Some of the top philanthropists and professionals in the world have come together to support an open geospatial data platform that is being seen as an answer to the global development community’s call for better access to EO data for greater insight into critical challenges facing our planet.
There are around 1,400 satellites orbiting Earth and this number could more than double over the next five years as satellites become smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier to launch. Advances in launch technologies and peripheral infrastructure have also led to a phenomenon that is fast coming to be known as ‘democratization of space’. The world is now flooded with data that is difficult, if not impossible, to discover, let alone analyze.
Now, some of the most influential billionaire philanthropists in the world have joined hands to support a powerful digital platform to harness the plethora of data gathered from satellites each day, and make it available for humanitarian and environmental causes. Bill and Melinda Gates have joined forces with e-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar, to fund Radiant.Earth, which is envisioned to be a repository and archive of earth observation imagery. Jeff Bezos’s Amazon Web Services is providing Cloud credits to build the platform.
“We 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,” says Anne Hale Miglarese, Founder and CEO, Radiant.Earth.
The project plans to work with leading geospatial and development experts from around the world as it seeks to more effectively deliver open earth imagery, tools, and strategies to meet some of the most urgent challenges in the world. The offerings will be open, free of charge and in simple formats that do not require specific expertise to understand. The effort was officially launched in late February 2017 at the Thought Leaders Summit hosted by 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,” adds Miglarese. Since the Summit, Radiant.Earth has awarded software development contracts to two firms — Azavea and Vizzuality — to build the technology platform, which will formally be launched in July.
Miglarese knows what she is talking about for she has extensive experience both in public and private sectors in dealing with geospatial technologies. Prior to Radiant.Earth, she served as President and CEO of Fugro Earth Data, as the President and CEO of PlanetiQ, and Principal Director at Booz Allen Hamilton. She had also worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the South Carolina (SC) Water Resources Commission and the SC Department of Natural Resources.
“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,” she recalls. Green and Rabley both have years of experience on the intersection of using geospatial data to solve global challenges, and they all shared the same vision.
In defining Radiant.Earth, the team realized three key things: first, open data is not good enough — it must be discoverable, accessible and useful to a very diverse group of users, some sophisticated, some new users. Second, there are similar needs across the global development community and an entity such as Radiant.Earth can help amplify those needs. Third, there is so much change going on in the remote sensing sector right now that such an entity is needed to help guide and connect users worldwide to earth imagery, geospatial data, and analytical resources.
“We are now seeing an ever-increasing volume and variety of geospatial data with the recent disruption in the manufacturing and delivery of small satellites, the management of small satellites as software assets, planned redundancy and obsolescence, and an acceptance of a higher failure rate of the hardware,” explains Peter Rabley, Venture Partner, Omidyar Network.
And these image data are not just optical, but include radar, non-visible spectra, etc. If these datasets can be unlocked by making them easy to use and more accessible, their usage will explode. For example, moving Landsat to Amazon Web Services made the data easier to access and use, which resulted in a significant increase of monthly traffic.
Why Radiant.Earth and why now?
Satellite imagery is rich in data and can be used for many applications. In areas where access to data is limited, is expensive, and in some cases dangerous to procure, satellite imagery offers a powerful resource for transparency, accountability, and fact-based advocacy.
“Radiant.Earth is important because it has the wherewithal and mission to make these new troves of data accessible at a scale never before seen.” That one simple statement from Jed Sundwall, Open Data Lead, Amazon Web Services, captures the essence of Radiant.Earth.
It is neutral, user-driven and inclusive. 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 global problems.
“The time is right, the technology has matured, and the costs are down,” Miglarese explains. “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,” she elaborates.
The time is right to focus on supporting the global development community. “Radiant.Earth will provide access to data that is not presently exposed via registries and available on the Internet. We will also work to build plugins and APIs to data and services that is already in a Cloud ecosystem,” she adds.
Between Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network, Radiant.Earth has millions of dollars committed over the initial three years. It received support from the Foundation and Omidyar Network in large part because these two world-class organizations realize the fundamental importance of imagery and data in fueling their mission and grantees’ work.
For instance, since Gates Foundation does most of its work in developing countries, one of the challenges it has faced is lack of sophisticated users of satellite imagery in those regions due to their poor technical infrastructure and training. It now plans to take every opportunity to connect potential users to the Radiant.Earth platform, states Vincent Seaman, Sr. Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Agrees Rabley, “As a long-time user of satellite imagery, its applicability for planning, analysis, and policy and advocacy has always been clear to me. This is particularly true in emerging economies where good, up-to-date, and accurate geospatial data is largely non-existent.”
As part of its philanthropy projects, Omidyar Network provides funding to allow partners to use geospatial data for their work. This includes investees like Suyo, Landmapp, Duke University/Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, and Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Its approach is based around its investees, research, and media and communications. It plans to follow the same pattern for Radiant.Earth.
The funders are leaving the details about how the platform would be set up and run to be determined by Radiant.Earth’s management and users. “We are comfortable knowing that there is an experienced and dedicated team behind Radiant.Earth that will deliver the features and access all users want and value. We are also confident that they will work with other organizations to provide access and enhancement, and not redo what others have and are doing,” says Rabley.
Similarly, Seaman clarifies that the Foundation’s role will be limited to financial support only, as it does not have the technical expertise or bandwidth to advise the grantee in other matters. “We will provide financial support for the term of the grant period of three years. Additional financial support will be determined based on the progress and impact of the platform,” he adds.
Amazon’s involvement in Radiant.Earth is providing the Cloud platform. “We have given Radiant.Earth a grant of AWS promotional credits to help them get started building their platform,” states Sundwall.
Along with the Cloud infrastructure, Radiant.Earth also gains access to a vibrant ecosystem of AWS potential users. A large and growing community of startups, enterprises, government agencies, and academic researchers already use AWS to analyze geospatial data, and that community is incredibly collaborative; so Radiant.Earth is already benefiting from open source tools that other users have created to work with geospatial data on AWS. “Simultaneously, that community is going to benefit tremendously from the data that Radiant.Earth will make available on the Cloud,” Sundwall explains.
Who is the target audience?
The answer is in Miglarese’s definition of Radiant.Earth’s mission: “To connect people globally to earth imagery, geospatial data, tools, knowledge, and solutions to meet the world’s most critical challenges.”
While it is anticipated that Radiant.Earth will serve a broad cross section of users to include individuals, academics, educators, governments and the commercial sector, the main focus will be on providing the greatest support to the organizations that are working on humanitarian, global and international development issues, and expand collaboration and capacity building among the community worldwide. This includes making their valuable resources go further by providing the technology platform as a back-end utility to their existing resources; and to enhance their professional development through Radiant.Earth’s capacity development initiatives, which includes thought leadership activities.
As Rabley also points out, the vision is to align and connect imagery assets (both commercial and public) and make it easy to explore and consume. In addition, the platform can address the need for a community that embraces all types of users — government, commercial, defense, community and humanitarian groups, for instance — to openly share their data, knowledge and tools, as well as act as a convener and a trusted association.
Radiant.Earth will not create products to directly solve the global problems specifically, but will work through users to support their efforts. Organizations like Direct Relief, Catholic Relief Services, Care, among others, are on the front line with a mission to solve the societal and environmental problems worldwide. “Hundreds of these organizations across the globe are using geospatial technology daily to deliver their mission programs. Our desire is to support those organizations by providing a back-end infrastructure to quickly discover and use the best data they can for their application,” Miglarese explains.
The platform is expected to foster more informed decision-making about Earth’s resources and encourage the creation of more open source technologies and innovation that can help solve humanity’s most pressing issues. “Our efforts initially will be to support partners that are working on global health, property rights, data-driven reporting, agriculture, urban development, government transparency, conservation and climate change. The possibilities are endless. We hope that customers who use the technology platform will bring this data to their unique interest and I hope there are many applications in the future,” she adds.
While its programs will be global, there will be a focused approach on the underdeveloped and developing countries, predominantly in the Global South. “At the end of the day, my sincere hope is that we can raise the technical and policy literacy of the global development community regardless of what or whose data or software they use,” she says. Radiant.Earth is also mulling the possibilities of working with regional centers and other technology providers to develop a solution through time.
What makes it different from others?
The European Space Agency (ESA) is hosting the Sentinel data online and doing an excellent job. Landsat data is free. And there are initiatives like Group on Earth Observations (GEO). So what makes Radiant.Earth different and what value does it bring to the table?
“The advances with the Sentinel program are superior to anything we have seen before in civil government observations, and we are developing an agreement with the ESA at present. However, the Landsat data are hosted and supported online by several commercial companies. In addition, if you want the Landsat data from United States Geological Survey (USGS), you will have to go through a cumbersome online FTP process,” elaborates Miglarese. Radiant.Earth 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. Further, as was seen in the USA recently, 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
Further, as was seen in the USA recently, 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 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,” she elaborates.
As for GEO, Radiant.Earth thinks they are complementary to each other. “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,” Miglarese explains, while adding that the team was honored to have Dr Barbara Ryan attend the February summit to ensure that the two teams were aligned and not duplicating any of their activities.
Where Radiant.Earth differs from GEO is the way the former plans to focus its capacity development and technology use on the global development community. What also sets Radiant.Earth apart is how it 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. Apart from the data, the analytical tools will be free.
Once the platform is launched, the team will develop a schedule to begin releasing information over the next year, and will build off other efforts underway or recently completed.
Another interesting thing is the capacity development that it plans to focus on. “We want to develop and strengthen the knowledge, skills and aptitudes of the global development community to use geospatial data for greater analytical insights,” she adds. Radiant.Earth’s capacity-building programs, which again will be a free service, will be focused on overarching thought leadership and 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. It also hopes to develop a fellowship program in 2018.
What’s going forward?
A great platform needs a great marketing effort to reach out to maximum number of people in the global user community. And Radiant.Earth is on the job. It has already finalized its marketing programs and approach, recognizing that community development is just as important as any technology it will provide. The team is also moving
The team is also moving forward with strategic communications on the market and policy issues that are of particular concern to the development community. While these plans have not been finalized, Miglarese anticipates that this content could start coming by the last quarter of 2017.
“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,” she explains. Radiant.Earth will employ a network of network approach to flywheel its programs into the broader marketplace. Miglarese feels one of the major outcomes of the Leadership Summit in February was the connections that the team 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.”
Miglarese is categorical when she says that Radiant.Earth builds upon the public and commercial business models. The platform is an effort to organize and make discoverable already existing open data with a focus on supporting global development applications, she sums up.