Asian countries use satellite data to fight COVID-19

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[MANILA] Asia-Pacific countries are leveraging geospatial information, digital solutions and artificial intelligence to improve their response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a new report.

“Data is now a strategic asset,” says Tiziana Bonapace, director of the ICT and disaster risk reduction division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). SciDev.Net. “With more use, more value is added.”

The report, which is the first in a series of ESCAP publications to assess progress made in the implementation of the Asia-Pacific Plan of Action on Space Applications for Sustainable Development (2018-2030), highlights highlight a number of initiatives in the region.

Thailand, for example, has used space applications to monitor the local COVID-19 situation and visualize the impact of development policies. The Geoinformatics and Space Technology Development Agency analyzed reduced images of night light to monitor the impact of the lockdown measures.

It also used satellite data to monitor nitrogen dioxide emissions and found that since the start of the year, most provinces in Thailand had fewer emissions-causing activities. All of this data has been fed into a newly created dashboard that allows policymakers and others to monitor pandemic, medical capacity, supplies, consumer goods, and prevention and precautionary measures.

“Data is now a strategic asset”

Tiziana Bonapace, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

Last March, the Department of Science and Technology of the Philippines – Philippine Council for Research and Development of Industry, Energy and Emerging Technologies (DOST-PCIEERD) solicited proposals for projects that use geospatial information in response to COVID-19.

One of the proposals came from the University of the Philippines Diliman for an online geographic system to track information about medical resources at local health facilities. Dubbed “Medical Supply Allocation Tracking,” the system uses data provided by volunteers and human resources to provide the support needed to ensure appropriate allocation of medical resources.

Now that the world is on the threshold of vaccine availability, the need for artificial intelligence geospatial information persists as countries plan to move to a “new normal,” said Enrico Paringit, executive director of DOST-PCIEERD. SciDev.Net.

“This could mean the need to develop tools to keep public transport systems and offices safe as the economy gradually opens up for business. We also need to develop smart systems to monitor places of commerce – systems that detect and report compliance with social distancing rules, ”he adds.

Yet despite notable advances, significant challenges remain that prevent Asia-Pacific countries from taking full advantage of digital solutions in their responses to COVID-19.

Bonapace highlights major issues: persistent and significant capacity gaps and limitations in technology applications and a lack of guidelines and tools for integrating geospatial, statistical and other data and information.

For Paringit, openness of data and sustainability are the two main challenges he sees in scaling digital solutions.

“There are concerns about the sustainability of the platforms developed during the pandemic, as they may disappear after the initial requirements and needs have been met and the business case has not been thought through in the beginning,” he adds.

The report calls for key factors to integrate geospatial information applications into the planning and actions of each country towards the achievement of the SDGs. But Bonapace highlights two factors in particular. One invests in the training of national experts and the other encourages local and international collaborations.

Map of the confirmed number of COVID-19 cases per capita as of November 29, 2020.
Image credit: Raphaël Dunant, Gajmar (CC BY 4.0).

“Given the breadth of thematic and sectoral areas where geospatial information and space applications can add value, there is a need to involve a broader set of ministries and responsible authorities beyond the traditional space applications, and even across borders, ”she says. “Partnerships are needed to combine the available data and expertise and maximize results. “

Bonapace says spatial and geospatial information applications will continue to play an important role in countries’ response to COVID-19. “Hot spot mapping, contact tracing and early warning systems are all capable of strengthening preparedness for COVID-19 as well as other disasters. These applications can also help in the recovery phase to rebuild better, ”she adds.

This article was produced by the Asia and Pacific office of SciDev.Net.


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