My take from UN World Data Forum

Brian Killough from NASA presenting on the Earth Observation tools

The second UN World Data Forum was full of pomp and color as participants flocked into the Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai. The organizers had set over 75 sessions in a course of 3 days. There was also room for people to visit the exhibition booths that were set to highlight the amazing innovations and technology. The organizations showcased tools and initiatives that were being used for data collection and management for decision making.

It was easy to lose 20kgs as you crisscrossed in the corridors to get into the next meeting room as you target a front seat with a good view. The rooms seem to be always full. In retrospect, the topics were well thought through and attracted interest from the majority of the participants. The speakers and panelists showed experience and preparation for the sessions that they were handling.

Some aspects, however, stood out and they presented an interesting future.

  1. Advancement of technology is on the rise and more players are offering creative solutions and methodologies. These solutions identify, measure resources, levels of challenges and their resulting effects. Earth observation and satellite technology are among the drivers presented in the forum. The possibilities of solutions derived from the data generated were many. The impact was clearly identifiable and convincing — whether you are analyzing urbanization progress in a region or looking at the loss of vegetation or receding of water bodies over time. 
    Governments and large corporations have been using this kind of data for focused and private reasons but with organizations like NASA offering for free the technology for public use, it opens up new interest and activation of innovation to answer some social challenges. The Africa Regional Data Cube is one initiative that allows the use of satellite data to address food security and other related areas like agriculture, water access, and land use etc.
  2. There is a call to have data interoperability among the organizations especially those addressing common social challenges. There are many organizations and initiatives working in silos in same geographical regions. The resulting effect is the duplication of efforts and wastage of resources. By sharing information, the challenges are better dealt with and resources are better managed. 
    Datasets from different sources also present challenges when required to offer solutions. The publishing of the data has to be in easy to read formats and interoperable with other datasets in related fields. Data from satellite and observation tools e.g. when looking at agriculture and land use, needs to integrate with vegetation data to clearly identify and close gaps that have been evident when such data is used in isolation.
  3. There were thousands of participants in the event who came from all over the world. The youth were however not well represented. Majority of the participants were elderly presenting a concern on the transfer of knowledge. One of the event's purposes was to provide lessons and experiences that would be transferred and change the way of thinking in our field of work. There are some literature e.g. “Age and the Macroeconomic” that highlight the challenges a society can face if there is no inclusion of the youth in the workforce. Older workforce offers experience and increased output per hour worked, however, this workforce might also experience deterioration in the relevant skills if job requirements change over time or if people’s skills decline.
    The world we are talking about changing is for the future generation. We need to engage them often, as they are the ones who will carry the ideas and adapt as the skills set change.
    Another reason why we need youth in such events is that of the technological advancements. To solve the challenges of the future, there have to be technological advancements. Scientific, engineering and technological knowledge have to be advanced and taken up more. This will further improve production processes and social overhead capital.
    The use of geospatial data and imagery will propel the research and implementation of solutions to social challenges. As it was highlighted in the conference, the possibilities of using satellite data and the increase of players in this field will require a new generation of thinkers. Hopefully, the youth will play this role.

As we gear up towards the next UN World Data Forum in 2020 in Bern, Switzerland, I am hopeful that we will see a younger audience showcasing new and innovative solutions.