct the students in the use of excel and other spreadsheet programs. YI and KU were already closely connected, and I made it my goal to carve out a larger role for AidData in that partnership in the coming weeks.

Peter Colwell