Can a Map be an Ultimate Organisational Signpost?

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Maps are easy to understand and sometimes fun to explore. A lot of work is going on around digital mapping at the project level and we wanted to explore its potential at the organisational level. In late 2012, with support from Nethope, Plan International started to explore the use of GIS.
The main driver was the need to see where we work. With programs in 250 Program Units (working areas) across 50 countries, it was a challenge to visualise on a single map the administrative boundaries in each of those locations where the programs were being implemented. There was also potential to signpost other location specific information on the map to make it easier to find.
Where to Start?
There were couple of challenges to make this happen. What technology to use? How to link different data to it? How to make it simple for users?
The starting point was a data model which used the location codes from our corporate systems. These common location codes made it easier to link program, financial and operational data on those locations from different systems. The application relied on data from corporate systems wherever possible to reduce manual data entry. Field staff still needed to identify the administrative boundaries showing where Plan worked and update local information not available from corporate systems.
As there was limited GIS expertise within the organisation, a GIS specialist supported the development. The project uses ESRI’s ArcGIS Server, MS SQL Database and JavaScript based front end. GADM database of Global Administrative boundaries is used to represent local boundary areas managed by Plan offices. The point location of these offices is represented through an additional layer. The Basemaps from ArcGIS Online provide different options in displaying the maps including satellite imagery and open street map. The initial version of front-end was made relatively simple to allow for easy changes during the development phase.
This model provided the most consistent picture of our field operations and the key benefit was that staff could easily identify and tag the programme locations on lower level administrative boundaries and programme offices on the map without the need of any GIS hardware to collect geographic coordinates. The end result is sufficiently accurate to support users for programme reporting, management and fundraising. This allowed for cost savings on hardware and made simple online training possible.
To save on development costs, the application was developed into 2 modules, a simple data entry module and a more elaborate viewer module which allowed users to view the data in different ways. The viewer module included a simple tree-style tab which lets users select location by regions, countries or program units to display the relevant information on the left panel or as pop-ups on clicking on the map.
The initial version of the map was piloted in 3 countries, tweaked a bit and then rolled-out across 50 countries. Unimaginatively, we called it the Global Program Map!
Current Global Program Map Status
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Currently the map provides interactive, easy access to key programmatic, financial, grant funding and sponsorship data including links to key documents across existing organisation sources. It helps staff answer basic programmatic questions around Who, What, When & Where. With a click, it shows the scope of interventions which were implemented in a country last year by Plan, and with another click, how many Plan country operations implemented a particular intervention area like Neonatal Health.
There has been a lot of excitement about the map since the launch, especially for those who struggle to access basic information spread across different systems. There are currently about 200 active users and the main demand has been for linking more types of data to the map, especially the project level data.
Currently the map is updated on an annual basis and the data is manually sourced. To be useful, the data on the map has to be updated more regularly and with minimal manual intervention, which is a challenge. Different systems and processes generate different types of reports at different times. Working with teams to identify the relevant reports which can be easily imported to the Map database on a regular basis is how we are starting to address this challenge.
Feedback from users across the organisation is helping to define the next stage of the Global Program Map. It will focus on providing basic grant project level information with additional filters and search options to make the most of the available information covering the last 10 years. There are a couple of other options like displaying information on projects from other organisations available through sources like IATI’s API and visually comparing with that of Plan. It also has potential to share information on Plan projects more widely.
A slightly adapted version of this application was also developed into a reporting tool for exploring opportunities of collecting up to date information from disaster response operations…but that’s probably a topic for anther post.
Neeraj Rana is the Programme Effectiveness Officer at Plan International