From up there to down here: Big space data and the SDGs

Barbara Rosen Jacobson

This side event, organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, explored the use of earth observation data to provide actionable information for the implementation and monitoring of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). After an introductory video, the moderator, Ms Claire Melamed (Executive Director of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data), explained that access to data and information enables governments and other stakeholders to make informed decisions, to better allocate resources, and to be held accountable. The Global Partnership brings together a network of actors comprised both of data producers and users, to innovate for the improvement of the collection and use of development data.

The co-moderator, Mr Greg Scott (Inter-Regional Advisor on Global Geospatial Information Management at the UN Statistics Division), highlighted the increasing importance of geolocated data for the development agenda, which also allows for the observation of processes from the local to the global level and vice versa. New geospatial technologies help us to see more, providing the ability to observe the planet at different levels over different time-frames. Yet, to paint a coherent picture, it is critical to collaborate.

Melamed continued by saying that earth observation data helps us to understand how environments change and to explore ‘hidden corners of countries that have not yet been mapped’, providing information about the lives of people who have been left out of traditional data sources. Besides understanding the technical functionality to best use earth observation technology, it will be important to work with governments in order to harness political support and encourage the demand and use of this data for decision-making.

Ms Gillian Bird (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the UN) explained that the interest in data for the SDGs continues to grow, as data forms a crucial component of collective efforts for sustainable development. Australia attempts to continuously improve its data and monitoring efforts, while also assisting other countries in the Indo-Pacific region in this endeavour. She introduced the Digital Earth Australia Platform, which allows for the easy access to, and use of, geospatial data for governments and other stakeholders. Bird emphasised that while satellite data may provide the big picture, ‘we also need to better understand the individual level’ and combine geospatial data with dis-aggregated data ‘to ensure no one is left behind’. She closed her remarks by stressing the importance of partnerships to share knowledge and expertise.

Following a video that presented Digital Earth Australia, Mr Adam Lewis (Chief Scientist of Geoscience Australia) outlined the exponential increase in the quantity and sophistication of earth observation technologies and explained that the advent of big data generates even more opportunities. Yet, the generation of massive amounts of geospatial data has not yet led to a significant increase of its use for decision-making. Lewis emphasised the need to engage with policymakers to ‘reach the last mile’ and to ensure that solutions are adapted to meet local needs. For this to happen, it will be important ‘to support each other as a global community and connect earth observation up there to the real world done here’.

Melamed explained that capturing the potential of earth observation data depends on whether such data can be turned into actionable decisions within countries. To that end, she invited five government representatives to share their insights about the main opportunities and challenges of geospatial data for the SDGs.

Mr Sebastian König (Senior Policy Advisor, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Switzerland) outlined Switzerland’s SDG priority areas and explained that they can all be monitored and assessed with the help of earth observation. Through a partnership with UN Environment and the University of Geneva, FOEN transforms data into information that is ready to be used by decision-makers.

Mr Vincent Mariathasan (Technical Advisor at the Namibia Statistics Agency) explained that Namibia is on the verge of integrating earth observation data into its national statistics. Highlighting that ‘there is huge potential’ for geospatial technology to provide greater, better, and more timely data, he explained that Namibia might be able to ‘skip steps’ in the adoption of such technologies. That said, it will be challenging to filter the vast amount of data gathered to identify the information needed, and to turn it into insights for decision-makers.

Mr Sokratis Famellos (Deputy Minister of Environment and Energy, Greece) reminded the participants that new tools, space data, and digital data will not only be useful for the measurement of the SDGs, but that it can also be used to support many different stakeholders, such as the private sector. At the same time, he highlighted the need for political will to move the monitoring of the SDGs forward.

Mr Adam Vaughan (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Canada) explained that, considering Canada’s geography, earth observation data is sometimes the only available source of information, especially as it is often a more cost-effective and safer way to analyse remote and isolated areas in the arctic. However, its integration into reporting processes and connection with other types of data can be challenging and requires collaboration between ministries and other stakeholders.

Mr Le Thanh Binh (Head of Science and Technology, Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the UN) highlighted the utility of earth observation for the measurement of changes in the environment and the impact of climate change. In addition, it can offer data at the local, national, regional, and global levels. However, capacity building is needed to ensure the proper use of this data by decision-makers.

Ms Louise Baker (Head of the External Relations and Policy Unit, UNCCD Secretariat) emphasised the potential of using earth observation to measure land degradation. However, while the UN might be able to provide satellite data, she stressed the need for countries to retain an element of national ownership over the data. In addition, geospatial data could identify links between the SDGs, such as the effects of land degradation on unplanned urbanisation.

The moderators then introduced video-messages that contained questions from government officials and other stakeholders in Cambodia, Colombia, and Australia. The questions were related to the measurement of transnational trends, the possibility of real-time monitoring, and the potential to bring together dis-aggregated datasets. Binh, Famellos, and Mariathasan indicated that objective, geospatial data can provide mutual understanding, trust, and transparency between countries and other actors for the management of common, transnational challenges. Mariathasan and König furthermore reflected on the challenge of combining earth observation data with detailed information on the ground, and König identified the importance of understanding what kind of information decision-makers really need before embarking on an analysis. According to Vaughan, earth observation visualisation has the potential to demonstrate to individuals and companies the impact that they have on the environment, modeling the combined effects of their actions, which could help overcome political resistance to climate action. Lewis concluded the session by highlighting the potential of free and open data as an enabler for a more innovative and productive society, breaking down walls between the public and private sector.

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