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World GIS Day: Impact of Geographic Information Systems on public health

About a fortnight ago, the Chairman of the National Population Commission, Nasir Isa-Kwarra, announced that this administration is set to launch a geospatial data repository…

About a fortnight ago, the Chairman of the National Population Commission, Nasir Isa-Kwarra, announced that this administration is set to launch a geospatial data repository along with an Electronic Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System (ECRVS) as the country plans to conduct its first digital census. This is basically in a bid to ensure every part of the country is comprehensively covered.

This, coming a few days before the annual celebration of the World Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Day, further reiterates the importance of GIS in virtually every sector of the Nigerian economy, especially public health.

Recently, it seems a lot of experts who have dedicated their lives to designing and implementing digital innovations to solve critical world problems may not have received the appropriate accolades for their efforts. This may be partly due to the proliferation of digital technological solutions across various sectors with varying degrees of efficacy.

Thus, it is heartwarming to see that the theme of the 2023 World Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Day is dedicated to celebrating the immense efforts made by GIS professionals to achieve sustainable impact in solving problems in the areas of public health, security, environmental preservation, emergency response and disaster management, geospatial data management, and other critical decision-making processes.

While it looks simplistic to say GIS is basically the use of maps to inspire change, but that’s how the system has consistently been deployed over the years to identify problems, develop solutions and track changes. Importantly, data from geospatial analysis has consistently proven to be instrumental in detecting and responding to public health emergencies and natural disasters. This can go a long way in determining where and when relief materials, medical support, and even vaccines could be deployed.

According to the World Health Organisation, by connecting maps, applications, data and people, GIS has the potential to support countries and partners to make informed public health decisions faster and to extend the reach of geospatial information across organizations. For instance, while the world is gradually moving on from the COVID-19 pandemic, the role geospatial tools played in an equitable response to the pandemic cannot be downplayed.

At national and regional levels, organisations like eHealth Africa have consistently installed and deployed GIS tools, most recently in the fight against polio in Nigeria. The team successfully provided equipment and human resources to support the tracking of Polio Special Intervention campaigns in northern Nigeria. These support to a large extent, not only identify hard-to-reach rural locations that are yet to be covered during vaccination but also track vaccination personnel in the process. As a matter of fact, the use of GIS tools significantly contributed to the mantra of “leaving no one behind when it comes to vaccination and other health interventions. Thus, it proves an adequate framework when it comes to equity, coverage, and resource allocation.

Similarly, in March 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a policy recommendation on Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention (SMC); a new intervention against plasmodium falciparum malaria. The intervention deployed GIS to monitor the intermittent administration of a curative dose of antimalarial medicine to children at high risk of severe malaria living in areas with seasonal transmission, regardless of whether they are infected with malaria. While providing near-real-time updates on vaccination coverage, the GIS tracking system also flagged omitted households, thereby promoting accountability and transparency during and after the intervention.

Over the years, GIS professionals have dusted the odds using a geographic approach to addressing unprecedented health challenges like polio, malaria, climate change, global warming, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond public healthcare interventions, geospatial tools have been recommended as a critical solution for town planning, development of housing units, polling units’ location, and fighting against insecurity, amongst others.

 

In a nutshell, GIS provides an immense avenue to further amplify the success stories of GIS and, more importantly, the professionals who consistently dedicate time and resources to developing digital solutions that can be tailored to provide context-specific insights. It will thus be fascinating to see organisations like the National Population Commission (NPC), Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), Jamitan Tech Nig. Ltd., the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), and other critical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) organisations and societies collaborate to chart pathways for strengthening GIS and its prospects as the world hosts the World GIS Day.

Atef Fawaz is the Executive Director of eHealth Africa. He is a complex operations management and ICT expert with experience in humanitarian response and digital health

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