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Eye on Earth: Towards greater data access

Eye on Earth Summit, to be held in Abu Dhabi, UAE during December 12 – 15, will stress on pertinent issues facing environmental and societal data globally

Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and home to the country’s capital city, is hosting a global summit focused on environmental and societal information networking. The Summit will convene the world’s thought and action leaders in this field with a broad range of representatives from government, the United Nations, private sector, educational and research institutions and civil society. The event is designed to converge community thinking around the most pressing challenges facing the world today, opportunities presented by rapid technological advancements and an ever more connected world. The Summit will also set the stage for collaborative action moving forward to harness these technologies and networks to better protect, secure and sustain Planet Earth’s resources and peoples.

Abu Dhabi is particularly suited to host this global meeting. In just four decades, the city has evolved from a small coastal desert settlement to a world class city comprising a poly-cultural and cosmopolitan population and a diverse, globalised economy with influences and reach far beyond its small geographic size. Abu Dhabi is one of the wealthiest states in the world, with a per capita income at par with Luxembourg, Norway and Qatar, but it is truly the vision and wisdom of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the country, to invest in people as the basic foundation for the future, that has assured its position in the world today.

This rapid development has occurred in the context of an extremely arid desert environment of unique and sensitive dunes and plains and coastal areas laced with white sand beaches, scattered islands, green expanses of biologically rich mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs. The people of Abu Dhabi have a long and rich cultural heritage directly tied to these landscapes.

The modern economy of the emirate was originally built around the discovery and exploitation of oil. This resource provided fuel for rapid growth. As the economy grew, so did the city and its population and the demand for water, food and other resources that were in short supply locally. In 2001, a team of researchers from Yale and Columbia University first included UAE in their Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), ranking the country 141 out of 142 countries investigated. At the time, only the most general data were available, mostly from international sources. Many of the factors included in the index were based on more temperate climates and did not address the special context of the hyper-arid deserts of the Gulf region. Thus the results did not accurately reflect some aspects of sustainability. The results of the study were presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in a very public forum which brought this issue to the attention of the leadership of the UAE.

The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) was launched under the guidance and patronage of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the United Nations World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. AGEDI’s mission is to address the issue of missing or inadequate environmental data on emerging economies’ efforts to achieve sustainable development. Environment Agency -Abu Dhabi (EAD) was entrusted to carry forward the programme, focusing first on building local capacity and over time, becoming more involved in addressing issues and assisting others at the national, regional and international levels. A close partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was forged from the very beginning. This partnership continues till today.

AGEDI works with partners from around the world to bring ‘bestimpact’ methods, tools and information to an ever widening network of partners. AGEDI aims to work with UNEP and others to enhance environmental data collection and assessment and improve capacities for local, national, regional, and global environmental decision making. It also works to ensure that sustainable and resilient community and regional planning is based on timely and accurate information. AGEDI’s mission also includes boosting the accessibility of data and information, increasing national and international information processing and exchange mechanisms and augmenting national information handling and communications capacities. AGEDI aims to act wherever there is a need to improve information collection, management and utilisation as the basis for more informed stewardship of our planet.

“What we want to stress is how the importance of information goes down to the grassroots and the community,” says Cathrine Armour, Program Manager, AGEDI and Program Director, Eye on Earth Summit. “This ongoing commitment to closing the data gap has already brought multiple benefits to Abu Dhabi and the wider region.”

It is in this context that AGEDI and EAD, in partnership with UNEP, are convening Eye on Earth, a global summit devoted to the issue of greater access to environmental and societal data that will meet in Abu Dhabi from 12 to 15 December 2011.

Under the Patronage of HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, the Eye on Earth Summit will address these challenges by convening world leaders, the environmental and societal information networking movement and others to celebrate ‘bestimpact’ data initiatives from around the globe, converge on key issues to reach consensus on solutions to greater data accessibility and collaborate to strengthen existing initiatives or launch new ones.

The geospatial community is not lacking in conferences, seminars or other events. Nor is there a dearth of initiatives. The community is making substantial progress with standards through the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), with common platform development and application through the Group On Earth Observations (GEO) System of Systems (GEOSS), community building through the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association (GSDI) and national and regional spatial data infrastructure initiatives and various shapes and sizes of collaborative information federations that have formed around geographic places or topics. The private sector has likewise made significant advances towards the development of “virtual globes” such as Esri’s ArcGIS Online, Google Earth and Microsoft’s Bing Maps. In addition, the explosion of locationaware smartphones and associated applications are ramping up the number and quality of volunteered geographic information. Other volunteer efforts like Open Street Map are adding to the extensive and increasing wealth of geospatial and other information available online.

The Eye on Earth Summit does not aim to duplicate these efforts. Rather, it will bring together, from around the globe, representatives of every group that has an impact on the way the world generates, standardises, stores, shares and analyses data. That is why Eye on Earth participants will come from many different worlds – those of government, business, education, technology, philanthropy and all sectors of civil society.

To ensure a Summit that focuses on key issues, the agenda for Eye on Earth is being developed with the aid of a system of Summit Governance including the Executive Advisory Board, Framework Committee and five Working Groups, representing all aspects of the global environmental and social information networking movements. The intensive work schedule of these groups and the high calibre of their over 125 participants is already generating exciting new ideas to be discussed at the Summit – ideas that may, if supported by the wider community, become global initiatives that will help the world at large become better users of environmental, geospatial and societal data.

The Summit will be conducted over three and a half days. The first day is themed “Mind the Gap” and includes a plenary opening session and a series of five tracks to review and explore the themes and findings of the working groups. Members of the working groups will be present and accompanied by selected speakers, panels, lightning talks and other interactive formats. The second day provides a platform for VIPs and various luminaries and government and industry leaders to share their perspective and vision. The third day will include a series of parallel tracks organised around special critical themes such as water security, disaster management, and blue carbon. A special session will be run on Day 3 to present and refine the Eye On Earth Rio Declaration, a community resolution providing input to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in 2012 (Rio+20), marking 20 years since a historic deal was made at the Earth Summit to tackle the world’s biggest environmental and development challenges. The final day of Eye on Earth is dedicated to highlighting several special initiatives that will carry the common objectives and aspirations of the Summit forward in specific and practical collaborative activities and programmes.

An exhibition area will be open to the Summit attendees and general public. This includes an Eye on Earth Theatre featuring top media relevant to the Summit’s key topics, a technology showcase and innovations forums featuring the most interesting existing and emerging technologies and creative applications to situations around the world. A special centre stage will provide a unique format for feature presentations.

The Summit will be preceded by a United Nations Major Groups and Stakeholders consultation on 11 December 2011. This is a full-day event designed by and for the benefit of the world’s leading civil society groups and will generate input for the Summit itself.

Much of the world’s growing wealth of data is held in incompatible standards, ‘protected’ by bureaucratic complexity, restrained by lack of open access or ignorance of its existence. The need for collaboration, information and understanding is greater than ever. That is the ambition for Eye on Earth: launching a movement that will finally break open the world’s treasure trove of data.