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First GISCorps Mission – Kabul, Afghanistan

On May 6th, 2005, Shoreh Elhami traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan as a GISCorps volunteer. As the plane flew over the Hindu kush at an average altitude of 5000 meters, the vastness and beauty of Afghanistan’s magnificent mountains amazed her. Later on as she became acquainted with the Afghans, she found herself equally impressed by their kindness, sense of humor, and hospitality.

Shoreh Elhami and AIMS Staff in Kabul, Afghanistan
Shoreh Elhami and AIMS Staff

This was mainly a fact-finding mission and consisted of a series of meetings, lectures, and technical workshops. Her host was the Afghanistan Information Management Service (AIMS) agency, a joint venture between the United Nations Office of Coordination for the Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The goal was to learn about GIS capabilities within AIMS, identify their needs, and then deploy the most qualified volunteers to assist them with those needs.

Duties and Services of AIMS

AIMS has two primary responsibilities: building “Information Management Capacity” in government and delivering “Information Management Services” including GIS services to organizations across Afghanistan.

AIMS GIS division has been in operation for several years and provides a variety of GIS services to government agencies such as: Central Statistics Organization (CSO), Afghanistan Geodesy and Cartography Head Office (AGCHO), and Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRDD). AIMS services include but are not limited to database creation (both spatial and non-spatial), training, mapping, and project management.

With Kabul municipality and several ministries’ staff and elected officials
With Kabul municipality and several ministries’ staff and elected officials

Services provided

During her visit, she met with several AIMS staff from various divisions and learned about their current and future projects as well as their GIS needs and challenges. She was also able to examine some of their datasets and observe their data gathering methodologies.

In addition to meeting with the staff, she conducted several lectures on topics such as GISCorps and its mission, cadastral mapping, and spatial modeling. AIMS staff and several elected officials from Kabul municipality and various ministries attended those lectures. In one occasion and only fifteen minutes prior to the presentation, she was asked to deliver her lecture on cadastral mapping in Farsi (similar to the Dari language)!

AIMS GIS system is entirely ESRI based. They had a combination of Arcview 3x and 9x licenses in their main office as well as their satellite offices. The majority of their projects were still in Arcview 3x environment. However, they had started migrating several of those project to 9.0 environment.

Giving a lecture to AIMS staff in Afghanistan
Giving a lecture to AIMS staff

Even though some of their staff had taken courses from virtual campus, they were very interested in taking the instructor-led course as well. That is what Shoreh ended up teaching 26 AIMS and non-AIMS employees. While the majority of students were from the Kabul branch of AIMS, a number of them had come from other AIMS offices such as: Jalalabad, Herat, and Mazar-e- Sharif. Non-AIMS students were from USAID. At the end of these workshops, she was most impressed and inspired by the students’ GIS capabilities and enthusiasm to learn.

AIMS Staff at a hands-on workshop in Afghanistan
AIMS Staff at a hands-on workshop

Needs and Volunteer Opportunities

After meeting with various groups and discussing their projects and needs, she wrote a preliminary report. The report included her observations, recommendations, and a list of projects requested by AIMS and other entities.

AIMS requests for volunteers are two types. The first type mainly consists of hands-on software training. AIMS has decided to migrate their current GIS to an enterprise system (to an SDE – SQL Server based system) and they are interested in trainers who can help them achieve that goal. Furthermore, since one of AIMS main objectives is data sharing and distribution, they also need training on how to setup and design a web based interactive map server application using ArcIMS. The second type includes several requests for technical assistance in areas such as: data collection methodologies (including mobile data collection), disaster management applications, data conversion, and GeoDatabase design.

CSO and AGCHO are also interested in using our volunteers for their projects. The office of CSO is embarking upon a new project to assist them in Afghanistan’s upcoming Census and are looking for volunteers with expertise in census related datasets and applications. They are especially interested in working with our volunteers and conducting a pilot project on real-time field data collection methodologies. AGCHO is looking into the best practices for building a nation-wide cadastral system and is interested in working with GISCorps volunteers with expertise in cadastral mapping.

 A woman buying meat in Afghanistan
A woman buying meat.

GIS Curriculum at Kabul University

Shoreh also visited with the faculty of Kabul University’s Department of Geology and Geography. Currently, neither department offer any GIS courses and are still using old text books and material. However, they were quite eager to incorporate GIS into their existing curriculum. They were also very interested in GIS material and any standards and/or literature in Farsi language. There, she ended up giving her second lecture in Farsi!

After the presentation, she explained the volunteer screening process and pledged to look for qualified volunteers to assist them with the new curriculum upon her return. She also mentioned to the faculty that she was heading to Tehran in a few days and that she was invited to give a lecture at the GIS Department of K.N. Toosi University of Technology (KNTU) in Tehran. They asked if she could inquire about any Farsi material and/or other assistance that KNTU could provide to them while in Tehran.

A week later, she gave a lecture at KNTU about GISCorps and cadastral mapping. After the lecture, they demonstrated some of their ongoing GIS projects which were quite impressive. KNTU offers undergraduate as well as Masters and PhD degrees in remote sensing, surveying, and GIS. She asked if they would be willing to assist Kabul University in getting a GIS program started and a number of their faculty expressed interest in helping them by sending trainers and/or hosting their faculty at KNTU.

Prioritizing needs

Shortly after she returned, she finalized the preliminary report and sent it to AIMS staff. Overall, she identified nine potential projects for GISCorps volunteers. While some of these projects require that the volunteer(s) would be deployed to Afghanistan, at least three of them could be implemented remotely (by volunteers from their home countries). The Core committee of GISCorps will begin the screening process and forming the teams of volunteers as soon as they receive the prioritized list from AIMS.

 Kabul, city of duality
Kabul, city of duality

Gratifying experience

2005 has been a rewarding year for GISCorps volunteers and committee members. Following the Indian Ocean tragedy of December 2004, over a dozen GISCorps volunteers were either deployed to the region or worked remotely on post disaster relief projects. Their stories and what they were able to accomplish is a true display of their selflessness and compassion.

As enthused as Shoreh was about GISCorps volunteers and their accomplishments, this sentiment was not fully realized until becoming a volunteer herself. In Afghanistan she met the most remarkable group of people and was deeply inspired by their resilience and desire to make a difference. Afghanistan needs the assistance of GIS professionals in building a nation-wide spatial infrastructure and GISCorps volunteers could assist them in achieving that goal. She is convinced that by volunteering we can make a difference. We just have to commit ourselves to serve others who need our help.

“Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning Love has to be put into action, and that action is service” Mother Teresa

As the plane departed, she knew that for her, this was just the first of many more missions to come.

Rain in Kabul, a blessing and a curse...
Rain in Kabul, a blessing and a curse…
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