21 September 2015
Meeting the Sustainable Development Goal Challenge
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With a scope that ranges from urbanization, infrastructure and standards of governance to income inequality and climate change, achieving the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets will not be easy, and will rely heavily on quality, integrated and comprehensive information as both an agent and monitor of change.

Fundamental to the Goals' success is that they be verifiable and measurable.

When the UN General Assembly meets in September to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it will mark an ambitious and urgent expansion to addressing the world’s most pressing challenges. With a scope that ranges from urbanization, infrastructure and standards of governance to income inequality and climate change, achieving the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets will not be easy, and will rely heavily on quality, integrated and comprehensive information as both an agent and monitor of change. Fundamental to the Goals’ success is that they be verifiable and measurable.

In ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,’ Heads of State and Government will declare: “Quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data will be needed to help with the measurement of progress [of the SDGs] and to ensure that no one is left behind. Such data is key to decision-making.”

Back in 2011, a movement was born that is dedicated to exactly this. The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, through the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) and in partnership with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), brought together global leaders, innovators and decision makers at the inaugural Eye on Earth Summit. The Eye on Earth movement, which has since grown to include governments, UN bodies, NGOs, the private sector, academia and civil society from all parts of the world, is a global exchange of ideas and solutions for how best to close the environmental, social and economic data gap.

Eight Special Initiatives (SIs) drive the implementation of Eye on Earth’s mission, and can help address the environmental data needs of the SDG indicators. Five of them – working in the areas of biodiversity, disaster management, oceans and blue carbon, community sustainability and resiliency, and water security – map directly onto five of the SDGs.

SDGs 11 (cities and human settlements, including targets on disaster-related issues) and 15 (terrestrial ecosystems) have strong links with Eye on Earth’s Disaster Management and Biodiversity SIs, respectively. A major focus of the Eye on Disaster Management SI looks at the role geographic information systems can play in enabling more effective disaster reduction and recovery within countries. One of its projects is the Strategic Information Infrastructure for Emergency Management, which looks at implementing a conceptual framework to improve emergency management and disaster risk in countries around the world. The primary goal is to improve capacity building efforts in information management – particularly geographic information – by reducing fragmentation and duplication. High-level workshops in the Philippines have already helped to forge important relationships between experts and decision makers and confirmed the most urgent issues to be addressed by by a national level disaster management response programme.

Similarly, a major focus of the Eye on Biodiversity SI is to increase the level at which people, governments and institutions share what they know about biodiversity. Take for example its Unlocking Biodiversity Data from Environmental Impact Assessments project. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development. Too often, when a government or private-sector company commissions one of these assessments, it is filed away once decisions are made. The value of this data and knowledge for historical baselines or future projects is lost. Unlocking Biodiversity Data from Environmental Impact Assessments aims to make primary biodiversity data obtained during impact assessments more accessible for subsequent uses. By adding such data to publicly-accessible datasets, we can improve biodiversity science and conservation efforts, as well as enact new policies informed by this data.

SDG 14 calls for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources, a mission shared by the Eye on Oceans and Blue Carbon SI. This SI supports the collection of data on coastal and ocean ecosystems and makes them useful in the context of fighting climate change as well as the maintenance and protection of ecosystems. Working in close collaboration with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Blue Forests project, it provides an important link to international organisations and initiatives involved in the study of carbon captured by living organisms in the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems and stored in the form of biomass and sediments from mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses. By gathering data on blue carbon and its role in conserving ecosystems, resisting coastal erosion, supporting local economies and mitigating natural disasters, the project is providing vital information for decision makers.

Eye on Community Sustainability and Resiliency focuses on the development of a framework for the collection and sharing of environmental and social data that enables resilience in urban development. This links directly to the principles of SDG 9, which aims to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. One project under this SI is the Ecocitizen World Map. Using citizen science and crowdsourcing of information, the initiative connects neighborhoods with online tools to explore, understand and measure holistic urban health from a citizen’s perspective. Following intensive training, the participants share, via simple applications on their smart phone or the web, information on the status of various resources like water, food, materials, energy or transportation. This is then combined with geospatial information to produce a visual map, which can be used to monitor progress towards community health and sustainability targets and goals. Pilot projects in Colombia, Egypt, Morocco and Peru are intended to lay the foundation for global implementation.

Water security is a problem that is growing and predicted to accelerate, with the potential to devastate agricultural output, and lead to increased instances of disease. Eye on Water Security supports, facilitates and promotes the development of a globally effective water information infrastructure for resource management and safeguarding, in line with SDG 6, which seeks to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Most recently the SI collaborated with the Environmental Education SI and its In Service ICT Training for Environmental Professionals (ISEPEI) project to explore how information and communication technologies can be used in water security applications. Its intention is to show that these technologies are relevant, accessible, and easy-to-use for decision makers, despite traditional prejudices.

These projects operate in very different, yet interlinked and interdependent, arenas. They illustrate the international cooperation and collaboration critical to measuring, monitoring and achieving the SDGs, and highlight the central role that Eye on Earth is set to play. The best decisions are made when using quality information, and the bigger the decisions, the better the information needs to be. The kind of information the Eye on Earth projects are producing, in the right hands and backed by political will, can change the course of our future.

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