Want to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? Invest in Big Data and AI

Written by Agnieszka Łukaszczyk on 27 June 2019 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

Agnieszka Łukaszczyk explains how satellite imagery can help set the UN Sustainable Development Goals back on track.

Caption: Planet’s constellation of satellites provides an unprecedented, high-resolution and up-to-date view of the world

Photo credit: Planet Labs Inc.

On September 15, 2015 the United Nations adopted the most ambitious agenda for global change in its history: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These 17 global SDGs are nothing less than a moonshot for the simultaneous improvement of the human condition and the planet, addressing everything from poverty and hunger to clean energy and climate change.

Fittingly for a moonshot, the schedule to achieve these goals is 15 years.


Unfortunately, nearly five years in, the SDGs are in serious danger of veering off on the wrong trajectory.

We are making positive, measurable progress on less than a fifth of the environmentally-focused goals, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and for two thirds of them we don’t have the data to know for sure.

Similar data gaps exist across the larger SDG ecosystem; again and again, we lack the data to tell us if we are moving in the right direction. It’s as if we launched astronauts to the moon by firing them blindly into space without a navigational computer. Fortunately, we have the tools to correct this.

There is a massive, if still-uncoordinated data revolution underway. Mobile devices now connect five billion people, while drones, satellites and other remote sensing systems capture the state of the planet as never before. By next year, it’s estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on Earth.

“Unfortunately, nearly five years in, the SDGs are in serious danger of veering off on the wrong trajectory”

Together, this data and related ‘frontier technologies’ can shed light on the sustainable development challenges we face, enable us to undertake faster and more agile interventions, measure and monitor actions more effectively, enable new stakeholders to participate, and bring revolutionary levels of transparency.

That transparency will help drive greater accountability and promote trust through public participation and increased social and market pressure.

Such transparency can be gained from analysing satellite imagery through organisations like Planet, which has deployed the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history.


Caption: Machine learning algorithms reveal urban expansion into high-flood risk zones in the Central African Republic.

Photo credit: Planet Labs Inc.

We have hundreds of small satellites imaging the entire surface of the Earth every day in high resolution.

This imagery, when analysed through artificial intelligence (AI) tools, helps us measure progress on the SDGs, in particular those involving food security, poverty, water and sanitation, sustainable cities, life on land (especially forests) and life in the oceans.

These also happen to be the goals where there are significant data gaps.

“We have a decade to meet the SDGs and avert the worst ravages of climate change, but we have zero chance of achieving them without embracing data and the AI revolution”

We are working with UN Member States to make our data available to the United Nations, however we represent only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

To meet the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, all public and private-sector stakeholders in data and AI (including the EU) must come together to deliver a thriving digital ecosystem around the SDGs.

What we face is not simply a technology challenge, but also one of shared visions around appropriate legal and business models, skills, access to tools and, ultimately, a culture of data-driven decision making and accountability.

We have a decade to meet the SDGs and avert the worst ravages of climate change, but we have zero chance of achieving them without embracing data and the AI revolution.

It’s time for the world’s parliamentarians and technologists, those who set the agenda and those with the tools to measure and fulfil it, to work much more closely together.

History is watching.

About the author

Agnieszka Łukaszczyk is Senior Director of European Affairs at Planet.

For more information, visit: https://www.planet.com/

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