IGOS Partnership Forum during the UNISPACE III Conference

(Vienna, Austria, 21 July 1999)


Arthur Lyon Dahl
United Nations Environment Programme

The process of observing the global environment is complex, involving a variety of space-based sensors, sondes, buoys, in situ observing stations, research and operational programmes across many scientific fields and multiple geographic scales. The quantities of data involved are enormous and growing rapidly as technology increases the kinds of measurements and their resolution and sampling rates. The primary data then pass through many hands (or computers) as they are verified, compiled, processed, interpreted, integrated, assessed, converted into information products and delivered to end users. Anywhere along this chain of information flow, a weak link can reduce or interfere completely with the ultimate usefulness of the data.

One of the challenges of an Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) is to ensure that the whole observing process is not only coherent and cost-effective in itself, but responsive to the data needs of the users of the final information products. Since most environmental observations were originally developed by or for scientists and their research programmes, the scientific uses of the data are generally well catered for. What is less evident is to identify and understand the many other actual and potential users of environmental observations, to establish a dialogue with them about their needs, and to respond to their requirements with suitable information products. Ideally it is the uses of the data that should ultimately drive the design and implementation of the whole operational observing system. One goal of IGOS is to approach that ideal.

The whole environmental information system can be compared to a tree, with an extensive root system (in situ and space-based observing systems) drawing water and minerals from a wide area, and the assembled materials integrated in their flow up the trunk, before being redistributed along the branches to each leaf (information user), with the ultimate aim of bearing the fruits of sound environmental decisions.

Among the partners in IGOS, it is the United Nations organizations who sponsor the Global Observing Systems, including FAO, IOC, UNEP, UNESCO and WMO, who are in closest touch with many users and best able to establish the necessary linkages and to define and integrate user needs for environmental information. They are able to draw upon a variety of processes within their own organizations, including their direct ties with relevant government ministries, multilateral agreements and conventions, productive and regulatory sectors, non-governmental organizations and major groups. Each is responsible for or connected to a variety of networks within which user needs can be discussed and feedback provided to the observing systems.

Who are the users? What are the uses?

Through its various partners, IGOS is establishing lines of communication and dialogue with the principal user groups and institutions to determine their needs for global environmental information for decision-making. Some of these groups and their information requirements are as follows:

National governments will always be the most important participants in and supporters of environmental observing systems, and their needs for information should be a high priority. Within governments there are a range of information users from technical services and research centres through to decision-makers and school curriculum developers, each with their own information needs.

Environmental managers at the global through local level, including UN agencies, environment ministers, regulatory and natural resource management agencies, and local governments need periodic integrated assessments of the state of the environment, showing the many interactions between different subcomponents and processes. Linkages and interactions need to be identified, often with the help of systems models, and trends and scenarios projected to identify areas requiring international action. These models and scenarios need to be based as far as possible on reliable and globally-harmonized environmental data sets.

International decision-making bodies such as the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council, the governing bodies of specialized agencies, the Conferences of the Parties of international environmental conventions, and the multilateral financial institutions require environmental assessments in response to their policy questions, summarizing the best available scientific information on the issues they are considering. These outputs can take the form of major international scientific assessments of specific issues (climate change, biodiversity, forests, freshwater, marine environment, etc.) prepared on a periodic basis, shorter reports from the secretariat summarizing the scientific conclusions and highlighting policy issues requiring decisions from the body concerned, and national reports on implementation.

Since much environmental information is common to more than one issue, and there are many interactions between issues, it makes little sense to have separate data collection and national scientific reporting arrangements for each UN body or convention. The international observing system should provide adequate scientific data on the global environment assembled, integrated and organized so that the status and trends can be summarized for each necessary report. Meeting this objective will require adequate observational data in time and space, assembled in coherent data sets and integrated frameworks, assessed through reliable processes, and presented in indicators, maps, graphics, short text summaries, case studies and similar formats, necessary to report to the different decision-making bodies. If the basic scientific information is already available through such a system, national reports to the different bodies can be simplified, concentrating on policy recommendations and the effectiveness of national responses.

The work on developing indicators of sustainable development under the Commission on Sustainable Development and elsewhere will generate a need for new flows of data to calculate the indicators, to which the observing system should respond. As indicators are increasingly accepted for decision-making, they will become a major output of environmental information systems.

International environmental conventions also need to measure the effectiveness of their decisions and actions. Governments and the international community are developing environmental laws and regulations, economic instruments and incentives, conservation measures, scientific research, and international collaboration to implement environmental conventions and action plans. Industries, urban governments, the agricultural sector and others are spending large sums on pollution control, waste management, cleaner production, and other environmentally-motivated activities. They all want to know the effectiveness of these measures, so that they can set priorities and improve efficiency. An environmental information system should collect data and performance measurements relevant to the effectiveness of environmental management. Ideally this should show up in direct scientific evidence of environmental results, such as improvements in environmental quality.

High level policy-makers in international organizations, multilateral financing agencies and national governments need highly-digested, graphic and easily assimilated summary assessments and information of policy-relevance. They should be up-to-date and available whenever and wherever required.

Decision-makers at all levels need reliable environmental data from the grass-roots to the global level, at coherent nested scales of detail. Modern information technologies now make it possible to envisage a wide set of partnerships creating and managing a network of transparent and accessible environmental information systems in which all participate and which are able to provide essential information to all users, stakeholders and decision-makers from global to local levels. This will benefit from the free exchange of environmental information among all the participants, including government departments (who often do not even exchange data among themselves), the private sector, the space agencies, the scientific community, non-governmental organizations, local communities and grass-roots groups.

The scientific research community has always been one of the driving forces behind the development of data collection. Increasingly there are needs to research issues requiring data that cannot be collected by the scientists directly. Operational observations systems will be called upon to deliver research data at scales and over periods that scientists cannot easily collect through research programmes, and also to implement on an operational basis observation systems and methodologies that have proven their value through research programmes. Scientist are the one user group that can use environmental data outputs with minimal processing or interpretation.

Businesses in the private sector may well be interested in some specific information products. Many companies in the service sector will add value to environmental data and information by converting it into a multiplicity of products and services for the benefit of a wide range of users in the commercial and public sector, as is the case in meteorology today. Businesses are also the one group that may be able to pay full commercial rates for information that can increase their profitability.

The wide range of non-governmental organizations could become useful partners in disseminating the results of environmental observation programmes. They can reach strata of society that could not easily be reached directly, and can often help to repackage and add value to information products. They also have the potential to become significant data providers for in situ observations and ground truthing by organizing participatory observation networks of individuals and local groups.

Imagery from observation programmes can also be directly useful to grass-roots users and major groups who take many resource management decisions. This would be particularly important in developing countries where national and local information resources are under-developed. It might even be possible to encourage a new type of small scale information entrepreneurship, generating locally adapted information products for masses of individual users.

How well are we responding to user needs?

It should be clear from the above range of users that we are still far from meeting all the needs for observations on the global environment. However space technologies are, for the first time, making it possible to envisage the development of reliable, harmonized global imagery and data sets that can serve multiple users. In fact the technical potential to capture imagery is far ahead of the intermediate institutional structures, capacities and funding arrangements necessary to make use of the data available. If anything, the situation may be getting worse as evolving technologies improve image resolution and the increasing number of satellites adds to the sampling rate and geographic coverage. The capacity to absorb and use these data flows is lagging behind, particularly in the developing countries where the scientific and information infrastructure is weak. Improving this situation is one of the major activities of IGOS.

UNEP is working, for instance, to strengthen the direct dialogue between the IGOS Partners and the major international environmental conventions, to ensure that the observing systems will be able to meet the information needs being identified under the conventions. The Global Observing Systems are also organizing meetings with users to understand what information they require.

Making the observing process user-driven is a continuing activity, as needs change and the experience with using environmental information grows. The results can only be beneficial for all the partners in global environmental observing, including the space community.

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