ceos   eesa
The Importance and Challenge of the SDGs
Role of EO Data in Support of the SDGs
Institutional Roles
Future Challenges
Where to Find EO Data and Help
spacer Role of EO Data in Support of the SDGs

Earth observations offer unprecedented opportunities to modernise national statistical systems and improve the capacities of countries to efficiently track all facets of sustainable development.

Satellite data has a role to play in relation to most of the 17 Goals and around a quarter of the Targets.

Data-driven development

The design of the 2030 Agenda, of its Goals, its Targets, and its Global Indicator Framework, is driven by the recognition that future sustainable development strategies must be evidence-based and data-driven. The Indicator Framework is predicated on the emergence of a data revolution, including within the NSOs that will be required to routinely report progress of countries towards the Targets. The UN Secretary General led calls to mobilise the data revolution for sustainable development, recognising that on-going measurement of progress towards the new goals and targets will require a sustainable flow of high quality, timely, authoritative and accessible data.

NSOs have long used a diversity of data sources and techniques to produce official statistics, such as censuses and household surveys, as well as administrative and transactional data. Traditional statistical methods have tended to dominate NSO’s activities, even in today’s data-rich and technologically driven society where citizens are exposed daily to geospatial datasets through mobile phone technology, GPS and internet mapping applications. But with the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the importance of high quality, timely and accessible data to inform the SDGs, there is a recognition that the full realisation of the 2030 Agenda at all levels (from local to global scales) will require the use of multiple types and new sources of data, including geospatial information and satellite EO, as well as advanced data processing and Big Data analytical techniques to extract the necessary information from all these data sets.

The first UN World Data Forum on Sustainable Development Data in early 2017 brought together NSOs, data scientists, data providers and users with academia, international organisations and civil society organisations to discuss challenges and opportunities for harnessing the power of data and monitoring to contribute to the SDGs. The resulting Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data (see links section) stresses that the implementation of the SDGs requires the collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of an unprecedented amount of data and statistics, at multiple levels and by a large range of stakeholders.

spacer The strategic areas identified for effort by the Plan include:

− strengthened national statistical systems

and coordination of the NSOs;

− the application of new technologies and new data sources into mainstream statistical activities;

− integrating geospatial data into statistical production programmes at all levels;

− multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development data.

The Global Action Plan proposes to leverage the efforts of the NSOs to modernise their national statistical systems, but also the efforts of international organisations and partnerships - such as those of the EO community to promote Earth observations in support of the SDG monitoring.

The use of geospatial data and technology is increasingly recognised as being fundamental to policy making and monitoring in relation to sustainable development. As societal pressures scale with growing populations and depleting resources, timely and comprehensive information on the state of the Earth will become increasingly important as the foundation for evidence-based decision-making for the 2030 Agenda.

The UN is working to ensure that the necessary data revolution, data supply, methodologies for application, and capacity for use, are all in place to support measuring and monitoring of the SDG Global Indicator Framework.

The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) aims to play a leading role in the development of global geospatial information and to promote its use to address key global challenges, such as the SDGs. UN-GGIM has characterised a general ‘data flow’ framework (Figure 1) for national information systems supporting the SDG Indicator Framework. This illustrates a typical mix of national data that provide the building blocks and processes for any given country to measure and monitor the SDGs from local real-world conditions, and allow global harmonised reporting through robust and reliable data inputs.
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Figure 1: Model national information system with data inputs, data integration and reporting.
Credit: UN-GGIM

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spacer spacer How satellite data can help

Geospatial information and EO, together with modern data processing and big data analytics, offer unprecedented opportunities to modernise national statistical systems and consequently to make a quantum leap in the capacities of countries to efficiently track all facets of sustainable development.

EO (from satellite, airborne and in-situ sensors) provide accurate and reliable information on the state of the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, rivers, soil, crops, forests, ecosystems, natural resources, ice, snow and built infrastructure, as well as their change over time. These observations are directly or indirectly necessary for all functions of government, all economic sectors and many day-to-day activities of society.

The benefits of satellite EO are already well understood across many areas of government, industry and science as a valuable information source in support of many sectors of society. As a consequence, satellite EO programmes represent the largest investment globally in relation to satellite applications by national governments, typically through their national space agencies. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) reports that its member agencies are currently operating or planning more than 300 different satellite EO missions, carrying over 900 different instrument payloads. These systems span a diverse range of measurements of atmosphere, ocean, and land, supporting hundreds of applications related to matters that can affect the lives of citizens. In addition, privately funded EO missions, including large constellations of smaller satellites with the capability to provide frequent coverage or repeat measurements, are rapidly increasing in number in recent years.

spacer Effective use of the information from satellite observations can have a transformational impact on many of humanity’s most significant challenges, such as helping monitor and protect fragile ecosystems, ensure resilient infrastructure, manage climate risks and public health, enhance food security, build more resilient cities, reduce poverty, and improve governance, among others.

Key benefits of satellite Earth observation data for the SDGs and for the NSOs reporting against the indicators are:

− Satellite Earth observation data makes the prospect of a Global Indicator Framework for the SDGs viable. For many Indicators, the coverage and frequency of measurements from which the Indicators are derived would simply not be feasible, technically or financially if satellite observations are not used;

− the potential to allow more timely statistical outputs, to reduce the frequency of surveys, to reduce respondent burden and other costs and to provide data at a more disaggregated level for informed decision making;

− improved accuracy in reporting by ensuring that data are more spatially-explicit and directly contribute to informing the Targets and Indicators, helping to augment statistical data, validating national statistics, and providing disaggregation and granularity of the indicators (where relevant, by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, in support of the principle of leaving no one behind). Satellite data can support the evolution from traditional statistical approaches to more measurement-based solutions as some challenges, including in relation to the environment and human populations, become more pressing, and with the need for more accurate, spatially explicit, and frequently updated evidence.
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Satellite data characteristics

There being many different EO satellites in operation, the data characteristics can vary significantly from one to another depending on the purpose and application. But a number of characteristics are common to many satellite datasets that are of interest to NSOs seeking to integrate such data into their national information systems:

Free and open: not all nations are able to develop and launch their own EO satellites, with a relatively small (but growing) number having the capacity to do so. Hence the availability of the data from these missions, for all nations, is of fundamental importance to their uptake and global impact. This has been advocated for strongly by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) for many years.

US government mission data has long been freely available, and with the free and open data policy of the European Union’s Copernicus programme, the prospects for access to the EO data required by developing countries have improved considerably. Copernicus also provides free access to added-value services in the fields of land, marine and atmosphere monitoring, climate change and emergency management.

Scale and coverage: first and foremost, satellites are unrivalled in their ability to make global measurements and to provide data on all scales from local to national, regional and even global. Indeed, they are likely the only source of global information for many parameters; satellites can observe all points of the globe including areas that are remote or difficult to reach;

Consistency and comparability: satellites provide the means for the effective comparison of results among different countries, which may otherwise suffer from lack of standardisation in measurements or methods, impeding attempts to derive meaningful comparisons or regional/global statistics; consistency over time and space is an important feature of a credible Indicator Framework;

Continuity and time-series: investment in national systems and processes to integrate new sources of data such as EO satellite data, requires a degree of confidence in the continued availability of supply of that data; this has been recognised by the world’s largest space agencies and guaranteed continuity is a factor in their planning; some EO satellite mission series date back to the 1970s and others are now planned up to 2030 and beyond, providing governments with unique evidence with which to track progress, including the establishment of baselines for the determination of future trends, for monitoring and compliance of agreements, for improved predictions, and for management and mitigation; these characteristics will be invaluable over the 15-year span of the 2030 Agenda;


Complementarity with traditional statistical methods: while EO datasets can be used to monitor directly some specific Indicators of SDGs, they can also offer a unique and complementary source of information to cross-check the validity of in-situ data measurements (such as survey and inventory data) and to communicate and visualise the geographic dimensions and context of the Indicators as needed.

Diverse measurements: technological advances in instrumentation and measurements covering both science and applications have resulted in an increasingly diverse array of EO satellite missions with dozens of geophysical parameters being measured on a regular basis from a range of different satellite orbits. In the field of climate change alone, CEOS has identified that more than half of the approximately 55 Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) benefit from a major contribution from satellite observations or simply would not be feasible without satellites (such as polar ice extent and global sea level).

The CEOS Database of EO Satellite Missions, Instruments, and Measurements identifies hundreds of different missions and sensors that provide a multitude of different measurements of land, sea, ice and atmosphere. Some instruments make passive measurements of observed radiation, whilst others (like imaging radars or lasers) actively emit signals to remotely sense target properties. Many different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are employed by these sensors. Most common are simple optical cameras, which may image in the visible part of the light spectrum and may include infra-red sensing. Microwave instruments feature increasingly and provide all-weather, day-night capabilities.

Spatial resolutions vary tremendously too, with some land surface imaging sensors capable of resolving objects just tens of centimetres in size (typically these very high resolution missions are commercially operated). The most commonly applied government-funded satellite missions of Europe and the US typically provide optical and microwave data of 10–30m resolution with free and open data policies. Some sensors focused on more global applications, such as those for climate observations, might be designed to measure at resolutions of hundreds of metres or even kilometres.
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Status of support to the SDGs

A number of analyses have been undertaken by different organisations seeking to establish a clear understanding of where EO data currently support the SDG Targets and Indicators and where they might have future potential to do so. While these analyses may vary slightly in their conclusions, they agree broadly with regards to the type of Goals, Targets and Indicators that can be supported by information extracted from EO data. As an illustration, Figure 2 below summarises the main conclusions of the analysis by GEO and CEOS.

This table provides a comprehensive list of Targets and Indicators that can be directly or significantly supported by EO. It gives a steer to countries seeking to understand the potential of these data sources and where they might best be applied.

The GEO/CEOS study suggests that EO data has a role to play in relation to most of the 17 SDGs. More specifically, around 40 of the 169 Targets (representing about a quarter) and around 30 of the 232 Indicators (about an eighth) are supported.
It is particularly telling that of these approximately 30 Indicators, only 12 are identified as being Tier I Indicators (with established methodologies and regular data production by countries) where we might reasonably assume significant exploitation of EO data currently. This means there remains significant unrealised potential for EO data to contribute to the Indicator Framework, with only a third of its potential routinely being exploited today.

− Figure 2 indicates the relevance of satellite EO to each of the 17 SDGs based on the number of corresponding Indicators that are supported. Although this analysis requires further consolidation, it demonstrates the importance of EO to a number of goals, particularly:

− Goal 6 – clean water and sanitation;

− Goal 11 – sustainable cities;

− Goal 14 – life below water;

− Goal 15 – life on land.

Much of the contribution of EO to these goals involves the provision of information in relation to mapping of land cover, land productivity, above ground biomass, soil content, water extent or quality characteristics, as well as air quality and pollution parameters.
Figure 2: An approximate visual assessment of which Goals are supported by EO.


The statistics around the custodianship of EO-related indicators reveal that the UN Agencies most relevant to realising the potential of satellite data in the methodologies for the SDG indicators are:

- FAO;

- UN Environment;

- UN-Habitat; and

- World Health Organization (WHO).

Partnerships among these agencies, the space data providers and NSOs will be particularly important. Some examples of existing use of EO data by these organisations are provided in Parts II and III.

Figure 3: For the Indicators supported by EO, the pie chart shows an approximate correspondence to the Indicator Tier type where:

Tier 1: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, and data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50 per cent of countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is relevant.

Tier 2: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, but data are not regularly produced by countries.

Tier 3: No internationally established methodology or standards are yet available for the indicator, but methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested.

Figure 4: An approximate distribution of the Custodian Agencies for the Indicators supported by EO.
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spacer spacer Further Information

Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data:


CEOS Missions, Instruments and Measurements Database:

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