Improving Urban Decision Making with Open Earth Observations

GIS Contributor


Steven Ramage, Head of External Relations, Group on Earth Observations (GEO), outlines innovative partnerships and activities GEO has been working on globally using open Earth data, GIS, and cloud technologies.

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) continues to deliver innovative partnerships using open Earth data, GIS, and cloud technologies for informed decision making.

With recent announcements of almost 60 new projects with Google, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services and an expanded presence to support monitoring and reporting in a range of initiatives focused on urban areas, GEO is supporting research institutions, national governments and the United Nations (UN) to harness the power of Earth observations (EO) to drive better research and policy development for people and the planet. 

About Group on Earth Observations

As an intergovernmental partnership, GEO is supporting 111 Members and over 130 Participating Organizations to improve their uptake of openly available Earth observation driven applications and services. Under the GEO umbrella, thousands of government and UN agencies come together around how to coordinate and optimize their use of EO.

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Through broad data sharing agreements, partnerships and capacity development, it is clear that Governmental and United Nations users are not only seeing the value of EO applied to a broad range of interventions around urban planning, climate change, sustainability, and their impact on economies and societies, but are incorporating this information into their policies, strategies and approaches.

Several of these projects are highly relevant to cities and urban challenges and they showcase innovative applications of GIS technologies to help drive better decisions for cities and their citizens. 

Global Human Settlement Layer

At the beginning of this year, GEO’s work on population mapping with the Global Human Settlement Layer was adopted as a globally recognized standard methodology that can be used for statistical comparison purposes of urban and rural areas . The method was recognized by the United Nations Statistical Commission as proposed by a consortium of international organisations (including the, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, UN-Habitat, International Labor Organization) and led by the European Union.

The Degree of Urbanisation classifies the entire territory of a country along the urban-rural continuum by combining population size and population density thresholds.  Standard blocks of 1 km2 grid cells are classified based on population density and contiguity.

This new global definition of cities, urban and rural areas is now being used by governments around the world. This marks a huge potential to build additional products and services around the data to help decision makers make informed decisions on land use and planning. 

An Urban Centre is defined as: all cells with a local population density of at least 1,500 people/km2 or with a local built-up area share of at least 0.50, and clustered in a 4-connectivity object of at least 50,000 people or all cells resulting from 3x3 median filtering or by gap filling < 15 km2 (median filtering and gap filling applied to cluster of cells that met the previous logics).
An Urban Centre is defined as: all cells with a local population density of at least 1,500 people/km2 or with a local built-up area share of at least 0.50, and clustered in a 4-connectivity object of at least 50,000 people or all cells resulting from 3×3 median filtering or by gap filling < 15 km2 (median filtering and gap filling applied to cluster of cells that met the previous logics).

GEO and Sustainable Development

Following this announcement, GEO has continued to unveil a range of new projects on urban topics.

Open access toolkit for cities

For example, working with NASA, UN-Habitat, Esri and a wide range of partners, the Earth Observations for Sustainable Development Goals (EO4SDG), Human Planet, and the Global Urban Observations Initiatives are creating an open access Toolkit for cities to access case studies and guidance on open EO data for urban monitoring.

This customizable and continually updated toolkit is integrating Earth observations and geospatial information into monitoring and reporting processes on SDG targets and indicators based on inputs from UN Member States and cities.

The toolkit is complementing the UN-Habitat Open Data on urban indicators, and will help define needs, data requirements, and share practical guidance on the integration of remotely sensed and ground-based EO data with national statistics, socioeconomic data, and other, ancillary information on cities. 

Earth Observations for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In addition, the University of New South Wales, the EO4SDG initiative and the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) SDG Ad Hoc Team led the development of a special issue in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment titled “Earth Observations for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

The special issue includes seventeen publications and an editorial highlighting Earth science contributions to support countries in target setting, tracking progress on the SDGs, and informing sustainable development planning and decision making.

SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) indicators — in addition to SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 14 (Life below Water), and 15 (Life on Land) — are among the indicators that present the most direct connections with Earth observation systems and all impact urban policy making.

The impact of Open Earth Observations for Sustainable Urban Development has been published in a recent paper that shows that cities are the frontier where the battle to achieve the global sustainable development agenda over the next decade would be won or lost. This requires an evidence-based approach to local decision making and resource allocation, which can only be possible if current gaps in urban data are bridged.

Earth observation (EO) offers opportunities to provide timely, spatially disaggregated information that supports this need.

Climate Change Initiatives

As climate change continues to threaten cities, a new Community Activity co-led by Greece and UNESCO has been initiated, with numerous partners harnessing EO data to protect monuments in World Heritage Cities.

Earth observation offers a widespread means to continuously monitor and standardize practices around climate change risk. In the case of cultural heritage, satellite imagery combined with in situ data can be extremely useful for monitoring and managing sites, identifying disasters and performing risk assessment, in all cases exploiting change detection analysis that makes analyses relevant and useful for the urban and the monument scales.

Although gaps remain in monitoring heritage sites, many applications ranging from geographical coordinates collection and integration to monitoring damaging elements to buildings, cities and cultural complexes can be delivered with data sets that are already open and available.  

This is well documented in the study “Copernicus services in support to Cultural Heritage” by the EU Copernicus Programme which highlights the great potential for using satellite data for cultural heritage preservation, monitoring and management.

GEO and COVID-19

The COVID-19 Pandemic has also highlighted the need for integrated GIS and population data maps to help countries track vulnerable populations.

With an estimated 90 percent of all reported COVID-19 cases, urban areas have become the epicentre of the pandemic, says a new Report from the UN Secretary General. GEO has brought together a wide range of partners applying EO to public health to showcase projects and enable dialogue among various communities in the GEO Health Community of Practice.

In addition, the GEO Community Response to COVID-19 Portal hosts over 40 open data projects that are responding to the crisis.

For example, in Colombia the online Vulnerability Viewer facilitates better decision making in the current health emergency. Groups are shown by levels of vulnerability based on their census source, and are matched to information from the National Population and Housing Census 2018 and records from individual health service delivery (RIPS) which contains the pathologies from 2011 to date for each patient.

The Viewer allows decision makers to know where the population is located, due to their demographic characteristics and their health condition, that are at higher risk of complications in the case of COVID-19. 

While these projects are responding to many different needs of policy makers, there is a common need from decision makers to have reliable, up-to-date geospatial information that city and government agencies can trust.

As demand for Analysis Ready Data (ARD) increases, GEO strives to make data more accessible and open. For example the data services and trainings offered by Digital Earth Africa for the whole continent of Africa, is opening up a user base of policy makers to make better use of this data. 


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