Willy Simons: “Kenya is not yet operating at the cutting edge of Geospatial technology”

Willy Simons has worked in the geo-spatial industry, since coming to Kenya in 1994. Over the last 18 years in the capacity of Founder and Managing Director of several companies. Among them Esri Eastern Africa, Oarkar Services and currently Spatiality He combines his vast industry experience with qualifications in agricultural science, geo-spatial technology, business and project management. Willy cares about leadership, competitiveness and productivity and wants to use his skills to leave this world a better place. See more here LinkedIn

Qn: I was looking to have this interview in Swahili, so it’s just fair for me to ask this first. You’ve been in Kenya since 1994 roughly 23 years, how’s your Swahili?

Ans: I have a basic understanding of Swahili, and have been taking lessons since last year. The main challenge to learning Swahili is that people in Nairobi are fluent in English. Nobody (including myself) has the time and the patience to put up with my bad Swahili!

Qn: Willy, you have an MSc in Agricultural Engineering, how did you get into GIS?

Ans: I studied Soil Science and got involved in dynamic crop-water modeling when doing project work, so I was actually an early adopter of GIS. After graduation I completed a 10-month post-graduate course on Geographic Information Systems to further my prospects of finding a job in the emerging GIS industry.

Qn: You have Company @SpatialityKe. Tell us about your vision with Spatiality. What are you looking to do or offer differently?

Ans: Spatiality seeks to deliver business value through the deployment, implementation and development of GIS services that are hosted and managed in the cloud. Traditional GIS vendors and end-users have been somewhat slow in adopting to cloud and SaaS as key technology trends. Spatiality is uniquely positioned to act as an accelerator, since we not only understand geospatial technology, but are able to speak the business language.

I have learned plenty of lessons from the past, so Spatiality will remain focused in terms of the products and services that it offers and its target markets. We remain ambitious in terms of growth and professionalism, but recognize agility and control as benefits of remaining small.

Qn: In terms of Cloud GIS offering, you are a champion of ArcGIS Online. What’s your thought on Open Source GIS an it’s recent proliferation in cloud offering?

Ans: I operated as the Esri Distributor in Eastern Africa for many years, so the choice of ArcGIS Online as preferred cloud platform came naturally. However, cloud computing and SaaS have low entry barriers, so it’s a competitive marketplace that keeps incumbents on their toes. New offerings and innovations are something to look forward to, since it will grow the industry through more compelling value propositions.

I don’t keep a close eye on all the competing solutions in the market, but recognize that there are a handful of serious alternatives to ArcGIS Online. The majority of these offerings are built with Open Source technology, but one is likely to pay a monthly or annual service charge. Interestingly, companies use different pricing models, so it will take some maths to determine the cost to your organization. Estimating the benefits that a cloud solution brings to your organization can even be more daunting; I therefore recommend the use of a free trial and a live product demonstration implemented by a competent solution provider.

Qn: There are these Geo-technology trends Cloud Computing, IT, Big data and their integration into GIS. You explicitly Spatiality is pushing the Cloud Computing button in Kenya. What is the place these other fast growing trends (IoT, Big data, Augmented Reality) in GIS within your vision as a GIS industry leader in Kenya?

Ans: Cloud computing is already with us, while the other technology trends are envisioned or reinventions of traditional concepts. I am not a fortuneteller, but I’ll make a few comments as GIS thought leader:

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IoT – At the heart of IoT is the collection of data through sensors, which has been done for years through Remote Sensing, GNSS and SCADA. IoT is both a threat and an opportunity to our industry, and it’s important that we have players operating in this space to promote a geographic view. In Kenya I see opportunities within Utilities and Logistics / Distribution.

Big Data – A major obstacle to the uptake of Big Data in Kenya remains poor or undetermined data quality dimensions (e.g. accuracy, currency, completeness). How does one make sense from a whole lot of crap data? Geospatial technology and geo-statistics can be leveraged to fill in the gaps through data management, analysis and visualization.

Augmented Reality -This is now widely used in the gaming and media industry, but one wonder how Kenya can leverage augmented reality, when we are struggling to produce and maintain topographic, imagery and cadastral basemaps. Elected officials might embrace the technology, since roads can be built at the click of a button!

Qn: What’s your thought on Agility in GIS Project management as opposed to traditional Waterfall methods of project management?

Ans: Agile has great potential in managing software development and other IT projects, since requirements management is an ongoing process. It’s a fact that IT projects using Agile have much higher success rates when it comes to delivering within budget, time and scope. The traditional structured and iterative approaches remain relevant depending on the size, complexity and nature of your projects. Ultimately, success isn’t determined by the use of any particular framework or methodology, but by the competencies of the project team and the capabilities of the organization.

Qn: You’ve worked in the GIS industry in Netherlands and now for a long enough time in Kenya as well (and we’re happy to have you here btw!). How would you compare the flavour of Kenyan industry to Dutch in terms of business and project opportunities, professionalism, such?

Ans: Interestingly I left the Netherlands and came to Kenya before the GIS boom in the mid-nineties, so it’s difficult for me to make comparisons. However, I must assume that Geospatial technology is ruthlessly exploited in the Netherlands, particularly in the private sector. This presents career opportunities to bright, ambitious and hard-working professionals, but it’s competitive and at some point you might burn-out. Kenya is not yet operating at the cutting edge of Geospatial technology. There are many unrealized opportunities, but it takes grit and determination to make things happen here.

Qn: What’s your favorite free Online GIS tool?

Ans: What makes you think that I have one? Well, I use Google Maps to find places and get directions, and would to see Waze adopted as a platform for live traffic updates.

I definitely love Esri Story Maps and hope to use them in the near future to draw attention to key societal and environmental issues. We need the world as much as the world needs Geospatial technology.


  • Quite a great article here

  • sowanch

    Really great of you to interview a pioneer in the field. Enjoyed this read.

    • Steve Ochieng

      This was surely amazing.