How the UN is tracking SDGs with data

By Esri

Exclusive interview with Brett Dixon, General Manager for Asia Pacific at Esri.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same can be said for Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, the world’s first carbon-neutral city which will primarily be powered by solar.

Masdar City is part of a national movement to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). This ambitious project was made possible by platforms that enable effective collaboration and instant information sharing across all parties – city planners, citizens, and private companies alike.

“Smart and sustainable communities are about individuals being able to access information from all over their organisations; all over the city; or from different parts of the world,” explains Brett Dixon, General Manager for Asia Pacific at Esri, a geospatial company that offers 3D modelling – instrumental in the design and development of a key neighbourhood in Masdar City.

Working together

Smart communities are sustainable communities. It is no small task to design a carbon-neutral city, achieve the SDGs, or find a balance between the urban and natural worlds – as Singapore is working toward. The Singapore National Parks Board manages six million individual trees using Esri’s geospatial platform. These data help the agency keep track of the trees’ health and condition, to conserve and preserve as much as possible. “Development of the built environment is not always the priority. Increasingly it’s also preserving what we have and working toward sustainability in our cities,” Dixon says.

Collaboration and data sharing tools are becoming an indispensable part of any smart city’s sustainability efforts. Take a look at India, a country with a goal to build 100 smart cities – but is still plagued by a lack of adequate water sanitation: “In India, one aspect of urban sustainability is access to fresh water and protecting valuable water sources,” he shares. Esri is working with several cities to map their water supply networks and sewage channels, so they can track and cut down on water contamination.

This analysis has allowed officials to identify areas where poor planning of water and sewage networks have led to water contamination. This way, they can plan better networks to bring fresh water to more people, explains Dixon.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) has created an open data online portal that collates and shares metrics on the country’s progress in the SDGs with citizens. The open data portal, which Esri has helped create, compiles statistical data from maps to create graphs of key social indicators. “It’s about individuals being able to access information from all over their organisation, or city, being able to analyse it, and then pushing that back out to the community,” Dixon adds.

The success of each of these initiatives hinges on the fact that data and analyses are available on one platform for anyone to access. Previously, he notes, “an analyst may be doing some great spatial analysis, but there is no mechanism to share that intelligence”.

To address the need for collaborative capability, Esri’s geospatial tool, ArcGIS, has evolved beyond a desktop application. Its entire architecture is now is now driven by collaboration and information sharing, he adds.

Beyond borders

Any one country cannot achieve SDGs in isolation, as the effects of climate change extend far beyond borders. It is just as important that data flows freely across agencies, governments, and countries, giving more insight into how it is possible to work together towards common sustainability goals.

The United Nations is collaborating with Esri to create a massive open data “portal of portals” that will collate SDG-related statistics from its member countries, according to Dixon. “Many nations can collect information on the SDGs from the local level, up to a national level,” he says.

The initiative, which began eight months ago, has since recruited 17 countries into its fold, including Ireland, Mexico and Palestine. “The objective of the Federated System for SDGs is for many countries to collate and share information on progress against the SDGs,” Dixon adds. “It’s an awesome example of being able to collect and share information from local through to international levels – building a digital twin of the planet.”

Collaboration is the “single biggest driver of the evolution of Esri products”, he believes. For big, complex missions like Masdar City and Singapore’s tree tracking to happen, it takes dedicated teams working closely and effectively together, sharing their data with the communities.

At its heart, collaboration ensures that urban development centers around citizens and their needs: “not just determining what we think is right, but actually engaging citizens to ask them what they think”, Dixon concludes. “Citizens are certainly more engaged in the process of defining what the city is, what it will be, and what it should be.”

Esri is participating in the upcoming United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress (UNWGIC), which will have a focus on attaining sustainable development in November in Deqing, China. To find out more about Esri’s works on sustainable development, please visit here.