How geospatial communities can help to promote innovations and synergies across data ecosystems

Javier Carranza

Javier Carranza,
Director of the GeoCensos 

The United Nations World Data Forum is a global event, a gigantic magnet for a myriad of data experts in the development realm. Organized by the United Nations Statistics Division and hosted by the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority of the United Arab Emirates and the Government of the UAE, the 2018 Forum will take place in Dubai, 22-24 October. The first Forum was a great opportunity for geospatial communities to build more fruitful dialogues and action toward a central, committed goal of “leaving no one behind”. The Forum inspired us all to listen more closely to the people — and the stories of their places — with accurate geodata, to avoid speaking theoretically about “locals”, and instead to produce disaggregated data as part of the data revolution. The 2018 Forum aims to explore new ways to modernize national statistical offices (NSOs) and their ecosystems, and it also professes to lead in promoting synergies across data ecosystems. This thematic area is crucial to deliver the revolutionary message of the 2030 Agenda, and to actively allow the inclusion of third-party data and innovative practices to strengthen existing national data ecosystems.

We perceive that no third-party data community is growing more rapidly and with greater capacity to represent grassroots data than the geospatial community. Should the United Nations and advocates of the Sustainable Development Goals — including nations, cities and private organizations — wish to truly embrace a transformative data revolution, they should look more closely at open mapping examples to update their own operations and infrastructures. By updating traditional practices — especially those required to measure and achieve specific SDGs — statistical organizations can attain sustained success with vibrant, diverse and consistent collaboration with civil society.

As these alternative data are recognized as a natural ally for the achievement and monitoring of the SDGs, the use of databases coming from civic geospatial technologies should expand. If governments provide their technical supervision and experience, synergies could even converge to a gradual dissolution of differences between users and producers of statistics. Inspiringly, pioneer NSOs are daring to try on new clothes in the data revolution scene — transcending their traditional approaches — and taking a more “supervisory” agenda through broader data partnerships to generate new outcomes and coverages. If a forthright recognition of the geospatial communities is seriously considered by NSOs, resources could be freed from the “production function” side and official efforts could be focused on servicing the infrastructure needed to contain and monitor the data coming from other sources.

On the other side, non-traditional data producers, such as mapping communities, are producing more and more data. Civil society is strengthening its data production capacities and a new generation is beginning to lead the way in public engagement, with data production in nationwide projects monitoring health campaigns, low-cost housing projects, urban planning and humanitarian relief. These new data producers are taking to the next level collaborative and data-focused projects, together with opening and enriching the production of the collected data, adding valuable disaggregated sources.

The geo-referenced tools that civic mappers bring to the table are increasingly demonstrating their value to contribute to a broader SDG data infrastructure: Statistics Canada is working with the OpenStreetMap community to build a single inventory of the location and attributes of every building in Canada, running a pilot to test if qualitative data can be produced collaboratively. The NGO Open UP SA is collaborating with Statistics South Africa to produce hyperlocal data using Wazimap. Uwezo, aided by an official statistics expert panel, is independently producing data to monitor SDG 4 in Kenya, in lieu of key indicators. The Stats Up program from the GeoCensos community is being offered as an entry-level opportunity to train geodata entrepreneurs in collaboration with NSOs. Also, a few successful startups are actively using national statistics and geographic data to add value for the private sector.

Bringing civic geospatial actors to the “official” statistics ecosystem can also integrate richness and depth in more inclusive datasets, building low-cost and efficient capacities on the ground. Embryonic spatial data infrastructures are constantly being created for grassroots projects, targeting the most underserved citizens and the least prioritized territories. Today, several civic tech groups like local guides from Google Maps, Geogeeks from ESRI and Missing Maps or Hot osm from the Openstreetmap platform have employed and expanded proprietary and open geodata for the benefit of numerous vulnerable populations, unravelling the needs and specificities of those who we are holding up when we vow to “leave no one behind”. These civic tech organizations can aid the official data collection process, leveraging vibrant open data advocacy, humanitarian values and basic statistical skills to advocate for the welfare of forgotten territories and people.

An unprecedented revolution of data resources is literally going on in streets and remote corners of the planet, led by non-traditional statistical actors. International organizations, governments and NSOs will be seriously constrained if they insist on using only traditional data sources to monitor the 2030 Agenda. A wise strategy for the 2030 Agenda should be to decode and integrate vital civic actors and make the best use of their creative powers. As the rise of technology and civic activism is producing massive amounts of new data, the official role of statistics could and should be reimagined. If informed governments decide to accept this, they will be empowering NSOs to actively lead the SDG endeavour. Clearly, an empowered civil society that produces more and more data is ready for this kind of data revolution. Discussing these ideas and further developing partnerships between civil society and NSOs at the 2018 Forum will allow us to map together a better world.