We need open planetary data in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we also need the ability to easily access and process it.

This was the key message emerging from the Planetary Data for Development plenary session at the first Data for Development Festival, organized by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

Information about the Earth is crucial for measuring and tracking progress against most of the SDGs. Speakers at the event highlighted specific examples in which Earth observations play a key role in SDG processes around the world.

Earth data for development

Angela Lopez of Colombia’s National Statistical Agency (DANE) showcased the use of satellite data to measure progress against SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. By incorporating Landsat images with population data, DANE has been able to track land consumption and population growth in the Barranquilla Metropolitan Area, and has now scaled-up this methodology to 138 cities country-wide.

Representing Strathmore UniversityRosemary Okello-Orlale spoke about the applications of Earth observations in Kenya to support sustainable agriculture and agri-business training, in support of SDG 2: Zero Hunger.

In order to achieve the SDGs, you first need an accurate assessment of the population in order to understand context, needs, and gaps. Vince Seaman of the Gates Foundation presented work being done by the GRID3 project to revolutionize the way that rural populations are mapped. By partnering with governments to build capacity to use their gridded satellite-based population service, GRID3 enables decision-making based on more accurate information.

Argyro Kavvada of NASA and GEO’s EO4SDG Initiative presented other innovative examples of SDG monitoring using Earth observations, and reminded the audience that this data can provide insightful information to help us understand our planet as an integrated system.

“Data isn’t just from satellites,” she said, “It’s important to work together to understand how national statistics offices can make use of all forms of data to best exploit the full potential of these resources.”

New solutions for new challenges

With more and more Earth observation data and information becoming openly available to the public (400 million resources can be found via geoportal.org), the primary challenge has become making that data analysis-ready for those who want to use it.

Not everyone looking to work with existing data sets has the resources or capacity to do so. Lack of storage, servers, processing software, and technical know-how might prevent many would-be data users from making use of these resources.

“Data acquisition is a huge burden to the community,” said Jed Sundwall of Amazon Web Services, speaking during the festival’s Planetary Data for Development plenary session. “How much research is being blocked by people who can’t access the data they need?”

Recognizing this challenge, speakers including Sundwall and Brian Killough of NASA spoke to the incredible potential of cloud processing solutions to democratize data processing power.

Amazon’s Earth on AWS allows users to build planetary-scale applications in the cloud with open geospatial data, ensuring that users can work with data without having to download and store their own copies.

Data cube technology  a cloud-based open source framework that organizes and layers satellite images by space and time simplifies data analysis, reduces the overall cost for users, and lowers the technical barriers of managing huge amounts of data. The first ever regional data cube, covering five countries in Africa, was launched at the festival.

These solutions and others are already being applied to make real change towards the SDGs, through simplifying data processing for all types of users.

A work in progress

With the ever-growing amount of open data comes immense potential, but also new challenges.

Much work remains to be done in terms of coordinating the planet’s observing systems a global endeavor being led by the Group on Earth Observations and in ensuring the data which does exist is accessible and analysis-ready for anyone with the ideas and drive to help us achieve the SDGs.

Only by making data open and user-friendly will we see the full potential of how it can contribute to our shared global goals. This applies not only to Earth observation data, but data in general. Through the work of GEO and the Global Partnership, and their many partners, we are well on our way to a future where data is transformed to knowledge in support of better decisions in all domains.

About the author

Maddie West is Communications Manager at the Group on Earth Observations.



About the Group on Earth Observations

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is an intergovernmental organization working to improve the availability, access and use of Earth observations for the benefit of society. GEO works to actively improve and coordinate global EO systems and promote broad, open data sharing.