This post is written by Alvin K. Leong, Fellow, Pace Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is an extraordinarily complex agenda encompassing multiple dimensions, including time (time-bound targets) and space (geographic location). While there has been attention paid to the temporal dimension, comparatively less attention has been paid to the spatial dimension. Yet, it is axiomatic that “everything that happens, happens somewhere.” The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without understanding that “somewhere.”
To understand the spatial dimension, the “data revolution” will need to include the integration of traditional statistical data with geospatial and Earth observation data. It is very clear that this integration will be important for SDG monitoring – combining statistics with location-based data will enable deeper knowledge of the dynamics of the SDGs in all three dimensions of sustainable development. Indeed, because such integration presents a far richer data picture for policymakers, it should occur even if the SDGs never existed.
On the national level, there are different models for how this integration can occur – for example, the Australian model is based on a collaborative partnership (the Australian Bureau of Statistics with Geoscience Australia) while the Mexican model is based on a single unified institution (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI)). In line with national ownership, each country has to decide which organizational forms will work best in their national contexts. Regardless of organizational forms, it is important to actually start the substantive process of integration as soon as practicable. In this endeavor, the global partnership for sustainable development data and capacity-building support for developing countries will be crucial.
On the international level, the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) has been working closely with the statistical community, and a Task Team led by Denmark has provided geospatial inputs into the SDG indicator framework, with support from the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO).
There have been some suggestions to unify the statistical and geospatial communities at the international level, for example to form a UN Commission on Statistics and Geospatial Information. Regardless of the permutations of the organizational forms, the essence of the mission is to establish good collaboration between these two knowledge communities. Such collaboration can then produce globally accepted standards and frameworks to integrate statistical and geospatial and Earth observation data and serve as a platform for other knowledge communities to collaborate further in the quest to realize the full potential of the SDGs.
Going beyond the geospatial data revolution, the use of geographic information systems can be an important means of implementation for the SDGs. A geographic information system (GIS) is an integration of hardware, software and data that captures, manages, analyzes, and displays forms of information with geographic references. GIS can help decision-makers visualize and understand data, including the visual overlay of multiple data sets, which can reveal relationships, patterns and trends that may not otherwise be perceived. Thus, GIS can serve as a valuable problem-solving tool and as a technology to map and analyze development plans for particular locations, including the modeling of alternative scenarios. The concept of geodesign extends the application of GIS further, where geographic analysis is brought into the design process for both built and natural environments. Complex sustainability concerns in development projects, including energy, water, transport, waste, green buildings, open space, and other sociocultural and ecological themes, can be organized and addressed by a holistic geodesign framework.
As the international community moves forward with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, the spatial dimension should not be forgotten. Key steps include the integration of statistics and geospatial and Earth observation data, and the incorporation of GIS and geodesign frameworks at all levels – subnational, national, regional and global, all in the pursuit of sustainable development.
 Notably, the 2030 Agenda mentions “geographic location” (target 17.18 and paragraph 74g) and “earth observation and geo-spatial information” (paragraph 76).