We are living in a world where many of our problems are of a global nature, such as climate change, natural disasters, population displacement and economic crises.
Dr. Paul Cheung
Director, United Nations Statistics Division
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
What is Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM)? Why do we need GGIM?
We are living in a world where many of our problems are of a global nature, such as climate change, natural disasters, population displacement and economic crises. Coordinated efforts at all levels are required to solve these problems. We firmly believe that high quality information and analyses are a prerequisite for good policy making. That’s where geospatial information has emerged as a major contributor. Decision makers require location-based information for everything, be it during disaster relief operations or setting the agenda for development work; geospatial information forms the crux of their decisions. It is this need that has made it essential to have a global consultation mechanism to address critical management issues concerning geospatial information.
There is currently no multilateral, inter-governmental mechanism that can bring together countries and international organisations to discuss and set the agenda for the management of global geospatial information and promote its use. We need a global body that will serve as the apex, decision-making entity of the global geospatial information community. The United Nations hopes to build on its many regional activities and help the member states to establish an effective mechanism to make decisions on GGIM issues.
What are the advantages of setting up such a global mechanism?
Establishing a formal framework would help member states develop strategies for effective management of geospatial information and build capacities in this field. Sharing common standards and practices, promoting international cooperation and coordinating policy approaches are some of the other important advantages. In future, the success in addressing the global challenges will depend greatly on the accessibility and quality of location-based information and also on the ways to manage and share essential data.
A global mechanism, under the auspices of the United Nations, would help in increasing readiness and capability for an effective response to the needs and also in creating awareness among politicians and decisionmakers about the powerful analytical potential of geospatial information.
What are the challenges involved in this process?
Nowadays, most countries use geospatial information for national policy formulation; yet coordination among them is an exception rather than a rule. In fact, there are both technical and policy challenges involved in bringing about coordination among the countries. Access to and sharing of data, interoperability, standards, privacy, national security, licensing of datasets and public-private partnerships are issues that need to be addressed. One way to address these is by establishing a new global mechanism, which will link all regional cartographic conferences and serve as an apex body of the global geospatial information community.
What gaps have been identified in the management of geospatial information at the global level?
Right now, there is no common mechanism to facilitate setting up of global norms on geospatial information. Our member states have strongly recommended creating this mechanism; for example, a UN multilateral consultative process, which will coordinate the ongoing work among various agencies in the geospatial sector. Without such a global coordinating mechanism, the risk of further fragmentation is very high; and this will greatly hamper the development of national spatial infrastructure and the coordinated use of geospatial information globally.
The UN recognised the importance of cartography and maps to global activities way back in 1948. Since then, it has done a great deal of work in the field of cartography, standardisation of geographical names and the deployment of GIS technology. However, much remains to be done. The advances in technology have vastly improved the availability of geospatial data and their potential integration with other types of data. We need to take advantage of this and enhance the access and flow of geospatial and other types of information. Building this information infrastructure must be a shared goal among all the countries.
You talked about UN activities in the field of cartography and the standardisation of geographical names. Can you elaborate on that?
As I said, UN recognised their importance way back in 1948. Since then, it has been promoting better understanding of cartography, geographical names and geospatial information through international cooperation and the organisation of conferences, publications, training courses and technical projects.
It all started with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopting a resolution recognising the importance of mapping to global activities and the benefits of coordinating cartographic services of the United Nations and its member states. Several resolutions passed during the later years led to the establishment of regional cartographic conferences – the United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for Asia and the Pacific (UNRCC-AP), the United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for the Americas (UNRCC-A) and the United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for Africa. The United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for Africa was later replaced by the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST) and its sub-committee on geoinformation called CODISTGeo. These conferences constitute an important regional mechanism to exchange information among national mapping and surveying authorities and the international scientific organisations active in addressing common issues affecting the work of national mapping organisations. These regional conferences reaffirm the need for cooperation on geospatial information and led to the establishment of the Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific (PCGIAP) and the Permanent Committee on Spatial Data Infrastructure for the Americas (PC-IDEA).
In Africa, CODIST-Geo is concentrating on the development of Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) through the inventory of existing SDIs, the development of a metadata profile for Africa and human capacity-building activities.
Similarly, the UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) has worked on a world-wide basis to address issues pertaining to the standardisation of geographical names. The United Nations Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical Names, which is the parent body of UNGEGN, is convened every five years.
What kind of support does the UN provide to inter-governmental geospatial activities?
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, through its Statistics Division, serves as the secretariat for the implementation of the UN resolutions on geospatial information. Besides organising conferences to promote the use of geospatial information, it has also managed to develop methodological guidelines, training courses and technical assistance for the use of geospatial tools in support of census activities in developing countries.
There is also the UN Cartographic Section (UNCS), which comes under the Department of Field Support (DFS). It provides cartographic and geospatial information services to the UN Security Council and the UN Secretariat including all UN field missions. UNCS maintains primary geospatial data layers as a digital base map at global level at a small scale (1:1 million).
The United Nations Office for the Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) promotes international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space through the United Nations Committee of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), maintains international space law through the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space and brings together member states through international workshops, training courses and pilot projects on space sciences to benefit the developing nations via the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).
Some regional commissions are also active in the area. ECE and ECA have active programmes and working groups on a variety of interesting topics. UN Secretariat entities, as well as UN funds and programmes organise a variety of activities promoting the use of geospatial information. These activities are coordinated by the United Nations Geospatial Information Working Group (UNGIWG).
The report on GGIM has proposed that a committee of experts be established similar to that of the UN Committee of Experts on Geographical Names. Can you tell us about the proposed committee, its composition, functions and aims?
The proposed committee, if approved, will consist of experts from all member states with experts from international organisations as observers. The members will be drawn from fields of surveying, geography, cartography and mapping, remote sensing, land and geographic information systems and its related fields. The committee will meet annually and report to the Economic and Social Council. It will be supported by the UN Statistics Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Cartographic Section of the Department of Field Support.
The basic aim is to provide a global forum for discussion wider than what is currently being offered by the UN regional cartographic conferences. The committee will play a leadership role in setting the agenda for the management of global geospatial information.