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Earth information for societal development

Over the next decade, the global community must take on the challenge of creating and using the knowledge necessary to assess the risks that humanity is facing and how society can effectively mitigate those that it can impact and adapt to others it cannot. The International Council for Science (ICSU) has identified this as a key challenge for the science community, but the extent of the societal risk is broader than one sector or community. Business evolution, innovative and even individual decisions will be affected significantly. With rapid growth in developing countries and the focus on food and water security, the effective use of natural and human resources will be a priority for the current and future generations.

Reliable information and trusted analytical and decision support tools are necessary to inform decision making. There has been a significant increase in the availability of information. Sometimes the volume of data and information can be almost overwhelming. The support tools we use to make decisions have tried to keep pace. The ability to assess the impact of decisions, particularly quantitative assessments of impacts, has lagged significantly behind the pace at which data can be distributed. However, asking the value of the information is a typical question in developing proposals for large space systems or information infrastructure that enhance societal information. Examples of such studies were done for the “Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe” (INSPIRE) and Global Monitoring for Environment & Security (GMES). These analyses are generally tailored to the programme under consideration from the more generic cost-benefit methodologies. While there are reasons for this, such as the need for programme-specific assumptions, the processes and best practices are less readily transferable to other programmes unless the assumptions are made very clear. If methodologies can be evolved further to reach across programmes and communities, the value of information analyses will both improve and be more consistent. Steps in this direction have begun.

Approaches and methodologies
Recent studies have examined the value of earth observation information. Earth observation and geospatial information have increased value if they enable an action or a decision not to take action. The derived information has economic value if it either makes a current choice more confident or reveals a different choice as better than the current one. Information has value even if it introduces more uncertainty, yet better informs a decision. The value of information needs to be expressed quantitatively, although it may not always be monetary. Various scenarios for quantifying the value of information have been examined or are under development. The sample classes that may work in different circumstances are:

Price and cost-based derivation. This methodology uses costs incurred or avoided through the use of information, generally in addressing areas such as quantifying risks (e.g. disaster insurance).

Probabilistic approaches. There are cases where price and cost vary by the statistical nature of the decision environment and a probabilistic approach provides a better base for understanding the value of information.

Scenario modeling and simulation. Where information is applied to complex situations with more than a few dominant variables, modelling allows the information to be applied to multiple scenarios where variables can be manipulated and the outcomes assessed.

These scenarios do not cover all the cases that have been done or are underway. It is also clear that they are not always separable.

Use cases play an important role in validating methodologies either selected or developed to measure the value of information. As important, they provide teaching on how to apply analyses to new problems and programmes. Use cases are also an underpinning in creating a compendium of best practices for further applications. The following two case studies substantiate the point.

Case study 1.
This case study presents a methodology and results for a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis by the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment in Canada, assessing the benefits of a Web-accessible geospatial analytical tool for geospatial analysis of Earth Observation Data for use in the natural resources sector. The system grants anyone with web access the ability to view, download or analyse large volumes of centrally held imagery and imagery-based data using a query tool. The application has a wide user base, including staff within provincial agencies, the Forest Practices Board, private consulting companies and universities.

Benefit categories include: increased productivity to Ministry of Forests staff; reduction in costs to acquire data for environmental assessments; increased value to conservation planning from land purchased; increased scientific credibility leading to greater funding levels and potential to streamline the environmental referral process. Major benefits based on user interviews showed large productivity benefits to agency staff, as manual analysis took 20 – 50 times longer without improved access through the new tool.

A multi-agency financial analysis incorporates costs and benefits for provincial government agencies at the Integrated Land Management Bureau, Ministry of Environment, and Ministry of Forests and Range, and a Federal agency, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The forward-looking ten-year analysis of currently realised benefit categories involving tool use shows CAD 6.6 million net present value, 75% annualised ROI and a payback period of three years.

Case study 2:
The second use case focuses on deforestraton in the Brazilian Amazon. Brazil uses remote sensing data to assess land change and to bring deforestation under control. The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, INPE, built a system that enables real time assessment of the deforestation in the Amazon area, as well as yearly rate of clear-cut. The real time information derived from space-based observations has been coupled with police action regarding illegal wood seizures, leading to a decrease in deforestation since 2004 with a reduction in the deforestration rate by 78% from its recent high in 2004. If Brazil can maintain that progress — and Norway has put a USD 1 billion reward on the table as encouragement — it would be one of the biggest environmental success in decades.

Steps forward
Since 2010, there have been four workshops on the value of information addressing development of an international community that encompasses a wide range of scientific, social, economic, management, and communication disciplines. The emphasis is on tasks that foster collaboration across specialties and build trust across disciplines.

(Co-authored by Francoise Pearlman, IEEE; R. Bernknopf, University of New Mexico; A. Coote, ConsultingWhere; M. Craglia, European Commission Joint Research Center; L. Friedl, NASA; M. A. Stewart, Mary Ann Stewart Engineering; Dr. Gilberto Camara, National Institute for Space Research, Brazil)


  • https://www.icsu.org/publications/reports-and-reviews/grand-challenges/earth-system-science-for-global-sustainability-the-grand-challenges
  • Craglia, Max, et al, “Contribution to the extended impact assessment of INSPIRE” Created by the INSPIRE Framework definition support (FDS) working group, September 24 2003.
  • Geoff Sawyer, Geoff and Marc de Vries, “About GMES AND DATA: GEESE AND GOLDEN EGGS”, A Study on the Economic Benefits of a Free and Open Data Policy for GMES Sentinels Data, October 2012
  • See Molly Mcauley, tutorial, in Socio-economic Benefits Workshop, 2012 ; Digital Object Identifier: 10.1109/SeBW.2012.6292266 ; Publication Year: 2012, Page(s): 1 – 60.
  • Canadian Geospatial Infrastructure Information Product 18: Geospatial Return on Investment Case Study, Hectares BC; commissioned by GeoConnections in 2011 and conducted by Mary Ann Stewart of Stewart Engineering.
  • Private communication from Dr Giberto Camara of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
  • Macauley, M and Laxminarayan, R., “The Value of Information: Methodological Frontiers and New Applications for Realizing Social Benefit”, June 28–29, 2010.
  • Workshop held in Hamburg, Germany – 2010: .
  • Workshop held in Ispra, Italy – 2011: .