22 May 2019

Satellites, Big Data and Sustainable Development Goals

by Associate Professor Moritz Mueller

Together with 193 other countries, Malaysia has expressed commitment towards the 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals have been set by the United Nations and World Bank, and are defined by 169 associated targets. Governments around the world are working towards achieving these goals by 2030.

The SGDs are highly ambitious and include targets related to poverty reduction; hunger and food security; health; quality education; gender equality; water and clean sanitation; economic growth and urban city; responsible production and consumption; climate change; and biodiversity. If all were to be fulfilled, our world would be much closer to paradise on Earth.

To improve towards any of these ambitious targets, one must first know the current status quo. Herein, however, lie one of the biggest challenges, especially in developing countries, given the often limited resources. Official statistics for example, are sometimes hard to come by or do not exist at all, and access to remote areas is limited.

One promising and innovative way of addressing this issue of data availability is to use Earth observation (EO). Earth observation data including satellite images are an example of Big Data which can often be obtained at no cost, for a long time series, and used to produce statistics and indicators to measure sustainable development. For example, turbidity in water is visible from the colour or also known as spectral bands of a satellite image. This is used as an indicator of water quality.

Satellite images can be used to identify many features of interest such as agricultural land, forests, urban areas, roads and water based on how they appear in the images. Pixels in these images can be classified into different crop types, or a forest or just bare ground. A major advantage of using satellite imagery to measure SDGs compared with directly collecting data in the field or through surveys is that it is substantially cheaper and enables data collection in vastly remote areas.

A word of caution is necessary though, as the mathematics behind all these analyses need to be adopted to the local conditions first. So-called ‘ground truthing’ of data is required to validate data obtained from satellite images and for this purpose, scientists usually go to representative areas (i.e. a certain forest type or water body) and measure with instruments similar to those on the satellites in space. Data from the use of these ‘mini-satellites’ is then compared to the real satellites and the mathematical equations improved if needed.

An essential element of sustainable development is achieving social and economic aims to improve human quality of life, while conserving and managing natural resources. Many governments worldwide face a staggering growth of urban areas and the difficulty to properly cover the basic needs of the fast-growing urban population. The availability of consistent, accurate and up-to-date information on the status and development of the built environment for example, is a key requirement to implement effective procedures for urban management.

Earth observation technology offers great capabilities for the inventory and analyses of urban areas and is being increasingly used by governments around the world. For example, it is used to assess the population distribution and density which is crucial information needed for planning of evacuation measures.

Besides urban development, two other areas of sustainable development stand out namely agriculture and rural development, and water resources management. Often these areas overlap, for example, if one considers flood events. Combining historic data from both EO and non-EO data can help to assess the susceptibility of certain areas to future flooding. Adding information of land use, one can produce a flood risk map which can then be used to plan adequate countermeasures at the city level.

The use of Big Data is a major part of this digital revolution worldwide. Supporting a more digital future, the Sarawak government has set up the Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA), Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation (SDEC), Development Bank of Sarawak (DBOS), and developed a five-year Sarawak Digital Economy Strategy 2018 to 2022. Hopefully, these initiatives will successfully lay the groundwork to a prosperous future, achieving the SDGs and a more ‘heavenly’ Sarawak.

Moritz Mueller is an Associate Professor at the School of Chemical Engineering and Science, Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He loves Sarawak and has lived in Kuching for over 10 years. He can be reached via email at mmueller@swinburne.edu.my