2020 will be recorded in history as the year a virus brought the world to a standstill. However, besides the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also witnessed a heightened awareness about social vulnerabilities faced by people as well as broader issues such as climate change that have a direct impact on our planet and our future
So, as we undertake a journey of economic rebuilding in a post-pandemic world, it is also an opportunity for us to address the social challenges we face and to rethink our approach toward creating a more sustainable future. This is where technology steps in—not as a solution by itself, but as an enabler and agent of change.
One such technology is the geographic information system or GIS. What makes it effective is its ability to gather diverse sets of complex data that can be layered and used by multiple stakeholders without having to reinvent the wheel every time. More importantly, the agnostic nature of GIS allows it to be used in conjunction with other technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to derive insights for informed decision-making.
What role can GIS play in creating a sustainable planet, and how are various stakeholders using it?
Incorporating sustainability in core business functions with “spatial finance”
In recent years we have witnessed a trend among companies of using non-financial parameters to evaluate their performance. In fact, a recent report by EY revealed that 72% of the companies surveyed use a structured and methodical process to assess their non-financial performance. This is a huge jump from 32% of the companies who did this in 2018. One way corporates are using this data is the emerging field of “spatial finance.”
As the name suggests, spatial finance integrates geospatial asset data with financial reporting to derive actionable insights. The process involves mapping a company’s physical assets (campuses, manufacturing units, stores, vehicles, pipelines, etc.) and assessing them against relevant observational data pertaining to locational external variables such as climate change, environmental factors, and social indicators. The aggregation of this data at a company level allows organizations to draw insights that find applications in the finance function, which then percolate to other business functions and business decisions.
An extension of this concept finds applications in corporate finance where banks, investors, and analysts can keep a tab on a company’s ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) performance, as well as in the start-up space where venture capital firms can help their portfolio companies strike a balance between commercial and sustainability interests.
Leveraging geospatial intelligence for public health and humanitarian work
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders involved in public health and humanitarian work is the availability of relevant data. Primary among these is the physical location of beneficiaries afflicted by an epidemic, a natural disaster, or any adverse situation that requires the deployment of additional resources.
For instance, malaria causes over 400,000 deaths every year across the globe. And while it is a life-threatening disease, it is both preventable and curable. The challenge for aid agencies and NGOs that operate in this space is the lack of full and real-time visibility related to the location and seasonality trends of malaria.
To address this, PATH, an international NGO that operates in the health space, has launched the “Visualize No Malaria” initiative in partnership with the Government of Zambia and other private sector and technology companies. The initiative uses spatial intelligence, visualization tools, and a proprietary platform to collect and analyze data that is made available to field workers who can allocate and mobilize resources to priority locations. The initiative was recognized as an exemplary innovation in the global geospatial industry at the 2019 Geospatial World Forum.
Commercial applications of GIS data to enhance sustainability
Since the adoption of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, there has been an increased focus on the role of the private sector in addressing critical sustainability and developmental issues we are faced with. While many companies are funding projects as part of their CSR outreach, corporations are beginning to realize the business value in adopting sustainable practices and deploying technologies as part of their operations. A large part of it derives from innovative commercial applications that combine several legacy and new-age technologies. Given the geographical spread of modern corporations and their extensive supply chains, GIS has emerged as a key lever for companies to use in their decision-making process to make their business operations sustainable.
For example, food and agriculture major, Cargill, has embedded its cocoa supply chain to enable traceability from the farm to the factory. As part of its commitment to ensuring 100% traceability of the cocoa beans they source by 2030, the company has engaged with a geospatial data start-up to use Cargill’s historical data and publicly available data to forecast future yields of key crops, which form the basis of many business decisions as well as community outreach programs to help their community of farmers.
In addition to the food and agriculture industry, geospatial analytics can be applied in a number of other sectors, particularly those with high carbon emissions such as energy and utilities, transport, and shipping. Another use case is in the electronic goods industry, where companies are adopting a circular economy approach to manage, recall, salvage, or recycle end-of-life products from across their global value chain.
As part of our commitment to support sustainability and leverage our technological process, we at Cyient are conducting a series of dialogs with leading thinkers and experts worldwide to discuss how GIS can be used as a transformative tool for the greater good. With a key focus on start-ups and innovative solutions, we intend to provide a platform where practitioners from the geospatial and sustainability community can come together to share ideas, solutions, and success stories that the rest of us can learn from.
The first of these discussions was held on World GIS Day on November 18, 2020. It featured Claudia Mendzil, Programme Director, Seraphim Space Camp, Teri Freemantle, Senior Earth Observation Specialist, Satellite Applications Catapult, Steve Penson, Data Scientist, ACAPS, and Josh Gilbert, CEO and Co-Founder, Sust Global. Please click the following link to view the discussion in full.