Letting the Numbers Speak

Arab Spatial website democratizes data

Image of Arab Spatial mapping tool

A DIFFERENT VIEW. Arab Spatial lets users visualize combinations of data, like this map of access to small cities.

How many poor people live in Egypt? Morocco? Yemen? It’s hard to say. Only about half of countries in the Middle East and North Africa make poverty figures publicly available, and the frequency and accuracy of those figures vary widely. The same goes for dozens of other development indicators. Arab Spatial, a new tool developed by IFPRI in conjunction with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and CGIAR, is designed to help fill the gap in development information on the region.

Unreliable Data

In the Middle East and North Africa, development data are often unavailable, inaccessible, or incorrect. For example, Egypt’s official measure of inequality indicates that income in Egypt is more equitably distributed than in Belgium or even Switzerland. You only have to walk through Cairo, however, to see the contradiction. “If we talk to experts, and more importantly, if we go to Egypt and look around, most people would thoroughly disagree with that number,” says Clemens Breisinger, an IFPRI research fellow. “There’s a strong need to improve the quality of data, and people’s access to data, in the Arab world.”

As the first online information storehouse for the Arab countries, the Arab Spatial website is a pioneering tool that relates food security to development through more than 100 indicators at the national, regional, and pixel levels, often displayed as time-series data across the region. Data—which come from both government bodies in the region and international institutions—cover areas such as poverty, governance, public investment, trade, agriculture, and income for the 22 Arab countries. Arab Spatial welcomes new data contributors, and, as an open-source and open-access database, it can easily be updated and expanded as new data become available.

Connecting Data to Reality

Emphasizing the links between food security and development data, Arab Spatial allows users to create multilayered maps that connect the data to real-world images. “Our goal,” says IFPRI Research Fellow Olivier Ecker, “is to promote data sharing among policymakers and researchers in the region that ultimately results in a better understanding of how to combat poverty and food insecurity.”

Arab Spatial has particular relevance given the recent political and economic transitions spurred by the Arab Spring, explains Perrihan Al-Riffai, an IFPRI senior research analyst. The collaborative review and sharing of data could help promote effective policy design during a period of enormous change. “The general consensus in the region,” she says, “is that new tools and new perspectives are necessary in order to move forward.”

For more information on this topic:
A recent IFPRI report on poverty and food security in the Arab world

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