GEO drives international cooperation on Earth data ahead of World Data Forum 2018

In 2014, the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development defined key actions that were needed to advance a data revolution in support of sustainable development. These actions included determining how key data gaps could be filled and strengthening national statistics capabilities through new data sources and innovation. The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is actively undertaking efforts in both areas.

For the past decade, GEO has been working on behalf of 105 member governments to connect the demand for sound and timely environmental information with the supply of data and information about the Earth. GEO's approach to achieving this mission has evolved alongside rapid changes in frontier technologies and has been aided by exponential increases in the availability of open data.

Building on the 1st UN World Data Forum

The first United Nations World Data Forum launched a global action plan that aimed to facilitate better data to improve lives, new approaches to boost collaboration, and increased resources and new policies to implement it. The Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data calls on governments, policy leaders and the international community to undertake key actions in several strategic areas necessary to fully implement the 2030 Agenda. These areas include: innovation and modernization of national statistical systems; dissemination of data on sustainable development; building partnerships; and mobilizing resources.

The global GEO community has responded to the calls of this Action Plan through several initiatives, including active contributions to the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD), and GEO's Earth Observations for the SDGs (EO4SDG) Initiative. Both initiatives have focused on key elements of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular the value and usefulness of Earth observations for responding to the challenges and opportunities associated with the sustainable development goals.

With over 1,400 data experts from more than 100 countries at the first Forum, the upcoming event in Dubai, which we hope will attract increased interest from a diverse array of data experts, provides a unique opportunity to further progress. It will be an important platform to showcase ongoing efforts and achievements, especially for National Statistical Offices, one of the major core audiences and groups of participants. This means building on collaborations around the world with EO4SDG and the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM).

Ongoing work with GPSDD will also be presented, for example the international partnership working on the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC) in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Tanzania with the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), Amazon Web Services and Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

The ARDC is based on the Open Data Cube Initiative, managed by CEOS, which builds on the original open source framework developed in Australia that organizes large amounts of open satellite imagery datasets over space and time. These Data Cubes are being established around the world, with almost 40 countries at different stages of maturity. The world's first regional Data Cube recently launched in Africa, and plans are to use the Data Cubes as a resource for SDG work, particularly 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).

GEO is leveraging these advances through its international work programme, where many of the 70-plus activities are strongly aligned with the SDGs. Through this programme, GEO is helping national governments and statistical agencies incorporate Earth observation data into their policies and processes. Other GEO members and partners that have talks planned at the UN World Data Forum 2018 include the European Space Agency, NASA, CODATA, CIESIN, ICSU, the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, UN agencies and several member states. Each will be talking about their involvement in international projects linked to sustainable development.

A global movement for data providers and users for good

As a key outcome of the upcoming Forum, GEO hopes to continue driving forward the global conversation around improving access to, and understanding of, open Earth observation data and information for national sustainable development processes.

Sitting at the nexus of the first data and fourth industrial revolutions, GEO helps the global community navigate the complex ecosystem of big Earth data, highlighting the value and potential of open Earth observation data and information for decision making. The partnership focuses these efforts on three key global policy frameworks: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Work is also underway to highlight the value and usefulness of Earth observations to support the New Urban Agenda.

Through the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) Platform, the GEO community provides access to more than 400 million open Earth observation data and information resources that can support research, policy and decision making for many of the SDGs, including agriculture and food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, disaster risk reduction and water resources management.

Earth observations include measurements and information relating to activities in, on or around the Earth. Whether space-based (e.g. satellites) or in-situ (e.g. ocean buoys), the importance of Earth observations for decision making in key global policy arenas is gaining recognition around the world. Recent articles in Nature, the Financial Times and Devex showcase that this issue is leaving the scientific realm and entering mainstream consciousness. The World Economic Forum recently focused on the increased ability to access data from the many public and private sector satellites orbiting the Earth, as well as innovative new methods for processing data.

Democratized data collection, production, management, access, use and sharing -- all key aspects of GEO's work -- enable all sectors to make use of the vast Earth observation data resources that exist, hopefully leading to better decisions that affect lives, economies and the environment.

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