New UN organization to highlight the value of geodesy

New UN organization to highlight the value of geodesy

An introduction to UN-GGCE

The brand-new United Nations Global Geodetic Centre of Excellence (UN-GGCE) is now operational at the United Nations campus in Bonn, Germany. Nicholas Brown, head of office of the UN-GGCE, is dedicated to realizing a world where strong political support for geodesy is the new normal. That will accelerate the investments in a modern global geodetic reference frame to drive a multitude of social, environmental and economic benefits.

The United Nations Global Geodetic Centre of Excellence (UN-GGCE) did not arrive in our sector overnight. Back in 2012, geodetic experts from Asia and the Pacific wrote a report stating that “without high-quality connection to a global geocentric frame, full benefit of GNSS and its applications cannot be obtained. [..] Governments should take the responsibility for providing a common global frame to facilitate geospatial activities”. That report was submitted to the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). This committee is composed of governmental experts, including high-level leaders of many geodetic organizations, from around the world. It acts as an intergovernmental mechanism for making joint decisions and setting directions with regard to the production, availability and use of geospatial information.

The UN-GGIM decided that a global geodetic reference frame was necessary and proposed a resolution, entitled ‘The Global Geodetic Reference Frame for Sustainable Development’, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In 2015, the resolution was adopted. “This was the first-ever resolution recognizing the importance of a globally coordinated approach to geodesy. That is of great significance, because many people rely on geodesy every day without even realizing it. We need to make sure governments know how dependent we are on it, so we can better support the global infrastructure needed: a Global Geodetic Reference Frame,” says Nicholas Brown, summing up his goal in a nutshell. Although he only recently started as head of office of the UN-GGCE in Bonn, thanks to his background and experience he is fully aware of the challenges. He is the former director of national geodesy at Geoscience Australia and led the development of the Australian Geospatial Reference System.

Degrading accuracy due to weak links

The ‘Global Geodetic Reference Frame’ is a collective term which includes a global geodesy supply chain, frames of reference and capacities and capabilities. When asked which elements are most at risk, Brown answers: “The supply chain we rely on to measure changes in the Earth’s shape, orientation, gravity field and movements of satellites is weak. More than 50% of the geodetic ground infrastructure is ageing and degrading. We need more, newer and better geodetic infrastructure. The consequence of weak links in the geodesy supply chain is that the positioning, navigation and timing applications on which we rely every day will degrade in accuracy. In turn, this will degrade the quality of our decision-making. This also impacts on our ability to measure, monitor and mitigate the impacts of global challenges like climate change and natural hazards.”

Additionally, he signals that a significant number of those applications exist thanks to scientific organizations like the International Association of Geodesy. “However, they do not have large budgets and must lean heavily on national geodesy agencies to allow their staff to perform complex analysis in-kind to create the needed products and services.” 

Need for governance

Brown also sees governance problems. “There are currently only a few formal agreements in place which require governments to share or contribute geodetic information. In contrast, for example, the World Meteorological Organization has strong governance arrangements on sharing weather and climate information. This ensures it is noticed and adequately governmentally resourced. Today, much of the geodetic infrastructure is operated by a coalition of the willing in the academic realm which is hidden from government eyes. Can you imagine operating multi-trillion-dollar industries based on in-kind contributions, ageing infrastructure, and standards which are not fit for some users? That’s what we’re doing. Every day.”

Brown and his team – which it is hoped will grow to 20 people – are working across five focus areas: evidence, resources, governance, capacity, and awareness. The UN-GGCE will improve the evidence to quantify the importance of geodesy for societal and environmental benefits. The presentation of strong business cases can stimulate governments to improve weak links in the geodesy supply chain and assist geodetic infrastructure ‘owners’ in efforts to advocate for an increase in dedicated people and in international arrangements. Enhancing geodetic capacity and training opportunities, especially in developing countries, is certainly a priority. Offering methods to improve policymakers' awareness of the importance of geodesy supports all of the above.

Listening to stakeholders’ needs

The priorities in the first three years are to reach out to the community first and then work together to make a global geodesy development plan. First of all, a ‘Listening World Tour’ is on the agenda, according to Brown: “We have a series of virtual engagements in our first few months to listen to many of the 193 UN Member States and geospatial organizations to better understand how we can support them. This is our way of introducing ourselves and listening to the needs of our stakeholders.”

The UN-GGCE will subsequently use information from this tour as one of the sources for a Global Geodesy Development Plan. “This consensus-driven plan will outline the global and regional user needs and will provide guidance on how to address critical operational gaps in the global geodetic reference frame,” he says. In the meantime, the UN-GGCE will cooperate with others in this field to develop policy and educational communication materials to explain the importance of geodesy and the role it plays in our everyday lives. “The results can also be used by anyone in the geospatial sector at their convenience. So we’ll keep GIM International updated”, promises the UN-GGCE chief.

The brand-new team at the UN Campus in Bonn (from l to r): Teo Chee Hai, expert on global geospatial information management (UN Secretariat and former FIG president), Anne Jørgensen, strategic communications advisor (on secondment from the Norwegian Mapping Authority), Sarah Kowal, technical advisor (on secondment from the German Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy), Nicholas Brown, head of office (former director of National Geodesy at Geoscience Australia and former co-chair of the UN-GGIM Subcommittee on Geodesy), and Jan Dostal, technical advisor (on secondment from the German Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy).

Accuracy and accessibility are key

The focus of the communication efforts will be on the ever-increasing but subliminal reliance on geospatial information. When explaining this decision, Brown concentrates on the three-dimensional reference frames aligned with global navigation satellite systems. “We have to make clear to people who have probably never heard of geodesy that any error in knowing the precise position of satellites orbiting the Earth translates into errors in measurements used from – or made by – the satellites,” he says. “When the precise orbits of satellite altimeters and Earth observation satellites can’t be monitored, it impedes the accuracy with which anything that changes on Earth can be measured. An accurate and accessible coordinate reference frame is the key to measuring sea level change, land uplift and subsidence, volcanoes and earthquakes with millimetre-level precision.”

“We also have to explain that, without an accurate global geodetic reference frame, it gets difficult to measure and monitor time,” he continues. Users expect geospatial information to be timely accurate to support industrial or defence applications and so on. Time synchronization is used by GPS, BeiDou, Glonass and Galileo to maintain cellular networks, financial transactions, power grids and suchlike. “Take telecom: it gets more difficult to operate the almost three billion mobile phone applications which rely on position-navigation-time information. Also real-time positioning, including driver assistance in vehicles, depends on it,” he adds.

Infrastructure is critical

Space-based positioning standards are becoming popular nowadays, but Brown is resolute: “You cannot operate satellites, including space-based positioning, Earth observation, communication satellites and so on, without geodetic ground infrastructure. This is why it’s so critical to enhance and sustain our ground station network of satellite laser ranging and very long baseline interferometry infrastructure. Those techniques deliver Earth orientation parameters and universal time which is critical for the banking, power and telecom industries,” he concludes.

Other new UN-GGIM organizations

The Geodetic Centre of Excellence is not the UN-GGIM’s only new offspring aimed at making use of the rapidly evolving technological landscape to create a sustainable geospatial ecosystem for the future. The committee has also established the United Nations Global Geospatial Knowledge and Innovation Centre in Deqing, China. In addition, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has committed to host a United Nations Global Geospatial Ecosystem Centre of Excellence in Riyadh. They will undertake research and development in integrating geospatial data with digital transformation, artificial intelligence, digital twins, and the Internet of Things.

The UN Global Geodetic Centre of Excellence is located at the United Nation campus in Bonn. (Image courtesy: Volker Lannert)

What is the Global Geodetic Reference Frame?

A reference frame provides a baseline. It allows you to measure where you are relative to other places, and also allows you to monitor how much an object moves over time (e.g. to accurately measure sea level variations). Many different types of reference frames have been adopted of the years. Some reference systems are small-scale – even local – and two dimensional, e.g. for ownership rights on land parcels. Other reference frames are global in scale, like the International Terrestrial Reference Frame 2020 or the World Geodetic System 1984. These three-dimensional reference frames are aligned with global navigation satellite systems to uniquely identify a latitude, longitude and height anywhere on, above or below the Earth’s surface. The total amount of reference frames in use is unknown, but it is clear that the world would benefit from as much quality and consistency as possible. 

The Global Geodetic Reference Frame is a collective term which includes:

A global geodesy supply chain of:

- geodetic infrastructure (e.g. global navigation satellite systems, very long baseline interferometry, satellite laser ranging, doppler orbitography and radio-positioning integrated by satellite, gravimeters, etc.)

- data collection (e.g. international and regional data centres)

- data analysis (e.g. international, regional and national analysis centres)

- product development (e.g. clock and orbit products, atmospheric models, gravity models)

- product transmission (e.g. real-time data streams).

Frames of reference: realizations of international terrestrial, celestial and geopotential reference frames.

Capacities and capabilities residing in countries and organizations (like the services of the International Association of Geodesy) who perform the work in the global geodesy supply chain to analyse, compute, create and sustain the frames of reference.

How to explain geodesy in layman’s terms

Most industry professionals are familiar with the problem of trying to explain precisely what their work in geodesy entails. Perhaps this example of how UN-GGCE does it will come in useful.

What is geodesy?

Geodesy is the science of measuring changes in the Earth’s size, shape and gravity field over time. The Earth is dynamic. It is hurtling through space in orbit around the Sun and being pulled in various directions by the Moon and other planets. This complex relationship with the Sun, the Moon and other planets causes the surface of the oceans and Earth to rise and fall over time. For example, did you know the gravitational pull from the Sun and the Moon cause the land height to vary by up to 55cm throughout the day? Or that the rotation speed of the Earth changes over time according to changes in the Earth’s mass distribution from movement of ice and material in the mantle? On top of all this, Earth experiences surface deformation due to earthquakes, volcanoes and subsidence.

How do we benefit from the geodesy?

In the past few days, you’ve probably switched on a light, paid for something with a credit card, or used your phone’s navigation app to avoid traffic. Did you know these applications and numerous others are dependent on our precise knowledge of where and when, like the angle of Earth’s axial tilt and how fast the Earth is spinning? Wait, what!? We need to know the spin rate of the Earth for our power grids to operate? Yes! The science of geodesy underpins all positioning, navigation and timing applications like precision agriculture, smartphone applications, improved weather predictions and disaster modelling, navigation assistance for the blind, as well as synchronizing our power grid and financial transactions.

Your GPS needs geodesy

In most cases the way we access positioning, navigation and timing information is through global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like the Global Positioning System (GPS). However, have you ever stopped to think what GNSS needs to operate? GNSS satellites have vital information uploaded to them about the Earth as it is moving through space, including how fast the Earth is spinning on its axis and the position and orientation (tilt) of Earth in space. Also, geodesists need to know the precise position of GNSS satellites in orbit around the Earth, the centre of the mass of the Earth (that satellites are orbiting), the position of the Earth relative to the Sun, Moon and other planets, the changes in the gravitational field of the Earth, and the position of ground infrastructure spread across the Earth’s surface. As the Earth is constantly moving and changing, geodesists need to continuously make a lot of measurements of the Earth and transmit that information to GNSS satellites to enable them to work.

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