Glamorous Geocoding!

14 Aug

A few months ago a couple of classmates and I got wrangled into spending a day at the World Bank. I can’t remember exactly what we were told we would be doing – but I remember that it was going to be something about geocoding and that free food was involved. I may have been expecting a short talk on the work the World Bank was doing with geocoding, with light refreshments. Oh, and for some reason they told us to bring our laptops.

Whatever I was expecting was way off base. After sitting down in a room crammed with undergraduate and graduate students, listening to a short pep talk from a German Senior Governance Specialist on the potential of impact of geocoding aid projects, we were given some coffee, split into groups, and given lists of World Bank projects. And then we were told: break out your laptops, split up the countries where projects are taking place, start weeding through digital World Bank documents to find the projects’ locations, compile this information into an Excel spreadsheet, and keep doing this until all the projects can be accounted for.

Come again? It turned out we had actually been duped into doing free work for the World Bank. Maybe students from the other schools who were there went into this knowing what they were getting themselves into, but our GW delegation did not. Needless to say, I was a little miffed by it all, and the food wasn’t that exciting.

I ended up geocoding projects in the DR Congo. This was slightly challenging not only because we had to go through a number of documents to find the projects’ location (which was slow going on my ol’ iBook), but also because nobody seems to know how many provinces the DRC officially has. After working for about five hours, my friend and I skipped out to go work on a school project instead. The second we got out of the building, we burst out, “How did we get sucked into doing THAT?”

Fast forward, a few months later, to today, when I read this on one of the development blogs I follow regularly:

A team of researchers from Development Gateway and AidData have worked with the World Bank to add detailed subnational geographical information to all of the Bank’s active projects in the Africa and Latin America region. This isn’t just pins in a map showing the country where the money is spent: they have looked through the project documentation to find out as far as possible the geographic coordinates of the actual locations where aid the activities take place. (read the entire blog entry here).

With this video:

It’s great to know my unpaid labor went to some good use, less exciting to know that the World Bank didn’t think knowing the actual location of its thousands of projects was something worth even paying its employees to do. I say, Kudos to whoever thought of asking a bunch of overeager and hungry students to do it. Pure genius! And why wasn’t I interviewed for this video?!

But more seriously, a question I had after our pep talk from Bjorn-Soren, and still have now, is: why wasn’t the World Bank keeping track of its projects’ locations all along? Unfortunately, many development donors, both large institutions and NGOs, don’t track where they are working, or what they are doing there. This makes accountability very difficult. It also makes it hard to track results: if a donor has been funding anti-malaria projects in a country, but isn’t seeing a decrease in the national rate of malaria-related deaths, it could be easy to say that the project is failing. But what if it turns out that the project was only being carried out in the two largest cities in the country, which already have low rates of malaria, and isn’t even reaching areas with the highest rates? Geocoding aid also carries the potential for greater cooperation amongst donors, if they can find out who is already doing what and where. And most importantly in my mind: it could let recipients (both governments and individuals) in developing countries, find out about projects taking place in their communities. Don’t be shocked – there are plenty of stories of people having no idea that a development project is being carried out near them.

I’m glad that this dirty work is being done, even if it means luring starving grad students with the promise of a ham sandwich with chips to do it. I really am. But my reaction isn’t “Kudos to you, World Bank!”, but “It’s about time!”

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