Sustainable development, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, balances social, economic, and environmental issues that often times ignore political borders. Globally, sustainable development relies on geospatial data sharing because practitioners need to easily access and combine diverse sets of data to support decisions. People tasked with data sharing have differing levels of expertise and experience with standards and technology.
Open standards are important for effective sharing of data; however, countries globally are at widely different points in the capability/maturity continuum. Providing reliable geospatial information to support sustainable development requires a framework of open, international environmental data encoding and software interface standards as well as clear policy support from governments. Significant global efforts are underway to educate policy makers on the importance of geospatial information and standards in sustainable development initiatives.
Geography provides the necessary context for understanding the social, economic, and environmental issues that affect sustainable development. Geography also provides the integration framework for global collaboration and consensus decision making, ranging from collecting and analysing satellite imagery to developing geopolitical policy.
During the last 10 years, there has been significant change in how the world applies geospatial information to address sustainable development. A decade ago, the vast majority of spatial data infrastructure activity focused on digital thematic maps of individual nations displayed on Web portals. The Web portals gave users one-stop access to data in diverse formats provided by one or two of their national agencies. There was minimal ability to readily integrate geospatial data sources because of limited use of standards, insufficient collaboration, and inadequate technologies.
Now, a decade later, there are numerous regional and international activities based on standards architectures, policy frameworks, and technologies that make it possible to design, build, and deploy much more useful geospatially enabled IT infrastructures. Geography can now be an integrative framework for sustainable development applications, decision support, and policy development.
Such a framework can support initiatives to:
- Monitor environmental change
- Manage natural resources
- Develop energy
- Manage land information
- Plan for and respond to natural disasters
- Understand demographics and human health
Sustainability challenges require global cooperation
Progress in sustainable development requires attention and action from local entities up through global organisations. At the global level, the United Nations’ Initiative on Global Geographic Information Management (UN-GGIM) plays a leading role in setting the agenda for the development of global geospatial information and promotes its use to address key global challenges. The UN-GGIM provides a forum for U.N. Member States and international organisations to interact and coordinate.
To continue the UN’s progress to build support for sustainable development worldwide, the Fourth Session of the United Nations Committee of Experts on UN-GGIM was convened from August 6-8, 2014 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The group reaffirmed the critical role of geospatial information management as well as the need for stronger collaboration and linked initiatives to advance the development and use of geospatial data and tools. Delegates were asked to reach out to policymakers in their countries to highlight the importance of geospatial data sharing in sustainable development and disaster risk reduction.
UN-GGIM delegates also discussed how standards development and standards maintenance require participation by domain experts in areas such as health, environment, and disaster planning. To enable communication, stakeholders, including environmental researchers, government agencies and businesses, need to reach consensus on carefully expressed requirements for sharing and integrating data.
Another documented outcome of the August UN-GGIM session strongly encourages the integration of geospatial and statistical sciences, “… to improve the availability of and access to data and statistics disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics.” The group asserts that, “There is a need to take urgent steps to improve the quality, coverage and availability of disaggregated data to ensure that no one is left behind.”
The UN-GGIM reaffirmed the need for full involvement of its Member States in the development and also the maintenance of standards. Governments also should implement and adopt international standards within national and legal policy frameworks. The group recognised that countries need support from the standards bodies to fully embrace the UN initiatives. This is particularly the case for developing countries.
The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), Technical Committee 211 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO/TC 211), the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), and other international organisations coordinate in the development of consistent and precise technical geospatial standards. These three organisations jointly prepared the Guide to the Role of Standards in Geospatial Information Management and the Companion Document on Standards Recommendations by Tier as the guidelines and best practices to assist Member States in implementing and adopting the recommended standards.
Also needed is strong governance, but governance that does not hinder the use of new technologies or consideration of new ideas and approaches. A sound standards effort also incorporates generally accepted content models. Progress requires strong commitment to best use of standards, including best practice guidance and the ability to easily integrate new sources of geospatial data and services into the infrastructure.
Progress in sustainable development around the world requires improved sharing of geospatial data. The UN-GGIM plays an important role in educating policymakers about the importance of open geospatial standards. These standards maximise the ability of the geospatial industry to support countries as they strive to reach sustainable development goals.