Can geospatial technology lead to a development ‘data revolution’?

An example of geospatial data informing development planning by the Jamaican government, in this case around storm-surge hazards. (Government of Jamaica)

The ability to map data has become essential for urban researchers and city managers worldwide. Geospatial technology, as this tool is known, was in its infancy 20 years ago when the United Nations’ last major cities summit took place. But as preparations for next year’s Habitat III conference go forward, the geospatial community expects to play a major role in helping the urban community understand the size, scale and scope of challenges in cities.

The issue is increasingly central to the current process to agree on a new global strategy around international development, particularly around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the 17 draft SDGs and 169 related targets will likely be agreed upon at a special summit in September, the process to determine the monitoring framework for those goals and targets will continue at least until next March, when the U. N. Statistical Commission convenes. And experts believe that it will be the SDG indicators, as those measurements are known, where the efficacy of the Post-2015 Development Agenda will be proven.

In the 15 years since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the sophistication of data collection has increased substantially. Last August, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for nothing less than a “revolution” for sustainable development through the use of “big data” to solve global challenges. That call to arms has bolstered focus on the opportunity inherent in geospatial data.

“From a geospatial perspective, the data revolution in our industry really took place some 20 years ago, when mapping went from manual, paper-based to digital mapping,” says Gregory Scott, head of the United Nations’ Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) programme.

With two decades of lead time, geospatial professionals today are confident about their toolkit. Those tools could now be particularly in demand, as representatives from the U. N. system and member states, as well as experts from the range of topics covered by the SDGs, meet as part of a newly created grouping of internal and external experts. This body, known as the Interagency and Expert Group (IAEG-SDG), will have it first session during the first two days of June.

Power of ‘where’

The creation of the IAEG indicates a far more rigorous process aimed at monitoring development results than took place around the MDGs. It is here that the new emphasis on geospatial data comes into full force.

“With the MDGs, there were eight simple goals, with targets that were not well defined,” Scott says. “That’s well known within the U. N. system by member states.”

“For 20 years we have been using the power of [geospatial technology]. It would be extremely beneficial to bring into the monitoring process of the SDGs.”

Olav Eggers
Senior adviser, Danish Geodata Agency

The current debate over targets and indicators, however, highlights the likelihood of a much more intensive effort to track global progress on achieving the SDGs. And experts in geographic information systems (GIS) believe they have a powerful tool at their disposal to benchmark sustainable development. GIS is a type of software that allows multiple types of data to be geocoded, or tagged with a location, and displayed on a map.

“Geospatial has more to contribute than it has in the past,” Scott says. “In the past, statisticians have used traditional data — birth rates, for example — to measure goals. With the SDGs, location and the question of ‘where’ comes into it a lot more.”

In this sense, Scott describes geospatial technology’s applicability as the ability to model and analyze spatial relationships. He gives disease outbreak as an example.

“Reporting on what types of disease might be taking place within a given age range or gender — that’s statistically easy to do,” Scott says. “But what if I want to ask, why are we seeing hotspots of disease against a given age range in certain countries, and is there a relationship there? Are the diseases related to toxic industrial plants? If we have no location data, then we have no idea about those relationships.”

That, Scott continues, is the power offered by geospatial data. Moreover, experts say, the GIS field is robust — and ready to tackle the SDG-monitoring framework.

“It’s really crucial for us to make the statistical community aware of these benefits,” says Olav Eggers, a senior adviser to the Danish Geodata Agency.

On 22 April, during the most recent SDG intergovernmental negotiations, the Danish mission to the United Nations, along with the UN-GGIM, convened a side event titled in part “Unleashing the power of ‘where’”.

“For 20 years we have been using the power of GIS,” Eggers says. “It would be extremely beneficial to bring into the monitoring process of the SDGs.”

Capacity gap

As a practical matter, there are some obstacles to a GIS revolution for the SDG indicators. Collecting and analyzing geospatial data is resource intensive and not always within reach of countries in the developing world.

Remote sensing, or the use of satellites to collect data from space, is one possible approach to making up that gap. With global satellite data, a geospatial professional in Europe could monitor, for instance, forest loss and subsequent carbon emissions in Africa.

Such high-quality data can come at a price, however, which can create a barrier. Eggers cites the European Union’s Copernicus Programme, which provides worldwide Earth-observation satellite data free for use.

“Initiatives like these will enable the monitoring,” he says. “Provided you use the same data and resolution to do global monitoring, so that you are comparing on an equal level.”

Another challenge is institutional. Traditionally, the monitoring of global development goals falls to national statistical offices, which are not always integrated with their countries’ geospatial offices.

“There is a strong recognition that they need to work together to answer government policy on a day-to-day basis,” the UN-GGIM’s Scott says. To that end, the UN-GGIM Secretariat has run several capacity-development workshops in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Nadine Brown is the manager of sustainable development and regional planning at the Planning Institute of Jamaica, a public agency. A geospatial analyst, she participated in the 22 April side event on behalf of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), a grouping of countries that face unique pressures from climate change.

Brown and others think that GIS technology can play a key role in assessing those vulnerabilities. “I think that GIS is a tool that could be used by Jamaica in monitoring the proposed SDGs,” Brown says.

Over 50 government agencies in Jamaica already use GIS, she notes. There are also ongoing initiatives to improve public sector access to geospatial software and services through government-led initiatives as well as projects funded by external development partners.

However, Brown cautions, “While Jamaica and some other Caribbean countries are at advanced and intermediate stages of leveraging geospatial data to address the unique challenges of SIDS, there are still a number of countries in the region who require significant shoring-up of their professional capacity.”

To address that imbalance, UN-GGIM’s Americas office has started to implement a plan of action to develop the necessary infrastructure around spatial data in members of the Association of Caribbean States.

Scott is confident that the kinks can be worked out and that geospatial technology will prove itself when it comes to measuring the SDGs.

“We’ve been able to put out a bar graph or chart, but not the spatial relationship of communities” in robust map form, Scott says. Once the SDG indicators are worked out, he continues, it will be possible to demonstrate just how much more potential there is in the new Post-2015 Development Agenda — a potential that can be both leveraged and monitored through new geospatial capabilities.

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