A high-level global group promoting geospatial information could help developing countries gain better access to data to help tackle issues such as climate change, conservation and disaster management.
The UN has set up an expert committee and a programme on global geospatial information management under its Economic and Social Council to encourage international cooperation and establish best practice on the use of geographic data, collected by technologies such as remote sensing and the global positioning system (GPS).
The decision, announced last month (27 July), was triggered by a report earlier this year by the UN secretary-general that concluded that many developing countries have a "serious lack of institutional capacity to harness the enormous potential of geospatial information technologies and to build a sustainable national infrastructure".
There have been several efforts to manage such information, including the Permanent Committee for Geospatial Data Infrastructure of the Americas (PC-IDEA) and the Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific (PCGIAP).
"But these discussions have been regional in focus," said Paul Cheung, director of the new initiative and head of the UN's statistics division in New York.
"There is a need for a global platform, for all countries to come together and focus on all of the issues. That is why we have created this committee," he told SciDev.Net.
A key task will be to standardise geospatial information and applications to enable the sharing of data and services across borders.
According to Cheung, geospatial data is increasingly owned by multinational corporations, which sell software and platforms to developing countries that may not have the capacity to know what the best products are or how best to use them. The new committee could help represent developing countries and advise them on building up their national institutions.
"Spatial information and analysis lie at the heart of nearly all major international peace, global health and economic development problems," Mark Becker, a geospatial applications expert at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, United States, told SciDev.Net.
"Having a central committee focused on setting standards for accuracy of data and guidelines for the fair redistribution of data is essential," he said.
Becker added that the new committee could increase the efficient use of spatial information in projects for developing countries, such as managing refugee centres and immunisation programmes.
"If you can easily discover and download data that is critical for your operations and not have to create it yourself you have increased your efficiency," he said.
Geospatial information can empower decision-making on "extremely important" concerns in developing countries, such as development and environmental conservation, said Susan Wolfinbarger, from the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Given the rapid development of technologies such as remote sensing, mapping and GPS, a group of experts on geographic technology is essential to help develop standards for data quality, cooperation and use of geospatial information," Wolfinbarger added.
The first UN high-level forum on geospatial information management is scheduled to take place in Seoul, Korea, in October to bring together countries, international organisations and the private sector.
"But at the end of the day, it is governments that will have to decide on issues," said Cheung.