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BRIEF October 2, 2019

Geospatial Technology and Information for Development


Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash

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Satellite positioning systems, real-time traffic maps, ride-hailing services, and e-commerce… all of these applications are enabled by location-based – or “geospatial” – technology and information.

Geospatial information is critical for countries’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective epidemiological monitoring builds on common geospatial data to track the virus spread, identify vulnerabilities, manage facilities and target responses.Geospatial information is not only essential for the commercial sector, safety and security, but also the foundation for many e-government applications, such as property registration, utility management, and building smart cities.

In the digital era, geospatial technologies are revolutionizing the economy. From navigating public transport to tracking supply chains and planning efficient delivery routes, the digital services built on GPS and current mapping data – such as house prices and socioeconomic data – have quietly become part of daily life and commerce.

For instance, semi-automated geospatial solutions based on earth observation, urban sensing, and mobile contact-tracing coupled with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision are spreading fast, and notably dominate the COVID-19 analysis. Technologies such as automatized mapping, big data analytics and detection of land-use changes reduce costs and enable real-time management of resources. 3D and “Digital Twin” approaches spread and replace 2D maps, plans, and processes.

With the increase of mobile technology and communications, handheld smartphones have democratized mapping, moving geospatial technology into the hands of every individual. Bottom-up, commercial, and consumer-driven information platforms and applications are innovative and have had big impacts on society.

Better understanding and management of digital location-based data and services integrated with urban planning and other sources of information – such as census data, cellphone data, sample surveys, and administrative data – can enable more efficient resource allocation for better service delivery.

Yet, for all that to work, governments have an increasingly important and underpinning role of providing the underlying infrastructure, such as geodetic systems; managing and sharing authoritative data at national and local levels; as well as establishing policies and rules to assure information is accurate, compatible, shared, and used effectively.

Today, all governments hold a considerable amount of geospatial information, including databases on who has access to education, communities most affected by poverty, areas at risk of disasters, as well as mobile data that can keep more people informed about disease outbreaks and weather patterns.

Governments also establish data standards to ensure data collected by various agencies and the private sector will be interoperable, based on the same reference system. Integrating such geospatial information into a comprehensive system will enable better decision-making by governments.

Furthermore, when countries apply a comprehensive approach to national geospatial information management, they can implement evidence-based solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges, including in remote areas. The associated benefits of using data to improve lives can extend across governments, businesses, and citizens, and from cities to villages. For example:

  • National Geodetic Reference Frameworks are getting integrated to regional systems and the International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF). This integration increases governments’ ability to monitor sea and ground level rises and tectonic movements, with dynamic reference systems capturing earthquake deformations in real time.
  • Geospatial information provides a platform for disaster risk assessments, simulation, and visualization; and guides emergency responses, shelter operations, and post-disaster restoration and monitoring.
  • Precision agriculture has become the world’s largest sector using detailed satellite position services. Accurate targeting of irrigation and fertilization allows more production with less inputs, and mitigates agriculture’s climate change impact.
  • Public health surveillance and support systems that rely on common geospatial base, mobile phone data and big data analytics have proven critical for COVID-19 monitoring and responses.

Reliable geospatial data will also enable policymakers, international organizations, civil society, and others to have better insights into the distribution of needs and ways to optimize development planning and investments and to develop better policies and interventions.

But high-quality, timely geospatial information, although critical to improve lives and livelihoods, is often not current, shared, or integrated with other necessary data – or simply overlooked in policymaking.

While most OECD countries have made great progress in this area, many of the lower- and middle-income countries still lag far behind. Urgent action is needed to keep these countries from falling further behind and reversing the “geospatial digital divide.”

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The World Bank, together with its partners, is increasingly helping developing countries and cities worldwide bridge the geospatial digital divide and achieve inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities and communities for all.

In August 2018, the World Bank launched the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework with the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) to help governments develop, access, and use geospatial information to make effective policies and more accurately direct aid and development resources, ensuring no one is left behind.

The Integrated Geospatial Information Framework is a first-of-its-kind global guide that provides concrete recommendations on establishing national geospatial information infrastructure and management – and putting that information to use. The guide also calls for partnerships with the private sector, civil society, businesses, and academic institutions who have access to relevant data and technology.

The framework could be applied by any country to plan for the needed infrastructure, policies, legal framework, capacity building, and institutional coordination mechanisms for collecting, sharing, and using geospatial data.

Moreover, the framework can help low and middle-income countries move toward a digital economy to provide better social and economic services to citizens. For example, integrated geospatial information management can enable Small Island Developing States to better monitor climate change impacts, plan mitigation, and manage disaster risks. It will also support the emergence of private sector firms providing reliable geo-location services.

The framework also defines the role of government and private sector, and, importantly, data standards to ensure interoperability and consistency.

In parallel, the World Bank is gearing up to support countries to develop geospatial strategies and actions plans to define geospatial infrastructure, policies, laws, and the collection of fundamental datasets – in sectors ranging from land administration, agriculture, environment, disaster risk management to urban and territorial development.

Recognizing the importance of geospatial information is followed by the need to invest in its development. Resource commitments are needed to plan and implement functional, impactful national geospatial information management capabilities.

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Geospatial data and technology are already being used innovatively in cities around the world to improve services, coordinate city management, create jobs, and improve the lives of city-dwellers.

The World Bank has been actively applying geospatial data and technology to help solve the most pressing challenges of cities in developing countries across the world. For example:  

  • Together with the city of Tbilisi, Georgia, the World Bank is using social media data and semantic analysis to map the use of public space and citizen’s perception of their quality and availability, which helps prioritize and better plan investments of public spaces and infrastructure in the city.
  • In Colombia, the Global Program for Resilient Housing is applying machine learning to drone and street view imagery. By generating a geospatial housing database, they are supporting the government in the design and implementation of its recently launched home improvement subsidy program, “Casa Digna, Vida Digna.”
  • In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the World Bank used cellphone data records, combined with machine learning techniques, to identify the most common traffic patterns as well as the vulnerabilities of the transport network subject to flooding risk in order to better plan and protect the city’s transport infrastructure going forward.
  • Through City Planning Labs, the World Bank is using big data with satellite images to conduct rapid assessments of land use in Indonesian cities to develop cadaster plans and data-based urban development-modeling tools, which otherwise would not be accessible to small and medium cities in the country.
  • In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, the World Bank used the OpenStreetMaps and other open-source platforms together with local volunteers to collect detailed terrain information and develop flood models that supported resilience infrastructure plans and preventive flood measures in the city.

Other examples include:

Land administration

Disaster risk management

Urban and territorial development


The eighth session of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) was held in August 2018 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Representatives from governments and geospatial information experts discussed efforts to enhance collaboration, coordination, and coherence in global geospatial information management.

Under the guidance of the UN-GGIM, high-level stakeholders attended  United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress (UNWGIC) in Deqing, Zhejiang Province, China in November 2018, to ensure the widest and fullest use of geospatial information to advance social, economic, and environmental development. At the UNWGIC, the World Bank called for global action of applying the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework by completing country-level action and investments plans in 30 low- and middle-income countries over the next three years.

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Last Updated: Apr 16, 2020