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How NASA and the UN are using location intelligence to build smart cities in developing countries

(By Lisa Cornish) For smart cities to succeed, they require real-time, location-based strategies, solutions and responses to effectively deliver the services that make cities work.

These include everything from health and education to sanitation collection.

To date, the limited capacity and capabilities of the developing world has meant that they have not had the same opportunities as developed countries for the development and consumerism of geospatial technologies. But that is quickly changing.

“The developing world is learning from past mistakes by the developed world, particularly in attempting to create a technology in search of problems to solve, and is ensuring that geospatial information and technologies are more ubiquitous and closely tied to addressing real world needs and development issues,” said Greg Scott, senior advisor for global geospatial information management in the U.N. Statistics Division.

Thanks to Sustainable Development Goals pushing for a stronger focus on data, analytics, and geospatial and earth observation technologies, there is increasing attention on achieving and monitoring development outcomes. And such technologies will be a critical component for future smart cities in developing countries.

Land tenure and rights, poverty eradication, education and welfare, food security, climate change, health, and disasters are among the policy areas developing nations can become smarter at responding to thanks to these improved tools.

“The effective use of geospatial technologies can have a transformational impact on many of humanity’s most significant challenges in the developing world,” said Scott, who leads the development of policies and strategies through his role as secretariat for the U.N. Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management.

A key partnership

While the U.N. has been leading the charge, NASA has the tools to assist.

In 2005 the agency launched World Wind, a web-based, open source platform facilitating development of apps using satellite, thematic and geospatial data for analysis and visualization.

Geospatial data links information to a graphic reference; earth observation data is environmental data collected from remote sensing and satellite technologies. They are brought together using geographic information systems — computer systems that can capture, store, display and analyze data related to its location.

To encourage new and innovative ways of delivering data management tools for cities, World Wind Project Manager Patrick Hogan established the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge in collaboration with Politecnico di Milano, Geo for All, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, Hub Innovazione Trentino and the Hungarian Association for Geo-information.

Beginning in 2013, the challenge is now an annual event with projects delivering solutions for earthquake and bushfire management, traffic monitoring and environmental and agricultural monitoring solutions.

Dr. Gábor Remetey-Fülöpp from the Hungarian Association for Geo-information has been working with the project since 2012 as part of the scientific committee, applying his expertise in computer-aided design, remote sensing, geospatial technology and cartography to help design challenge themes and evaluate projects for the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge to ensure it meets its lofty goals.

Remetey-Fülöpp told Devex that the wider availability of geospatial technology combined with the use of open earth observation data, open governmental policy and open source apps today makes it more accessible to developing countries. “The synergy of using EO, geospatial and statistical data on a spatial data infrastructure basis can greatly improve the quality of monitoring and reporting, but it can also enhance measures taken on local level, helping to guide actions taken to improve societal benefits,” he said. “The open data policy and a growing number of open source tools for data analysis, allows intelligent information to be closer to the decision-makers.”

Remote sensing, cloud computing, big data, apps, social media and location-based services are among the services Remetey-Fülöpp believes open new opportunities to deliver better services for smart cities, including in developing nations.

That is the topic both Remetey-Fülöpp and Scott will be discussing in their session at the 10th International Symposium of Digital Earth in Sydney on April 5.

“The technologies were originally seen as being able to organize data, create digital representations of the world, and to automate mapping within and across agencies and enterprises,” Scott explained. But he says it has evolved to become a “major disruptor of change and much more consumer based.”

World Wind, GIS and the SDGs

The SDGs will be a driving force for implementing smart technology and solutions within developing countries. The U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for inclusive social progress, environmental sustainability and economic development by 2030. It also calls for greater accountability than that experienced under the Millennium Development Goals.

“There is considerable emphasis on measuring and monitoring with good policy, science, technology and especially data,” Scott explained. “The 2030 agenda specifically demands the need for new data acquisition and integration approaches and captures specific references to the need for high-quality, timely, reliable and disaggregated data, including earth observations and geospatial information in the area of follow up and review.”

Enhanced capacity-building support for developing countries — including least developed countries and small island developing states — will also help create smarter and sustainable cities. High-quality, timely and reliable data on income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics have been identified as a priority, according to Scott.

But prioritizing and gathering data will require a dramatic shift in how development programs typically operate.

“Achieving these outcomes, and in such a short timeframe, will not only require transformation in how we think of sustainable development, but will also require transformation — a digital transformation — in how we are able to measure and monitor progress towards their achievement with new sources of data,” Scott said.

It will not just be traditional or official data to make this work; citizen-centric data will also be critical for evidence-based policy and decision-making. This is where World Wind comes in.

“World Wind is a web-based, open source platform facilitating development of apps using EO, thematic and geospatial data for analysis and visualization,” Remetey-Fülöpp said.

In the context of the SDGs, he said World Wind provides access to features needed to provide decision-making support on indicators and targets as defined in the 2030 agenda. “Accurate virtual globe visualization greatly facilitates understanding, which is key factor in the decision-making, especially in time-critical conditions,” Remetey-Fülöpp said.

Once measurements and data associated with SDG indicators are analyzed and visualized, decision-makers can begin building resilient cities and settlements. “It should be mentioned, World Wind applicability is also evident for other priority engagement areas as climate change, disaster risk reduction and ecosystem accounting,” Remetey-Fülöpp said.

In 2017, World Wind will turn to smart cities

The ability for NASA’s World Wind to assist in building smart cities of the future will be the focus of its public engagements in 2017.

In March at the 19th Conference of the Del Bianco Foundation in Florence, NASA and the European Space Agency will be launching DelBianco CitySmart, a new suite of tools built on World Wind to improve operations of smart cities through improved operations, including the management of urban infrastructure. “Any city will be able to continually tailor and advance functionalities serving their urban management needs, with an integrated system meant to increase awareness, efficiency, sustainability and quality of urban life,” Remetey-Fülöpp said

Smart cities will also be the theme for the 2017 NASA World Wind Europa Challenge this August, where experts will share ideas for open source apps that are expected to address urban management needs such as transportation, power, water, pollution, waste management and urban planning. And Remetey-Fülöpp anticipates that developing countries will respond well to the web-based, open source smart city apps. “Using openly accessible relevant EO data, especially if combined with citizen collected data, it will continually improve cost-effectiveness of delivering services.”

But he says the development of smart city technology using World Wind does not necessarily need to be built with developing countries in mind.

“All cities need essentially the same tools to manage urban infrastructure,” Remetey-Fülöpp explained. “What if we established an open source platform that allowed cities to share the functionalities each of them need? And what if the academic community as well as small and medium enterprise were challenged to work with their cities to build those solutions? Solutions developed by the more affluent cities would be entirely accessible to every other city. This way a world could advance in a collective enterprise advancing solutions they all need.”

World Wind, he said, is simply an open source platform that allows this to happen.
Barriers to helping developing communities become smart cities of the future

According to the 2017 Global Geospatial Industry Outlook, the geospatial industry is today worth $500 billion. Beyond 2017, Scott and Remetey-Fülöpp believe the value of geospatial technology to make sense of development data will continue to grow.

“As the digital data ecosystem grows it seems that we now have data everywhere about everything and that we have the capability to explore and analyze every aspect of our planet at amazing levels of temporal and spatial resolutions,” Scott said.

And Remetey-Fülöpp believes that to cope with the unprecedented population growth in some parts of the world, progressive governments will require a spatially enabled and oriented society, with citizens empowered by EO and geospatial infrastructure tools, to deliver the services and smarts required.

But for developing countries, there are still hurdles to overcome.

“There is a lot of infrastructure required for a city to be ‘smart’ and much of that infrastructure — internet bandwidth is a simple example — does not readily exist in developing countries or their many fragmented cities,” Scott said.

To tackle this problem, the U.N. is defining smart cities of the future in developing countries as cities that are smart, sustainable and resilient. “This makes it much easier for developing countries to conceptualize,” Scott said. Geospatial technology still remains a critical component for these cities.

In Kunming, China, from May 10 to 12, the UN-GGIM will be convening an international forum discussing smart cities in developing countries as a platform for discussing priority issues and the adoption of reliable, timely and quality geospatial information to shape these cities. For these efforts to succeed, Remetey-Fülöpp said enhanced partnership, cooperation and capacity building is required — and the onus may be on Scott. “The UN-GGIM board and its regional entities in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania, serve a critical advisory role and network for the agenda 2030. It can effectively address the essential geospatial-related information management issues.”

For Scott and the UN-GGIM, a constant challenge is that geospatial information as a means to inform policy and decision-making is not yet mainstreamed and accepted enough, despite its long history. “It still tends to be viewed by many decision-makers as a back-room techno-geek solution and is not well understood,” Scott explained. “Yet, it is widely acknowledged that implementing the SDGs, and measuring and monitoring their progress, will require new and large amounts of data, and transformative change and collaborative approaches to link many types of data with the one thing they have in common — a geographic location.”

And despite the hurdles, the aims are grand: universal smart cities.

“To succeed in our global development aspirations we need to not only reach the developing countries, we need to reach the poorest of the poor in the least developed countries, and we need to give them a voice and location so as to ensure that no one is left behind,” Scott said.

Over six weeks, Devex — along with our partners — will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.