In recent months, our work at Azavea has increased in focus towards building tools in support of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were developed in 2015 in an effort to “end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change.” We are learning as much as we can about the application of geospatial data and earth imagery to measuring SDG success. As a part of that learning, we have been attending global conferences with a focus on SDGs. This has proven very informative in developing knowledge around SDGs and identifying challenges for developing countries – primarily, capacity building.
If we build it, will they come?
There is a growing concern among developing countries that the market actors in the SDG community (both public and private) are building tools without providing assistance. There are numerous and significant global efforts to develop and provide tools and resources for countries to utilize SDG reporting efforts. The challenge, as made clear by conversations with country representatives, remains the overwhelming amount of data made available with limited or no capacity building or training provided.
The commercial sector continues to promote tools, platforms, and data at an alarming rate with a variety of business models ranging from SaaS to Freemium to funded open source platforms. In particular, earth observation and big data sectors continue to evolve and make such tools more readily available to countries in need. This is an admirable effort.
However, the “if we build it, they will come” model currently being used for SDG solutions by overzealous funders and ambitious software companies is not sustainable. In fact, it is contributing to confusion and challenges for developing nations. There are innumerable platforms and databases for any country to access and new tools introduced on a consistent basis. The challenge is that many are built as one-size-fits-all solutions, with little to no consideration for the end user. Earth observation and big data management have the opportunity to provide significant assistance in moving the SDG agenda forward. The significant amount of open source and commercial data from satellites, drones, airplanes, etc., is and will continue to prove valuable. But as the USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance suggests, access must be enabled in the right ways.
Building capacity in developing countries
Organizers of a recent conference in Amsterdam placed the challenges for developing countries in 3 major categories and ranked them by importance:
- Access to data & tools
- Capacity Building and Training
Conversely, at the recent UN International Conference on Big Data in Kigali, Rwanda, presentations by and discussions with leaders of developing countries suggested a different ranking of priorities:
- Capacity Building and Training
- Access to data and tools
As one country representative at the UN data conference in Rwanda plainly stated:
There is clearly a gap between what countries need and what solutions providers are building. All projects involving technology and solutions for developing countries should include robust capacity building and skill development.
Capacity building at Azavea
We are working on this. At Azavea, we value a customer-first approach. Every project starts with us asking: What is your problem and how can we work together to solve it? We are also invested in making sure that customers can utilize the tools we build for them, going as far as running on-the-ground training for those implementing the software solution. We did this in our project with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Guyana’s Central Housing and Planning Authority, where we built out GIS capacity by incorporating OSM data.
The Open Urban Planning Toolbox incorporates the tools we built. This toolbox empowers countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to not only access data for urban planning, but analyze and disseminate it in meaningful ways.
DRIVER, our open-source platform created in partnership with the World Bank, was developed to mitigate road crashes around the world in support of SDG 11 and SDG 3.6. We integrated the platform first in the Philippines and it is now in Vietnam, Laos, Bangladesh, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Mumbai, with additional instances planned in the future. DRIVER would not have been successfully implemented in multiple countries without careful consideration for the end user and the context of our customers. For example, our implementation in Saudi Arabia utilized custom layout changes to support Arabic and the Hijiri calendar. Additionally, we ensured that whoever was using the tool was adequately trained on the platform. A quote from a trainee in Laos emphasizes the importance of this approach:
The fundamental ability to hear and listen to end users remains the most effective approach to developing useful solutions. Feedback and conversations with developing countries at the recent UN 5th International Conference in Kigali, Rwanda highlighted key areas of need for end users. National Statistics Offices (NSOs) — data centric environments for national statistics — are seeking assistance for country level reporting, policy development, and decision-making tools in service of SDG compliance. The development of a series of on-site and web-based training modules is critical to the success of the SDGs and would assist developing countries in implementing and utilizing earth observation/geospatial and data analytics solutions with country specific projects.
Based on comments from discussions from leaders of developing countries, capacity building and training should address:
- How to maximize the use of earth observation tools
- Integration of geospatial tools with local databases
- Building the path for SDG reporting
- The role of GIS/geospatial technology and solutions
- Developing and supporting projects with local resources (Universities/Local Business)
- Open source solutions and how to leverage
- Project development and evaluation of applicable tools
A curriculum included with the development of projects would add capacity to countries, develop skills for self sufficiency, and provide opportunity for additional education with universities and job creation with local entrepreneurs. Capacity and courses should vary by country based on its needs, requirements, and specific projects.
Right now, commercial entities are not spending sufficient time listening to countries and their specific needs. Solutions of this nature, no matter how hard the commercial sector tries, are not one-size-fits-all. As a presenter in Kigali so eloquently noted: “For developing countries, please do not talk to us about blockchain and artificial intelligence. Teach us how to get started with simple tools that we can build on.” Developing countries are hungry for capacity to develop solutions for a better future. Let’s listen and build those solutions.
At Azavea, our mission is to “advance geospatial technology and research for civic and social impact.” We want to build cutting edge solutions that not only check a box, but meet people where they are, actually solve their problems, and create lasting social change. We’re looking for thought leaders, funders, and partners to join us in this work. Do you have thoughts on capacity building and SDGs? Reach out.