Statement at the Ninth United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for the Americas

Statement by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the Ninth United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for the Americas New York, 10 August 2009

Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the United Nations Headquarters in New York for the Ninth UN Regional Cartographic Conference for the Americas.

The Eighth Conference, held in New York more than four years ago, adopted resolutions and recommendations which focussed on the relation between spatial data infrastructure and sustainable development.

Our Conference this year is dedicated to a related and equally important theme: Building Geospatial Infrastructure in Support of Disaster Prevention and Management.

A review of the agenda for this Conference shows the crucial role of spatial data infrastructures and geospatial technologies and their applications in addressing disaster management issues. I believe that this Conference, which brings together specialists from the Americas and other parts of the world, provides an excellent opportunity to exchange experiences and new ideas of how the role of geographic information can be enhanced even further.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe, that at the outset of this Conference, it is useful to highlight three aspects, which would help to address the issues on the current agenda, namely (i) the importance of a national spatial data infrastructure in the context of disaster management; (ii) the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly evolving IT-environment; and (iii) the current UN activities in the field of geographic information.

Let me turn first to the importance of a national spatial data infrastructure in the context of disaster management.

Experience shows that spatial data can considerably facilitate disaster management activities, given the fact that most of the required information has a spatial nature. For example, following a major natural disaster, some of the early questions asked include: Where is the exact location of the event? Which areas and villages are affected? What is the status of infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, health centres, schools, water supply systems and government buildings, etc.?

If digital maps of population distribution and housing characteristics could be easily linked with the geographic information of the area affected by the disaster, it would be possible to generate reliable estimates of the number of people affected, as well as to determine their needs in terms of medical aid, food and shelter.

For immediate disaster response, it is imperative to make sure that basic information is available immediately. In this regard, geospatial data and related technologies such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and remote sensing, particularly high-resolution satellite imagery, have proven to be crucial for disaster management.

It is now widely accepted that building and developing a national spatial data infrastructure will better facilitate access to spatial data for all stakeholders, and therefore allow us to better prepare and proactively respond to a disaster event, rather than reactively rush to collect data after the disaster has already struck.

Let me turn to the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly evolving IT-environment.

The recent technological developments, giving us access to terabytes of geographic information, which can be visualized in 2- and 3-dimensional images, are revolutionizing the ways in which civil society is utilizing this type of information.

Web-based mapping tools, particularly geo-portals, have proven to be key drivers of change, as they offer free and user-friendly access to high-resolution satellite imagery in unprecedented detail to the public at large.

In just a few decades, the user-panorama for geographic information has changed dramatically. In addition to the professional tools that continue to be used by Government and public and private institutions, simple cartographic tools are now being used by hundreds of millions of users to consume and compare geographic data. And there is no end of this trend in sight.

Now let me address briefly the current UN activities in the field of geographic information.

In the context of the 2010 World Programme on Population and Housing Censuses, the UN Statistics Division of DESA is supporting the use of GIS for census mapping operations, including the use of hand-held devices, GPS, satellite and aerial imagery for spatial data collection and demarcation of statistical enumeration areas. In the past year alone, the Statistics Division has organized two Expert Group Meetings and six Regional Workshops all over the world, dealing with the use of geospatial methods and technologies for census mapping operations.

The Statistics Division has also published in June 2009 a “Handbook on Geospatial Infrastructure in Support of Census Activities”, which provides technical and methodological information to facilitate the choice of suitable tools and procedures by countries with respect to mapping activities. The Statistics Division, in collaboration with UNICEF and UNFPA, has also developed a software package called CensusInfo to improve the dissemination and utilization of census results, at country level, including in the form of maps.

In addition to this regional Conference of the Americas, the Statistics Division will organize and service the forthcoming 18th UN Regional Cartographic Conference for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, from 26 to 30 October 2009. The Statistics Division is working to forge ties between the UN Regional Cartographic Conferences and the Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), advocating that cartography, GIS and geographical names are all crucial components of the national spatial data infrastructure.

These examples show that we are committed to supporting the strategic use of geographic information, not only at national and regional levels but also at the global level, as we recognize that geographic information transcends national boundaries.

In this context, the Statistics Division will continue to encourage initiatives and actions at the global level that allow the development of common frameworks and tools, such as geodetic reference systems and standardized data and naming conventions. Only through a process of standardization, for which the United Nations has a key mandate, will it be possible to effectively share geo-coded information among countries and regions for common purposes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The world today is facing many interrelated problems: population growth, climate change, land degradation, water resources shortages, energy challenges, financial and food security crises and social conflicts. Addressing these problems requires more innovative and sophisticated approaches, as well as effective tools to ultimately guide our way to sustainable development.

In short, your technical work here has far greater impact on development than hitherto recognized. Do not under estimate the significance of your contributions.

I wish you great success in your endeavours. Thank you very much for you attention.