Biodiversity / Climate Change / Drought / Drylands / ILRI / Kenya / Livestock / Wildlife

ILRI’s e-learning tool targets half a million learners

Online technology to empower students as Virtual kenya launched

Kenyan students will now be able to see their country virtually by “flying” over their districts, learning about other parts of the country and using computers in their day to day activities. This is due to launch of a new internet learning tool dubbed Virtual Kenya, created by ILRI and several of its partners. Launched June 22nd 2011 by Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Planning, National Development and Vision 2030, Mr Peter Kenneth, the tool will initially reach nearly half a million students in 2000 schools. They will be provided with free maps both online and offline to facilitate learning geography at all levels from upper primary to university.

Speaking at the launch, the Minister said the project had come at the right time when the government had just facilitated the laying of fibre optic cabling and was in the process of establishing digital villages in all constituencies.

Virtual Kenya is broad in terms and covers thematic areas such as the environment, people and biodiversity. As the data on this website gets updated and more players provide upto date data, it will be an important resource for many researchers and policy makers in the country, the Minister said. He pledged his ministry’s support in encouraging e-learning in schools and pledged to provide his constituency’s Constituency Development Fund (CDF) report to the website.

ILRI’s PLE theme is one of the partners in Virtual Kenya and all the initial data is from Natures Benefits to Kenya: an Atlas of ecosystems and human well being, published by ILRI and the World Resources Institute in 2007. Other partners are the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing, Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, Jacaranda Designs, World Resources Institute and Upande Limited. Technical support was from the Danish development agency, DANIDA.

The vision of Virtual Kenya is to provide increased data sharing and spatial analysis for better decision making, development planning and education in Kenya while its objectives are to provide improved access to spatial data; to support web-based spatial analysis using innovative mapping technologies and allow anyone interested in interactive maps about Kenya to view or create Virtual Kenya Tours using Google Earth.

The initial tours include the geography of Kenya, ecosystems of Kenya, threats to Kenya’s wildlife, a Wildlife Clubs of Kenya tour and a wildlife and tourism tour. The Virtual Kenya platform is designed to allow users with more limited mapping expertise, specifically in high schools and universities, to take full advantage of the wealth of data behind the Atlas. The website also introduces more advanced users to new web-based software applications for visualizing and analyzing spatial information and makes public spatial data sets freely available on the web to support improved environment and development planning.

Decision-makers can use the maps to examine the spatial relationships among different ecosystem services to shed light on their possible trade-offs and synergies or to examine the spatial relationships between poverty and combinations of ecosystem services.

Virtual Kenya will increase awareness of resources and tools available online to visualize and explore spatial information. For users and classrooms that do not have access to the internet yet, other materials such as wall charts, student activity booklets, teachers guide, as well as the DVD with all the Virtual Kenya data and software will be available, giving them the opportunity to interact with tools available on the Virtual Kenya website. It is designed to include several elements such as web-based mapping and easy-to-use tools that can be used to examine the features of counties such as roads and health facilities. The website further accommodates, downloads and enables the creation of an experts’ community. The development of this website is a great step towards utilizing the capacity of information and communication technologies decision-making and planning in the country.

“The Kenya Vision 2030 paves way for our country to be a leader in education and training from primary to tertiary level,” said Hon Peter Kenneth, “in regard to this, Virtual Kenya will help students acquire up-to-date tools such as geographical information systems, remote sensing, mobile phone based technologies which should go hand in hand with solid training and teaching in geography, statistical analysis and software development,” he added.

The biggest challenge the assistant minister noted, is setting up institutions at the country level and connect them with the best analysts and newest tools to support informed decision making.

Giving a background of the project, Florence Landsberg of World Resources Institute, noted that Virtual Kenya’s predecessor, Nature’s Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, explains a series of maps and analyses, the relationships between Kenyans’ daily lives and the environmental resources they rely on, such as soil, water, forest, rangeland, livestock, and wildlife. This publication has already been used to promote better management of Kenya’s natural resources and to shape Kenya’s Draft National Environment Policy. The National Environmental Management Authority also used the atlas’ underlying data to set up its first geographic information systems unit. However, there was need to allow users with more limited expertise to take full advantage of the wealth of data behind the atlas and to introduce users of geographic information systems in Kenya to innovative new ways to visualize and analyze spatial information for improved environment and development planning.

Since the atlas was released in 2007, Kenya’s access to telecommunications technology has experienced rapid growth. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of internet users in Kenya nearly doubled, from just over 1 million to 3 million users. As of 2009, nearly 4 million Kenyans were online, and this number has likely grown significantly since East Africa’s first fiber optic cable reached Mombasa that same year, bringing with it previously unimaginable opportunities for sharing information with even the most remote parts of the region.

The Virtual Kenya project was therefore designed to provide improved access to high quality spatial data and cutting-edge mapping technology to allow more Kenyans to use and interact with spatial data in their educational and professional pursuits. This will be accomplished by providing online access to publicly available spatial data sets, initially focusing on maps and information from the atlas, and by offering users a number of interactive tools and learning resources for exploring these data.

Drawing on the strengths of its partners, Upande, Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, ILRI, and Jacaranda Designs, the Virtual Kenya project will revolutionize the way Kenyans access public spatial data sets and interact with these data for better decision-making, development planning, and education in Kenya.

by Jane Gitau

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