EO Data Standards

Over 75% of the world’s land surface is significantly impacted by human activity.  Land degradation has accelerated during the 20th century, posing great threats to land integrity and human health as well as causing devastating impacts on wildlife.

In response to this, Sustainable Development Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda focuses specifically on managing forests sustainably, restoring degraded lands and successfully combating desertification, reducing degraded natural habitats and ending biodiversity loss.

But if the land degradation problem is so widespread, how can we monitor and track it?  By using Earth observation data.

“Land degradation is an existential crisis. Until now, monitoring it in real time felt like an insurmountable challenge. No longer. With Earth observation datasets and the practical tools to use them readily available, decision-makers and land users will have immediate and actionable information to scale up sustainable land management and planning. It is a first step to boosting our resilience”

Monique Barbut, former Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Inspired by the UNCCD, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) launched the Land Degradation Neutrality Initiative.  The objective is to bring together Earth Observation data providers and governments to develop an agreed set of quality standards and processes to facilitate a common approach to degradation monitoring and reporting, using remote sensing and data collected on site. 

More than 120 countries have committed to set LDN targets, and use these tools to fulfil their reporting obligations to the UNCCD as well as help guide planning and decision making to achieve the goal of land degradation neutrality.

Three Working Groups (WG) were created for the Initiative:

The three working groups

Alastair from Geoger worked with a GEO / UNCCD / GIZ team to help drive forward WG2.  His task was to engage with many different stakeholders, and develop concepts and definitions around the minimum data quality standards and protocols specifically for SDG Indicator 15.3.1: Proportion of land that is degraded over total land area.

WG2: Developing an agreed set of data quality standards and protocols

To ensure a like-with-like comparison, it is essential that a common approach to monitoring and measuring land degradation is used by all the countries that have signed up to achieve land degradation neutrality.

Thus, the main task of Working Group 2 is to develop “minimum” data quality standards and specifications for the underlying data, methodology/algorithms, data products and tools used for calculating SDG indicator 15.3.1.

If countries adopt these standards, then data sets will be consistent, coherent and comparable, allowing us to monitor the change in land degradation over time for key factors like the sub-indicators of land cover, land productivity and soil organic carbon for example.

 Engagement across the world

The key activities for this Working Group were (a) to engage with global data providers, (b) to engage with the data providers and expert users within each country to discuss what could form these minimum standards and (c) to agree on a common set of minimum standards that could be used in future. 

Alastair implemented a multi-phase consultation process in early 2020 to engage with data providers and data users across the world.  The consultation process was deliberately formative, purposive and inclusive.

This means that it was step-wise where each stage must build on the step before it; that each step starts by approaching those with rich knowledge and a history of past engagement; and that the entire process is open and invites comments and interaction.

The formative step-wise approach where each step builds on the one before it

The work was divided into two main phases, the first focused on global data providers, the second (building on the first) focused on national data providers and end users.  Each phase involved a written survey sent to a select number of potential respondents, as well as a workshop component.

Phase 1 Data Providers

The online survey was sent to a defined group of global data providers and data specialists in February 2020.  A workshop was originally planned to be held in Bonn, Germany in late March 2020.  This was to be held in person, and would consist of approximately 60 invited guests meeting face-to-face for 3 days.

Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and start of lockdown however, the in-person workshop could not proceed as planned. Instead the workshop was successfully reworked so that they could take place online.  A series of five 3-hour online workshops were held over three days and were scheduled to allow all participants to join at a local time that was broadly within their working day, in order to maximise attendance.

One positive outcome of the change is that by having the workshop online we were able to provide more people with the potential to participate and contribute their expertise, compared to if it had been held in person.

Phase-2: Data Users

In May 2020, the next step in the formative process was taken by sending a survey to 88 representatives of the national data provider and data user community from 24 countries which  ensured each region, and where possible sub-region, was suitably represented.

The responses from the data user survey were in broad agreement with the proposals made by the data providers and data specialists as part of their consultation, though there were a few topics that required further discussion.

A 90-minute online webinar workshop was conducted on 12 May 2020 attended by over 100 individuals, representing more than 38 countries.

Just some of the participants from the user workshop

The workshop comprised the work to date and an interactive component around the proposed data standards and decision trees. Positive responses were received for the proposed data quality standards and the draft decision trees.


The high level of participation reflected the huge interest and engagement of individuals, organisations and countries surrounding the GEO-LDN Initiative process.

The information gathered from the successful surveys and workshop processes were developed into a Technical Note, Topic Cards, and Decision Tree.

Having a common set of minimum Data Quality Standards doesn’t mean that countries can’t do more than the minimum.  Stakeholders agreed that the best approach is tiered: it would start with minimum data standards but then moves up to good practice and up to recommended software and decision tools.  As the logic progresses through those stages, the user has more flexibility in making decisions on the monitoring and reporting requirements.

It was also agreed that countries should use their own national data, and the data quality standards were designed to help them in doing so and to ensure – as much as possible – a comparable data quality between reporting agencies. Default global data should only be used when countries do not have access to their own national data.

In total, four Decision Trees were created to guide people through the process:

  • A cross-cutting tree;
  • A tree for land cover change;
  • A tree for land productivity; and
  •  A tree for soil organic carbon.

More info can be found by clicking on the image below or on this link: https://earthobservations.org/geo_ldn.php

One of the decision trees

These outputs are part of a live process.  As global datasets evolve and attain higher spatial and temporal resolutions, or model pixel level accuracy, so these standards and processes should be subject to regular consultation and review  to ensure the most appropriate datasets are used.

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