A scientist measures environmental water quality in a wetland using a multiparameter probe.
Scientists and policymakers often lack such data as water quality measurements when assessing progress on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: iStock.com/Tenedos

The United Nations has created 17 interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that “recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.” The SDGs were unveiled in 2015 and are intended to be reached by 2030 in a process nicknamed Agenda 2030. Achieving the SDGs will be a challenge of scientific know-how, technical creativity, and political will.

But there’s one challenge that often slips under the radar: How do we actually track how well we’re doing? It turns out there are insufficient data for 68% of the environmental indicators needed to assess progress on the SDGs. Several areas with limited data are biodiversity, ecosystem health, and the concentration of pollution and waste in the environment.

“When you are missing data, it creates sort of a vicious cycle where you are making decisions on data that you don’t have, and you are also making a deprioritizing investment in the collection of that data.”

“If we are going to be able to measure the environment in a way that allows us to make better interventions and investment, then we need better data,” said Jillian Campbell, head of monitoring, review, and reporting at the United Nations (U.N.) Convention on Biological Diversity, at a recent U.N. World Data Forum webinar.

“When you are missing data, it creates sort of a vicious cycle where you are making decisions on data that you don’t have, and you are also making a deprioritizing investment in the collection of that data,” she said.

Traditionally, data from academia, official statistical agencies, central banks, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations are gathered through surveys and censuses. To plug data gaps in these sources, experts are turning to geospatial technologies, crowdsourced science initiatives, and greater partnerships with Indigenous Knowledge holders.

Earth Observations from Ocean to Desert

Earth observations, which include space-based data, remotely sensed data, ground-based data, and in situ data, help provide spectral information that can be processed or transformed into high-level products that are useful to produce indicators and inform relevant SDG targets and goals, said Argyro Kavvada, program manager of SDGs at NASA.

For example, the GEO Blue Planet initiative works to advance the use of Earth observations to monitor coastal eutrophication and marine litter. (The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is a global network of governments, academic and research institutions, data providers, businesses, engineers, and scientists.)

Kavvada said GEO Blue Planet has worked with the U.N. Environment Programme and Esri to develop a methodology that combines satellite information on factors such as chlorophyll concentrations with in situ and ground-based observations such as imagery and videos from uncrewed aerial vehicles and ship-based cameras. Such robust data can help scientists infer changes in water quality.

Similarly, GEO’s Land Degradation Neutrality initiative is working with the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification to develop data quality standards, analytical tools, and remote sensing data to help support land degradation monitoring and reporting. The group is looking at how globally available Earth observation data sets can complement national data for three main SDG concerns: land cover, land productivity, and soil data.

“They are looking for key requirements for the global data sets to contribute, and for the suitability of those data sets in supporting country efforts, timeliness of the data, and spatial cover rates,” Kavvada said.

Integrating Geospatial Information

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is the custodian agency for 21 out of the 231 SDG indicators. Its roles include supporting countries to develop the capacity to generate, disseminate, and use national data, as well as to realign their national monitoring frameworks to SDG indicators.

“Geospatial information and satellite Earth observations offer unprecedented opportunities to support national and global statistical systems.”

At the FAO, guiding progress on the SDGs increasingly relies on integrating geospatial information provided by Earth observations. “Geospatial information and satellite Earth observations offer unprecedented opportunities to support national and global statistical systems,” said Lorenzo De Simone, a geospatial specialist in the office of the chief statistician at the FAO.

Broadening the scope of data may make monitoring environmental progress more cost-effective and efficient, experts say. Geospatial data, for instance, can be scaled and integrated with traditional sources of socioeconomic and environmental data such as surveys.

For instance, the FAO developed a new SDG indicator directly monitored with Earth observation data. SDG indicator 15.4.2, the Mountain Green Cover Index (MGCI), uses remotely sensed images to measure changes in mountain vegetation such as forests, shrubs, and individual trees.

De Simone said the FAO is committed to helping member states develop Earth observation technology. EOSTAT, for example, is aimed at building capacity with Earth observations (EO) to produce national agricultural statistics and support practices that increase efficiency in the use of fertilizer and chemicals to boost production output. De Simone said four EOSTAT pilots have been implemented, in Afghanistan, Lesotho, Senegal, and Uganda.

Mapping Crowdsourced Science

There is untapped potential for crowdsourced science (described as “voluntary public participation in scientific research and knowledge production”) to plug some of the data gaps for SDG indicators, according to a study done by Dilek Fraisl at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “We should start thinking how we harness the potential,” she said.

When data are lacking for the SDGs, relevant agencies within countries can search for crowdsourced projects that may help provide some of these data gaps and reach out to them, said Fraisl.

“In cases where citizen science projects do not exist but data are lacking, relevant agencies within countries might consider working with local communities on the ground on issues that are important to them but might also help to fill data gaps,” Fraisl said.

For example, Fraisl said crowdsourced science was crucial to monitoring marine debris in Ghana, a project of the Ghana Statistical Service. As individuals and groups engaged in beach cleanups along Ghana’s 550-kilometer-long coastline, they cataloged the numbers and types of marine debris they found.

In addition to communities and individuals, the initiative involved federal agencies (such as the Ghana Statistical Service and the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency), nongovernmental organizations (such as the Ocean Conservancy), and intergovernmental organizations (such as the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity).

“One of the most valuable lessons from this initiative is that working with existing initiatives…utilizes existing tools [and is] more resource efficient than starting an initiative from scratch,” Fraisl said.

Indigenous Knowledges

Indigenous Knowledges are not a traditional source of data for monitoring environmental progress on the SDGs. But such knowledge could provide valuable information on natural resources, public services, and population demographics.

For example, Indigenous rangers in Arnhem Land, Australia, are using science-based water monitoring techniques to test salinity, toxicity, and microbiological contaminants in freshwater streams on their ancestral homelands, according to one recent study. Such techniques “complement local Indigenous knowledge concerning the health of waterways, such as the taste, smell, and color of water in specific places, combined with knowledge of the presence or absence of key attributes that can serve as proxies for the status and condition of freshwater ecosystems.”

A more comprehensive use of Indigenous Knowledges and other nontraditional methodologies can thus help bridge data gaps in monitoring the SDGs, researchers said, as well as contributing to better stewardship of local ecosystems.

—Munyaradzi Makoni (@MunyaWaMakoni), Science Writer


Makoni, M. (2021), Tracking sustainability goals with creative data sources, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO162666. Published on 27 August 2021.

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