Earth observation increasingly integrated into local decision making

Steven Ramage, Group on Earth Observastions (GEO)

In 2018 I wrote about international cooperation across the global GEO community and how it supports the long-term sustainable development agenda. Fast forward 3 years and we are still working with the same partners with some additional supporters now engaged. The difference today is that we now have an operational service providing freely and openly available data for the entire continent of Africa. With support from the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD), the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and Earth Observations for the SDGs (EO4SDG) initiative from the GEO work programme, we have been able to help support and contribute to the successful development of Digital Earth Africa.

100 countries now have open data cubes

This week at the third United Nations World Data Forum we provided an update on these developments. The programme that started with Digital Earth Australia and an innovative and effective way to use open Earth observations (EO) data from the 1980s onward (known as Open Data Cubes [ODC]) is now active in more than one hundred countries. Digital Earth Africa was the first continental implementation of this approach and today any country in Africa can openly and freely access EO data and information to supplement and complement national statistical data. For example, work has been developed on indicators 6.6.1 (water-related ecosystems), 11.3.1 (ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate), and 15.3.1 (proportion of land that is degraded over total land area).

The GEO community has also started work in other world regions, such as the Americas (north and south) and the Pacific, to develop other open data cube implementations through new Digital Earth initiatives in each region.

The Earth observation data (from sensors in, on and around the Earth) which goes back over decades makes it easy to analyse changes in the natural environment, and help to drive policy development and decision making around the connected land, biodiversity and climate agendas. By highlighting the role of open data cubes, this session introduced the Digital Earth Africa programme with panelists from Africa. Speakers included Davis Adieno from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Andiswa Mlisa from South Africa National Space Agency and Oliver Chinyanga from the UN Economic Commission for Africa. All panelists have contributed to Digital Earth Africa since the beginning and are currently part of the governance, technical and policy support teams.

The panelists talked about what is still needed to strengthen the capacity of national statistical systems to integrate new skills and technologies and harness the power of different data sources, such as Earth observations. At the same time governments have been considering how to elevate support from a technical to a political level, and the links between global, regional, national and subnational collaboration and capacity development. Lessons learned from Digital Earth Africa and wider EO efforts were highlighted, using the experience of driving data-led decision making for national planning.

Data availability, methodologies and quality all matter

A second panel, featuring Greg Giuliani from the University of Geneva, Neil Sims from Csiro and Ingrid Teich from World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) highlighted how innovative tools, especially Trends.Earth by Conservation International and open data cubes, have improved access to and the utility of large and diverse EO datasets. The panel demonstrated how tools that integrate EO data on essential land variables with information from other sources can help better inform policies and practices, and more sustainably manage biodiversity, soil, and water resources to achieve multiple global benefits.

The session also demonstrated the potential of initiatives, such as the GEO Land Degradation Neutrality (GEO LDN) initiative to bring together data providers, developers of products and tools, and data users to deliver data-driven environmental information for reporting, planning and decision making processes to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Embedding change is never easy but the overall EO outlook for SDGs is positive; by the next time the global data community gathers we expect to see Earth observation data analysis becoming even more integrated into SDG monitoring and national planning processes, supporting decision making and bringing us closer to achieving Agenda 2030.

Everyone is invited to collaborate with GEO on these topics linked to the SDGs, notably to benefit from or contribute to Digital Earth Africa, GEO LDN or EO4SDG, which are all part of the GEO work programme.

About the Author

Steven Ramage is Head of External Relations at the GEO Secretariat. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @steven_ramage