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Navigating the Intersection of Geospatial Science, Earth Observations, and Sustainable Development

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Geospatial science

For nearly two decades, my journey in geospatial science and technology has taken me across various sectors and regions, including academia, the private sector, and government. Throughout this odyssey, I've come to recognise the pivotal role of geospatial information in driving sustainable development. Not only does it provide insights into our current state, but it also offers the ability to forecast challenges, identify root causes, and envision our path towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Nations, extending beyond the target year of 2030.

Earth observation and geospatial data, often referred to as our "Eye on Earth," enables us to assess and monitor the state of the environment, as well as humanitarian activities, to pinpoint areas of concern and track changes over time. The heart of this lies in geospatial technology, particularly geographic information systems (GIS), which empowers us to analyse spatial patterns and relationships. The insights garnered from these analyses facilitate evidence-based decision making for sustainable development endeavours.

The integration of geospatial information into various systems is crucial for sustainable development. It enables the creation of a real-time digital twin that mirrors our world, incorporating geospatial data across different domains and sectors. This integration holds immense importance as it allows for informed decision-making, efficient allocation of resources, and improved infrastructure and service performance. For example, by integrating geospatial data into urban planning, city officials can optimise the allocation of resources, improve transportation systems, and enhance the overall quality of life for residents…

Leveraging Geospatial Expertise for Real-World Projects

As a former Geospatial Expert at the UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre (FCSC), I've had the privilege of contributing to real-world projects that harness geospatial information to advance sustainable development. These projects serve as tangible examples of the profound impact geospatial analytics can have in diverse contexts.

Green area growth
UAE FCSC used geospatial visualisation to analyse historical trends in population, land use, and economy for planning sustainable cities and addressing climate change in line with SDG goals. (Source: Green Areas Growth in UAE)

Monitoring Growth and Environmental Trends

Within the FCSC, we harnessed open data and Earth observation, including Landsat imagery and NASA night light imagery, to monitor the growth of various areas since 1972. These geospatial visualisation capabilities allowed us to understand space-time factors and historical trends related to population, land use, and economic patterns. Such information is crucial for planning sustainable cities, combating climate change, and protecting terrestrial ecosystems in alignment with SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Geo-Artificial Intelligence for Surveys

We utilised geo-artificial intelligence (GEO AI) in remote sensing to extract meaningful insights from imagery and combine it with administrative data. For instance, in the context of housing and household surveys, we successfully integrated building prints extracted from satellite imagery with millions of administrative records for electricity meters. This amalgamation allowed us to discern the use and status of buildings, reducing the need for physical fieldwork and enhancing the quality and accuracy of information, propelling us toward our SDG targets more effectively.

Smart meters dashboard

Geo-Enabling National Statistics

FCSC pioneered two groundbreaking projects – 1Map and the UAE SDG Data Hub. Both projects underscore the transformative potential of geo-enabling national statistics. 1Map is the UAE's national geo-statistical platform that integrates geographical and statistical data, while the UAE SDG Data Hub tracks, monitors, and reports progress towards the implementation of the SDGs in the UAE.


Assessment of Environmental Challenges

My master's degree thesis at Lund University in Sweden focused on sea level rise and its impact on coastal cities. The study aligns with SDG 11 - Target 11.5, which focuses on reducing the impacts of disasters and enhancing cities' resilience to climate-related hazards.

Sea level rise vulnerability
Abu Dhabi Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Dashboard. Maps, charts, and graphs have been used to demonstrate the anticipated 1-meter sea level rise impact on Terrestrial Habitats – a sub domain of Natural Environment Domain. (Source: Abu Dhabi Sea Level Rise Vulnerability)

Land and Resource Management

Collaborating with the Libyan Government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), I contributed to the creation of the Land Resources Information Management Systems (LRIMS) Project. This project is a prime example of how GIS-based systems can be used to manage land resource information.

Land Resource Information Management System
The LRIMS system enables intricate analysis of meteorological data, matching soil properties with crop requirements, identifying sustainable water withdrawal areas, and generating output layers for land use and crop suitability based on changing climatic conditions. (Source: LRIMS)

Geospatial Data: Opportunities and Challenges

In the projects mentioned, the availability of diverse geospatial data collection and analysis tools played a pivotal role. These included commercial and free satellite imagery, aerial photographs, digital elevation models, geospatial databases, data from ground-based surveys, OpenStreetMap (OSM), and USGS Explorer. These resources enriched sustainable development projects with information about land cover, vegetation, climate, infrastructure, demographics, and community facilities. Collectively, they greatly enhanced our projects. However, collecting and processing geospatial data poses challenges such as limited data availability, varying data formats, data integration from multiple sources, and time-consuming data pre-processing tasks. Additionally, ensuring data quality including accuracy is crucial to avoid errors that could lead to unreliable results.

Unleashing the Power of Collaboration

Collaboration among stakeholders, including government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, and academia, is crucial for realising the full potential of geospatial information for sustainable development. Partnerships reduce costs, increase quality and scalability, and facilitate knowledge exchange. This principle aligns with SDG 17, "Partnerships for the Goals". For example, the UAE has established numerous national and international partnerships to accelerate SDG implementation. Academic and civil society engagement, innovative projects, and international collaborations are integral to these efforts.

Looking to the Future

Looking to the future, there are several crucial call for actions that can further enhance the impact of geospatial information on sustainable development. Firstly, it is imperative to embrace emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics, as they can unlock the full potential of geospatial data. Secondly, promoting citizen engagement through Citizen Science and Participatory Mapping is essential to involve communities in data collection and decision-making processes, empowering them to contribute to sustainability efforts. Additionally, fostering collaboration and partnerships among stakeholders, including governments, organisations, and academia, is vital for refining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda and amplifying the influence of geospatial information on SDG initiatives. Ultimately, prioritising sustainable development and emphasising the need for cooperation will guide us along the path towards a sustainable future.

Full article “Geospatial has the Potential to Revolutionize SDG Agenda Beyond 2030” on EO4SDGs which had Support and editing for “Mapping Progress: EO and the SDGs” is provided by Anusuya Datta and Julie Chamberlain.

About the Author

Marwa Farouk Elkabbany is a principal geospatial consultant at Ordnance Survey (OS) Great Britain, with 17+ years of experience in developing geospatial roadmaps and implementing award winning GIS systems/products. She also sits on the EO4SDG Board: Earth Observations for Sustainable Development. Marwa holds an MSc degree from Lund University (Sweden), in Geographical Information Science with her thesis on “Modelling Potential Impacts Of Long-Term Sea Level Rise”, and a Bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Cairo University.

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