Geospatial information and earth observations can support SDGs

Geospatial information and earth observations can support SDGs

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greg-scottCountries need to integrate their information systems at a national level, which would then flow up into a regional and global level, believes Greg Scott, Inter-Regional Advisor of the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM)

How will geospatial data be useful in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in September 2015, has provided an important opportunity for earth observations and geospatial information to be better understood within the United Nations system itself. Leveraging this opportunity is important for countries, and we are working very hard to enable them to achieve this visibility, and to provide direction to them. We are making sure that the member countries realize how geospatial information, earth observations, statistics and other new data can support their development agenda, and help them to measure and monitor the goals of the sustainable development process.

Do you see the need to create a new framework to streamline the availability and accessibility of data across nations?

Reinventing the wheel, or even doing something new and revolutionary, is not what is required. We need to begin with the basics by integrating our information systems at a national level, which would then flow up into a regional and global level. So, it is all about how we take some of our existing information systems and structures, and potentially tailor them more for delivering on the environmental, economic and social aspects of our data construct and needs within and across countries.

Having lots of data is great, but being able to use and leverage that data and turn it into valuable information and knowledge to support decision-making is really where the integration and change needs to occur

How would you visualize the structure of such a framework to be?

As a pragmatic solution, the framework would follow a national bottom-up approach. For example, the new SDGs have 17 goals, 169 targets, and 230 initial global indicators. Those indicators will be used in different ways by different countries. The framework on how they use their data to measure the indicators will largely depend on institutional and architectural arrangements that already exist. In developed countries, that is quite easy in terms of how they modify national spatial data infrastructures or other information systems. But, what is also very important is how that applies to developing nations and some of the least developed countries. This mandate hopefully would provide these countries with the opportunity to start building and harnessing the same processes. It would allow them to learn from other countries and also from the institutional arrangements or the governance that goes around those processes and frameworks.

Across the world, we are moving from a data-poor paradigm to data-rich paradigm. So, how can data be best used to monitor SDGs?

Yes, we are moving toward a data-rich world where there seems more data available than we can sometimes use, but the concept of rich and poor countries applies to data as well. While many developed countries are data-rich, not only in data but also in architectural technologies, institutional arrangements, methodologies, standards, etc., many of the developing countries are very data-poor due to considerable capacity and capability resource constraints. That is a very important factor to consider when trying to ensure that, as the 2030 Agenda aspires that ‘no-one is left behind’. Similarly, having lots of data is great, but being able to use and leverage that data and turn it into valuable information and knowledge to support decision-making is really where the integration and change needs to occur.

Agenda 2030 recommends building capacities by 2020 through training and capacity development programs. How does your organization plan to achieve this?

One of the big challenges for the 2030 Agenda is around capacity development and knowledge transfer. We need to figure out how to bring more enabling technologies and capabilities from the data-rich countries to the data-poor countries. Within the UN-GGIM, we are very conscious of this fact, as the entire UN system has a central focus on capacity development. We are working hard toward this end, but, what we require are resources. Many of us are aware of that, but we only have finite resources. So, using the goodwill and the trust that has been provided by many of the countries around the world to support this process is incredibly important. It was certainly reflected in the outcome of what is known as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, in which governments and civil society looked at financing for development to better provide support to those countries that are not so well-off.

How can we facilitate improved collaboration between statistical and geospatial communities to achieve the larger goals of SDGs? 

This concept of integration of statistical and geospatial information has been a paramount agenda within the UN system for several years now. UN-GGIM has been working closely with the UN Statistical Commission, via a dedicated Expert Group, looking at these integration challenges for three years, which are also now closely aligned to what we need for SDGs. This is going ahead very quickly and progressing to the point where a global statistical-geospatial framework is being considered by the countries. It will also be a key enabler for statistics in geospatial organizations around the world to work together and to collaborate and coordinate their abilities to measure and monitor the implementation of the SDGs.

We need to consider data as a national information system, so that countries can think about their statistical, environmental, geospatial information and earth observation institutes in a more holistic way

What other geospatial partnerships and collaborations do you think are required to further the SDG agenda?

One of the evolving things that either needs to be changed, or in some degree is already changing, is considering data as more of a national information system, so that countries can think about their statistical, environmental, geospatial information, earth observation institutes in a more holistic way. Then there are new and emerging sources of data, including Big Data, that are becoming available, and need to be integrated into national information systems to provide greater richness and context to the national information base. As this starts to progress, we will see better outcomes. And in that process, its treatment and management would be quite critical.

What are your views about policy recommendations to be adopted by the nations?

One of the important policies that UN-GGIM is trying to consider is not being so much around the governance side, but having the arrangements in place so that information is not only interoperable, standards-based and transferable, but also open and shared across different agencies within and across governments. Adopting such processes will ensure that the information is created only once, but is able to be shared and used many times over.

How can countries align data investments with priority data gaps? 

Due to its breadth and depth, one of the requirements that we are seeing in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is the need for new data sources. Obviously, there will be some data that does not presently exist, but there will also be some data that does exist and is ‘potentially available’ if it is restructured or repurposed for the needs of the goals, targets and indicators of the SDGs. We now have the list of 230 indicators. Within months, we will know the total number of data gaps. Some of them are considerable, not so much in their spatial resolution, but in their temporal resolution. For example, data that is two, three or four years old cannot readily contribute to an annual reporting outcome ― so we need to bring the time lag down. Additionally, some of the data sources and their use pose a degree of challenge to our professional community. We need to partner with agencies, governments, other international organizations as well the private sector and those who often have more agility and ability to bring data such as earth observations into the discussion, rather than some of the more traditional means that we have. So, it is very much a case of evolving and leveraging some of these capabilities.

What is your perspective about open data as an enabler for the SDGs’ success?

Open data in the context of the SDGs is going to be very important. To have good interoperability and information systems, free, open and timely data that is maintained and sustained is going to be of prime importance. One thing about open data, or the concept of how information can be made available over time, is that the SDG process is going to continue for 15 years. So, when we think about provision of data, it is not a one-off thing; it has to be something that is able to continue over that 15-years cycle. So, having these kinds of contexts — whether it is freely available or at a cost, and the terms of access — is going to be very important, particularly for developing countries.