Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 12:14 UK

Software maps Rwandan health

GIS allows scientists to view journey of malaria through the continent
A system of electronic mapping which allows many different types of data to be layered onto a single image is being used to improve healthcare across Rwanda.

The digital maps, called Geographic Information Systems (GIS), are designed to compile information from numerous databases and use it to both track and predict outbreaks of disease.

This can then be used to help developing countries best utilise their limited resources. For example, GIS is used to organise data on clusters of disease and the availability of drinking water.

"Roads, power lines and buildings can be digitised; you can also store attribute information about the buildings, if they are residential or commercial," Max Baber from the University of Redlands in California, who is leading a GIS project in Rwanda, told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

"Once you tie things down to a certain location, you can start to explore the spatial relationships between them."

Gathering information

By putting this information together on a map, correlations can be found between things that might not be obvious from looking at graphs or tables.

Information collected in Rwanda for example shows not only the locations of health services, but water and electricity supplies as well. It also records how many cases of illnesses such as malaria have occurred in different parts of the country.


The interactive layers on a map can then be used to plan where specific health services and supplies are most needed for example.

"Once you start to gather the data and tie it down to its location, then you can start to see relationships between things like access to unclean water and the impact unclean water is having on health in those locations", Mr Baber added.

The system has allowed health workers in Rwanda track the number of malaria cases at each health facility. A dot on the map centred at each clinic appears larger or smaller depending on the number of cases.

"You can see at a glance where the main cases are; where malaria is increasing or decreasing; where people are most at risk," Nicole Ubashaea, who uses the GIS system at her office at the Centre for Geographic Information Systems in Butare, explained.

"You don't have go through a table and overlay it on printed maps and compare everything."

Data intensive

GIS also has many other applications - from working out the energy needs of a town, the effect of heavy industry on the environment, or the impact of deforestation on carbon dioxide emissions.

Congolese refugees in UNHCR refugee camp in Gisenyi, Rwanda
The maps will potentially be able to track the movements of refugees

The biggest challenge is to collect enough information to make the databases reliable.

But the results could have far-reaching effects for government policy and making the best use of time and money

"Politicians, like everybody else, derive value from the information that is presented to them," said Mr Baber.

"It presents a clearer picture for them if you can present it in a map.

"You can talk all you want, but once you produce a map you clearly see the relationships that are involved and help the government of Rwanda more effectively manage its resources."

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