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Interview with Greg Scott Inter-Regional Advisor, UN Statistics Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs

In September 2015, world leaders agreed on a shared vision about the world we want to see in 2030 by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, the United Nations has set out an unprecedented action plan to fight poverty and inequalities worldwide while respecting planetary boundaries.

How can Earth observation support the effort to help the UN and Nations achieve the SDGs?

The 2030 Agenda specifically demands the need for new data acquisition and integration approaches and specifically references the need for “high quality, timely, reliable and disaggregated data, including Earth observations and geospatial information”. It is clear that data, as the basis for evidence-based decision-making and accountability, will be critical to the success of the 2030 Agenda. Goal 17, in the area of data, monitoring and accountability, requires us to support developing countries to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.

At the global policy level, the need for ‘geographic location’ in a new era of data needs is well recognized. Data – statistics, geospatial information, Earth observations, environmental and other Big Data – are at the core of being able to measure and monitor progress on the SDGs for all countries. Such data have the real potential of forming a new and emerging ‘data ecosystem’ for development, in which integrated information systems that are comprehensive and coordinated are able to monitor the state of the Earth, people and planet, and to deliver timely information necessary to citizens, organizations and governments to build accountability and make good, evidenced-based decisions.

The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) is the central mechanism within the UN to supply global statistics and has the mandate for the development and implementation of the Global Indicator Framework for monitoring progress towards achieving the SDGs.
Could you explain how your team is assisting the coordination of all the activities related to monitoring and reporting against the global indicator framework?

The task of determining the global indicator framework, the follow-up and review mechanism and where considerable data acquisition, integration and disaggregation will be needed, was given to the Statistical Commission. It established the Inter-agency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) to develop the global indicator framework on behalf of the UN General Assembly. The initial indicator framework has just been adopted by the General Assembly just 2 weeks ago, and comprises 232 global indicators.

How is the work of the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) linked to these activities? Overall, how do you see EO services as potentially useful tools in providing a wide range of information to support the monitoring and reporting the global indicators framework?

In UNSD, we provide the Secretariat for both the Statistical Commission and the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). In essence, the Secretariat for the global intergovernmental mechanisms for statistics and geography. When we think about the 2030 Agenda, and the associated data needs, UNSD is in a unique position to assist countries and international organisations to integrate these information systems. For example, we are seeing that many national statistical offices now understand that Earth observations are able to provide new and consistent data sources and methodologies to integrate multiple ‘location-based’ variables to support and inform official statistics and the indicators for the SDGs. These methods are able to fill data gaps and/or improve the temporal and spatial resolutions of data, by bringing together information from various sources, particularly those related to the environment. This information integration is important, as the global indicator framework will be the primary conduit to guide and inform Member States, based on individual national circumstances, on how they measure, monitor and report on the SDGs and related targets in the years to come.

Under the purview of the IAEG-SDGs and UN-GGIM, a Working Group on Geospatial Information has been established in order to ensure that, from a statistical and geographic location perspective, geospatial information, Earth observations and other new data sources can reliably and consistently contribute to the agreed indicators.

You have been contributing to the role of geospatial and Earth observations for the sustainable development process since the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, including ensuring that appropriate recognition and text was in the outcome document of Rio+20 ‘The Future We Want’ and in the 2015 outcome document ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’
How could EO services industry communicate their capabilities to the global development policy community and related decision-makers?

The policy-science-technology nexus has always been a difficult ‘communication of capability’ challenge, and as a means to inform local to global policy and decisions. In my observations, very little is understood regarding the role of geography in sustainable development processes at the intergovernmental level, including how Earth observations and other capabilities can be applied to sustainable development, and how policies can be implemented to bring the two together in a coherent and integrated manner. In some respects this is a reflection of the considerable policy – technical gap that exists within and across countries, but it is also a reflection of the different philosophies of each community. Achieving sustainable development is driven by the need for political negotiation and agreement in order to obtain high level global objectives for the future of our planet. The geography philosophy is more concerned with ensuring reliable and authoritative local to national data and science-based analyses are available on the interactions of people with their places and environment. Therefore, there are obvious differences in understanding and in terminologies, especially in the growing data requirements to support the many social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, including measuring and monitoring. Fortunately these differences are slowly being brought together through change – motivated partly by awareness and understanding, and partly by pure necessity. A goal is to ensure that the 2030 Agenda provides a means to diffuse, if not even eliminate these views and lack of understandings!

Tracking progress on the SDGs requires the collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of an unprecedented amount of data and statistics at the sub-national, national, regional and global levels, including those derived from official statistical systems, Earth observations, geospatial information, and from new and innovative data sources.
How can regional-based service providers, which are mainly small but highly innovative companies (providing readily available solutions turning data into valuable information) be better integrated in such decision-making activities?

I am not so sure I can answer this question, as such decision-making tends to bring into play the local to national aspects of sustainable development. These small and innovative service providers tend to be a lot more agile than more formal and structured entities, including governments that are not as flexible as they would like to be. This provides opportunity, particularly in assisting the least developing countries.

To answer the tough questions and to be able measure and monitor progress for those most in need, the most vulnerable countries, is going to take not only transformational change in our thinking, but also transformational change in how we leverage existing and new sources of data and emerging technologies – in essence a digital transformation. Presently, the most developed countries are grappling with an abundance and oversupply of data, technology and innovation, while in many parts of the world data and innovation scarcity prevails. When applied to sustainable development there is a greater concern. Those countries that are experiencing significant data scarcity are also those that tend to be most vulnerable and at greatest risk of being left behind. A vast ‘geospatial digital divide’ remains.

While the challenges are immense, the digital innovation and technology that is available today allows the necessary transformation, and being able to bridge the geospatial digital divide that exists among countries. But realizing this opportunity is complex in many dimensions, not the least being the lack of robust national information systems and associated geospatial frameworks. With the enabling global mechanism of the 2030 Agenda, the challenge is how to most effectively transfer this technology and data richness, availability and connectivity to the technology and data poor. Highly innovative companies are now beginning to take up this challenge, and providing data and solutions to real world needs on the ground – often at the local level.

The EARSC EO product of the year award recognised Waste from Space by Air and Space Evidence as being the best EO product which supports the implementation of the SDGs and the monitoring and reporting against the global indicator framework.
How do you assess the relevance of the winner into developing a service solution for governments and the alignment with SDGs?

The broad and transformative nature of the 2030 Agenda requires us to consider new and innovative means to address and curtail the many local to global development challenges in order to ‘leave no one behind’, and with commensurate new and innovative data sources and methods.

Therefore, and noting that countries desperately need ‘readily available solutions’, I applaud the approach that EARSC has taken in recognizing products that provide direct and specific solutions for the implementation of the SDGs at national, regional and/or global levels, and that are able to measure, monitor and report against specific indicators of the global indicator framework. It is of much more tangible benefit to countries, particularly developing nations, if specific solutions to real problems are able to be provided and implemented. These ‘applications’ are then able to assist governments and the community directly in their measuring, monitoring, and annual reporting. We desperately need applications such as Waste from Space by Air and Space Evidence that have direct benefit to countries and their national implementations of the SDGs.

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.

Data and technological enablers such as Earth observations, which bring everyone directly into contact with environmental and geo-location information on a daily basis, have ensured that people the world over, are beginning to appreciate the need for this information in their consumption of data. As a result, a large proportion of the global community now have an entirely different set of Earth observations and geospatial information uses, needs and expectations than they did even 10 years ago, such has been the evolutionary change. In some respects it also indicates that geo-location information and services are now being driven more and more by users and consumers in response to their contemporary needs as much as responding to the needs of governments, technology developments and breakthroughs. Therefore, the potential of geo-information has rapidly advanced and has now reached a level of maturity that allows this information to make a central contribution to the integration of information for the purposes of global issues such as sustainable development.

I say “potential” because we are not there yet – but we are on the right path. EO and geospatial technologies, and strengthening data production and the use of better data in policymaking and monitoring, are becoming increasingly recognized as fundamental means for global development, but we still need to democratize these technologies and associated data in such a way that they are easily reachable and useable by developing countries. 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 then a voice and location so at to ensure that no one is left behind. Data needs to be more open, platforms need to be more usable and analytics need to be more accessible. If this is achieved we will see fundamental Earth observations, geospatial information, positioning infrastructure, policy frameworks, institutional capacity, and economic development moving up the value chain in all countries.

Short Biography
Greg Scott is Inter-Regional Advisor for Global Geospatial Information Management in the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD). In his role within the Secretariat, Greg provides high level strategic policy advice and leadership in the coordination and implementation of UN-GGIM initiatives with Member States and related International Organizations involved in national, regional and global geospatial information management. Greg is also responsible for developing the substantive content for the UN-GGIM Committee of Experts, the UN-GGIM High Level Forum’s, international technical capacity development workshops, and other international fora.
Greg possesses formal qualifications in cartography and survey mapping, has a Graduate Diploma in Geography from the Australian National University, and is presently undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne.