The USAID GeoCenter: Innovation through Professional Development and Community Partnerships

By Diana S. Sinton

USAID aims to improve the quality of life for people in many dozens of countries in the developing world with a mission “to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.” How does their staff organize such a broad and ambitious task? By chipping away with programs and initiatives such as the Feed the Future, which addresses food insecurity; the PEPFAR program, which addresses HIV/AIDS; and the president's Global Climate Change Initiative. In addition to their Washington, D.C. headquarters, the federal agency works in one hundred countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Large scale programs are accomplished through hundreds of individual projects, each addressing some of the most basic of human needs — food, water, shelter, health — and each with its own blend of human and physical geographical situations.

Carrie Stokes, the chief geographer of USAID, has always appreciated the need for geographical perspectives, spatial data analysis and map-based communications. USAID projects are prime examples of applied geography, and Stokes knows the extent to which spatial thinking, supported by geospatial technologies, can contribute to designing international development programs. This motivation has defined her work with USAID: to help its staff and subject matter experts do their work more easily and reach better decisions. For years she was the sole person supporting this geo-enabled vision, until fall 2011 when the agency launched its GeoCenter, the entity that Stokes now directs.

The USAID GeoCenter “applies geographic analysis to international development challenges to improve the strategic planning, design, monitoring, and evaluation of USAID's programs.” USAID as a whole is staffed with smart, passionate and dedicated personnel who are experts in their respective fields, at headquarters and abroad. Though they work in situations that are inherently geographically-rich, the staff have often not had opportunities to develop or refine their own capacity for geographically-informed thinking and practices, especially when it comes to managing and manipulating data. Thus the intent of the GeoCenter is targeted professional development for this internal audience, to enhance and expand their geographic literacy so that their use of data, spatial analytical processes and program execution are as geographically-savvy as they can be. Since 2011, over 600 USAID professional staff have received training through the GeoCenter. It’s not only about making maps: the GeoCenter maintains expertise in data analytics, statistics, data visualization and geographic information systems and science, among other areas. In this way it’s well aligned with USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab, within which it resides.

The impact that the GeoCenter has had is a reflection of how quickly and strategically they integrated their services into the existing workflow of USAID’s programming cycle. For example, they have influenced agency policy regarding geographic data collection, provided analyses to USAID field missions for 5-year strategic planning, helped design programs that are implemented in developing countries and assisted with monitoring progress during project implementation. Ultimately, they are informing how decisions are made within USAID to improve the impact of the agency’s development interventions.

Most importantly, Director Stokes knows that the GeoCenter staff cannot be effective if it is perceived as an internal map-making shop alone. They have designed a customized series of professional development trainings that they offer to the DC staff as well as at the field offices abroad. By slowly building this capacity throughout the agency, they spread the knowledge and appreciation of a geographically-informed approach to strategic decision-making.

Given the diversity of USAID’s international development programs overseas, there is no one-size-fits-all format to the GeoCenter’s activities. However, a significant component of their efforts is focused on building and supporting a global network of GIS specialists across USAID. This has involved conducting geospatial needs assessments at USAID field missions in-country, helping missions hire local GIS specialists from the countries in which USAID works and providing guidance to help the GIS specialists succeed within the complex decision-making process of a USAID field mission. To date, the agency’s geospatial community of practice includes nearly 50 GIS specialists: about 25 in field missions and 25 in Washington, D.C.-based offices.

Apart from their internal focus on supporting and expanding their own agency’s expertise, the GeoCenter team nurtures partnerships with geospatial communities in other federal agencies, international bodies, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions. Most recently, the GeoCenter granted funding to Texas Tech University, West Virginia University and George Washington University to organize the Mapping for Resilience University Consortium, also known as mappersU, a “global community of university students, faculty, and scholars who create and use open geographic data and analyses that addresses locally defined development challenges worldwide.”

To operationalize and unify their on-the-ground network of college students, mappersU has established YouthMappers to provide structure and guidance to the individual, student-led chapters and their mapping efforts. Generating new and useful data with OpenStreetMap is a primary objective, and to reach that end, YouthMappers will provide guidance, training and teaching resources for the students and faculty affiliated with these chapters. Meanwhile, being part of the YouthMappers network gives students a chance to connect with like-minded mapping students globally, plus the leadership opportunities inherent in organizing this type of student-run chapter. YouthMappers offers a built-in framework that will help sustain volunteer mapping efforts on a campus more effectively than a map-a-thon model. Moreover, YouthMappers is committed to the use of the open data that they create for academic research purposes as well, specifically to support analytical inquiries into the notion of resilience in a global context.

How does this all link back to the USAID GeoCenter? YouthMapper chapters will respond to calls for data development for real USAID projects, both pending and anticipated ones. Of course students will be free to develop and contribute data to OSM for other places and purposes as well, but they will also know they are contributing to genuine data needs for USAID strategic planning purposes. Such planning-focused efforts are qualitatively different from post-facto, crisis mapping efforts, though both are critically important and in need. As Director Patricia Solís points out, the infrastructure behind YouthMappers may make it easier to secure and encourage return volunteers who will continue to be involved, and to learn, beyond the short-term nature of calls for mapping help following disasters. As Solís reminds us, they are interested in building mappers, not just maps, and Mapping for Resilience will require longer-term efforts on everyone’s part.

New initiatives such as the YouthMappers project has raised some awareness of USAID’s GeoCenter, but the GeoCenter doesn’t toot its own horn or allocate limited resources to high profile marketing efforts, such as a website. To anyone outside of USAID, their work goes almost unseen; the success of projects on the ground is recognition enough. What Director Stokes considers a successful innovation is that the GeoCenter exists, has been able to expand, and has found its way of demonstrating a necessary return on investment within the world of real bureaucratic constraints and barriers, so that they can continue to support the mission of USAID through their geo-enabled approach. For attitudes like that, Carrie Stokes will be receiving a 2016 American Association of Geographers Gilbert White Public Service Award at the upcoming AAG meetings in San Francisco.

USAID is but one of many government agencies that has found ways to build their own internal capacity as they implement methods to connect with people everywhere. Designing effective ways to harness people power towards reaching goals is a hallmark of our evolving geospatial revolution. Learn more about YouthMappers or other programs to see whether one of these is an opportunity for you. 

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