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UNECE is making geospatial data work for you

Most of us probably still remember the time when during a family car trip the hard-to-fold windshield-sized paper map was drawn out to determine which way to turn next, or when everyone in the back seat was instructed to keep their eyes open for the next gas station. Now, many of us are used to typing the destination in the GPS navigation device before leaving for a weekend trip. The nearest bank or gas station can be located using a phone application. Just like that, fast and easy.

In today’s world we have loads of information at our fingertips every day. The abundance of data can be confusing, but well-designed graphs and maps make it easy to understand the story behind the figures. Maps can make our everyday life simpler, but they can also  give us detailed information about what is happening in our country or around the world, whether we want to know more about flooding or drought, density of population or flows of migration. All this is possible thanks to geospatial data.

The analytical value of data increases if they can be linked to a point of reference – such as time or location. Geotagging means linking data with information about its physical location, such as a country, region, road, building, address, coordinate etc. The information could come from a variety of sources: private companies, local authorities, statistical offices, central government or Earth observations on weather, natural conditions, vegetation etc.

Spatially referenced statistics enable valuable insights into the world around us. We could use well-developed spatial data to design transport networks, analyse business opportunities and plan public services. We could track poverty rates across regions, monitor disease outbreak patterns or analyse impacts of natural hazards. We could develop early warning systems that alert people to imminent disasters. Easier access to these data would help emergency services find the best entry and exit points in a disaster area and know the number of people affected. Better data would help policy makers to make the right decisions and authorities to respond faster.

Because of these benefits, statisticians are now working intensively to integrate statistics with geospatial data. The Agenda 2030 is creating an imperative for improvements. Roughly a quarter of the proposed indicators of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires geospatial data. Additionally, if geospatial data were more easily available, progress in SDGs across countries and regions could be visualized in a new and efficient way.

Increasing the value of statistics is not about collecting more data, but about linking the existing economic, social and environment statistics with location data and other data sources. We need to be able to integrate, visualize, manage and present information in novel ways.

However, increasing the availability of geospatial statistics has its challenges. It requires serious investment in human resources, technology and methods to be able to integrate statistical and geospatial data. It also requires increased coordination at the national level between the statistical and geospatial agencies. At the international level, a process is underway to establish a Global Geospatial Information Management Community, which will consist of regional bodies and will develop mechanisms for closer collaboration between official statisticians and geospatial experts.  

These challenges and the role of official statistics in producing geospatial information services are a key topic of the Conference of European Statisticians taking place on 27-29 April 2016 in Paris. More than 60 countries and a number of international organizations will come together to agree on the way towards the integration of geospatial data with official statistics.