How GIS and Geography are Playing a Strategic Role in Implementing the SDGs

Clint Brown , Esri

Charles Brigham , Esri

There are numerous reasons why GIS is playing a vital role in implementing and tracking progress on the UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their many targets and indicators. First, GIS and location provide one of the key technologies that enable people everywhere to track progress in their own countries and homelands at local levels as well as at all other levels of geography worldwide. GIS information layers enable global citizens everywhere to explore and understand the relationships between various goals within and across virtually every locale.

Second, GIS grew and evolved in the past few years into a comprehensive global platform containing information coming from virtually every GIS organization worldwide, expanding the capacity to reach global citizens. Citizens and GIS users are now capable of integrating and combining information layers for multiple themes and locales to simultaneously explore relationships across multiple goals and indicators to enable deeper understanding.

The Web GIS pattern has emerged

Currently, there are over 350,000 GIS organizations worldwide that support tens of millions of users applying GIS across all fields of human endeavor. In the past decade GIS has been transformed. Around 2010, cloud computing came online and, in recent years, has matured fostering a transformational web GIS pattern. With cloud computing, if you know the web address (URL) of a layer of information, and assuming that the owner of that information has agreed to share it, you can readily add that layer to your own map, and even into your own analysis simply by referencing each item’s URL.

Today, these users have collectively assembled over 46 million information items for the planet (in maps, apps, analytic models, and data tables). These represent more than simple raw data items. They also include higher-level, highly functional information items – interactive maps, apps, amazing information layers, and analytical models as well as items that implement machine learning and artificial intelligence. These items are referenced and held in this comprehensive, community-based “GIS for the Planet” called ArcGIS Online for which people everywhere have information access in the cloud. Interestingly, just over 55% of these millions of items are shared across organizations.

Impact of Covid-19 – the Pattern for Planetary GIS emerges

In 2020, news began trickling out of Wuhan China about a new and rapidly spreading coronavirus disease that came to be known as COVID-19. By early spring 2020, a pandemic gripped the entire world and continues to this day.

At that time a very small Department of Engineering team at Johns Hopkins University, comprised of two people, Dr. Lauren Gardner and her PhD student Ensheng (Frank) Dong, began developing their vision for tracking the spread of Covid using GIS maps. This map-based app, that came to be known as the Coronavirus Dashboard, was assembled from information coming from hundreds of organizations. This new app quickly caught on and was accessed daily by billions of people worldwide.

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By the end of 2020, the Johns Hopkins Dashboard garnered over 2 trillion visits for the year. One year later, it is sobering to imagine what humanity would have done without this dashboard.

Immediately many other organizations recognized and adopted this Web GIS pattern and shared their own Covid-19 Dashboards for their jurisdictions and areas of interest. By the end of 2020, over 8,000 Covid dashboards following this same pattern had been implemented worldwide.

Watch this compelling video about this GIS Dashboard pattern for the global Covid response From (July 7, 2020. Time: 4:32)

The Emergence of a Community GIS for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Following the international adoption of GIS Dashboards for Covid-19, many of these same organizations and GIS communities began to organize around implementing key activities for the SDGs. Along with this growth and evolution of GIS, simultaneously UN organizations such as the UN Statistical Division and UN Global Geospatial Information Management team (UN-GGIM) have been quietly leading efforts to coordinate access to global geospatial information and to promote its use to address the critical global challenges for the SDGs using open, interoperable, standards-based approaches.

The Federated Information System for the SDGs research exercise (known as FIS4SDGs) demonstrated the value of an open, GIS-backed, country-owned and country-led, approach to monitoring and reporting on the SDGs. This effort has now expanded to the SDG Data Alliance which encourages collaboration and geospatial planning through the IGIF, backed by leading GIS technology with a broader goal of accelerating achievement of the SDGs by creating 20 more SDG Data Hubs across countries in need.

GIS is essential for creating a sustainable, community-based approach for achieving the SDGs. The SDG Data Alliance is an example of a multi-stakeholder initiative that drives progress and offers innovative solutions.

A Common Global Vision: Why achieving the SDGs are essential

During 2021, we are reaching a new milestone in the collective use of GIS across the global community. The growth of cloud GIS, its new collection of integrated applications and capabilities, have forever transformed GIS expanding into community-based experiences such as ArcGIS Hubs, the Living Atlas of the World, and educational and learning resources at We like to express this as a “GIS for the Planet”. This is the pattern for supporting the UN mission and goals for the SDGs.

It Will Take Everyone

As we gather for this third World Data Forum, let us commit ourselves to begin to make real progress on the SDGs and the numerous initiatives and visions for creating a more sustainable world. We all have something significant that we care about deeply in the SDGs. And we are all eager to contribute.

At Esri, our goals are to continue to provide strong tools and technologies and to empower and guide our user communities to promote GIS use and best practices that enable people everywhere to:

  1. Achieve deeper understanding and to develop insights on the SDGs
  2. Based on that knowledge, to take effective action.