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‘Geospatial data is a public good, so it ought to be available freely and easily’

Barbara Ryan, Secretariat Director, Group on Earth Observations
Barbara Ryan
Secretariat Director
Group on Earth Observations

A passionate advocate of free and open data, Barbara Ryan, Secretariat Director, Group on Earth Observations, talks about GEO’s mission and how it is looking at the members and participating organisations to bridge the distance between data and actual users

What are the key objectives for the Group on Earth Observations ?
The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) has four main objectives: improve and coordinate observation systems; advance broad open data policies and practices; foster increased use of earth observation (EO) data; and build capacity.

GEO also addresses nine Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs): agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, health, water, and weather. GEO works towards integration of EO systems in addressing these SBAs. Today, we have 90 Member States (governments) and 67 Participating Organisations, including United Nations’ organisations, professional societies, and other international organisations with an EO mandate or interest. GEO is a voluntary partnership, building on both financial contributions to the GEO Trust Fund as well as in-kind programmatic contributions to the GEO work plan.

Our intent is to leverage existing EO systems that were often designed for one purpose by using the observations obtained from these systems in other application areas. Take for instance the network that was put in place for weather forecasting. We are now using the data that was collected primarily for weather observations in other sectors like climate, energy and agriculture. We are striving to create these linkages and synergies across all relevant observation ystems — space-based and in situ.

Are private EO companies part of GEO?
Since its establishment in 2005, GEO has recognised the value of engaging the private sector in the development and utilisation of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) — the end product or manifestation of our efforts. As a result, there have been many in-kind contributions throughout the GEO Work Plan, and across the SBAs that have been made by the private sector. Members of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) have contributed greatly to the development of the GEOSS Common Infrastructure. The private sector has also been involved in work associated with the Energy SBA.

At the GEO-IX Plenary held in November 2012 in Brazil, GEO Members decided to formally broaden stakeholder engagement by including the commercial sector, foundations and development banks. This decision now lays the groundwork for framing a more robust private sector engagement strategy in GEO. An example of how this could unfold is the development of a marketplace for private-sector vendors who create value-added products and services using EO data from GEOSS. While the GEO governance structure is likely to remain intergovernmental, the role that the private sector can play in bringing EO data, information and services to environmental decision making and also the public at large is substantial.

How is GEO helping to establish linkages between data users and remote sensing agencies represented in GEO?
There are several approaches being used. From a purely remote sensing or space-based observations perspective, we turn to an organisation called CEOS — the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites. In 2007-2008, CEOS made a strategic decision to align its programme of study with the GEO Work Plan and to assume responsibilities as the space coordination arm of GEO. CEOS now actively coordinates the activities of countries with space agencies in order to optimise contributions to the GEO Work Plan.

Bringing data to users, whether it is remotely sensed data, or in-situ, including ocean-based, ground-based or airborne data, is in sync with GEO’s original objective of fostering increased use of EO data for informed public policy decisions in the nine SBAs.

In and of itself, EO data is of little economic value, yet public policy officials need analyses and recommendations that are derived from it. It is therefore the value-added products, models, other analysis tools and services that create the true and substantial economic value associated with earth observation. GEO Members and Participating Organisations contribute activities along this entire value chain, and we look to them to bridge the gaps between EO data and actual users. It is now time, however, to expand the participation so that more organisations can help bridge these gaps.

Given that there is a data deluge but not many applications today, is GEO looking at creating its own mechanisms in trying to develop applications?
All the projects in the GEO work plan facilitate the coming together of governments and Participating Organisations, whether it is for open access to EO data and information, or encouraging the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters to broaden its policy for universal access to the Charter for all GEO Members.

There are two special projects to which I would like to draw your attention. One is an initiative endorsed by the G20 Agricultural Ministers for Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM). Working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), governments and the European Commission, experts are designing a programme to improve crop forecasts using EO data. As with the improvement of weather forecasts over time, forecasting food prices can also improve through more accurate crop estimates and more effective drought management strategies or any such event that has an impact on agricultural production. Both in–situ and satellite observations have key roles to play in this effort. Another project is the Global Forest Observation Initiative or GFOI where satellite imagery and in-situ measurements are being used in several prototypes or national demonstrators in selected areas of the world to develop, test and harmonise methodologies for more accurate forest assessments.

These are only two examples, and there are many more in each of the other SBAs. Having said this, much remains to be done. There are still specific challenges and gaps that need to be addressed. Among these are inadequate access to data, particularly in the developing world; technical infrastructure shortcomings; gaps in both spatial and temporal datasets and inadequate data integration and interoperability. GEO Members and Participating Organisations are committed to addressing these challenges, but would certainly welcome other partners and creative approaches given the sheer magnitude of the effort.

There are a lot of restrictions on the free trade of satellite imagery. Do you think satellite imagery needs to be treated like a commodity in order to ensure that the value of earth observation reaches everyone? What role can GEO play in this?
I am not an economist, and I may not fully understand all the implications of trade policy, but I know that satellite imagery, if made more globally available, would create more economic value than is being created today from the sale of raw data alone. My experience shows that geospatial data is primarily a public good, and therefore should be made widely available. It is largely the taxpayers’ money that is involved in putting EO satellites and the associated infrastructure in place, and therefore all taxpayers should benefit from these initial investments. The data derived from these satellites can and should be distributed via the Internet at no or little cost. With the policy change for Landsat data, more than 186 countries now have access to this data — and that’s only one satellite. Can you imagine if there were similar data policies for all government EO satellites? The uptake, usage and development of value-added products and services would no longer be artifi- cially constrained by access limitations to data. These changes if implemented globally, would offer more economic return.

Is there any initiative by GEO to encourage member states to have an open policy?
A lot of countries have restrictions on satellite data. One of GEO’s primary objectives is to advance broad open data policies and practices. The economic value is not so much in the data itself but in the downstream use of the data. I actually think the same principles would apply to the data stream from private sector satellites. It will take longer but I believe this point will ultimately be reached — that is, people will want (and pay more for) the value-added information products, applications and services than the data itself.

Is GEO looking at forging any bilateral and multilateral agreements, or creating an environment where data can be easily accessed among countries or within a region?
GEO’s structure of 90 Member States and 67 Participating Organisations automatically creates an environment for multilateral discussions, and the GEO Data Sharing Working Group is no exception. This working group also studies licensing agreements where copyrights can be maintained even if the data is distributed freely. GEO also undertakes targeted dialogues negotiations. One such example is with the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). We have a bilateral agreement with CBD to examine how biodiversity and ecosystem data available through GEOSS can better address their strategic targets and needs.

Is GEO actively working with Rio +20 on climate change as well?
We participated in the Rio +20 Convention at a number of technical side events. A statement released at the convention acknowledged the work of GEO and encouraged its parties to work with us, and advance the sustainable development goals. There are spatial data infrastructures at various levels — national, regional and international levels.

Is GEO also trying to build synergies with these SDIs at various levels?
At the international level, we are strengthening linkages with the GGIM (Global Geospatial Information Management) initiative of the UN and the GSDI (Global Spatial Data Infrastructure) effort. At the regional level, we have AfriGEOSS initiative which is bringing the international efforts of GEO to Africa. Regardless of your scale of interest, the goals and objectives of GEO, which call for more integration of EO data, information and services, can be applied.