An aerial view of Solomon Islands between Honiara and Gizo. Photo by: Arthur Chapman / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — The Pacific Island program at GEO Week provided a big opportunity for small island developing countries to have their voices heard at an international forum on why Earth observation and geospatial data was important for their programs, policies, and livelihood. But the gap between developed and developing countries became quickly apparent with awareness and resourcing the biggest barrier to their use.

Paul Anderson, inform project manager with the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, was among the participants representing The Pacific Community, and he discussed with Devex what he sees as the challenges and opportunities for the improved utilization of data for policymaking.

“In our region, we’re still working through data management and use issues — just taking regular observations, not Earth observations, and using them in decision-making is a challenge.”

— Paul Anderson, inform project manager, Pacific Regional Environment Programme

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has GEO Week delivered to the Pacific in collaborations and new partnerships?

We announced a collaboration with the Pacific with Australia, New Zealand, NASA, and the USGS [United States Geological Survey], and there are private companies that are trying to engage.

From Australia, the interest of Geoscience Australia in the region is growing, especially with Stuart Minchin [chief of the environmental geoscience division with Geoscience Australia] taking on the role of director-general with SPC [The Pacific Community] in January. This will be important in ensuring priority of EO data and making more data available. At the moment, Fiji and Papua New Guinea are perhaps the only ones who have the capacity to interpret this data on their own. But this can help bring awareness of what data outputs we can be seeking.

The main thing is we have been here supporting our GEO members’ countries and highlighting to others the benefits of them joining GEO.

How has the focus on the Pacific as part of GEO Week helped communicate the needs of the region to global partners?

There has been more of a focus on the Pacific in this GEO than any other before — it has gone up exponentially from zero to some. And we have had dedicated side events with members keen to know more on how to work with us.

In our region, we’re still working through data management and use issues — just taking regular observations, not Earth observations, and using them in decision-making is a challenge.

Despite this platform, there is an issue of running before you walk — we can’t get too ahead of our capacity. But a big realization for me has been that there is data out there people want to provide — the connections haven’t been made yet. For example, there is air quality data that can be gotten from the Copernicus satellites, and I would like to extract that personally to hand it to decision-makers to use. It’s free, it’s there, but it just needs someone to sit down and do that work.

For the limited number of people with expertise in this space in the Pacific, even if they had time to focus on it, they are also wearing a range of hats — so even being aware of where the information is doesn’t mean it can be utilized.

In creating a connection to build awareness of the data and tools that are out there, what are the challenges?

When it comes to setting up projects in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or Fiji, for example, it is important to understand the government structures. Some parts of government, such as foreign affairs or disaster risk reduction, need the same information as agriculture and environment sectors. If you only have one point of entry as an outsider, this limits the potential uptake of solutions.

You have to make multiple points of entry and tell a bunch of different people what you are doing. It can be the same product, with a slightly different sales pitch. And this creates a much greater impact.

“When it comes to communicating out data, most of our reporting at the national level is big walls of text — with maybe a table if you are lucky. For people that aren’t specialists in that area, it doesn’t help them to understand what is going on.”

It’s a recurring theme that people want to build new platforms, systems, and data cubes but the platforms are not the challenges for our stakeholders — it is understanding the processes and how they will help answer their questions and problems.

By not addressing issues, it reduces the chance of these tools being us sustainably. Human statistics is a great example. Everyone knows they exist and knows they need them, so there is no problem with funding a census. For environmental statistics, it is a smaller subset of people who know why it is important and how it can be used. It takes time to get to know the lay of the land and identify and talk to the various groups that can benefit from this data. But building this relationship is also important to build confidence that the data is trustworthy and can support needs.

As the Pacific regional architecture has existed for 70 years, it is important to understand and utilize the connections of established channels including SPC.

For the Pacific, what are the biggest challenges in the space of data — including EO and geospatial data?

I’ve been doing GIS [geographic information system] training in the region for over a decade and increasing the capacity has not happened. Each time someone is trained up, they quickly go to a new position — every single time. So intuitive tooling that you don’t need training for — just clicking on a map and information appears — is the exact level we need to be aiming for. Google Earth-like or better.

When it comes to communicating out data, most of our reporting at the national level is big walls of text — with maybe a table if you are lucky. For people that aren’t specialists in that area, it doesn’t help them to understand what is going on. Particularly when it is scientific.

There are skills that need to be meshed in better data communication, which includes analyzing data that may not be from your area of expertise, synthesizing it into information that is understandable and then creating a picture of that — including highlighting whether something is good or bad. Work I have done on this seems to be helpful.

But when it comes to looking at new approaches or opportunities for projects, SPC has a team of 60-odd people that do this stuff but don’t have the time to do more. Each one of those people have a full-time job plus projects and relationships they are managing. We might have 5% of our time to do other things — and this is not enough to manage new programs.

We already have a full-time work plan for the next two years. The opportunities out there for new approaches and collaborations are fantastic. But if they don’t come with people that have the time to think about it with us, then I can’t see how they can be exploited properly.

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.