Geospatial Data and Sustainable Development Goals

Mark Altaweel


One difficult problem for countries to meet the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs)[1] is a lack of access to relevant geospatial data. The UN is often underfunded and countries simply do not have the resources to not only collect data but to ensure their quality.

Recently, the UN has turned to major private companies, such as Google and Alibaba, to help countries reach their development goals. Where these companies can help is particularly with geospatial data that can be used to monitor a variety of different SDGs. The new initiative, called Data for Now, will see the linkage of Google Earth satellite data with UN data. The data will also include phone data that can be used to assess food insecurity or health provision in rural regions. Data can be used to track individuals or monitor land use land cover change in relation to climate change and land use policy in potentially vulnerable countries.

The new initiative, called Data for Now, will see the linkage of Google Earth satellite data with UN data.
The new initiative, called Data for Now, will see the linkage of Google Earth satellite data with UN data.

A consistent problem is SDG data have mostly been dated to prior to 2015; this now provides a way to get much more recent data collected. So far, specific priorities have not been determined, although that should happen by November 2019. Current countries that have signed on the initiative are Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, Nepal, Colombia, and Paraguay. Google has promised to provide actionable and timely data, while Alibaba will create a digital hunger map to help with tracking food insecurity. Vodafone is also partnering in bringing spatial phone data. Nearly 240 initiatives, our of the 17 major goals of SDG, have been identified, although not prioritized, for inclusion in the UN effort.[2]In this first UN meeting establishing the goals that fulfill SDG, it was already recognized that geospatial data will be critical in addressing many of the issues countries have identified. Researchers have even been creating frameworks, such as the Maturity Matrix Framework, to help with data integration and focus for analysis on how geospatial data, in particular Earth Observation (EO) data, can fulfill SDG needs.[3]

Hunger MAP LIVE is a collaboration between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Alibaba Group
Hunger MAP LIVE is a collaboration between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Alibaba Group

While data have been one major issue in obtaining timely and accurate information to meet SDG, more governments are now lso being encouraged to use open source software, including geospatial software, to spatially analyze data to measure how goals are being met.[4]Tools will also increasingly need to integrate methods that allow rapid assessment of how data indicate if SDG targets are fullfiled. This is the case, for instance, in the SDG for land degradation. Data, over space and time, are collected and analyzed, where collected information integrates various sub-indicators to form a larger indicator of land degradation. Factors measure land cover, land productivity and carbon stocks, which then assess if a give country is fulfilling its land degradation goals. Such methods could be directly integrated with spatial tools so that analytical performance is not only facilitated but assessments can be done more periodically and quickly for each country regardless of their level of development and access to data.[5]

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One persistent problem with data applied to meet UN goals has been obtaining data and data quality when they are available. The Data for Now initiative should help address many of the issues outlined in SDG as major companies that have access to large user data and satellite data sets could help countries better assess their development goals in a more timely manner. This also requires new tools and open data in general and these are also increasingly being put in place. The pace will likely have to quicken as countries face many challenges and are attempting to meet many of the goals by 2030. For issues such as climate change, there is no time to lose. However, with governments now being encouraged and trained to utilize either open source data and tools or create partnerships with major companies to obtain free data, it might be possible to meet many of the 17 major goals by the 2030 date.


[1]    For more on the SDG, see:

[2]    For more on how major companies and the UN are partnering to address SDG and use geospatial data, see:

[3]    For more on frameworks fulfilling SDG goals, see:  Andries, Morse, Murphy, Lynch, and Woolliams. 2019. “Seeing Sustainability from Space: Using Earth Observation Data to Populate the UN Sustainable Development Goal Indicators.” Sustainability11 (18): 5062.

[4]    For more on open source tools used to address SDG, see:  Choi, Junyoung, Myunghwa Hwang, Gayeon Kim, Janghwan Seong, and Jaeseong Ahn. 2016. “Supporting the Measurement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 through the Use of National Urban Information Systems and Open Geospatial Technologies: A Case Study of South Korea.” Open Geospatial Data, Software and Standards1 (1): 4.

[5]    For more on how data can be measured and then assessed to meet SDG goals for land degradation, see:  Sims, Neil C., Jacqueline R. England, Glenn J. Newnham, Sasha Alexander, Carly Green, Sara Minelli, and Alex Held. 2019. “Developing Good Practice Guidance for Estimating Land Degradation in the Context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.” Environmental Science & Policy92 (February): 349–55.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.