Opinion: How to improve collaboration in Earth observation for impact

Participants of the regional workshop on Himalayan GEOSS held last August 2017 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo by: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD

Collaboration is vital for sustainable development globally, as thousands of organizations and governments work towards shared goals. Without effective collaboration, efforts are duplicated, knowledge is lost, and impact is stunted. Collaborative networks in the development community are everywhere, from informal online communities of practice, to formal partnerships with designated coordination bodies.

One example of the latter is the Earth observation community, which is working within the framework of the Group on Earth Observations to promote the use of open Earth data in decision making for the benefit of humankind. Collaboration is at the very heart of everything the GEO community does, but even with a decade of experience fostering partnerships between hundreds of members and thousands of contributors, it has not been achieved without its challenges and a wealth of lessons learned.

A significant challenge GEO and other partnerships often face is being inclusive and collaborative across a large and diverse community, while still being targeted enough to deliver results that matter. With limited time and resources and so much work to be done, how can we best develop and get the most out of our collaborative efforts? How can we identify and prioritize partnerships?

The Group on Earth Observations is an intergovernmental partnership of 105 U.N. member states and 118 participating organizations working collaboratively to openly share Earth observations data and information for research, policy, and decision making. GEO's community is extensive, linking together over 1,000 government agencies, additional observers, and contributors working across multiple sectors and societal benefit areas, such as agriculture, biodiversity, climate, public health, water, and urban infrastructure.

One way that GEO is tackling this challenge is by aligning our work around three strategic engagement priorities that address key global policy mandates: The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These engagement priorities are also tackled by a number of other global organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the International Council for Science, through their work at the intersection of science and policy.

By creating a framework for collaboration, we can better prioritize our time and resources to focus on partnerships that will be mutually beneficial and have maximum impact on our shared goals. Similar efforts are being made at the regional level through efforts to build partnerships that address context-specific priorities, including through GEO’s well-established regional initiatives AfriGEOSS, AOGEOSS, AmeriGEOSS, and EuroGEOSS, as well as other developing activities in the Arctic region, the Balkans, and the Himalayas.

By defining priority areas, organizations are better oriented to connect with the right partners. Once your priorities are defined, you can research the organizations leading the charge and making impact in these areas and connect with them to share how your work will complement or further their own. In the case of GEO, it has guided our stakeholder engagement efforts and has led us to focus on strengthening relationships with the U.N. bodies responsible for global policy mandates in our priority areas, including the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.N. Statistics Division, and the U.N. Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. A good lesson that GEO has learned is that for research and policy agendas to make an impact there has to be relevant language included in national policy documents. This is why working with U.N. bodies is so key.

“While relationships between organizations are important and provide sustainability when staff turnover occurs, it is individuals who lead and manage programs, work remotely in the field or in the office, write software code, or create project plans.”

Steven Ramage, senior external relations manager, Group on Earth Observations

Potential partners will be more likely to open their doors to you if you approach them with a clear value case for your partnership that demonstrates mutual benefit. It’s always worth reviewing what you write, to assess whether or not it’s just your organization that benefits, and amend the two-way balance accordingly. Once a potential partnership is identified, it is important to reflect on what defines your collaboration. For some, it will be formal avenues with clear roles and responsibilities, outlined in a memorandum of understanding or letter of intent. For others, it will be informal networks of personal relationships, opportunistic partnering and cooperation based on reciprocity and shared-values.

Relationship-building is a crucial step towards effective partnership that is often overlooked in popular literature on collaboration. While relationships between organizations are important and provide sustainability when staff turnover occurs, it is individuals who lead and manage programs, work remotely in the field or in the office, write software code, or create project plans. This approach focuses on leveraging all team members’ personal relationships, experience, and community standing as a means to strengthen interorganizational collaboration.

Effective collaboration is made possible when the whole team is empowered to build and maintain personal relationships at different levels, ranging from technical experts to government ministers. At a practical level, this could mean encouraging colleagues to attend industry events, to take advantage of webinars and training opportunities in their areas of expertise, or simply encouraging all team members to share their meeting plans and outcomes, in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page and no existing contacts or background is overlooked.

Many of our most important successes have started with a simple personal relationship between team members on either side. One result of GEO’s relationship-building efforts has been the inclusion of language on Earth observations in the Sendai Framework Data Readiness Review 2017, made possible through using existing relationships with UNISDR.

GEO supports our community to collaborate and involve cross-sector and cross-domain knowledge and expertise. These efforts include using our relationships to expand our network beyond the usual suspects to engage new and diverse groups that can benefit from the value of open Earth observation data and information. There are a range of other established and emerging leaders in our sector that are successful in such community development, including the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, the European Space Agency’s team working with international development banks, and some more recent entrants including the Global Partnership for Sustainable Data and Radiant Earth. GEO fosters communities of practice in many areas of Earth observations, including agriculture, health, and water, and supports regional initiatives that connect local efforts and resources. We support our partners’ efforts by providing expertise, coordination and communications support, and we receive the same in return.

Based on our experience, it is important to define, or refine, our standard perspective on collaboration to focus equally on individual-level relationships. The GEO community is a thriving network of collaboration, with interpersonal relationships at its roots, and has demonstrated that leveraging personal connections is a foundational task for successful partnering. People first, organizations next!

See more from our Satellites for Sustainability partner UKSA on earth observation.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Steven Ramage

    Steven Ramage leads external relations for the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations. He has spent his career working on strategy, policy, technology translation and innovation in the geospatial sector. He is a visiting professor at the Institute for Future Cities, University of Strathclyde, and a SASNet fellow at the Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow, Scotland. He also chairs the GEO Commercial Sector Working Group, is a member of the Global Advisory Council for the Open Geospatial Consortium and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.