The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) will meet at UN headquarters in New York on 28 April – 2 May for their 28th Session.
Geographical names are not only essential elements on a map; geographical names are far reaching and bring together elements of geography, history, cartography, language, culture, oral tradition, psychology, and politics. They provide words or phrases that identify places locally, nationally or worldwide, they give us an effective way of communicating, accessing other knowledge, and constitute a part of the collective memory and heritage.
Geographical names are of vital significance to people’s sense of well-being and are key elements in almost all our socio-economic activities, such as postal services, planning and census work, trade and commerce, search and rescue operations, emergency aid and disaster relief, and transportation. Each geographic entity needs to be uniquely identified without ambiguity and therefore the need to standardize geographical names; which leads us to the work of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).
UNGEGN was established based on ECOSOC resolution 715 A (XXVII) in 1959, which recommended the establishment of national organizations to standardize and disseminate geographical names, the creation of a clearing-house function at the UN, the setting up of a small group of specialists to consider technical problems of names standardization and the possibility of an international conference on the subject. Today, UNGEGN is one of nine standing expert groups that reports to ECOSOC.
The UNGEGN group of experts is therefore responsible for encouraging the standardization of geographical names, and promoting the national and international benefits to be derived from standardization. UNGEGN convenes conferences and sessions and carries out its work through the activities of ten Working Groups, 24 linguistic/geographical Divisions and two Task Teams. This body of experts consisting of cartographers, geographers, names experts, historians, linguists, planners and surveyors will be meeting in New York from 28 April to 2 May 2 with the purpose to advance the work undertaken in the implementation of the resolutions passed at the preceding Conferences, the last one being in 2012.
The session will focus on topics such as: the romanization of geographical names, discouraging the commercialization of geographical names, the standardization of geographical names, toponymic education, the creation and management of toponymic data files and gazetteers and the protection of geographical names as cultural heritage. It is expected that the programme of work, issues and challenges will be addressed through the discussions and interactions of over 180 attendees from approximately 60 Member States and about 20 linguistic Divisions during the week.
The UNGEGN session provides the global forum where these experts are able to learn of and share best practices, cooperative ventures, new developments in geographical names administration and practical outcomes of names standardization. There will also be special presentations on current topics impacting the discipline, along with side events, consisting of Divisional meetings and learning centres, plus an exhibition of maps and posters showcasing Indigenous Geographical Names.
The UNGEGN Secretariat based in UN DESA’s Statistics Division, continues to provide support required to carry on the extremely important work of promoting the standardization of geographical names. Areas of collaborative work include capacity development with the preparation and delivery of toponymic training programmes (in person and on-line), the creation of training and promotional material and the management and maintenance of the World Geographical Names Database which stores the names of countries and major cities with a population of more than 100,000.
This database, as of March 12, 2014, has 5,876 geographical names consisting of 193 countries and 3,343 cities. There are also 974 sound files which assist with the pronunciation of city names. Another collaborative activity is the management and maintenance of the UNGEGN website, which facilitates information sharing and dissemination among member states, experts and users globally. The website has an impressive number and type of documents presented at conferences and UNGEGN sessions, pdf files of all UNGEGN publications available for download, and a portal providing links to national names authorities.
Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in UN DESA, noted in her opening speech at the 10th Conference held on 31 July – 9 August 2012, that accurate and consistent geographical names are vital at the local, national and global level for sustainable planning strategies, among other developmental elements.
The upcoming 28th Session of UNGEGN will be another milestone and step by a global community of experts who share the vision and goals of making available geographical names, a fundamental data set which supports geospatial information management, and enables decision making for sustainable development.
For more information: 28th Session of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names