A scene from GEO Week 2019 in Canberra, Australia. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

CANBERRA — With traditional methods of data collection such as census and surveys being challenged by low response rates, experts are now asking if the use of earth observation — or EO — data to support monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals can be a viable alternative.

“Traditional census and survey-based approaches to producing statistics are being challenged by declining response rates, and with the added pressure of declining resources, it’s essential that alternate data sources are used to supplement this where possible,” John Shepherd, general manager of the industry statistics division with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, explained at GEO Week in Canberra, Nov. 5.

At the annual gathering of the Group on Earth Observations, examples of the use of EO are unlikely to step out of the comfort zone of scientists in this space — with environmental monitoring a quick win for EO to contribute to the SDGs. But with challenges facing traditional data collection approaches, there were opportunities for EO to help fill SDG data voids.

While experts identified areas of progress, particularly on the technological advances to help manage and analyze high-resolution satellite imagery, there were many challenges that still exist in mainstreaming EO at scale — including improved collaboration between EO experts and statistical offices, ensuring data was fit for purpose, and ensuring local capacity existing for sustainable programs in developing countries.

Identifying how EO is being used for the SDGs

Argyro Kavvada, executive secretary of Earth Observations for the Sustainable Development Goals, or EO4SDG, explained that a key objective from sessions at GEO Week was to identify gaps, challenges, and recommendations to facilitate multistakeholder partnerships in SDG monitoring and implementation at local, national, regional, and global levels — a mandate of EO4SDG.

“Our key focus is on working with the statistical community, both at the global and national level, relevant ministries within countries that are responsible for monitoring and collecting data that can help contribute to reviewing and monitoring progress towards achieving specific goals and targets,” she said.

This, Kavvada explained, meant working to educate the community on the ways EO data could benefit the creation of statistics to monitor the SDGs, with a particular focus on its ability to deliver data that can be scaled and replicated. Increasing skills and capabilities in the use of EO for SDG activities and building awareness for its ability to deliver social, environmental, and economic benefits were also overarching goals.

Nine SDGs have been identified as areas EO data can make the greatest contribution to — zero hunger; good health and well-being; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; sustainable cities and communities; climate action; life below water; life on land; and partnerships for the goals.

To better understand how EO data is being used, Kavvada discussed the results from an EO4SD survey with GEO member countries, finding 25 country examples of EO to monitor the SDGs.

At GEO Week, examples of work being done were put on display. Quinhuo Lui from the Chinese Academy of Sciences presented work being done by the Global Ecosystem and Environment Observation Analysis Research Cooperation for SDGs — whose aim was to provide EO data for sharing, as well as building the information and knowledge to support policy on global climate change adaptation. Reports delivered have included analysis of ecological and environmental conditions for the Belt and Road Initiative as well as impacts of natural disasters on vegetation.

In Canada, EO data was being used to support monitoring of water stress. In Germany, its use was contributing to the monitoring of mortality rate attributed to household and ambient air pollution. In Australia, it was contributing to monitoring CO2 emissions. And in Mexico, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography was testing ways of combining EO, official statistics, and machine learning to create new statistical models to identify areas as urban or rural — which is currently achieving 78% accuracy.

Among all GEO members, Kavvada said SDG 15 — life on land — was where EO was most commonly being used.

Where the gaps are

As a result of this work and the survey by EO4SDG, Kavvada explained that there is a gap in practical demonstrations and guidance on how EO data can be used to benefit the SDGs. And they are working on developing SDG EO toolkits that will provide the dataset, products, and services, use cases, training, and benefits and testimonials — with the aim to deliver information, decisions, and action.

There are still gaps in the quality of EO data itself that can prove challenging in making it fit for purpose in delivering the SDGs.

“Let’s say you have a layer of a freshwater surface area derived from LANDSAT [satellite data],” Francois Soulard, from Statistics Canada, explained to Devex. “Whether the data is [captured] in June, July, August or another really varies — and it varies from year to year. So it’s really complex is to provide good data on the actual state of water based on that kind of information because it is way more complex than that. You cannot reduce the hydrology of large countries to a two-dimensional image of one data point per year.”

The lack of high-resolution EO data over developing countries, including the Pacific region, was creating challenges for some countries to begin on the improved use of EO data for the SDGs. And it was identified that there is an increasing need for platforms that could assist with the analysis of EO data for policy decisions rather than raw data due to lack of capacity in some countries.

Gaps also lie between EO and national statistics offices, which mean opportunities may be missed, said Dr. Michael Hovenbitzer from the German Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy.

“Many [EO] projects can contribute to SDGs, but sometimes the link is missing between the national mapping agency and the statistical division,” he said. Identifying that this was a barrier to progressing and mainstreaming the use of EO, connections were made to the national statistics office to overcome these barriers — an approach he recommends in all countries where national statistics and EO are divided.

Thinking outside the box

Clare Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, explained to Devex that there was a need to think more broadly on how EO data could contribute to the SDGs — beyond its traditional environmental and national mapping base.

“We have just launched the Data for Now initiative — we’re finding in that initiative that there are lots of good, reliable and robust methods to work on EO with governments on environment and broader agriculture work,” she said. “The people side is much more of a challenge in this space which we would like more engagement on.”

At GEO Week, Melamed was encouraging diversity in thinking of creating data with its use in mind.

“For us, it is about use,” she said. “This community is always very applied and thinking beyond theory into practice. But it’s also about getting people to think outside the immediate context of their work and to understand its use for others — including use governments in developing countries.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.