UN turns to space technology to reach SDGs

Space tech
Copyright: Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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  • UN teams up with German aerospace to access satellite technology for development
  • Collaboration aims to tackle water and food security and plan disaster response
  • First project in Mozambique will assist reconstruction following Cyclone Idai

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[NEW YORK] The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will have greater access to a suite of powerful space science tools to help countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals after signing a cooperation agreement with the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
The new partnership will enable UNDP and its partners to leverage high-resolution satellite imagery and sophisticated computer modelling to address local issues such as flooding, and health and education needs.
More accurate floodwater mapping and modelling can inform urban planning practices, while more precise population and settlement maps could show where schools and hospitals need to be built, the agencies said.

“Deep learning methods mean a better understanding of global change, improved meteorological predictions, and a better understanding of human mobility.”

Hansjörg Dittus, DLR executive board member

Pascale Ehrenfreund, chairman of DLR’s executive board, who spoke at the signing of the agreement at the UN headquarters in New York on Friday (13 December), said: “The fast pace of technological change in recent years—in robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and related areas such as big data—all have a broad impact on the economy, society, and environment. And this is all over the world, not only in more developed countries.”
“Space technology can do more than just give information,” said Hansjörg Dittus, who also serves on the DLR executive board. “Deep learning methods mean a better understanding of global change, improved meteorological predictions, and a better understanding of human mobility, all of which directly help the UNDP.”
A DLR analysis identified more than 700 outcomes of DLR research activities that are relevant to achieving the SDGs, Dittus added. He gave examples of three of the agency’s products that could be useful to partner countries and agencies under the agreement.
Global datasets outlining humanity’s “urban footprint” reveal settlement patterns that can inform climate models and risk assessments on the impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis, he said. And global water monitoring data can help predict future fluctuations in water resource levels, while an Earth system model evaluation tool helps validate a range of climate models used to hone in on local changes in rainfall, flood zones, temperature and other environmental variables.   
Education and building technical capability will be a key feature of the collaboration, with workshops in partner countries to train practitioners from government, nonprofit, scientific and development sectors on how to identify and use appropriate technologies.
DLR research institutes in Germany also plan to host professionals in relevant fields from around the world for training and skill-building residencies in the coming years. 
Marc Jochemich, head of international relations for DLR’s Washington office, said: “We hope to match development organisations with technologies that can meet their needs.
“We have a lot of new technologies, and can develop many more new technologies, as well as new collaborations that can result in new scientific results. But we need to bring the actors together to make these new things happen.”
Frieda Fein, a GIS specialist on the geospatial analytics team of UNDP, said that a pilot programme in Mozambique beginning in March 2020 will focus on infrastructure repair following flooding damage resulting from Cyclone Idai in March 2019. Before-and-after satellite imagery will be crucial for the planning and targeting of reconstruction efforts, Fein said.The agreement is one of a number of initiatives by the UNDP to harness space-based technologies to help countries plan for a more sustainable future and rebuild after a disaster.
The office has previously partnered with the UN-SPIDER programme of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, geared toward disaster response. In 2016, it used satellite imagery to monitor reconstruction efforts in the historic city of Timbuktu, Mali following conflict in that country.
Bernard Frot, an information management specialist at the UNDP, who is coordinating the partnership with DLR, said: “Especially post-disaster, populations are very vulnerable. And impacts can be complex.
“Satellites, digital imagery and other innovations are one of the most powerful tools we have to help local governments and partners determine appropriate actions to take.”