The Value of GIS & Spatial Data Science in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Source: Madeleine Alston, Alcis

Early on the United Nations recognised the need for geospatial information and related analysis to ensure that global sustainable development is promoted and also achieved.  Consequently, reference is made in several publications, including The Future We Want and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (paragraph 76), a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.  Jack Dangermond, president of esri, also addressed the United Nations’ High Level Political Forum on 7 July 2020 on sustainable development and the value GIS currently offers regarding Covid-19.

However, a longstanding issue for countries to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the lack of access to relevant data and/or resources to collect data. As part of an ongoing response the UN partnered with Google and other organisations to assist on the subject – an initiative known as Data for Now.  Furthermore, esri has worked with the UN and member countries to establish FIS4SDGs (Federal Information System for the SDGs), a global network of SDG data hubs.  The intention is for this system to enable all nations and the UN to monitor and report progress towards the SDGs.  FIS4SDGs also featured at the UN World Geospatial Information Congress in 2018, with an exploration of how countries and agencies are formulating a vision for achieving the SDGs through federated SDG Data Hubs. 

Further to the previous discussion on geospatial science and the complexity of the SDGs, the following discussion provides a brief consideration of the GIS & spatial data science methodologies and international studies applied to achieve some of the 17 SDG goals:

SDG 1 – No Poverty

Included in Ireland’s SDG Data Hub is a StoryMap (Fig. 1) that was generated to focus on unemployment and poverty in Ireland over the last decade.  The study also considers Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) in the analysis and illustrates changes in relation to unemployment and poverty over the last decade across Ireland and also at county level.

Figure 1: Unemployment rates in Dublin (©Ordnance Survey Ireland | Central Statistics Office)

Similarly, a StoryMap (Fig. 2) was developed for Palestine’s SDG Site, focusing on poverty in Palestine in 2017.  It highlighted the large percentage of poverty in the Gaza Strip (53%), compared to the much lower 13.9% in the West Bank.

Figure 2: Proportion of Population Living below poverty line in Palestine (© Esri, CGIAR, USGS, Garmin, FAO, METI/NASA, USGS)

Through the open data portal of the Philippines SDG data is also made available through the application of a GIS webmap (Fig. 3). Poverty levels can be visualised at provincial level between 2006-2015. This services allows for a quick overview of the distribution of patterns where poverty either worsened or improved.  Comparative statistics are included for each province and can be consulted by any individual/decision-maker with access to the internet.

Figure 3: 2006-2015 Poverty Incidence at Provincial Level (© Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS, Philippine Statistics Authority)

SDG 2 – Zero Hunger

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) generates a global map (Fig. 4) of the prevalence of undernourishment of a total population in 2017-2019. The WFP defines undernourishment as “the condition in which an individual’s habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, healthy life.. Further information is available in The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report 2020.

Figure 4: World Hunger Map 2020 (Source: World Food Programme)

In addition to the pdf map above, the WFP also maintains a live “HungerMap” at a global scale (Fig. 5a), which now also includes statistics on Covid-19, provided by Johns Hopkins University. Furthermore, more detailed demographic and nutritional statistics can be studied at country level (Fig. 5b). The HungerMap is a global hunger monitoring system and was developed with the Mapbox open source mapping platform. It covers 94 countries, including lower and lower-middle income countries (as classified by the World Bank).

Figure 5a: WFP HungerMap (© Mapbox, OpenStreetMap & Johns Hopkins University)
Figure 5b: WFP HungerMap – United Republic of Tanzania (© Mapbox, OpenStreetMap & Johns Hopkins University)

GIS functionality also allows for the generation of “Emergency Dashboards” in an infographic-style map to provide an overview of the most essential statistics by country. Information is also acquired from various sources, including the World Health Organisation and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Figure 6 presents an example of the August 2020 map for the Democratic Republic of Congo, reflecting a variety of demographic and humanitarian statistics. The QR code in the bottom right provides access to a country brief and various other publications on the specific country.

Figure 6: WFP Emergency Dashboard for the Democratic Republic of Congo (Source: World Food Programme)

SDG 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing

Considering SDG 3, Covid-19 is the predominant subject globally of course and a number of web maps and related dashboards are available to consult online. The best example would be the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 Dashboard. Apart from these toolkits, a number of GIS StoryMaps are also available on the subject and Figure 7 provides a snapshot of a Covid-19 StoryMap produced by staff members at esri. It provides additional information on the pandemic and also trends within the pandemic. These trends were obtained from a map that analyzes daily updates to the Johns Hopkins data.

Figure 7: StoryMap – Covid-19: The First Global Pandemic of the Information Age (Produced by Este Geraghty, Chief Medical Officer, Esri, and Charlie Frye, Chief Cartographer, Esri) © esri, Garmin

SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation

Focusing on achieving SDG 6, MUN Impact and the Thirst Project partnered to develop an extensive StoryMap to educate and inform the public of the global water crisis and raise awareness of related issues. Data is obtained from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). Figure 8 shows one of the maps applied, which also offers downloadable data in chart and table format.

Figure 8: SDG Data Tracker (Source: WHO, UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP))

SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy

The UN emphasized that investment in solar, wind and thermal power, improving energy productivity, and ensuring energy for everyone is vital for the achievement of SDG 7 by 2030.

As part of esri’s ‘ArcGIS Solutions for Local Government‘ the Calculate Solar Radiation configuration for ArcGIS Pro was developed to assist in calculating solar radiation maps to assess whether buildings have potential for solar panel installation. Figure 9 shows a snapshot of a web scene that illustrates the application.

Figure 9: Calculate Solar Radiation (© esri, NASA, NGA, USGS, FEMA | Esri Community Maps Contributors, City of Naperville, County of DuPage, BuildingFootprintUSA, Esri, HERE, Garmin, SafeGraph, INCREMENT P, METI/NASA, USGS, EPA, NPS, US Census Bureau, USDA | Source: USGS, NGA, NASA, CGIAR, GEBCO,N Robinson, NCEAS, NLS, OS, NMA, Geodatastyrelsen and the GIS User Community)

In 2019, a partnership between USAID and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was established and a Renewable Energy GIS Tool Guide was produced. The report was effectively a comparative analysis of the following six web GIS applications and includes a qualitative analysis of functionality and capability and an overview of quantifiable attributes related to each tool/application:

Global Solar Atlas

Global Wind Atlas

Multi-Criteria Analysis for Planning Renewable Energy (MapRE)

European Commission Photovoltaic Geographical Information System (PVGIS)

International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Global Atlas

Renewable Energy Data Explorer (RE Explorer)

Figure 10: Global Wind Atlas (© 2019 DTU | Powered by WAsP)

SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and the UN projection indicates that two-thirds of all humanity will be urban by 2050 (UNDP). It has also been said numerous times that the battle against climate change will be won or lost in the cities. Thus, significant transformation in the development and management of urban space is essential to achieve sustainability. The UN’s 2018 SDG 11 Synthesis Report provides an overview of progress made to date, regarding goal 11.

One of the most significant tools recently developed is the Million Neighborhoods Map by the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago. The map highlights informal settlements globally and assists in identifying communities needing infrastructure, resources and sanitation most.

Figure 11: Million Neighborhoods Map (© University of Chicago, Openstreetmap, Mapbox)

Prof. Luis Bettencourt (Inaugural Director of the Mansueto Institute of Urban Innovation) stated: “The projected growth of informal settlements, in combination with the challenges of climate change, requires the world’s immediate attention. We hope the Million Neighborhoods Map will create a change in perspective and methods enabling new forms of community-driven urban planning…” “Using this map, we can quickly identify the infrastructure deficits of entire cities and pinpoint areas most in need of improvements.”

SDG 13 – Climate Action

The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Climate Change and Environment developed a National Climate Change Adaptation Program and related targets and strategies (Figure 12) to achieve SDG 13. 

Figure 12: UAE Approach for Climate Action (Source: United Arab Emirates Ministry of Climate Change and Environment)

The UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment also provides an Open Data service via the ministry’s information center. In addition, the GIS outlined in Figure 13 below has been constructed and is accompanied by the “GeoEnvAe” mobile application, providing spatial information such as environmental, biodiversity, protected areas and agricultural statistics across the UAE.

Figure 13: UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment Smart GIS (Source: UAE MOCCAE)

In the US, a partnership was formed between the Desert Research Institute, University of Idaho and Google to develop a service called Climate Engine (utilising Google Earth Engine).  This application allows for the analysis of climate and earth observations in relation to drought, water usage, agriculture, wildfire and ecology. Figure 14 shows the wildfire ‘Burning Index’ for the country.

Figure 14: Climate Engine Burning Index (Powered by Google Earth Engine | Licensed: cc)

SDG 14 – Life Below Water

Some of the main targets of SDG 14 are to reduce marine pollution, protect and restore ecosystems, reduce ocean acidification, ensure sustainable fishing and the conservation of coastal and marine areas.

The UNEP and WCMC (UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre) Ocean Data Viewer offers users the ability to view and download various spatial datasets regarding marine and coastal biodiversity.

Figure 15: Ocean Data Viewer (© 2018 United Nations Environment Programme, WCMC, Leaflet)

Another very interesting application of web mapping is the Plastic Adrift site where users can choose a location in the ocean on a global map to see the potential movement of marine plastics over time (Figure 16).

Figure 16: Plastic Adrift (Produced by Erik van Sebille, David Fuchs and Jack Murray | Licensed: cc)

The scientific methodology applied to calculate the paths of floating debris over a 10 year period is complex and the video below provides a better further information. Further information on the tool can be found in this paper.

SDG 15 – Life on Land

“Forests cover 30 percent of the Earth’s surface, provide vital habitats for millions of species, and important sources for clean air and water, as well as being crucial for combating climate change. Every year, 13 million hectares of forests are lost, while the persistent degradation of drylands has led to the desertification of 3.6 billion hectares, disproportionately affecting poor communities.

While 15 percent of land is protected, biodiversity is still at risk. Nearly 7,000 species of animals and plants have been illegally traded. Wildlife trafficking not only erodes biodiversity, but creates insecurity, fuels conflict, and feeds corruption.” UNDP

The Half-Earth StoryMap provides for the visualisation of biodiversity globally and features embedded web maps to investigate the spatial distribution of various plant and animal species. The Biodiversity web map provides a stand-alone tool (Figure 17) to search the globe for the distribution of various animal species. The Half-Earth Project is an initiative of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, in partnership with esri.

Figure 17: Half-Earth Map (© 2017-2020, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, Inc. HALF-EARTH PROJECT and HALF-EARTH DAY are registered trademarks of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, Inc.

This post does not reflect a comprehensive study of the available geospatial toolkits and methodologies for the promotion of sustainable development and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. Nonetheless, it provides a sample of important applications relevant to each of the discussed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and highlights the importance of applying GIS and spatial data science to aid the task of achieving sustainability globally.


GIS for Sustainable Development

UN Global Geospatial Information Management

SDG Monitoring and Reporting Toolkit for UN Country Teams

SDG Country Profile

SDG Indicators and Data

Open SDG Data Hub

UN Environment SDG Hub

Migration Data Portal

The Impact of Digital Infrastructure on the SDGs

Utilizing geospatial information to implement SDGs and monitor their

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s