Not long ago, I was invited as an observer to the first-ever meeting of the Group of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) in March 2011 that was attended by about 35 participants consisting of countries mainly from Americas, Asia and Africa.
In the course of my work as a geospatial technology evangelist while primarily advocating its importance to political and administrative leadership for almost 15 years or so, it was a great learning experience and an encouraging feeling to see the enthusiasm and attention of the United Nations Statistics Division towards evolving a global approach for developing a geospatial information management system for addressing the global, regional and national challenges of sustainable development — a word which is often inappropriately hijacked by non-profit organisations, but is now thankfully gaining more attention and getting integrated in mission statement of large businesses and governance establishments.
Discussions at the UN-GGIM 2011 meet primarily revolved around recognising geospatial information as a key enabler of socio-economic development and critical information tool in managing disasters and humanitarian crisis. Several members, especially from developing countries, raised a very significant point that neither they did have the capacity nor sufficient funds and political will to create and update the relevant geospatial information infrastructure, especially in the view of ever-increasing demand of geospatial information. To add to their challenges, several of these national mapping agencies were still administratively under command or influence of military establishments, which further restricted their engagements with civil society and citizen groups.
There were discussions on several aspects of the scope and coverage of UN-GGIM. I could recognise three very distinct and yet collaborative objectives:
- Raising socio-political equity for national geospatial agencies amongst national and international forums
- Evolving common minimum policy framework for sharing geospatial information at national and international levels
- Engaging technology and solutions companies in defining architecture and workflows of national geospatial information infrastructure
The Korean delegation led the way and hosted a high-level meeting on Geospatial Information Management in Seoul in November 2011, which served as a valuable platform to promote UN-GGIM to a larger number of geospatial agencies and stakeholders. I was given the responsibility to mobilise participation from industry executives and organise an Industry-Government Exchange Forum as part of the mandate to engage with technology and solutions companies. Although to begin with, industry executives responded very cautiously, but soon they started believing in the overall vision and mandate of UNGGIM and their role in the same. During discussions, several suggestions were made to set up a working group of the industry to have organised perspectives; or to set up a model SDIs having best possible adoption of latest tools and delivery systems; and or engaging private sector in capacity development. After this meeting, I once again initiated follow-up discussions with the UNGGIM team and industry executives to implement above suggestions. I must say there were all kinds of positivity and willingness to contribute politically, financially and technologically to step forward, but probably we were just ahead of time.
Subsequently, UN-GGIM successfully engaged over 100 countries in its process and this group is getting more representative and active every year. UN-GGIM participated very actively in the Rio+20 event and managed to get references of ‘geospatial information’ on few occasions in final declarations. In addition, UNGGIM also activated regional groups and did wonders in mobilising participation from relatively less active regions like Middle East and Central Asia.
As we enter into UN-GGIM 5 this morning at the UN Headquarters, I could very well sense a great build up for a ‘BIG’ occasion. Workshops and side meetings as part of GGIM 5 have been touching on various important issues associated with geospatial community/industry. Social media is contributing towards connecting and engaging even those who are not participating in New York this week. There seems to be eagerness to share what’s happening with regard to spatial data infrastructure and its applications in respective countries/regions. Professional societies having been working in their own respective domains have also come forward to share their projects and activities. Discussions are also translating into setting up actionable working groups to further augment those findings and objectives.
All of the above is together creating a collaborative platform to keep the geospatial community aware about what is happening where, how and for what. Such a sharing network is great enabler and provides the much-needed preamble for the Group of Experts Meeting beginning today. However, this sharing network will not be an end in itself but just a means to evolve mechanism to pursue forward fundamental goals of ideation of UN-GGIM. There are several sharing and learning networks/platforms available around the world through existing platforms of UN itself, besides World Bank, professional societies, regional and multilateral organisations, media, and technology and solution companies.
While commending the efforts of UN officials and member delegations, and recognising a greater role for UN-GGIM in harnessing value and utility of geospatial information in larger socio-economic development and humanitarian assistance, I look forward to a more concrete, exclusive and unique role for UN-GGIM towards setting up guidelines for adding political equity, encouraging policy reforms, empowering national mapping agencies, creating mechanisms for international cooperation, and developing models for public-private partnerships.