When and why Radiant was set up?
The world has a plethora of open data that is difficult if not impossible to discover, let alone analyze; and with the advances in Cloud Computing and Machine Learning, we are on the brink of a new technological revolution. I wanted to harness this unique moment in time to put this data, as well as the cutting edge analytical tools that are available, to work for the betterment of humanity.
In the summer of 2015 through the spring of 2016, I worked with Kass Green of KGA Inc. and Peter Rabley of Omidyar Network to review the market opportunity and develop the basic mission and business functions of Radiant.Earth. Kass and Peter have years of experience on the intersection of using geospatial data to solve global challenges, and we all shared the same vision.
In defining Radiant.Earth, we realized three key things from our study: 1) Open data isn’t good enough — it must be discoverable, accessible and useful to a very diverse group of users, some sophisticated, some new users; 2) There are similar needs across the global development community and an entity such as Radiant.Earth can help amplify those needs; 3) There is so much change going on in the remote sensing sector right now that an entity such as Radiant.Earth is needed to help guide and connect users worldwide to Earth imagery, geospatial data, and analytical resources.
We received our funding and non-profit legal status in August of 2016. The fact that we received financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network was in large part because these two world class organizations realize the fundamental importance of imagery and data in fueling their mission and grantees’ work.
What is your immediate timeline?
We officially launched Radiant.Earth in late February 2017 at the Thought Leaders Summit hosted by, and held at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are incredibly lucky to have the support of the Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network, which allowed us to convene 113 geospatial and global development experts from around the world to contribute to Radiant.Earth’s strategy going forward. Since the Summit, we have awarded software development contracts to two firms – Azavea and Vizzuality – to build the technology platform; the minimum viable product will be launched in July of 2017.
We are also moving forward with strategic communications on the market and policy issues that are of particular concern to the global development community. While these plans have not been finalized, I anticipate you will begin to see this content in the last quarter of 2017.
The mission of Radiant as we understand is “to provide a geospatial technology platform and support knowledge transfer to positively impact the developing world’s greatest social, economic and environmental challenges.…” Why this platform?
The time is right, the technology has matured, and the costs are down. Over the past 5 years alone, we have seen a dramatic change in the cost structures of earth observation satellites and a dramatic increase in the capability of drones to supply Earth observations. At the same time, our climate is changing rapidly causing and amplifying global problems such as food security, health, and much more. We believe the solutions to the serious problems across the globe will be enhanced by using geospatial data and technologies. The Radiant.Earth solution is neutral, user-driven and inclusive. As noted earlier, a key element here is recognition of similar needs across the diverse global development communities, while also responding to various levels of sophisticated users who can help find new solutions to our problems.
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Why is it critical to have an open sat imagery platform for non-profit across the world?
There is a growing use of geospatial technologies among all sectors, so it is natural that the global development community would deploy the technology. Our efforts are to support them and to make their valuable resources go further by providing the technology platform as a backend utility to their existing resources; to enhance their professional development through Radiant.Earth’s capacity development initiatives, which includes thought leadership activities.
What’s so path-breaking about Radiant.Earth? Are other governments not already doing so?
Radiant.Earth aims to significantly improve the discovery of Earth imagery in the global development community, and expand collaboration and capacity building among the community and entrepreneurs worldwide. Yes, the European Space Agency (ESA) is hosting the Sentinel data online and doing an excellent job. I believe the advances with the Sentinel program are superior to anything we have seen before in civil government observations, and I look forward to collaborating with ESA and other European agencies to expose the use and value of this data. However, the Landsat data are hosted and supported online by several commercial companies. In addition, if you want the Landsat data from USGS (United States Geological Survey), you will have to go through a cumbersome online and FTP process. Our platform will ease the effort by allowing a person to view and analyze the data within the same environment, and without having to download it locally.
Finally, as we have seen in the USA lately, Federal agencies don’t always have the resources to post and expose the observation data; and those financial resources change with administrations. It is therefore imperative to have a neutral location to store data that can be counted on regardless of the environmental or societal issue. Radiant.Earth’s promise is to finally deliver the abundance of Earth imagery and tools to a non-space — and in many cases non-technical — audience. We want to build upon all the good work that’s been done by space agencies and others, but also take it a step further by reaching new users that may not know these resources even exist.
How will Radiant be different from something like Group on Earth Observation (GEO) or the free Landsat data?
GEO and Radiant.Earth have complementary strengths: GEO is an intergovernmental organization, focused primarily on coordinating government data and policy for the delivery, integration, and use of that data to meet numerous societal needs. The need for Radiant.Earth comes from users in the global development community for better access to Earth imagery and data to fuel greater analysis and insights into the challenges we are faced with across the globe. We were honored to have Dr Barbara Ryan attend our Summit in February to ensure that we are aligned and not duplicating any of their activities. To that end, Radiant.Earth staff is participating in a GEO workshop in April to discuss technical issues related to Earth data.
Radiant.Earth differs from GEO in that we will focus our capacity development and technology use on the global development community. What also sets us apart is that we will provide open source photogrammetry and tools to analyze the data. Equally important will be the provision of plugins for commercial software companies to allow their users to work within our environment, using their commercial software and open APIs for developers to create their own innovations.
Yes, Landsat is online via the support of companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS). Radiant.Earth is honored to work with AWS and we recently received $100,000 USD in credits for their cloud services. What makes Radiant.Earth unique, however, is that we will expose side by side Landsat, Sentinel 2, drone data and other open data of the same geography for inspection and analysis, all in a cloud environment. This environment will also provide open source photogrammetry and tools to analyze the data. Equally as important will be the provision of plugins for commercial software companies to allow their users to work within our environment, using their commercial software and open APIs for developers to create their own innovations.
What is the value of geospatial data according to you and how does Radiant plan to open up geospatial data for positive global impact?
The value of geospatial data has not been adequately documented outside of the defense and intelligence applications. Traditionally, it has been too difficult and expensive to deploy this technology inside of resource-constrained organizations. However, the potential value is tremendous because the vast majority of these problems are clearly place-based, and their solutions are rooted in some part on the analysis and consideration of physical and cultural geography. With the advances in technology, the wealth of data coming from satellites and drones, and the dramatic advances in machine learning, we believe the time is now to focus our efforts on supporting the global development community. Radiant.Earth will provide access to data that is not currently exposed via registries and available on the Internet. We will also work to build plugins and APIs to data and services that are already in a Cloud ecosystem.
What are your plans for reaching out to the global user community and how do you ensure that they come to you?
We are finalizing our marketing programs and approach, recognizing that community development is just as important as any technology we will provide. I am confident that we will work through already existing organizations like NetHope and ICT4D as an example to create awareness and deliver our programs. We will employ a network of the network approach to flywheel our programs into the broader marketplace. One of the major outcomes of the Summit was the connections that we established with the community; Their recognition that Radiant.Earth is needed, and knowing that many organizations and people stand ready to help validates our mission.
There are multiple sources of data — some private, some national, and each has their own data policies. How will all this data be shared keeping in mind the diverse policy and regulatory environments?
There is a lot of great commercial imagery in the market, and we want to see those companies grow and prosper. It is their activities and risk taking that is driving large portions of the innovation in the marketplace — including the government sector. The same is true of the commercial software and analytics companies. Radiant.Earth is not a statement about a commercial business model. Radiant.Earth is an effort to organize and make discoverable already existing open data with a focus on supporting global development applications.
Data licensing is a big topic. How do you plan to address that?
Open data and data licensing is a complex topic and one that is not well understood by geospatial practitioners. Radiant.Earth will develop programs and thought leadership publications specifically topics such as — what’s in a license? What do those clauses mean? How should you approach negotiating them? We are developing our schedule to begin releasing this information over the next year and will build off of other efforts underway or recently completed such as the UNGGIM analysis of this topic, among others.
You talk about analytical tools and capacity building programs. Could you elaborate on that?
We want to develop and strengthening the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes of the global development community to use geospatial data for greater analytical insights. Our capacity building programs will be focused on an over-arching thought leadership on the remote sensing regulatory environment, regular publications around the latest in research and development, the imagery, and geospatial services market analytics, creating awareness of the value and use of GIS and open data by promoting Best-Practice use-case analysis, sponsoring summits, roundtables and hackathons on specific issues, and more. We also hope to develop a fellowship program in 2018.
What is the commercial proposition of this venture? If all this data is going to be free, how will Radiant be sustaining itself?
We have received generous support from Omidyar Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to date but will look to supplement their contributions with donations from other philanthropic efforts whose missions Radiant.Earth aligns with and can directly support. We are also in the process of developing a business model that will generate some revenue for our operations in the longer term to ensure sustainability. However, just as important as their funding, the recognition that these leading and highly respected professionals in the development arena need and want a better approach to access and applying open imagery and data is incredibly valuable. Both organizations make substantial investments in imagery and geospatial tools — well beyond their monetary support for Radiant.Earth — and the fact that they want improvement and change add great credibility to what we are doing.
Could you give us an idea about the funding involved?
We have received generous support from Omidyar Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to date. However, just as important as their funding, the recognition that these leading and highly-respected players in the development arena need and want a better approach to access and applying open imagery and data, is incredibly valuable. Both organizations make substantial investments in imagery and geospatial tools — well beyond their monetary support for Radiant.Earth — and the fact that they want improvement and change add great credibility to what we are doing.