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Geospatial Knowledge Infrastructure to Power Decisions at All Levels

If developed properly, geospatial knowledge infrastructure can help in coordination and bridging the geospatial digital divide, apart from enabling the private sector to recover quickly from the current crisis and empowering all stakeholders, emphasizes Milorad Kovacevic, Chief of Statistics, United Nations Development Programme

By GW Prime

Can you share with us your thoughts around the larger impact of COVID-19 on the world economy and society?

This is a very important question. I think everyone around the world is currently trying to measure, assess and predict the impact of the pandemic. This is certainly the most challenging crisis since World War II. It is a global health calamity unlike any other, and is increasing human suffering, destabilizing and endangering the global economy, and upending the lives of billions of people. The International Monetary Fund has already predicted a global recession worse than 2008. The International Labour Organization has said that nearly 300 million people will be rendered jobless. We have entered a global recession of record dimensions.

As mitigating this crisis requires the closing of borders, travel bans and quarantine measures, the tourism sector has been completely devastated — the UN World Tourism Organization has predicted a 60%-80% decline in the sector (1). The GDP growth of some developing countries, especially small island nations, is heavily dependent on tourism. Many other developing countries depend on the inflow of remittances to the extent of 5%-10% of GDP (2). With worldwide recession and loss of jobs, these remittances will reduce dramatically. The United Nations has called for a large scale coordinated, comprehensive and multilateral response amounting to at least 10% of the national GDP, which is around 10% of the global economy, to prevent a prolonged economic crisis.

While most developed countries can manage economic crises from their own resources, the developing nations urgently need massive support. We should also remember that the global health system is as strong as the weakest national health system. That is why, global solidarity is not only a moral imperative, it is in everyone’s interest — as this virus is attracted to all humanity regardless of geography or nationality. There is a proverb that says, “In the midst of every crisis lies a great opportunity.” So, there is an opportunity to recover and build a better world, which is safer, healthier, more equal and sustainable.

Do you see location and geospatial data playing an important role in converting this crisis into an opportunity, and how can we leverage it at global, regional, national and sub-national levels to rebuild our economies and societies?

Data will play a crucial role in this process. Going forward, every decision should be based on accurate and reliable information. We are already seeing individuals and households around the world using information and communication technologies to minimize disruption and circumvent the obstacles they face in going about their daily lives. The UNDP has pointed out the vast inequality in terms of access to information and communication technologies which concerns some important ICT indicators. Around 80% of the population in developed countries has access to the Internet, but when it comes to the least developed nations, less than 20% of people have proper access. This digital divide, which is not just about having the Internet but about having data to make decisions, has to be bridged.

I think that educational institutions will have to focus on digital literacy during and after this crisis. Currently, billions of young people depend heavily on the Internet, and the number of such people is only going to grow. So, it’s important to recognize the essential role of data and the need for it to be made available at all levels of governance across geographies. Collaborations between the private sector and governments and investment in innovation and data development will be critical. The UN and its agencies will support all stakeholders in this process. The expansion of data will bring better insights and decision-making and lead to better access to healthcare, finance and banking, and digital solutions.

UNDP has built two dashboards to assess the preparedness of countries to handle the COVID-19 crisis

Can you share the example of a country which is working towards building a data and technology-based system?

The UNDP has a well-designed plan on this. Today, many countries are using data, including traditional statistics and new data sources — Big Data, in a variety of sectors. UNDP designed the plan to track progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. However, in the wake of this unprecedented crisis, Big Data is being heavily used to anticipate trends and support governments in advance to deal with the future impact of COVID-19.

We have built two dashboards (3) using traditional internationally standardized indicators to assess the preparedness of countries to handle a crisis of this magnitude. These dashboards feature a set of indicators and are easy to understand with color-coded ink. One can immediately recognize which countries and regions in the world are less prepared and are more vulnerable in the current situation. In general, reliable data is key to social and economic recovery, and the UN and UNDP are working with many countries to improve their use of data and digital technology.

How severely will this crisis impact the Sustainable Development Goals, and what should be our priority moving forward?

It is well known that countries agreed upon SDGs, or the 2030 Agenda, and also on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Many countries are on a good track to achieving these goals; they are progressing well on some fronts. However, we can already recognize that the pandemic will slow down and in some cases, reverse the progress if the aid is diverted exclusively to COVID-19 response. There are countries that are in a fragile situation and are not doing well on SDGs, especially in these testing times. So, yes, the SDGs will surely be affected, but differently in different countries — depending on their current state. The UN and UNDP are doing everything to support such nations in their path of sustainability.

"Around 80% of the population in developed countries has access to the Internet, but when it comes to the least developed nations, less than 20% of people have proper access. This digital divide, which is not just about having the Internet but about having data to make decisions, has to be bridged"

How much of geospatial information does your unit use and in what way?

UNDP is a large organization and it has a specialized unit dedicated to the application of geospatial data. There are many examples of UNDP using geospatial data to help countries around the world. For instance, UNDP is supporting small island states in the use of technologies such as geospatial to develop and use digital early warning systems, satellite imagery, drones. We are also supporting these countries in digitization of data with sufficient technology and knowledge, so that they are able to monitor what matters for them the most — natural weather events such as storms, floods, landslides, soil and coastal erosion, and land degradation.

I am currently based in UNDP’s Human Development Report Office. We occasionally use geospatial data when we want to illustrate a specific geographic distribution of, for example, multi-dimensional poverty or when we look to find insights by blending and overlaying geospatial data with other data types.

How would building a data ecosystem, which consists of different datasets including geospatial information, demography, environment data and meteorological data help in rebuilding things post COVID-19?

For social and economic recovery, reliable data are very important. The key is to develop precise frameworks and organize the data in such a way so that they bring value in decision-making. The data ecosystems must also take into consideration that there are different stakeholders and different country-level needs, which must be tracked, reported, considered and answered. For example, data on supply chains and their disruptions, data on labor markets and their challenges and data on care systems and their overloaded situation. In some places, for example, the recovery will mean an extended paid leave or direct cash transfers to the poorest; in others, it will involve investments in the healthcare system and healthcare accessibility. For governments at all levels, the availability of reliable data ecosystem to inform decisions and track impact will be essential. Because we live in an interconnected world, if there is a bad decision locally, it may have an impact even at distant places.

Do you think this is the right time for building and strengthening geospatial knowledge infrastructure, and will that boost the global health response system?

The global geospatial knowledge infrastructure could help us build a robust health response system and enhance worldwide coordination and development. For instance, the integrated geospatial information framework that was developed jointly by the UN and World Bank in 2018 to assist countries in building capacities for using geospatial technology and geospatial management and help their movement towards e-economies and e-governance. ‘E’ is very important today because it could be used in some way in managing the health and economic crisis that we are currently facing. So, geospatial infrastructure, if well developed, can enhance government services and responses, including decision-making at all levels of governance. Further, it can help in bridging the geospatial digital divide, enable the private sector to recover quickly and empower all stakeholders.

(1) https://www.unwto.org/news/covid-19-may-statement-unwto-secretary-general.

(2) UNDP (2020). Global preparedness and vulnerability dashboards. Human Development Report Office. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/global-preparedness-and-vulnerability-dashboards)

(3) UNDP (2020). Global preparedness and vulnerability dashboards. Human Development Report Office. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/global-preparedness-and-vulnerability-dashboards)