Expert voices Vol 22, No. 04 - April 2018

Detecting inequalities from space

Everything that happens, happens somewhere. From deforestation, to urbanization, to gender inequalities, our social situations are conditioned or even determined by geographical circumstances. Satellites, big data analysis and other new technologies allow us to pinpoint statistical data on the map, painting for us an entirely new picture of our world. During the recent meeting of the UN Statistical Commission, Vice President of Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) Paloma Merodio explained the new possibilities.

What is geospatial data and why is it useful for sustainable development?

“Geospatial data, in its purest form, involves information that can be located in space on Earth, and thus contains geographic elements (coordinates, physical addresses and the like). In a broader sense, it may also encompass Earth observation data, such as that acquired through satellites or other remote and direct sensing devices.

Its potential for sustainable development is enormous, particularly as technology and processing/analytical power increases, and more statistical geo-referenced, and geospatial information is gathered and used in more systematic fashion.

The possibility to associate occurrences or statistics with their geographic location allows for a clearer visualization, and provides a way to identify and address gaps, inequalities and other issues on the territory. This gives decision makers powerful tools to better design and monitor policies, as well as international agreements, such as Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Can you give us some examples of cutting-edge projects that use geospatial data for achieving the SDGs?

“In Mexico, one of two countries to integrate statistics and geography in a single institution, geospatial information is used to complement official statistics, such as the population and housing, and the economic censuses. Dozens of social, economic, environmental and government information layers are then uploaded onto the Digital Map of Mexico (MxSIG), a free online platform created and maintained by INEGI, where diverse data can be viewed together, and used by government, academic and private users for better analysis and decision-making.

Similarly, geospatial and satellite data is used before, during and after extreme events and disasters for a more effective response and monitoring, using an online platform known as the Collaborative Site for Disaster Attention (SICADE).

In addition to geospatial and Earth observation data currently being used for regular updating of Mexico’s official cartography, efforts are underway involving inter-institutional cooperation and international partners, in order to use geospatial resources in ways that can allow for a more precise, frequent and effective monitoring of the SDGs and their indicators. Apart from the geo-referencing of key statistical indicators, and the use of satellite imagery for monitoring of vegetation cover/land use changes and deforestation (SDG 15), geospatial information  and Earth observation  can be readily used for a more effective monitoring of urban development (SDG 11), water resources (SDG 6), biodiversity (SDGs 14, 15) agricultural production (SDG 2), infrastructure (SDG 9) and disaster risk management (Sendai framework). Ultimately, it can help address broader issues such as inequalities, including gender inequality and related institutional gaps.”

There is a lot of talk about integrating regular statistical information with geospatial information. What new possibilities could this bring?

“The integration of statistical and geospatial information gives us many possibilities. For instance, we can geo-reference relevant social, economic, environmental and government statistics, starting with the population censuses, revealing patterns and gaps that would not be evident using statistics alone. That is how, for example, the World Bank can geo-reference houses around the world where population in extreme poverty, or other surveyable circumstances, live. Also, the identification, mapping and monitoring of potential areas for the generation of clean energy… the possibilities of using integrated information in favour of sustainable development and to improve the living conditions of the world population are enormous.

Another example of one of those possibilities that integration of statistical and geospatial information could bring us could be the fight against insecurity by geo-referencing crimes, as well as other valuable data related to administrative records.”

What role does geospatial information play in surveys of populations? 

“Geospatial information plays a very important role when carrying out population censuses around the world, since the integration of statistical and geographic information in this exercise can give us potentialized results, which are very useful for decision makers.

An example of its scope could be the monitoring of the growth of cities, and the access to services over time.

As geospatial data is systematized over time, it will be possible not only to measure and analyse changes in demographics, economics and other factors, but also their evolution in space over time. This can be particularly useful in the monitoring of migration patterns, or of local and regional population trends after major disasters. More importantly, when diverse information layers can be analysed spatially, patterns emerge that can help explain and address issues affecting population dynamics which otherwise would have been hidden if living in tables and charts alone.”

For more information: UN-GGIM

Watch: UN Statistical Commission event “Integrating statistical, geospatial, and other big data to leave no one behind


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