In our complex and ever-changing world, satellite data provides life-saving information on tornadoes, landslides, and other atmospheric events. A new partnership seeks to expand how this information can be applied to the arena of human health.
The new partnership between the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) was announced during the GEO 37th Executive Committee Meeting in Geneva and seeks to increase the use of Earth observations and geospatial data to help improve global health.
Earth observations and geospatial data can be instrumental in achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a list of 17 measurable goals that succeeded the eight Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Furthering the SDGs forms a component of GEO’s mission. The SDGs include eradicating world hunger, eliminating poverty, and achieving gender equality by 2030. Public health is a key area where Earth observations can make a difference, helping to achieve Goal 3: good health and well-being. Although Earth observations and geospatial data also will be applied to many other goals on the 2030 Agenda, GEO’s new partnership with the WHO will help ensure that health is a priority.
While GEO’s Initiative 18 outlines its commitment to using Earth observations to achieve the SDGs, the partnership with WHO also aligns with GEO’s overall mission, to ensure that decisions made to benefit mankind “are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observation information and services.”
There are benefits for the WHO as well.
“WHO sees participation in GEO as a positive step towards use of Earth observations for improved decision-making on public health,” says Dr. Ed Kelley, director of Service Delivery and Safety Department at WHO, who will serve as the representative of WHO to GEO.
By supplying WHO with timely visualized data like foliage cover, water temperature, and structure locations, more effective and improved decisions can be made regarding time-sensitive issues.
“The use of geospatial data is critical to advancing disease detection and containment efforts. Being part of GEO would allow WHO secretariat and its member states to benefit from the space-based technologies,” says Dr. Ramesh Krishnamurthy, senior adviser, who serves as the alternate representative of WHO to GEO.
Although WHO has a long history of partnering with other organizations and countries, the GEO community is unique in that it includes 102 nations and the European Commission, along with 103 organizations. GEO, therefore, brings to the partnership global Earth observation resources, in a worldwide system of systems that operates across multiple Societal Benefit Areas and makes those resources available for informed decision-making.
As GEO’s China Chair Dr. Liao Xiaohan, deputy director general for the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, explains, “Public health is central to development and we must improve our efforts to harness Earth observations technologies to visualize the accessibility of health centers, to monitor air quality and to track pollutant and disease outbreaks.”
Although the GEO/WHO partnership is new, there are many examples within the geospatial community of ways in which Earth observation data can be applied to health threats or goals.
For instance, remote sensing data can be used to predict outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases, while data also has been used in assessing the potential risk of Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and water-borne diseases. Additionally, satellite data can be helpful for on the ground efforts after an outbreak, as was seen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when satellite data was used to locate health facilities in West Africa.
By making Earth observation data readily accessible to the WHO, the latest partnership with GEO ensures that the most accurate information can be used in solving public health issues and is a reminder of the power and importance of global-level coordination.
Emily Sullivan is a freelance writer and teacher based in Connecticut.