The Power of Where: It Begins with Geodesy

Geodesy suffers from being so fundamental that it is often ignored and under-appreciated, which results in it also being under-resourced.

I am now in my tenth year in the Secretariat for United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, or UN-GGIM). Luckily, it is still relatively easy to reflect on the progress and achievements of UN-GGIM over the past decade, and how much it has advanced the understanding and relevance of geospatial information globally. No, it’s not that I have a great memory, it’s just that every meeting, report, presentation, and document over these past years is permanently archived as a record on UN-GGIM website. That said, despite all the achievements and progress, it is a little disappointing that one fundamental aspect of the work of UN-GGIM is not well understood or recognized and remains somewhat an incomplete task. Something that is also fundamental to how we accurately measure and position everything we do on, above and below the surface of planet Earth; more fundamental even than geospatial information itself. Geodesy.

Geodesy I hear you say…. what is that again? Geodesy originates from the Greek ‘geodaisia’, which means dividing the Earth. In its simplest definition, geodesy is the study of the Earth’s shape and size. However, a generally accepted definition is that it is the science of accurately measuring and understanding three fundamental properties of the Earth: its geometric shape, its orientation in Space, and its gravity field – as well as the changes of these properties with time – as the Earth spins on its axis every 24 hours, and roughly at some 1600 kmph at the equator. A scientific way of measuring the Earth’s momentum then. Yes, but the Earth is in constant motion, and we humans, and all that we have built and do in relation to the Earth’s surface and motion, are also moving around at the same pace and momentum, plus more. So, when we take place, speed and time into account, the math and the modeling get a little complicated when an accurate point of reference is needed for making measurements at any given place and time.

Everyday benefits of geodesy

You may not realize it, but every day you use or benefit from what geodesy provides. In car navigation systems, and a growing autonomous vehicle market, geodesy is used for real-time turn-by-turn information and traffic congestion information, which is particularly useful for emergency services coordinating rescue efforts. Almost three billion mobile applications rely on positioning information to provide location-based services to consumers on mobile phones or smart watches for e-health, fitness and assisting the visually impaired. Geodesy also underpins our many environmental applications, such as observing and mitigating the effects of natural hazards like earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanoes, and provides us with the evidence of Climate Change which we can use to inform policy decisions.

Coming back to UN-GGIM and the ‘geodesy’ problem at hand. A technical report on the “global geodetic reference system” was tabled at the second session of UN-GGIM in August 2012 by the geodesy community in response to a request by the Committee to better understand geodetic reference frames at its first session in 2011. The report to UN-GGIM described the development of, and growing demand for, a global geodetic reference system that underpins all geospatial information. It recognized that many economic and social activities, including navigation, civil engineering, agriculture, financial transactions and disaster management are now relying heavily on high precision positioning technologies and related infrastructure. In its report of the second session in 2012, UN-GGIM “urged all countries to fully recognize the necessity of a global geodetic reference frame, the need to maintain national positioning infrastructure, and to undertake a commitment to make such data available to contribute to regional and global positioning frames.”

This immediately led to the establishment of the UN-GGIM Working Group on the Global Geodetic Reference Frame in 2013. But that was just the beginning. It was also in 2013, at its third session, that the Committee agreed that actions should be taken to submit a resolution to the UN General Assembly in order to seek support and commitment at the highest level of the global geodetic reference frame (GGRF). The UN General Assembly no less! A major feat should it be achievable.

Well, due to some amazing commitment and leadership, it happened. At its sixty-ninth session in February 2015, the General Assembly adopted the resolution entitled “A Global Geodetic Reference Frame for Sustainable Development”, the first resolution recognizing the importance of a globally coordinated approach to geodesy in ensuring the development, sustainability and advancement of the GGRF. Co-sponsored by 52 countries, the resolution was tabled by His Excellency Ambassador Peter Thomson, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. In his statement to the General Assembly, Ambassador Thomson noted that as a small island developing state, Fiji is vulnerable to increasingly severe natural disasters, sea-level rise and other problems triggered by Climate Change, and uses geodetic data to plan as best as it can. “We fully realize the importance of critical geospatial infrastructure and information in helping countries and decision-makers make more informed, evidence-based decisions on mitigation and preparedness, he stated.

You may not realize it, but every day you use or benefit from what geodesy provides. In car navigation systems, and a growing autonomous vehicle market, geodesy is used for real-time turn-by-turn information and traffic congestion information, which is particularly useful for emergency services coordinating rescue efforts.

The current scenario

Fast forward to 2021, where I now hand over to a real technical expert, and a geodesist, Nicholas Brown, to pick up the keyboard. Nick is Co-chair of the UN-GGIM Subcommittee on Geodesy, which was elevated from the Working Group on the Global Geodetic Reference Frame in 2017.

Geodesy suffers from being so fundamental that it is often ignored and under-appreciated, which results in it also being under-resourced. The analogy is very similar to electricity being available at the flick of a switch. We take it for granted that it will be there, and it will work for us whenever we need it. But how often do we think about the process electricity goes through from its generation and distribution to your home? It starts from an energy source (gas, coal, water turbine, sun or wind), which needs to be extracted or captured. It then needs to be generated and/or transported to a power plant, converted to electricity and then stepped up and down through transformers in different voltage stages to finally get to our homes. Every step of this process requires expensive and very specific infrastructure, reliance on highly qualified people, intelligent and complex analytics, and ongoing support to maintain and sustain the entire value chain. If it isn’t done effectively and sustainably, we get disruptions and even blackouts.

The traditional scientific and operational requirements of the geodesy value chain – infrastructure, data analysis and data access – makes up less than 5% of geodesy’s overall ‘user-base’, which continues to grow as the number of industrial, environmental and societal applications grow. These growing demands and aging infrastructure have highlighted some weak links in the chain. These weak links put the geodetic products and services we rely on every day at risk of degradation, which in turn affects the accuracy and quality of all policies, decisions and programs which rely on geodesy. This means that to be sustainable in the future, the geodesy value chain now needs to support operational requirements considerably more.

In recognition of these issues, over the past two years, the UN-GGIM Subcommittee on Geodesy has prepared a draft long-term strategy and action plan known as the “Position Paper on Sustaining the Global Geodetic Reference Frame”. The aim of the position paper is to start a discussion about some tangible pathways to improve the geodetic infrastructure used to measure and monitor the Earth; enhance global cooperation and coordination to maximize the benefit of ongoing geodetic efforts, ensure coherence, and avoid duplication of effort; and improve communication and raise awareness of the importance of geodesy – especially to the decision-makers. A draft of this Position Paper was provided to UN-GGIM at its tenth session in August 2020.

At the same session, the Subcommittee on Geodesy tabled a draft concept paper on establishing a global geodetic center of excellence. Such a global center was one of the suggested actions by the Subcommittee in its long-term plan. While not able to, at least initially, address all the issues outlined in the Position Paper, it could improve dramatically the collaboration and coordination amongst countries, UN organisations, scientific organisations, potential donors, standards organisations, and private partners. Driven by the value of this momentum, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany has now formally made an offer to host and establish a Global Geodetic Centre of Excellence at the United Nations Campus in Bonn, Germany. This is a giant step in the right direction, but more needs to be done and we can only do it together.

Geodesy underpins the three pillars of sustainable development, providing data and services to support societal benefits, economic prosperity and environmental monitoring | Courtesy: Geoscience Australia

Sustainable geodetic reference frame

To continue this discussion and work towards a more sustainable Global Geodetic Reference Frame, on Earth Day — 22 April 2021, the UN-GGIM Subcommittee on Geodesy will host a Global Geodesy Forum titled “The Power of Where: The Value of Geodesy to Society”. The Global Forum will highlight the important role geodesy has in providing safer and more resilient communities, in particular to measure the cause and effect of sea level rise, storm surges and tsunami. Furthermore, the Forum will describe the economic benefits enabled by an accurate and reliable Global Geodetic Reference Frame, and the role geodesy plays in assisting developing countries with efficient and effective land management.

The Global Forum will also include an opening address from His Excellency Ambassador Peter Thomson, who, in addition to his role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, has just agreed to become the UN-GGIM Global Geodesy Ambassador — geodesy’s global champion.

For further details about the Forum, click here.

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.

Nicholas Brown from Geoscience Australia is the Director of National Geodesy; Co-chair of the UN-GGIM Subcommittee on Geodesy; a member of the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping; Chair of the ICSM Geodesy Working Group; and a member of FIG Commission 5. Nicholas is responsible for the development and refinement of the Australian Geospatial Reference System; the collection of datums, geoid models, transformation tools and standards required for 4D positioning. Nicholas has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Geomatics from RMIT and a Masters in Geophysics (Space Geodesy) from ANU.

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