When we think about geospatial technology, many of us imagine satellites for Earth observation and navigation, drones, and complex sensors used to collect information from the terrestrial surface. We also believe that most of the people capable of developing applications using geospatial data should hold a science-related Master or Ph.D. degree. The previous statement could not be further from the truth. Advances in technology have made access to geospatial technology possible for everybody.
Nowadays, it is possible to access navigation satellite systems from our cell phones. Moreover, we can use satellite images using My Maps or Google Earth. Furthermore, collaborative maps are more common these days (for example, Open Street Maps). There are many other examples of how geospatial technology is more accessible and easier to use for everybody. In this article, you will learn about how geospatial technology helps rural women in Costa Rica to improve water management in their local communities.
The gap between men and women in water management
In Costa Rica, 92.4% of the population has access to clean water (Alvarado & Barquero, 2023). These figures place the country among the highest ranks in the Latin American region. However, this achievement is not shared by everybody in the country as 350.000 people still face challenges accessing clean water (United Nations, 2020). Places affected by climate variability are suffering from a lack of water during the dry season (Wong-Parodi & Babcock, 2020). This situation affects especially vulnerable people including children, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities who cannot supply basic needs for themselves and their families. Moreover, climate variability has an impact on productive activities like agriculture and livestock in rural areas.
In addition, rural women are facing inequalities in opportunities in contrast to rural men. According to the Inter-American Development Bank’s publication ''Best Jobs Index'', Costa Rica is the country with the second-highest gap between men and women in terms of quantity and quality access to jobs. The situation is more critical in the countryside, where women’s participation in the workforce was just 13.3% in 2017. Women also have limited access to land. Of all registered farms by individuals, 84.4% are owned and operated by men, while women command just 15.5%. Besides, out of the 24064,188 square kilometers dedicated to crops in Costa Rica, only 4.4% of the land is managed by women (INEC, 2017).
Rural women play a significant role in agriculture and water management. They support and lead activities related to water and land conservation, rainwater harvesting, and watershed management. Even if women depend more on natural resources, they have less access and control over them. Generally, men give commercial use to land, water, plants, and animals, which is usually better valued than the domestic uses women provide with the very same resources (Jong, 2013).
Administrative Associations of the Community Aqueduct and Sewage Systems (ASADA by its acronym in Spanish) manage, maintain, and develop the aqueduct and sewage systems in the communities where neither the local government (municipalities) nor the central government provides drinking water and sanitation services (Direccion De Agua, n.d.). The ASADA's regulation indicates that to be part of them, individuals must be landowners. This situation affects especially women because legally, they own less quantity of land compared to men (AYA, 2019).
“It is generally perceived that the gender gap in water resource management arises from the gender division of labor and gender norms in society, which allocate many water-related responsibilities to women while conferring most water-related powers and rights to men.’’ (Ndey-Isatou Njie & Tacko Ndiaye, n.d.)
Technology is the key to the future and involving women in technology can help to reduce the current gap between gender, geography, and economics. Furthermore, technology is an excellent ally in the search for solutions to improve water management. Space technology has evolved to a point at which some applications have been democratized to be used by all—for example, navigation systems and access to satellite images, etc.
Methodology: Space technology as a tool for women to improve water management
The Women Rally of Geospatial Technology is an educational process developed by the Department of Geography at the University of Costa Rica. This program aims to familiarise rural women with space technology through applications that work on their cell phones and computers. The applications must fulfill two requirements: 1. Easy to use, and 2. No Internet is needed to collect information in the field. These requirements are essential because in many rural areas access to the Internet is limited. Additionally, the program aims at helping all its participants to find solutions that can improve the management of water in their communities.
The thematic focus areas of the programme are related to climate change, disaster risk reduction, environmental management, and agriculture. Water management is the common ground for all subjects. During the program, participants learn about drones, navigation systems, field data collection through geospatial tools and geo-viewers or map viewer software.
Women Geospatial Rally team configuration
Each team participating in this Geospatial Rally was comprised of members with the following roles:
- Advanced students at Geography School in charge of individual coaching.
- A coordinator of the activity.
- Guest professors who gave thematic talks.
- Special guest who gave motivational talks.
- Judges who provided feedback on the prototypes
- International cooperation organizations that provided financial support.
The students in geography follow the participants’ progress and help them understand and apply the tools learned during the activity. Most importantly they coach participants individually to ensure successful results for their prototypes. This coaching goes beyond just the professional and technical levels. It derives from a friendship bond as sorority is encouraged.
The coordinator is responsible for administrative tasks such as obtaining funds to develop the geospatial rally but most importantly, he or she creates the methodology and is in charge of planning the geospatial rally.
The guest professors are mainly university lecturers or experts in different thematic areas. They give brief talks about their area of expertise to provide insights on the various subjects. Finally, the participants apply this knowledge to select the focus of their prototype.
Special guests are women who are renowned leaders in different sectors, not only in technology but also in journalism and sports, to name a few. They give motivational talks to empower all participants in their pursuit of an impact solution.
The judges give some advice on how to improve the prototypes, but most importantly they provided the final challenge for the participants. All participants are required to present their prototypes to a panel of top experts. This final experience constitutes a rite of passage that has proven to be an empowering experience for all participants.
Geospatial applications and prototype development process
During the geospatial rally, participants can learn about applications that allow them to collect data in the field without any Internet connection. The applications used to that end are open-source tools such as Kobo Toolbox and Mobile Topographer. They are easy to use and allow people to collect information by using only their smartphone's GPS signal. Most of the data collected by the participants had never been mapped before and now is digitally available thanks to these tools. Furthermore, participating women learn about applications that allow them to access the data collected in the field and visualize it on a map. Applications used to this end are Google My Maps and Google Earth Pro, and they also learn how to use ArcGIS Online.
Finally, the participants develop a small geo-viewer for their data which allows them to create and save information about their communities and share it through the web. Moreover, they can improve the decision-making process for better management of their territories, since the information that was previously non-existing is available on the cloud and can be visualized in maps that are accessible to communities, decision-makers, and government authorities. That allows for cross-verification and examination of the data and offers transparency in the overall decision-making process.
The final stage of the prototype process consists of implementing a Business Model Canvas (Osterwalder & Pigneur, 2010). During the training process, participants complete a simplified business model canvas derived from the original developed by the workshop organizers. They must integrate one of the thematic areas addressed in the rally into the prototype geospatial application. With these tools, they need to propose a solution to a specific problem of the community they live in.
Results and experiences of the Geospatial Rally
Having received training in environmental and geospatial technologies, and by using freely available web applications, the participants created prototypes related to sanitation, reforestation, pipe mapping in the rural aqueducts (ASADAS, where the women work), agriculture irrigation, etc.
Valeria Mendez and Pricilla Angulo live in Cartago, a rural zone that produces most of the vegetables and greens of Costa Rica. Valeria said:
“The water used to irrigate crops comes from the rivers. But there is inequality in access to water for all the farmers because some of them use more water than usual and therefore leave others without good access to water, which affects the harvest. Also, there is a deficient infrastructure installed which is why there are water leaks. Another problem is related to irrigation scheduling which is not being rightfully implemented. As watering time is not being controlled, water has been wasted.”
Valeria and Priscilla proposed to develop a device to control water consumption and watering time to improve the irrigation of the crops and water access for all farmers using geospatial technology and electronic devices. Their prototype device is a microcontroller board (ARDUINO-UNO) and a solenoid valve that allows controlling irrigation time. Furthermore, they are planning in the near future the creation of a geoportal that will show the exact location of the crops, the site of the water sources where the farmers take the water, and finally, the pipeline. This tool will aim to improve the decision-making process and water management, especially to guarantee the right to access to water and the reduction of the waste of water.
Another project was developed by Wendy Salazar. She is from Guanacaste, Costa Rica. She created a map of the ASADA ‘’Pita Rayada’’. She georeferenced the components of the aqueduct (tanks, pipes, etc.) using the GPS application which she learned to use during the rally. Then she designed a map with the data taken in the field, using Google My Maps application. The final product developed and handed to ASADA aims to be a management tool for providing valuable information for the community and decision-makers within it. Additionally, Wendy trained all the members of the ASADA in the use of the geospatial technologies she learned during the activities of the rallies.
Rural women play a prominent role in water management. Through their roles as water users and managers, they are the ones in the best position to drive innovation. With access to technology, women can create solutions that are well suited to their territories and improve the decision-making processes.
Due to its success, the Geospatial Rally for Women is expanding from Costa Rica to the Central American region, including countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. To this date, around 100 women have been trained and more than 50 prototypes have been developed during the activities.
We believe in the importance of empowering women in the use and development of technologies to find solutions at the local scale. Such solutions must be led by people who live in affected areas such as those facing problems related to water management, climate change, and disasters. Those people know their own reality and when they understand the use and potential of geospatial technology, they can identify how to best use it in their territories.