The digital transformation has impacted all industries and sectors, allowing us to face obstacles that previously seemed insurmountable. For those of us who work in sustainable development, the use of technological tools to exchange and disseminate knowledge on a large scale has represented unimaginable potential to increase the impact of our projects.
Among these tools we find geographic information systems (GIS) that integrate different types of data visually —usually in map form. GIS analyzes the spatial location of data and reveals links, trends, and patterns that can be used to identify problems, plan responses to events, make projections, and establish priorities, among other functionalities.
Alerts and opportunities at a glance
When tackling a new project, often one of the first questions we ask is “where”. What follows are the potential environmental and social impacts that the different interventions of a project can have, for example, infrastructure works in environmentally or socially sensitive contexts. This question also allows us to avoid risks of exclusion, and to ensure that the project’s provision of services is adequate and culturally accessible to different groups, particularly those in vulnerable situations.
Georeferenced information can be used in early stages to identify potential key socio-environmental aspects in the intervention area. By using a GIS tool to screen projects, we can identify the socio-environmental requirements to then develop impact assessments or additional studies (such as socio-cultural analysis, biodiversity analysis or disaster risk and climate change analysis), as well as the socio-environmental considerations that must be taken into account during the design in order to avoid or minimize certain adverse impacts, or to ensure that the project’s benefits are adequate and accessible to the vulnerable population.
GIS applications for social and environmental assessment
The IDB’s Environmental and Social Solutions Unit has developed a GIS application built on the ArcGIS Online (AGOL) platform, which includes layers on a map with relevant information on biodiversity, natural hazards, and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean. The information is obtained from various sources and is constantly being expanded and updated.
With regards to biodiversity, the tool has information about protected areas, key areas of biodiversity, species in different degrees of vulnerability, among others. Regarding natural hazards, the tool contains a total of 21 layers related to geophysical and hydrometeorological natural hazards, such as earthquakes, landslides, floods, droughts, heat waves, and sea level rise, many of which also show projections of scenarios under the effects of climate change according to the IPCC guidelines.
A very important aspect of the tool is the information it provides on indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, since it is not easy to access this data in a systematized form as with the two previous categories. In this case, in collaboration with the Gender and Diversity Division, we carried out a compilation of information to create layers showing titled, untitled and in-process territories —both for indigenous peoples and for Afro-descendants— as well as relevant data in selected countries (in factsheet form) in order to provide basic information that can help understand each country’s context and identify relevant actors and regulatory frameworks.
Building the map, the great challenge
The main challenge when thinking of a GIS tool to support the environmental and social assessment process is the accessibility and quality of the data. Since this is a technology in process of adoption, there is a lot of data that could feed into a map, but that is not yet georeferenced. In other cases, the use of the databases may be limited by license, confidentiality, or copyright issues.
Therefore, we must bear in mind that, with tools such as those used by the IDB, the absence of data in the different layers does not necessarily imply the absence of biodiversity, disaster risk, or indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, but a possible lack of information on the subject and/or geographic area. However, even with a picture that is under construction, the data provided is vital to take a first approach that will foster deeper analysis.
In summary, tools such as this one allow us to visualize quickly and clearly at an early stage of project preparation the potential socio-environmental risks and impacts that the intervention may have in a given area, by overlapping its location with the various layers presented. The use of a GIS also contributes to the elaboration of analytical products that ultimately influence the choice of interventions in different sectors. This is one more way to use digital transformation in a timely and effective way to ensure that our projects are sustainable and to verify that the environmental and social policies of the financing entities —such as the IDB— are applied.
This is one way in which we are applying the use of GIS to our projects, but it is not the only one. How else could geographic information systems help us implement environmental and social policies? Or improve the implementation of a new mainstreaming strategy for environmental and social issues in programming and planning processes?