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Interview with David Stevens, Programme Coordinator UN-SPIDER

In this issue of EOMAG, EARSC had the opportunity to discuss with Mr. David Stevens, United Nations Platform for Space-base Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UNSPIDER) Programme Coordinator.

In its resolution 61/110 of 14 December 2006 the United Nations General Assembly agreed to establish the “United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response – UN-SPIDER” as a programme within the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. UN-SPIDER focuses on the need to ensure that all countries as well as international and regional organisations can access and use of space-based solutions during all phases of the disaster management cycle.

How is the daily work of the UN-SPIDER Team?

UN-SPIDER is a global programme being implemented by a team of 14 professional and administrative staff distributed in three offices: Vienna, which is where the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is located, and also Bonn, Germany and Beijing, China. This team works closely with a network of ten UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices in the implementation of a plan-of-work which is considered and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly every two years.

Currently UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices are being hosted by the following national organisations: the Algerian Space Agency (ASAL), the Iranian Space Agency (ISA), the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) and the National Space Agency of Ukraine (SRI NASU-NSAU) and by the following regional organisations: Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC), based in Kobe, Japan, the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) based in Nairobi, the University of the West Indies (UWI) based in St. Augustine, Trinidad and the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) based in Panama City.

How does UN-SPIDER raise awareness about the importance of satellite technology in disaster management, saving lives and ensuring faster and more efficient recovery

The activities UN-SPIDER carries out focus on providing support to countries more specifically to the national institutions that are responsible for disaster management. Activities include workshops, expert meetings, technical advisory missions and also the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal ( which is one-stop shop for all the information available on the topic space-based information for disaster management and emergency response. This Knowledge Portal is recognised as the place to go for anyone needing information.

One of the several main tasks of the UN-SPIDER Programme is to ensure that satellite imagery is available and used to support efficient and effective humanitarian assistance on the ground, but how do you prioritize this specific key objective of the UN-SPIDER in short and long term?

There has been an increase in the number of mechanisms and initiatives that make satellite imagery available to support emergency and humanitarian response, namely the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters, Sentinel Asia, GMES SAFER and SERVIR, but also a number of commercial initiatives being structured by the private sector. UN-SPIDER’s focuses on bringing together these providers of space-based information for emergency response and the end users responding to an emergency. Ultimately if the information doesn’t reach the decision-maker or the emergency responders then all the effort put in benefits no one.

How does the United Nations coordinate the use of existing mechanisms that make satellite imagery available to support emergency and humanitarian response?

Several United Nations agencies already take advantage of the above leading mechanisms, as well as others such as G-MOSAIC, to support their mandates. There is a need for a closer coordination within the United Nations system particularly in areas where the above mechanisms do not provide what is needed. To deal with this specific need the United Nations Geographic Information Working Group (UNGIWG) agreed recently, at the suggestion of UNOOSA, on the establishment of an ad hoc Task Group focusing on Geospatial Information for Humanitarian and Emergency Response which will focus on ensuring the United Nations agencies take better advantage of what is available and build together additional opportunities.

Could you explain how your team is assisting the disaster management response?

UN-SPIDER staff together with the UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices are working to ensure that all end users can access and have the capacity to use all space-based information made available to support emergency events by existing mechanisms and initiatives; to provide guidance to existing mechanisms and initiatives on how they could improve and extend their support, as well as establish new opportunities and ensure that providers of space-based information and expertise know who to provide support to.

If we talk about the disaster management cycle, could you please comment on the prevention phase and lessons learnt form previous disasters, how these are integrated? How do you coordinate the stakeholders playing a role in the different phases?

The long term impact in saving lives, livelihoods and property will only happen if we manage to make a difference at the prevention phase. We have to use available space-based information and solutions to understand better exposure to hazards, underlying risks and vulnerability of populations. There is a disproportionate focus on emergency response when in fact we should be collectively focusing on preventing disasters before they happen. UN-SPIDER works with national governments focusing more on prevention through an established network of UN-SPIDER National Focal Points. A National Focal Point is a national institution nominated by the Government of the respective country, representing the disaster management and space application communities. The role of national focal points is to work with UN-SPIDER as well as with UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices to strengthen national disaster management planning and policies and implement specific national activities that incorporate space-based technology solutions in support of disaster management. Through the National Focal Points we ensure that there is a collective and targeted effort, channelling support to the real needs of each country.

How can EARSC work with UN-SPIDER to improve programme’s operations and get industry more involved? Would a joint initiative be appropriate to raise awareness and improve performance?

Several EARSC members are already involved in the UN-SPIDER activities. UN-SPIDER is a programme that ensures that providers of solutions are working with those that need the support. The industry sector always leads when it comes to innovation and optimisation of what is available and it is imperative that we take advantage of the comparative advantage the industry sector brings with it for the benefit of those that need the technology, more specifically the developing countries. I would personally welcome being contacted by additional EARSC members and help guide them in their involvement with the disaster management community taking advantage of the network of UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices and the established National Focal Points.

What in your opinion is a suitable level of resources for this programme?

Currently UN-SPIDER resources are channelled from both the United Nations regular budget and also from cash and in-kind contributions from several countries with the main donors being Austria, China, Germany and Turkey. The team will grow to 18 staff once the UN-SPIDER Office in Beijing is fully staffed. The level of available resources is sufficient for the planned activities to be carried out in 2011, and although 2012 will probably see a reduction in the amount of resources to be made available to the programme, the programme itself will increase its delivery output due to the increasing role the UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices will have in carrying out programme activities within their respective regions.

At the end of the interview, we would like to ask you for your overall recommendations on the future development of the geo-information service sector, and would like to ask to give some hopefully positive messages to the members of EARSC

Recent mega disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and the more recent earthquake-tsunami that hit Japan have light-lighted the universality and the seriousness of the issue. All sectors of society have to be involved supporting a coordinated approach: governments, academia, private sector and the non-government organisations have to pitch in and get involved. UN-SPIDER ultimately focuses on strengthening the work carried out at the community level as we all know that prevention and first response is done at this level. UN-SPIDER welcomes working with the industry sector to ensure that their effort and involvement directly benefits those that will be impacted by an increasing number of disasters, helping to reduce the vulnerability of these communities to these disasters.

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Short Biography
David Stevens (UN-SPIDER Programme Coordinator) was born in Brazil where he graduated first in Civil Engineering (BSc) and then Environmental Planning (MSc). He has worked internationally for nearly twenty years, including for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, before joining the United Nations in 1999. He was assigned to his current Office in 2001.