State of the Planet

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Maprooms Turn ‘Shapeless’ Climate Data Into Powerful Tools of Action

This story is adapted from one originally published by Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa.

“I feel like I’m sitting on a pot of gold—there is such a wealth of information in the maprooms,” said Kabenuka Munthali, senior agricultural research officer for the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute.

Munthali was one of more than 30 people who participated in maproom training events in November 2022 in Zambia and Kenya. Like Munthali, the other participants were from national-level institutions that play a key role in promoting the tailoring and use of climate information and services for the agricultural sector.

‘Maprooms’ are freely accessible, online analytical and visualization tools to make climate data more usable. Developed at the Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), they are now being tailored and scaled to support adaptation in African agriculture as part of the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) project.

Because they were developed through interaction between those who produce climate information—the national meteorological services—and those who ultimately use it, IRI’s maprooms are demand-driven products designed to turn shapeless climate data into actionable information for decision making.

These tools are being used not just in Zambia and Kenya, but in more than 20 other countries, primarily in Africa. They represent a big advance in efforts to support locally led climate adaptation. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, the maprooms are linked to rich sets of nationally owned data at very high, 4-kilometer spatial resolution. Think of a net stretching around the entire globe, with each square in the net measuring four by four kilometers. Such fine resolution makes location-specific analysis of past, current, and future climate information finally possible in parts of Africa.

This is game-changing for millions of farmers who are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, because it enables the network of organizations that support them — such as national research institutions, ministries of agriculture, and agricultural extension systems — to provide locally relevant information that facilitates agricultural planning. This includes important information such as when the rainy season is likely to start, how much rainfall can be expected, and other key parameters that can make the difference between food security and insecurity for a family.

“For a long time, accessing climate information and data for us to assist users had been a challenge,” said John Kisangau from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization. “Before, we could only get information up to a resolution of nine kilometers. Maprooms [give us] more granular information and data. These datasets are already translated, tailored, and put in one portal where any user, technical or not, can get that information.”

While other tools that offer local climate information services do exist, the high-resolution products made available in the IRI’s maprooms are the only ones that recognize and leverage local, on-the-ground station data provided by national meteorological services themselves. This is because they were developed as part of IRI’s Enhancing National Climate Services (ENACTS) initiative, which combines local data with satellite rainfall estimates and climate model reanalysis products to generate decades’ worth of high-quality datasets that cover an entire country. These datasets are owned by the countries themselves.

“Not all information is created equal. Even when researchers and meteorological agencies strive to produce information that users need, significant barriers may remain which inhibit theoretically useful information from actually being usable,” said Tufa Dinku, who leads the ENACTS initiative. “We need to ensure those who generate climate information and those who use it come together regularly to make sure this information is transformed into sector-relevant and decision-relevant products.”

Bringing together all the partners

AICCRA-hosted workshops in Kenya and Zambia have scaled the ENACTS approach to ensure that is exactly what happens on a consistent and sustained basis.

This means bringing together all parties that play a role in promoting the use of climate information and services and broader resilience and building their capacity to extend these tools and knowledge to those in the agricultural sector who need it most.

“For a farmer, the changing climate is not just about carrying an umbrella on a rainy day. It influences every aspect of a farmer’s decision-making process and planning. So this information, not just data, needs to come to them in a way they can actually utilize and make a decision with.” — Dominic Namanyungu, Zambia ministry of agriculture

In Kenya, an October ‘training of trainers’ on maprooms brought together the Kenya Meteorological Department alongside the main institutions responsible for tailoring, communicating, and otherwise building capacity to understand climate information for its use in the agricultural sector, especially at the most local levels interfacing with farmers. The Zambia ‘training of trainers’ event in November brought together key national institutions for this same purpose.

“For a farmer, the changing climate is not just about carrying an umbrella on a rainy day. It influences every aspect of a farmer’s decision-making process and planning,” said Dominic Namanyungu, from Zambia’s agriculture ministry. “So this information, not just data, needs to come to them in a way they can actually utilize and make a decision with.”

The Zambia Meteorological Department’s own ‘Climate and Agriculture Maproom’ for example, help to do just this.

By allowing users to explore things like when the rains have historically started and stopped, how long the rainy season has tended to be, or how much rainfall has fallen for any given area where those supporting farmers can be better able to tailor their inputs advice to them. This is now possible at even the district level, where many governments agricultural planning decisions related to seed and fertilizer distribution are made.

Similarly, the department’s ‘Seasonal Forecast Maproom’ allows users to see the full probability distribution that rainfall will exceed or not exceed certain rainfall amounts for the upcoming season at any location, supporting more evidence-based decisions critical to livelihoods, such as crops or varieties to promote, when to plant, and more.

Maprooms analyses are presented as maps and graphs, and are freely downloadable in a variety of common formats. They’re automated, allowing for easy integration in reports and other documents and enabling even non-technical users to access robust information critical for agricultural planning and even emergency response with just a click.

map and graph
Screenshot of a maproom developed with the Zambia Meteorological Department, showing historical rainfall onset dates in an area of Western Zambia. Such information is critical for farmers as they plan for their seasons, as well as those who support them such as input suppliers to ensure these materials are ready on time.

Responding to longstanding demand, AICCRA is developing curricula for targeting the agricultural extension systems of Kenya and Zambia to be deployed from 2023, so they are equipped with critical knowledge and skills to assess climate risk and how to use and interpret maprooms.

Integrating best-available climate information and products like maprooms into agricultural extension systems helps to ensure they are a sustainable innovation in the hands of colleagues from across private and public institutions with the mandate to scale climate information services and climate-smart agriculture in these countries.

To promote a better enabling environment for developing such services, both countries are also developing their own National Framework for Climate Services.

These frameworks will systematize the coordination between all stakeholders, (especially those present at the workshops) to improve the production, tailoring, and delivery of climate information that truly meets real needs, and not just perceived needs of farmers and the network of actors that support them.

“The National Framework for Climate Services will help our institutions to better collaborate on the co-production of climate information products,” said Kenneth Sinachikupo of Zambia’s Meteorological Department, who is at the forefront of developing his country’s National Framework for Climate Services. “And it will enhance their ownership and development. It is important to take forward these initiatives to have a positive impact on the Zambian community.”

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