NSOs tackle geospatial data for population monitoring at the 50th UN Statistical Commission

Written by Jay Neuner with Jessica Espey

“Where We Live and Work,” POPGRID’s side event at the 50th UN Statistical Commission. Source: Jay Neuner for TReNDS

“Where We Live and Work,” POPGRID’s side event at the 50th UN Statistical Commission. Source: Jay Neuner for TReNDS


With the 2020 census round fast approaching, and planning for it well underway, long-standing institutions like National Statistics Offices (NSOs) and UN agencies are pursuing ever-evolved practices for population monitoring. Beyond just shifting enumeration from pen-and-paper to more mobile and digital inputs (such as tablets), they are particularly interested in incorporating georeferenced data into their work, notably through the use of satellite imagery.

At the 50th UN Statistical Commission, POPGRID-hosted side event “Where We Live and Work” tackled the why and how of integrating data gathered from satellites and other georeferencing sources into not only the major census rounds, but interim population monitoring efforts. The POPGRID collaborative, managed by TReNDS, CIESIN, and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, played host at this event to representatives from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (see full speaker list here). The event brought in representatives from other NSOs and from groups such as the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development, and the U.S. Census Bureau to contribute their feedback on the work of georeferenced population monitoring, and to share reflections on opportunities for and challenges to this work.

TReNDS Director Jessica Espey’s five key takeaways from the discussion:

  1. The census is the backbone of the statistical system and imperative for accurate population estimates.

  2. But we need to combine methodologies and use new approaches to:

    • aid in planning and designing the census more effectively, e.g. using spatial approaches to better define cartography;

    • serve as an alternative to the census where we can't do it, due to the country or region being unsafe or inaccessible;

    • be a complement to the census for population projections between census rounds (particularly as this can be less costly than interim censuses), and to ensure good coverage; and

    • track populations on the move or in crisis times.

  3. As noted by National Statistician Lisa Bersales of the Philippine Statistics Authority, high-level government support and budget is crucial for accurate population data and to geotag statistical products. Within these efforts, in-country coordination is imperative–e.g. getting geospatial and statistics agencies, if separate, to work together.

  4. Homère Ngoma Ngoma, economist and coordinator of the Central Bureau of Census at the National Institute of Statistics of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, pointed out that technical training and capacity building is crucial for countries to use these approaches, and to do so sustainably.

  5. And as heralded by the work of POPGRID, it is crucial to make supply-side resources, methods, and data more accessible for users.

Such efforts are being embraced at the highest levels by those guiding and supporting the upcoming census round. For example, Srdian Mrkic (of the UN Statistics Division’s International Committee on Census Coordination) indicated in the POPGRID side event and others that georeferenced, small area statistics–notably at the household level–are a major focus of this upcoming census round. And, in response to the growing chorus of appeals for both technical and financial support, that group and others are pursuing robust capacity-building programs, from e-learning to regional workshops, to aid NSOs in their efforts.

From supporting the mantra of “leave no one behind” through better estimations of those housed in “informal settlements,” to helping health ministries predict disease spread through population increases and movement, georeferenced data clearly hold a lot of promise for population monitoring efforts. While current financial and technical support may not allow worldwide use of such data in the 2020 census round, we anticipate that reports from this and other interim efforts will deepen the evidence base in support of investment, technical validation, and more for georeferenced population monitoring.

Our joint initiative, POPGRID, is seeking input and collaborators for its ongoing work of in-country validation, technical research, and more. Contact Jessica Espey at jessica.espey@unsdsn.org to get involved.