Q&A: Building spatial capacity of the Pacific through CommonSensing

The southern coast of Viti Levu, the largest island in Fiji. Photo by: Brian / CC BY

CANBERRA — Through a UNOSAT program, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research is supporting countries to leverage and analyze satellite imagery and satellite-derived data to support humanitarian relief, security, and development planning.

Since February 2018 this expertise has been leveraged to support the UK Space Agency funded CommonSensing project, helping Commonwealth small island nations in the Pacific build capacity in the use of this technology to respond to climate change and the increasing likelihood of natural disasters.

Turning The Tide

This is part of a series on the impacts of climate change on small island developing states. SIDs are particularly exposed to rising sea levels and natural disasters, and often lack the financial resources and international support needed to them. This series takes a closer look at how innovative solutions and satellite technology can help build resilience and prepare some of the world’s most vulnerable communities for the challenges ahead.

Leba Gaunavinaka was contracted mid-June 2019 to be the UNITAR’s in-country expert for Fiji, a role that supports the coordination of project activities that aim to build the spatial knowledge and capacity to Fiji to improve their resilience. With her 15 years of experience in the use of geographic information systems and spatial science, Gaunavinaka brings a wealth of expertise to the role.

Here she discusses her journey and how she is helping to build the spatial capacity of the Pacific — through CommonSensing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you discuss past experiences that led to your current role?

That journey began 15 years ago since I double majored in geography and land use planning at the University of the South Pacific and took up an introductory GIS course that has since steered the course of my career toward GIS applications in the earth sciences.

At that time, there was no Geospatial degree at USP, so I would just include every GIS unit that was offered by USP into my program, simply because I was impressed with the various GIS applications. Mapping became a focus of my career choices.

In the last 4 years 8 months, I spent with Fiji’s Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources as a GIS specialist and land administrator having lead the VanuaGIS project and managed Fiji’s land bank unit prior to taking up the position with CommonSensing.

I’m delighted and grateful to be a part of this UNOSAT lead project due to the learning opportunities on remote sensing applications for the thematic areas, which the ministries will greatly benefit from. Although Earth Observation technology and solutions is highly relevant to deduce the needed data and analytics for these thematic areas, it has somewhat minimal capacity with PIC nationals optimally utilizing it to support their decision-making processes, with dependence on consultants or regional specialists for technical know-hows.

What are the biggest challenges for the Pacific in building spatial capability?

Challenges often include lack of GIS [data] standards and the inevitable staff turnovers with poor hand over. Data was often not well maintained seeing the loss of valuable datasets in the past. And sometimes consultants make maps and reports but keep the raw data with them limiting the country’s ability to expand, recycle, and use that data.

Having well-structured training manuals covering the most often requested analytics can bridge this gap.

Through GIS and spatial science, what is the impact you have been able to see and communicate about climate change in the Pacific?

I have seen simulations and 3D models from few donor-funded projects that have projected future scenarios of sea-level rise covering selected areas deduced as prone to inundation and coastal vulnerabilities in Fiji.

According to the Fiji National Climate Change Policy, there has been since 1993 a six-millimeter rise in sea level per year which is larger than the global average as well.

With the number of disasters predicted to increase in the Pacific, what do you anticipate is the cost to support wider use of spatial data for emergency management as well as to maintain systems?

In terms of spatial data management, there are moves to secure an all of government ESRI enterprise license with the Ministry of Lands & Minerals at the moment [providing access to GIS software].

Inclusive of other projects such as the geodetic datum change and building disaster management systems, costs can be in the $3 million to $5 million range.

What are the best ways to build political support for investment in this space?

Connect the tools to decision-makers. This could be through simplified interfaces where users can extract data and statistics in easily digestible formats like diagrams, forms, and reports accompanying thematic maps.

GIS and RS [remote sensing] operators are often seen to be in their bubble of GIS techs and apps and experimenting with ad-hoc projects that may not always link up to or connect to a national goal, missing its national value. Having solutions highlighting the national value the project brings and redundant processes it eliminates that can solicit the support of high-level decision-makers.

What are the key messages you would like to share on the value of GIS, spatial data and remote sensing for preparation and response?

Fiji has come a long way since GIS was first heard of in the region around 20 years ago, but there is still a lot more to empower its GIS and RS industry to work in a manner that is more integrated.

During a disaster, multiple operators need to be able to quickly connect and collaborate with each other to ensure dissemination of critical information in a timely manner, affected parties are attended to, and supplies are delivered where they’re needed. This response was highly needed in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston but we now have the platforms to better support and coordinate this.

The industry has been fragmented across various sectors and interests and we need to bring an integrated approach to the forefront of our information management.

At the national level, there is still a need to strengthen institutional collaboration, interoperability across the various national data information systems that exist — particularly those related to statistics, administration boundaries, utilities, environment, and natural resources. With the now endorsed Fiji Geospatial Information Management Strategy, it is a basis that the sectors can build on.

The goal now is to have a geospatially-enabled nation that shares and integrates data with harmonized standards working collectively to achieve their socio-economic development goals.

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

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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.