Rio+20 and geospatial systems – The Promised Land

Rio+20 and geospatial systems – The Promised Land


The final outcome document at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development reveals a significant potential for the geospatial industry as the world gets together to address sustainable development. Here”s an analysis of the geospatial component inherent in the document “The Future We Want”

The geospatial world is quite agog with the statements made at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held recently in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the first time specific mention has been made, in a political conference, of the role geospatial information can play in realising a sustainable future for the Plant Earth. Para 274 of the outcome document of the Rio+20 Conference says:

274. We recognise the importance of space-technologybased data, in situ monitoring and reliable geospatial information for sustainable development policymaking, programming and project operations. In this context, we note the relevance of global mapping and recognise the efforts in developing global environmental observing systems, including those by the Eye on Earth Network and through the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. We recognise the need to support developing countries in their efforts to collect environmental data.

Further, in his Plenary Speech delivered at Rio+20 Summit, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, United Kingdom, said, “I am also pleased to see that the importance of reliable, trusted geographic information is now recognised. The United Nations has now established a Committee of Experts of Member States, which the UK cochairs, to move this agenda forward.”

What does this augur for the geospatial ecosystem? Let us try to delve a little deeper into the final outcome document titled “The World We Want.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was quite gung ho about it when he said, “The outcome document provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being. It is now our responsibility to build on it.”

The report runs into 53 pages and with 256 paras, it is surprisingly small for a UN document. While para 274 specifically talks of the role of geospatial technology under sub section B on Technology under Section VI, Means of Implementation, the opening paragraphs under section I are sufficient to get an idea of the opportunities for the geospatial community. Para 4 of Section I states that “poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development”. This can be realised “by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, reducing inequalities, raising basic standards of living, fostering equitable social development and inclusion, and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems that supports, inter alia, economic, social and human development while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration and resilience in the face of new and emerging challenges.”

Balancing conflicting demands
However, that is easier said than done. Considering the parlous state of the global economy, with the developed countries facing double dip recession, coupled with their marked reluctance to limit their unsustainable lifestyles and an unreasonable desire to dump the burden of sustainability on the BRIC and other developing nations, there is a need to balance different and conflicting demands on limited resources. Such a balancing act will require information of the highest order and this will have to be spatially referenced. This is a golden opportunity for the geospatial industry. Para 274 shows that the political class is aware of the usefulness of geospatial systems. It is now up to the geospatial community to rise to the task. The opportunity is not just selling more imagery or boxes of software or even cloud-based Web GIS. It is the development of decision support systems that can help the politicians make choices while minimising risk. Big data analytics will play a very large role in this endeavour.

Data interoperability
The balancing of economic, social and human development, while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration, will require a convergence of technologies and integrated applications. We have seen these convergences happen between geospatial and enterprise resource planning (ERP), geospatial and business intelligence (BI), geospatial and design and geospatial and egovernance, to name a few. These efforts have to be strengthened and further integrated into a system of systems. This requires a level of data interoperability that goes way beyond what ISO-TC211 and OGC have achieved till now. However, I feel that this is achievable. OGC standards have strong links to global standards like W3C and OASIS, in addition to its close working with ISO. This needs to be leveraged to include interoperability with other standards and systems which deal with economic, social and demographic data. Needless to say, this will also call for a much more adaptable and benign regulatory regime at all levels and sectors of operation.

Real world solutions
A very strong case has been made for poverty alleviation. This implies that the geospatial systems have to address areas where returns are to be measured in terms other than financial. Governments and NGOs will be major players in these efforts. The geospatial world has to respond with cost-effective solutions. I foresee a situation where open source will play a large role. My feeling is that OS needs to shed its nerdiness and foray into the real world where people are looking for solutions and not brilliant lines of code. Proprietary systems also can play a role if they opt for selling solutions and services for generating solutions rather than just boxes. 

Role of SDIs
Para 6 puts forward the view that people are at the centre of any sustainable development activity. This implies that solutions need to be bottom-up rather than top-down. Further, Para 13 talks of enabling peoples participation in decision making. SDIs need to address this issue. How can SDIs enable people to publish their views on projects that ultimately impact their lives? What is the scheme of an X to people service where X can be the government, industry, an NGO or even another group of people? PPGIS shows one of the approaches. User generated content will play an important part in integrating peoples views and preferences in decisions.

Para 12 mentions the need for an institutional framework. This is indeed a big opportunity for SDIs which have been stuttering along. In what way can SDIs serve the PPGIS efforts? Can we integrate VGI (volunteered geographic information), neogeography and crowdsourcing with SDI and in turn, integrate SDIs into other information systems that can crunch big data and provide DSS (decision support system) to politicians at the local level? This will require SDIs to become distributed and also accessible to the stakeholders other than data generators, data providers and government agencies.

Capacity building
Finally, the report also addresses capacity building in sub section C on Implementation. The geospatial community has to work towards making more groups geographically aware. This may require a relook at the present system of both formal and non-formal geospatial course content to address students, professionals and the common person.

Geospatial systems have to achieve a degree of ubiquity and persistence if they have to play a meaningful role and live up to the expectations of Para 274. It should become a system whose presence is not noticed but whose absence is.