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Geospatial tech critical for building a sustainable world

We cannot address tomorrow’s problems with today’s tools. The growing complexity of social, economic and environmental challenges requires us to embrace geospatial technologies and acknowledge the critical role that collaborations and partnerships can play in building a sustainable world. 

The growing complexities of social, economic and environmental problems has prompted actors from diverse fields to come together and address these issues. It’s no secret that we cannot counter tomorrow’s problems with today’s tools and technologies. That’s why when the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it stressed on specific guidelines for appropriate use of technologies and building trusted collaborations to map, monitor and achieve the global goals. Special emphasis was placed on geospatial and earth observation data for measuring, monitoring and reporting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to assess progress, take requisite action where needed and have positive outcomes.

Visualization and analytics offered by geospatial and earth observation technologies have helped governments and the development sector to plan and implement welfare programs efficiently. A variety of datasets are currently being generated and made available for no or minimal cost to non-profits around the world. There has also been an increase in the use of innovative tools and technologies to solve some of the most pressing problems such as access to healthcare, resources to the farming community and impact of human activities on the environment. When combined with other technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), geospatial technology becomes even more effective. No wonder the UN and its member states are also using geospatial technologies for creating innovative reporting platforms.


To find out how these technologies are being used for humanitarian works in the development sector, Geospatial Media and Communications conducted an online survey, which saw participation from nearly 400 working professionals from various organizations.


Growing popularity

Geospatial technologies have certainly gained in terms of popularity in the development sector. While sectors like defense, infrastructure, urban development and utilities have traditionally been ahead in adoption, use of these technologies for humanitarian works has picked up in the recent past. An overwhelming majority of respondents said that geospatial information was an important part of decision-making in their respective organizations (Graph 1). Interestingly, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and donor/aid agencies are leading in experimenting with geospatial use, leaving behind government organizations and technology consultants involved in developmental activities. According to some respondents, their organizations have now made provisions for software licences, workstations, primary and ancillary satellite imagery, toposheets and other data sources in their funding proposals, as these are crucial for making sustainable decisions.

Focus on visualization

The growing use of geospatial technologies in the development sector is clearly focused around visualization (Graph 2). Both GIS and satellite imagery are used primarily to monitor things like disease outbreak, extent of damage during a natural disaster and population spread in places that don’t have any other data source. There are many other areas that can benefit from these technologies, but most of them lie unexplored. For instance, an integrated geospatial system for early warning and a communication system based on real-time data can play a crucial role in limiting loss of life and destruction of property in case of a calamity. Further, sharing good practices and knowledge exchange can not only boost technology adoption, but produce better results.

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So, in a way, the very purpose of using geospatial is acting as a hurdle in exploring its true potential. The real power of geospatial technologies comes into play when they are used as an integration platform that can assimilate datasets from various sources to provide predictive and prescriptive analytics for informed decision-making, which in turn can save lives and resources, and create a more sustainable world.

Maximum impact areas

Majority of the respondents felt that climate and environment and disaster risk reduction are the two areas that will witness the maximum impact of geospatial technologies. In the middle of the 20th Century (1950-1960), when GIS and remote sensing technologies started developing, apart from defense and security, these technologies were used for environment management and disaster risk reduction. Hence, this has been a steadily growing trend over the years. Surprisingly, some of the problems having an immediate impact on mankind, such as health and food security, weren’t seen as high impact areas by the participants. The survey findings clearly indicate underutilization of geospatial technologies in the development sector (Graph 3).

Connectivity is the key

The implementation of geospatial technologies is dependent on several basic factors. Most of the development and aid agencies working in remote and far-flung areas often struggle with basic Internet connectivity. As many as 75% of respondents cited Internet (Wi-Fi or mobile) as a powerful enabler for geospatial technologies. If the World Bank estimate on Internet connectivity (49.723% of global population) is to be believed, more than half of the world is currently without active Internet services. In such a scenario, adoption of geospatial technologies, which rely heavily on Cloud and connectivity, will not be possible.
While innovations in offline technologies that support field work and generate data that can be later fed into the Cloud are being explored, bridging the digital divide is a must for geospatial adoption. A positive trend that emerged from the survey was equal stress on 4IR technologies like Internet of Things, Cloud, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Drones and Big Data, which are perceived to be powerful enablers for geospatial.

Benefits and reliance

Enhanced decision-making, followed by improved analytics, were seen as the biggest benefits of using geospatial technologies by all three respondent segments (Graph 4).
Majority of the respondents said that they relied on open source or freely available data and technologies for their geospatial needs (Graph 5). The two likely reasons for this are: high cost of proprietary software and services, and easy availability of data and technology solutions for development projects. There is a greater need for the proprietary industry and the open source/data community to collaborate to enhance the value and utility of these technologies. At the same time, the development sector needs to come up with its own geospatial strategy in alignment with the digital strategy, so that it can equally leverage open source and proprietary technologies.

Deciding authority

So, who takes a call on deploying geospatial technologies and how widespread is the use? Surprisingly, while more than half of the respondents said that the use of geospatial technologies is a core part of their work, less than 20% said that the use is mandated by aid agencies (Graph 6). This suggests that though the development agencies recognize the potential of these technologies, they do so because of their own need for data-based decision-making and are not particularly encouraged by their funding partners towards higher use/adoption. A change in this attitude will ensure better adoption and adequate funding for geospatial within organizations. Since the same technology infrastructure can be used in multiple initiatives, it will power non-profits to deliver better results. A change in the funders/donors mindset will also encourage them to use geospatial platforms to manage their own funds, analyse the spread of their aid, review its effectiveness and undertake nuanced auditing.

Even though the highest number of respondents said that their own staff or decision-makers use geospatial technology, the difference between other users wasn’t significant (Graph 7). The survey suggests that geospatial technologies are used across the board, by consultants, partners and program participants.

Challenges in implementation

Geospatial implementation in the development sector is not immune to challenges and resistance, especially since its value is often embedded into a systemic output and communicating its benefits is not easy. Further, lack of awareness is another major roadblock in the adoption of these technologies. “Donors and project implementers are not yet geospatially savvy and often implement geospatial technologies without proper understanding of their benefits. They can also be resistant to advice,” explains a senior official from a leading development agency who does not wish to be named.
The geospatial industry needs to invest both time and resources in generating awareness about the potential of these technologies and how they can positively impact outputs in almost all projects. The industry also needs to engage with development organizations and help the latter devise geospatial strategies.

Low levels of data and geospatial literacy is a common problem in most developing countries which is directly connected with the their education system. Then there is the issue of high cost of technology, which is a major concern for most humanitarian and aid organizations, followed by lack of technology and data infrastructure (Graph 8).

These problems can be overcome by developing stronger collaborative mechanisms between technology providers and end users (development organizations/professionals) to increase the level of engagement. This process will require professionals to learn, unlearn and re-learn many technical skills, which can be an uphill task.

From the technology providers’ standpoint, often, their focus on delivering solutions makes it difficult for them to take the end users along. That’s why, many development or aid agencies are now looking to have professionals who understand both technology and development issues — people who can be instrumental in bridging this gap. The technology providers also need to get creative on the use of innovative financing models, and apply “as a service” and “pay as you go” models.

The road ahead

The survey produced some interesting insights on the penetration of geospatial technology within the development sector and perspectives from different stakeholders (government agencies, technology consultants and research and academia). Even though the responses reflect an encouraging trend as far as geospatial awareness and adoption are concerned, there is still much to be achieved. In order to fully leverage the “geospatial advantage”, there needs to be both a top-down and a bottom-up approach.
While having a national geospatial strategy will definitely help, having a geospatial strategy in alignment with the internal digital strategy will work best for development organizations. Recognition of geospatial technologies as a key enabler for decision-making and allocation of adequate budget for their adoption is the best way forward.

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