Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals at #Locate19

By on 11 April, 2019

The unconference on Australian geospatial engagement with the SDGs at #Locate19.

Australia’s engagement with the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals was — and the implications for the geospatial industry — was one of the key provocative themes at this year’s #Locate19 conference.

One of the most engaging and stimulating sessions of the many collaborative discussions taking place at The Hub at Locate19 was around the SDGs — what they mean for Australia, and as a highly developed nation — why should we care, and what should we do?

Set by the UN in 2015, the SDGs are part of Resolution 70/1 of the United Nations General Assembly: ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, otherwise known as the 2030 Agenda.

The 17 goals contain 169 targets, linked to 232 indicators in order to track progress and help policymakers, industry and civil society work together to achieve the goals in a manner that facilitates data sharing and transparency. The framework is designed to help government and civil society examine where they need to be focusing their energy and resources, and establish a blueprint for a standardised reporting and progress tracking mechanism.

As evidenced in the SDG-focused sessions at #Locate19, the process of evaluating a jurisdiction (or any entity’s) progress towards the goals is revealing of data collection gaps and inconsistency of specification — and represents a colossal opportunity for the geospatial and remote sensing community.

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The discussion in The Hub on Tuesday, titled ‘UN Sustainable Development Goals: How might Australian spatial services support the development, implementation and measurement of the SDGs’, was an all-welcome discussion about the SDGs, their definition and implications, and a range of perspectives from those familiar with evaluating progress towards them in an Australian context.

Unpacking why industry in an economically developed country should invest in engagement with this framework on environmental sustainability and international development brought a range of insights. It was noted that millennials and Gen Ys — the future of the workforce — increasingly seek employment with meaning, and amid growing broader community awareness of the realities of climate change, would represent a form of future-proofing.

Michael Reid, drawing on experience working on SDGs in NSW and now working to operationalise them in a role for the new environmental commissioner in Victoria, noted major data gaps around socioeconomic indicators in particular, relative to biophysical indicators in the context of environmental data collection and reporting — and commented on the number of exciting conversations around this he’d already had at #Locate19.

Jamie Leach, CEO of the Open Data Institute Australia pointed out that standards and standardised processes  an essential role in creating collaboration efficiencies, coherence of data products, increasing their value and driving reuse.

A discussion on the role of geospatial tech in sustainability and resilience was a highlight of the closing plenaries at #Locate19.

Cleverly, the key points of the conversation at The Hub were developed and put to the panel discussion on ‘Sustainability and resilience: a discussion on the role of geospatial’ at the well-attended closing plenary.

Facilitated by Stuart Minchin of Geoscience Australia, the discussion was between Gillian Sparkes, commissioner of Environmental Sustainability Victoria, Julie Boulton of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, and Teresa Townsend, CEO of Planning Communities and immediate past president of URISA, SSSI’s sister organisation in the US.

Throwing the gauntlet to industry down directly, Minchin outlined the scale of the opportunity for industry: these frameworks apply for 20 years, with an ever-increasing number of government departments at all levels, private firms and global development organisations in need of management and analytical tools to help them gather, organise and manage a colossal deluge of data within clearly-defined indicators and formats.

Sparkes raised the achievability of getting started as an organisation — with so many indicators, aligning with those already collected and beginning to measure process is an easy first step, then evaluate, add and continue to iterate.

Townsend reflected that the experience of utilities companies in the US has shown that customers are pleased with action being taken, but the value of the decision is ultimately informed by the improvement to the bottom line — technology in practice has now caught up with its academic promise.

Rounding out the discussion was the question of how geospatial technology can begin to drive outcomes, rather than just improve reporting on them.

Sparkes pointed out that the relationship is symbiotic — the data is critical to informing priority interventions to improve performance and make targets, also noting that geospatial and Earth observation data is now viewed as an intrinsic — not optional — technology within government in achieving the goals, and reporting to a desired standard.

The discussion was a challenging, optimistic and thought-provoking close to the conference that had many of the assembled industry representatives taking notes.

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