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Geo4SDGs: Relevance to the Digital Age

This is the first of a series of articles that discuss the role of geospatial information in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Geo4SDGs. Therefore, my initial aim is to set the context and perspectives for future discussions. Hopefully it is able to achieve that aim in a way that it also communicates some of the existing challenges and emerging opportunities for geospatial information in sustainable development, and by the broader geospatial community.

By Greg Scott

Given the situation of the ‘new normal’ we all find ourselves in at this time, it would be remiss not to reflect on 2020 thus far to frame the discussion. For me, 2020 started as a new decade of optimism, the “decade of action” to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, the 10th anniversary session of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM), and the 6th High Level Forum on UN-GGIM. As for many of us around the world, that optimism had extinguished by March, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which then quickly turned 2020 into an unprecedented global crisis that has gradually affected all people and all countries. As it continues, the pandemic has not only exacerbated our world’s vulnerabilities within and among countries, it has reinforced pre-existing obstacles to realizing the SDGs — structural inequalities, socio-economic gaps, and systemic challenges and risks — and lack of timely fundamental data and enabling technologies to measure and monitor what is happening where, when, and how.

Viewed through a geospatial lens, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced that, as with the SDGs, the most vulnerable countries continue to face the greatest challenges in collecting, producing, analyzing, and using high-quality, timely, and reliable data, including geospatial information, Earth Observations, and other location-based data. In many countries, while much of the urgently needed data might exist in some form somewhere, it is often not discoverable, structured, interoperable, or standardized. It cannot be readily accessed, shared, and, more importantly, integrated with other data for decision-making. Ironically, in 2020, with all of the geospatial technology, digital transformation, innovation, platforms, solutions, and the corresponding growth in the acquisition and generation of data, and aided by strong and growing public-private partnerships, why is this so?

While there is no one answer, and no simple solution, we are making valuable progress as a global geospatial community.

Geospatial information for sustainable development

Rewind five years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development had been adopted in September 2015 by all countries as the blueprint for action. With 17 SDGs, 169 targets, and now a global indicator framework, the 2030 Agenda’s integrated approach to global problems ushered in a new era in thinking about sustainable development, including requiring innovative approaches to collecting and integrating data as the basis for evidence-based decision-making. Importantly, the 2030 Agenda recognized the need for “high quality, timely, reliable, and disaggregated data, including Earth Observations and geospatial information” to address development challenges. Geographic location was formally recognized in global development.

A session on the “Role of Geospatial Information in Attaining the SDGs” was convened at Geospatial World Forum (GWF) in May 2016. This “experiment” led to what has now become the annual Geo4SDGs forum at GWF, a platform for stakeholders to discuss the role that geospatial technologies, innovation, and services bring to the local to global development agendas. Forums such as the Geo4SDGs continue the dialogue and awareness raising, and provide the platform for us to bring more understanding, coherence, and integration of technology and data that will allow for a new and emerging “data ecosystem” to evolve.

Geospatial and location-based information is increasingly becoming a key part of this pervasive digital world of transformation and innovation trends, changing many business practices, providing new technological applications, and bringing about a data revolution that is having a positive influence on social and economic systems. Ultimately, this is helping to create a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and innovative

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

It was also in 2016 that Klaus Schwab, on behalf of the World Economic Forum, defined and published “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Schwab noted that all new developments and technologies have one key feature in common — they leverage the pervasive power of digitization and information technology, and that many innovations are made possible and are enhanced through digital power. Gene sequencing, for example, could not have happened without progress in computing power and data analytics. Similarly, advanced robots would not exist without Artificial Intelligence, which itself largely depends on computing power. These innovations change and embrace all aspects of life, including communication, education, employment, industry and its products, and government policies and services.

Geospatial and location-based information is increasingly becoming a key part of this pervasive digital world of transformation and innovation trends, changing many business practices, providing new technological applications, and bringing about a data revolution that is having a positive influence on social and economic systems. Ultimately, this is helping to create a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and innovative. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the knowledge economy!

Geospatially, bridging the digital divide extends to bridging the ‘geospatial digital divide’, connecting to the vast amounts of data, including geospatial information, modelling, analytics, integration, and the enabling scientific and technological innovation that typifies the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Bridging the geospatial digital divide

But here is our 2020 challenge. The 2030 Agenda noted that “the spread of information and communications technology and global inter-connectedness had great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide, to develop knowledge societies, and scientific and technological innovation.”

Great potential? On one hand, we have increasing access to digital technologies providing opportunity to transform our lives and wellbeing on a daily basis. On the other hand, we have a vast digital divide, where developing countries do not have either access or opportunity to exploit the many technological advances available to create national growth and social wellbeing and economic prosperity. Many do not even have access to reliable electricity. While the digital divide is generally acknowledged as the gap between those with effective access to modern digital, ICT, and Internet capabilities, and those who do not, its relevance is increasing as new digital topics and paradigms emerge, including digital transformation, disruptive technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and geospatial Big Data.

Again, viewed through a geospatial lens, bridging the digital divide becomes significantly more complex when countries consider exploiting the contribution to be made by geospatial information to measure and monitor the “location” characteristics of the SDGs. It extends beyond just having access to computers, the Internet and new and innovative ICT, and connecting the unconnected. Geospatially, bridging the digital divide extends to bridging the “geospatial digital divide”, connecting to the vast amounts of data, including geospatial information, modelling, analytics, integration, and the enabling scientific and technological innovation that typifies the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

However, while an existing challenge, it is an emerging opportunity. These same new and advanced technology capabilities provide developing countries with the opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ to adopt advanced technology in application areas where immediate prior technology has not yet been adopted. In a geospatial context, this often means bypassing heavy legacy geospatial technology, infrastructure, and practices adopted in past years by developed countries, and leaping with technology to more agile and flexible geospatial solutions that leverage technology, Cloud services, the semantic web, and analytics. And today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is exactly what we have seen emerge. Many developing countries are leveraging web-based technology and Cloud services to establish and deploy public-facing interactive COVID-19 visualization and information dashboards to support the monitoring of the pandemic. Technologies which in themselves have a fundamental reliance on Internet access and bandwidth – and electricity!

But we are making progress. More next time.

Author Bio

Greg Scott joined the United Nations Statistics Division in 2012 with the specific task of establishing the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) and growing its relevance and status with Member States and related International Organizations involved in national, regional and global geospatial information management. Greg provides strategic policy advice and leadership, and guides the development, coordination and implementation of the substantive content for the Committee of Experts, including its World Geospatial Information Congress, High-Level Forum's, international technical capacity development workshops, and other international fora.