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Support must be given to the efforts of developing countries to improve data collection, Sha Zukang, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, told the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (13 December).
"We must establish partnerships so that we can tap into commercial data and information sources to bridge data gaps," he said.
"For policy to be based on science and facts, data and information must be widely and easily accessible. It must also be in formats usable for decision-making, and in public domains," he said.
The Abu Dhabi meeting is part of preparations for the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June 2012, which marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit.
Zukang, who is also Secretary-General of Rio+20, said next year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro must focus on renewed political commitment for sustainable development, backed up by provision of resources and capacity building.
He said that accurate data collection would enable governments, civil society and business to make effective policies and decisions on sustainable production and consumption.
All governments, institutions and communities "must collect and maintain critical data and information for fact-based decision-making on sustainable development issues," he said.
Advanced technologies were now available for collecting and analysing data on ecosystems and societies. The advance in geospatial data collection and analysis, for example, was "of strategic significance".
Geospatial information systems (GIS) could be used in areas such as food security, sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy and could be applied in land-use management and disaster preparedness.
Zukang said the UN had recognised the critical role of GIS in advancing sustainable development, and the recently established UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management would seek to improve the management and coordination of geospatial information around the world.
But while GIS was capable of measuring progress on economic, social and environmental issues, he said, there were no published reports bringing together these three pillars of sustainable development. This would have to change if the world was serious about following up on Rio+20.
"The future cannot wait. We all know this," he said.
Civil society representatives at the Abu Dhabi meeting told SciDev.Net that they supported the provision of financial and technical support for developing countries to build and use environmental data for sustainable development.
"There is great need to support developing countries to be able to collect and release data. A lot of them do not have good collections of data nor do they have good standards for doing that," said Carole Excell, senior associate, intuitions and governance, at the US-based World Resources Institute.
It was important to build national capacities for data collection and to empower citizens to use the data and hold government accountable.
Environmental lawyer Benson Ochieng’, a director with the Nairobi-based Institute for Legal and Environmental Governance (ILEG), emphasised the need for a legal framework that would ensure that people had access to information arising from the data.
Citizens’ right to access data, Ochieng’ said, must be grounded in law.
"Whereas there has been some significant moves in constitutionalism in some African countries like South Africa and Kenya, there are policy reversals on what governments consider as a threat to security when it comes to access to information," he warned.