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A Discussion : NGAs and Economic Development

L-R: Dr. Vanessa Lawrence; Greg Scott, Inter-Regional Advisor, UN-GGIM; Barbara Ryan, Director, Secretariat, Group on Earth Observations, Geneva; and Ivan DeLoatch, Executive Director, Federal Geographic Data Committee, USA

Of NGAs and Economic Development

But, you know her as the one delivering talks or giving interviews. Now, she has donned the journalist’s hat for Geospatial World. Catch Dr Lawrence interview industry experts Ivan DeLoatch, Greg Scott and Barbara Ryan on the role of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agencies (NGAs) in economic development

Vanessa Lawrence: We all face this challenge everyday where we have to explain what geospatial is and how it can benefit the economy of countries, regions and people around the globe. So, what can we do differently so that people actually understand what geospatial is?

Greg Scott: One of the biggest challenges we face is when we mention the term geospatial information, it is not a simple term for people to understand. The challenge is to communicate what it is in terms of the location, in terms of place, in terms of how you use it in your day-to-day life and also who that audience might be. And this is one of the many challenges. From a national to global perspective, it is really important that we communicate languages that people need to hear to be able to understand the scenario.

For example, within the UN system, the governments of the world have negotiated the 2016 sustainable development agenda; and a lot of discussion around geography has taken place. And when we think about sustainable development, poverty, humanitarian needs, urbanisation… they all have a very geographical location-based component. Part of the challenge for us is communicating these messages in simple language and terms but also easily understandable in take away messages that some of these decision makers can understand. People are understanding the importance of location each day, and while it is still a journey, it is a good journey to be on.

VL: Barbara you have a grand summit coming up where you need to get ministers from all over the world. I would like to know how you would change the minds of ministers who are slightly hesitant to come and attend the summit in Mexico?

Barbara Ryan: As Greg mentioned, for some ministers, geospatial is a tough term to understand. We probably had a better grasp on the situation when we were talking about maps and paper maps. The power of location is inherent in all individuals. So I think it is really important for government agencies to expose data. Any data that is collected is in fact location based. And that is what is most relevant for governments because all governments want their economies to grow. The fact that this geospatial information can facilitate industrial growth is elementary. There is no limit to what can be done with this information.

VL: How do you think we can attract businesses? Be it small medium enterprises, big corporates, banks etc. How do you think you can get them involved?

Ivan DeLoatch: We have to change our approach and our language needs to come down to what people would understand. It is not always easy to use this term ‘geospatial’, and so we try to find what is relevant with the particular audience. The business sector is driven by economy and the ability to create a product that results in profit. So we need to the redefine the role of governments. We need to think about how we can reshape the education system and how we can provide more opportunities for innovation. One of things we have done is the ‘open gov’ initiative — the open data programme, which is allowing the agencies to expose their data. The paradigm has shifted in terms of government being user vs government being a provider.

VL: In today’s scenario, when every child buys a mobile phone it has geography within it, which was not the case 20 years ago. So doing more with that geography than just locating the nearest cinema hall is something I would like to see to happen. For instance using geography for scarce resource management or even for providing more jobs…

ID: One of the things which we are doing is working with the education department to include geosciences in the ‘science and technology engineering mathematics’ initiative in the United States. The department has asked us to recommend a curriculum from kindergarten to XII standard. In addition, we are also working with the Department of Labour to introduce subjects for people who are interested in educating themselves and get better jobs. There are categories for certain positions and jobs in the federal government.

VL: What can we do to engage young people in this particular area? There are well-paying jobs in this sector but people don’t even know that we exist.

GS: I think Ivan has picked up a great approach on how to proceed in schools. And I believe there are three parts to it. First, he has mentioned. The second is, we studied geography in school. It was one of the sciences we did at school. Things have become a lot more complicated than that now. Firstly, geography in school is trying to compete with other priorities. The next step is to understand how to attract university students after they leave high school. My area was in the earth sciences, which was not exactly attractive for potential students. But now, geospatial information is becoming more embedded in career paths with respect to not only geosciences but also engineering and architecture. In one sense, this has become a strength; in another sense, it has become a secondary path to that education process.

When you start thinking of specialised areas and use geodesy as an example, people do not really get what it is. It has a lot of math in it, which a lot of students do not like. These factors make this a different world. It is important that we bring students into the post high school era of geospatial information. We can attract a lot more people in the process. It is growing and I think we need to take advantage of that.

BR: If we go back to the previous point on education, if we start educating kids at a much younger stage, I think they will get the hang of it. They are like sponges who want to soak in as much knowledge as they can and they are curious to know more. And when you think about those little kids, their brains work that way, they can see connections that really exist.

VL: If I say you have 12 months to make a difference and then come back and reflect on what has been done, what would you do differently?

GS: What we, at the UN-GGIM, are hoping to do in the next 12 to 24 months is… UN through its member countries has just signed-off on the 2030 Sustainable Development agenda. What is embedded in that agenda is monitoring development and progress using geospatial information and earth observation. And in the upcoming Sustainable Development Summit in New York this summer, the member states, A-list people, the President and even the Pope will all come down to sign this document. Geospatial information is already embedded in the document, but the challenge for us now is to act on it. We need to use good, reliable statistical data for monitoring the progress of this development.

BR: I am going to conveniently use the power that GEO has to reinforce in the efforts of UN-GGIM and continue to support national organisations like Ivan is in, because it needs to be both bottoms up and top down. I am also going to advocate for broad open data policy, because without that, we will not get any information to go on with. At the same time, I would like to get more clarity on how the private sectors can engage in this kind of a scenario.

ID: My goal is to see that the structure for current geospatial platform has local support. We have an election next year in the US, so for us, its important that we maintain the momentum that we have and make a business case providing information about how the technology can be used no matter who is using it. My other goal is to double the data sets we currently have in the US.